The Project: Spinning in the Era of the Spinning Wheel, 1400-1800


From the introduction of the spinning wheel to England during the later Middle Ages to its eclipse by the powered spinning machine early in the nineteenth century, hand-spun yarn was vital to the success of the textile industries that dominated English manufacturing. Indeed, hand spinning – of wool, flax and ultimately cotton – became the principal income-generating activity pursued by women. For many of those women, it was also an essential means of furnishing their own families with textiles. Yet the history of spinning in the period has never been the subject of a major study in its own right. ‘Spinning in the Era of the Spinning Wheel’ aims to rectify this anomaly. Its objective is to provide a comprehensive history of hand spinning in England between 1400 and 1800, a history that approaches the subject from the whole range of relevant perspectives, treating it as a practice that was at one and the same time material, technological, economic, commercial, legal, cultural, gendered, and global. It will adopt an approach that is multi-disciplinary, embracing historical, literary, legal, technological and scientific approaches.

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Project description:

1. Introduction.

From the introduction of the spinning wheel to England during the later Middle Ages to its eclipse by the powered spinning machine early in the nineteenth century, hand-spun yarn was vital to the success of the textile industries that dominated English manufacturing. Indeed, hand spinning – of wool, flax and ultimately cotton – became the principal income-generating activity pursued by women. For many of those women, it was also an essential means of furnishing their own families with textiles. Spinning straddled the boundary that has been erected by historians between the monetized economy of commercial exchange and the non-monetized sphere of the household. It was, at one and the same time, an economic and material foundation of England’s rise to pre-eminence in the international trade in textiles, yet it was also crucial to self-provisioning among rural households. It is no co-incidence, therefore, that in the course of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the word ‘spinster’ became the conventional term used in English to designate an unmarried woman. Yet the history of spinning in the period has never been the subject of a major study in its own right.

The absence of such a study has in recent years become increasingly anomalous. The huge expansion of historical research into the economic, social and cultural history of late-medieval and early-modern England has embraced many subjects that have to do with spinning, including gender relations, consumption, fashion, material culture, technological innovation, household economics, employment law, labour relations, trade, law enforcement, globalization and economic policy making. Yet we still lack a study that focuses specifically on what was, by the eighteenth century, the most common form of non-agricultural employment in England, let alone a study integrating the insights and methodologies of all the new research in related fields that touches on the subject.

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2. Scope and objectives.

‘Spinning in the Era of the Spinning Wheel’ aims to rectify this anomaly. Its objective is to provide a comprehensive history of hand spinning in England between 1400 and 1800 that approaches the subject from the whole range of relevant perspectives, treating it as a practice that was at one and the same time material, technological, economic, commercial, legal, cultural, gendered, and global. This will involve an approach that is multi-disciplinary, embracing historical, literary, legal, technological and scientific approaches.

2.1 The material history of spinning.

Fundamental to ‘Spinning in the Era of the Spinning Wheel’ is an assessment of the material characteristics of the yarn employed in surviving examples of English cloth. Eighteenth-century commentators insisted that the superiority of English spinning was crucial to the success of English woolen textiles in overseas markets. Yet in social and economic history, spinning has often been treated as a relatively unskilled activity, subject to none of the regulations regarding apprenticeship and training designed to safeguard quality standards in skilled male occupations, especially those that remained subject to guild controls. Addressing this issue will require study of documentary sources (especially business and poor law records) to establish how spinners were trained and how the specifications they were required to maintain were set and policed. But it will also require study of surviving textiles and changes in the market for textiles, in order to establish the range of yarns produced and what was required to make them, in terms of skill, time, equipment, raw materials, etc. Central will be an evaluation of what ‘quality’ meant in spun yarn. Professor Styles is already familiar with these issues through his work on the history of clothing.

2.2. The economic history of spinning.

Jan de Vries has put forward the influential thesis that the Industrial Revolution was preceded by an ‘industrious revolution’, which involved the re-allocation of labour within households towards income-generating activities. De Vries offers a sophisticated and persuasive amplification of older studies dealing with the rise of domestic industry in early-modern western Europe. Essentially, his ‘industrious revolution’ is a story of radical re-allocation of domestic labour from non-market to market production. Yet de Vries offers little in the way of chronology or explanation, other than the lure of an ever-widening range of consumer goods during the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Spinning was, of course, one of the principal income-generating activities undertaken by women and children in early-modern households. ‘Spinning in the Era of the Spinning Wheel’ will address this issue from the perspective of labour in addition to the perspective of consumption. It will consider how the demand for spinning labour changed from the later Middle Ages and why. Crucial to this will be an evaluation of the interaction of the labour-saving effects of the spinning wheel and the increased demand for spinning labour associated with the rise of lighter, less durable cloths made from long-staple wool, often identified (in England at least) as ‘new draperies’.

2.3 The commercial history of spinning.

The ways businesses organized the commercial supply of spun yarn exhibited wide variations, both between industries dependent on different fibres (wool, flax, cotton), and within each of those industries. Modes of organization of spinning labour ranged from spinners who operated as independent producers, buying their own raw material and selling their own yarn, to putting-out (verlag). Putting-out systems varied considerably. In the seventeenth-century worsted industries, for example, they included the vertically integrated pattern characteristic of Essex, where master manufacturers controlled the whole manufacturing process from combing through spinning to weaving, but they also embraced the vertically disintegrated pattern found in nearby Norfolk, where master weavers relied on yarn supplied by yarn masters who were specialists in organizing spinning by women in country villages. Older studies tended to look for explanations for these different forms of organization in tradition, local environmental factors, and the market for credit, but the whole issue is central to recent theoretical debates in economics around transaction costs and the emergence of firms. ‘Spinning in the Era of the Spinning Wheel’ will address questions about the organization of spinning arising in both older and recent studies, but the comprehensive nature of the project will allow it to give much more attention than recent work to the varying requirements of the markets for the final woven product.

2.4. The legal history of spinning.

The position of workers in English law was ambiguous. It had elements of status (as menial, servant, artificer) and elements of contract. The ambiguity was especially marked in the case of putting-out workers, and particularly so in the case of spinners, because they were predominantly women. Insofar as their status was a contractual one, married women were femme covert, normally deemed incapable of making contracts in their own right. When disputes arose with their employers over wages, the quality of work, or the ownership of materials, was it the husband that was liable under contract law, or the woman as a menial servant under the laws regulating service? The legal position of spinners raised issues that were at the heart of the ambiguities inherent in English labour law. They were issues that came up repeatedly, because spinning was associated with chronic tensions over wages, quality and embezzlement. Nevertheless, differences of legal interpretation persisted until the demise of hand spinning in the early nineteenth century. ‘Spinning in the Era of the Spinning Wheel’ will explore these issues in order to extend our understanding of the legal position of women as workers.

2.5. The gendered history of spinning.

It is conventionally assumed that spinning was almost exclusively women’s work before the coming of the factory. It is generally accepted that spinning was one of that small core of low-paid women’s employments that resisted the tendency towards male monopoly in many occupations in the late Middle Ages, identified by some historians. Yet preliminary work for ‘Spinning in the Era of the Spinning Wheel’ suggests that in the eighteenth century, at least, this pattern did not apply universally. In some of the poorest, upland parts of the north of England nearly a quarter of spinners were men. And in those lowland areas where spinning was almost entirely confined to women, questions remain unanswered regarding the relative importance of age, marital status, and husband’s occupation in determining which women spun. How typical, for example, was the pattern found by Saito at Cardington, Bedfordshire, where it was older, married women who were more likely to spin, while younger, unmarried women focused on lacemaking? ‘Spinning in the Era of the Spinning Wheel’ aims to engage with the gendered nature of spinning by asking not only why it was women who dominated spinning, but which women. In answering those questions, the issue of how spinning fitted into the temporal patterning (daily, seasonal, annual, and life-cycle) of different women’s lives will be crucial.

2.6. The cultural history of spinning.

Spinning was not simply an economic and material activity. Spinning, and the equipment and practices associated with it, became common metaphors in literature, art and everyday discourse from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries. Spinster became the legal term for an unmarried woman in the fifteenth century; the distaff came to symbolize womanhood in prose and poetry; spinning wheels appear in paintings and caricatures signifying feminine domesticity. So powerful was the cultural association between women and spinning that in the eighteenth century many wealthy women took up spinning as a distinctively female domestic accomplishment, despite the fact that they had no practical economic need to produce their own yarn, nor did home-made yarn offer the kind of opportunities for display characteristic of female accomplishments like embroidery or shellwork. ‘Spinning in the Era of the Spinning Wheel’ will map and analyse the wider cultural uses of spinning, making use of the huge resource of digitized images available through the British Museum and other art collections, and of digitized printed works in English now available through Early English Books online, Eighteenth Century Collections online, the Burney Collection of Newspapers, and the online collections of English popular ballads hosted by the Bodleian Library Oxford and the University of California, Santa Barbara.

2.7. The technological history of spinning.

The power spinning machine was the crucial new technology of Industrial Revolution, a key innovation that constituted a model for the subsequent diffusion of factory-based manufacturing to other industries. Historians of the Industrial Revolution have devoted great effort to explaining this innovation, but have given much more attention to the new spinning technologies and their inventors (James Hargreaves, Richard Arkwright, Samuel Crompton) than to the hand techniques they superseded. Until recently, hand spinning has typically been dismissed as a low-productivity bottleneck that needed to be overcome in the forward march of economic and technological progress. Two issues arise which require further investigation. First, the technology of the hand spinning wheel itself: why it was originally introduced into England in the late Middle Ages and how it was subsequently adapted and refined for different textile fibres, so that by the eighteenth century spinners were using a range of different, specialist wheels for short-staple wool, long-staple wool, flax and cotton. Second, the context of hand processes within which the new, mechanical techniques were developed in the first half of the eighteenth century (crucially by Louis Paul and John Wyatt), particularly the question of why spinning cotton was already a focus of mechanization in the 1730s, when cotton manufacture was limited in scale, rather than spinning wool or flax which were much more widespread and economically significant.

2.8. The global history of spinning.

England in the high Middle Ages was famous as a supplier of raw wool, not of cloth. Cloth making for the international market, and the commercialized spinning of yarn on which it depended, developed on a large scale only in the later Middle Ages. Subsequently the country took up the manufacture of other kinds of internationally traded textiles – notably linens and cottons. In the case of all these textiles, international standards were initially set not in England but overseas, in continental Europe or, in the case of cottons, in India. The spinning wheel itself, moreover, came to England from China or India, via continental Europe. The practice of spinning in England between 1400 and 1800 was, therefore, inextricably linked with the way spinning was practiced in other parts of the world. ‘Spinning in the Era of the Spinning Wheel’ will inevitably, therefore, have to address the question of how information about the ways spinning was practiced overseas was communicated to spinners in England in order that they could successfully emulate and compete. Transferring knowledge to vast numbers of women in rural villages was a different exercise from the more familiar process of communicating expertise by skilled male migrants in urban settings that has been the focus of most studies of technology transfer in early-modern Europe. But thinking about the history of spinning in a global context requires more than simply the study of diffusion of techniques and competition in product markets. It also requires engagement with the ways historians of other countries have researched and understood hand spinning at particular times and in particular places. ‘Spinning in the Era of the Spinning Wheel’ will benefit intellectually from comparisons with hand spinning and its histories in other times and places.

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3. Existing scholarship in the field.

Hand spinning in the three centuries before the Industrial Revolution has been the subject of extensive historical research since Edward Baines wrote on the history of the cotton industry and John James on the history of worsteds in the mid-nineteenth century. Most existing studies have followed the pattern set by those early works, focusing on shortcomings in the supply of hand-spun yarn that in the course of the eighteenth century stimulated the transition to powered spinning machinery housed in factories. These works are formulated in terms of a problem-response model. The problem they identify is the bottleneck in textile (especially cotton textile) production that resulted from the need for many times more spinners than weavers and the consequent difficulty in securing, paying and controlling spinning labour as production expanded. It is a bottleneck that is considered to have become especially acute after John Kay’s invention of the wheel shuttle [later known as the flying shuttle] in 1733 speeded up weaving and further increased the demand for yarn. This problem stimulated a response in the form of the invention of the powered spinning machine.

Historians continue to write about hand spinning within this broad tradition. Recent debates have concerned the implications of the proto-industrialization thesis for the supply of domestic industrial labour, the nature of the advantage enjoyed by powered spinning machinery (more intensive use of capital, or more intensive exploitation of labour), and the precise impact of spinning machinery on prices for finished cloth.

At the same time, historians write about spinning in an associated but distinct tradition of scholarship that places gender at the heart of its analysis. This tradition goes back to the work of Alice Clark and Ivy Pinchbeck in the early twentieth century. It seeks to establish the history of women’s labour force participation over many centuries and explain the disadvantageous terms on which women participated. Intriguingly, in recent as well as in older studies of England, spinning rarely figures prominently as a focus of research in its own right, despite its ubiquity as women’s work.

It is these two traditions that continue to generate most historical scholarship relevant to spinning, but not exclusively so. Spinning continues to be addressed in studies of textile history which do not have industrialization as their central theme, while recent work by literary scholars has begun to examine the cultural representation of women’s work in the early modern period.

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4. Significance of ‘Spinning in the Era of the Spinning Wheel’.

The history of hand spinning is crucial to understanding the English Industrial Revolution, yet it has previously been addressed in ways that are limited and narrow. Rather than treat hand spinning, and specifically its shortcomings, only as a prelude to industrialization, ‘Spinning in the Era of the Spinning Wheel’ aims to provide a rounded account of hand spinning in its own right.

Two implications of this approach are especially important. First, ‘Spinning in the Era of the Spinning Wheel’ will provide a fundamental re-assessment of English work patterns, consumption patterns and living standards before the Industrial Revolution. Recent scholarship in economic history has diminished the impact of early industrialization on economic growth. One result has been the emergence of a more optimistic view of the achievements of the pre-industrial English economy compared with many of its continental European neighbours, especially its capacity to raise living standards. Spinning – the most common form of women’s paid work – was crucial to this.

Second, ‘Spinning in the Era of the Spinning Wheel’ has the potential to offer new perspectives on mechanical innovation in the textile industries in the Industrial Revolution. It does so precisely because it does not treat hand spinning as a bottleneck to be overcome. It consequently addresses aspects of the subject, particularly those to do with the material and aesthetic characteristics of yarn and cloth, that have often been ignored in previous studies.

The project has two unconventional aspects that are noteworthy. First, it crosses the conventional boundaries between different kinds of scholarship, bringing together historical, literary, legal, technological and scientific approaches. Second, it involves the combination of material and documentary evidence, drawing on Professor Styles’ experience in working with museum objects.

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5. Methodology.

To understand the methodology of ‘Spinning in the Era of the Spinning Wheel’, it is necessary to begin by asking why relatively little work has previously been undertaken on the subject of hand spinning. The main reason lies in the well-known difficulty of identifying women’s independent activities in early-modern records. It is male occupations and activities that predominate; wives and daughters remain hidden behind their husbands and fathers. It is impossible to overcome this problem entirely, but to do so ‘Spinning in the Era of the Spinning Wheel’ will apply the methodology used by Professor Styles in his recent book – The Dress of the People: Everyday Fashion in Eighteenth-Century England – which confronted analogous difficulties in identifying the clothing worn by ordinary English men and women. The methodology involves the widest possible trawl of available sources, especially those now available digitally, combined with detailed case studies and statistical analysis of especially rich bodies of evidence.

The broad trawl of sources will proceed over the five years of the project, based on an initial survey to be undertaken during the first six months. It will focus on state papers, the records of the criminal and civil courts, business and household records, museum textile collections, digitized images, and digitized printed works. In the process, new sources will undoubtedly be identified for detailed analysis, but three sources have already been identified for study in depth.

• Prosecutions for frauds by spinners. Eighteenth century legislation provided for the systematic policing and prosecution of spinners in the worsted industry who committed the offenses of false and short reeling. Thousands of prosecutions were undertaken by inspectors in the north of England, the Midlands, and East Anglia. They produced records which provide information on the location, marital status, and husbands’ occupations of huge numbers of spinners. Collecting and analysing this material will be pursued during the first year of the project.

• Probate records. Probate inventories, which survive for many parts of England from the middle of the sixteenth century, frequently list spinning wheels. Some counting of wheels has been undertaken in local inventory studies, usually as a way of assessing the significance of textiles as a domestic bye-employment, but often this objective has been compromised by confusion over the relationship between yarn produced for use by the spinner’s own family and yarn produced to generate income. ‘Spinning in the Era of the Spinning Wheel’ will undertake a comprehensive and systematic analysis of spinning wheels in probate inventories to establish the different kinds of wheels in use in different households over a period of two and a half centuries. This will be combined with analysis of rarer probate accounts to examine spinning of yarn for auto-consumption. This study will be undertaken in the second and third years of the project.

• Foundling textiles. The textile swatches left by the mothers of abandoned babies at the London Foundling Hospital between 1741 and 1760 are Britain’s largest collection of everyday eighteenth-century textiles, amounting to more than 5,000 individual items. They are heavily skewed towards patterned and colourful fabrics. Nevertheless, the collection is so large that it also includes named examples of most of the plain, mundane fabrics that we know from written sources to have been worn by ordinary people. The collection therefore provides a unique opportunity to survey the whole range of fabrics worn by ordinary men and women in the eighteenth century. The Foundling Hospital’s clerks often identified the fabrics by name. This combination of object and text is unique. ‘Spinning in the Era of the Spinning Wheel’ will undertake a scientific analysis of the yarns employed in these fabrics. Professor Styles is already familiar with these textiles, but he will require training in appropriate techniques of yarn analysis, which will be undertaken in the first year of the project. Analysis of the yarns will be undertaken in the second and third years of the project.

A crucial part of the project is comparative, putting hand spinning in England in the context of hand spinning elsewhere in Europe and North America. Comparison will rely on a comprehensive survey of the appropriate secondary literatures. Professor Styles is fluent in English and French, but a post-doctoral researcher will survey the literature on the subject in a number of other European languages, especially in Dutch, Italian and German.

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6. Outcomes.

The principal outcomes will be a scholarly monograph by Professor Styles, a published collection of essays by experts in the field that he will edit, scholarly articles and conference papers, and a PhD dissertation.