Robert Allen’s spinning jenny is still broken.

In ‘Spinning their wheels: a reply to Jane Humphries and Benjamin Schneider’, published in Economic History Review online early view in May 2019, Robert Allen once again defends his High Wage Economy explanation of the industrial revolution in textiles. Specifically, he defends his explanation for the invention of the spinning jenny in Lancashire in the 1760s against the critique offered in Jane Humphries and Benjamin Schneiders’ 2019 Economic History Review article ‘Spinning the Industrial Revolution’. His defence turns on the productivity of hand spinners and the inducement it provided to mechanise spinning. In particular, he insists on the accuracy of his two key assumptions – that in the middle of the eighteenth century a hand spinner working full time could (1) spin one pound of yarn per day and (2) thereby earn 8d. per day. Those assumptions are mistaken.

Productivity in hand spinning was shaped by (1) the spinner’s capacity, (2) the type of fibre spun, (3) how the fibre was prepared, (4) the fineness to which it was spun, and (5) the equipment employed. It is a tall order to reduce the interaction of these variables to a single national productivity figure for hundreds of thousands of early-modern spinners whose performance is very poorly documented, if at all.

In eighteenth-century England (in contrast to many other parts of western Europe) spinners producing yarn for textiles aimed at national and international markets worked mainly under the putting-out system for a wage, determined according to piece rates. These piece rates were calibrated not simply in terms of the quantity spun (usually per pound weight), but also fineness (ie. the count of the yarn). Spinning a pound of fine 24 count yarn could often earn twice as much as spinning a pound of coarser 12 count yarn. However, spinning the finer yarn required the spinner to produce twice the length of yarn from the same weight of fibre, which demanded greater manual dexterity and took much more time. Piece rates, moreover, might, or might not, include (1) preparatory processes undertaken by the spinner, such as loosening fibre delivered in bundles, or carding it into spinable slivers prior to spinning, and (2) reeling the yarn after spinning into standard skeins or hanks for return to the employer.

Piece rates were materially and geographically inconsistent. The calculations by which yarn counts were measured differed between short-fibre carded wool (woollens), long-fibre combed wool (worsteds), linen (flax and hemp), and cotton. There were also variations between regions. Piece rates for spinning shorter fibres, such as carded wool, cotton, and flax and hemp tow, usually included the laborious preparation of the fibres by carding. The equivalent preparation processes for longer fibres – worsted combing and heckling flax or hemp – were performed by specialist workers and were not included in the spinners’ piece rate.

Piece rates for hand spinning were also (as has historically often been the case for piece rates) subject to temporary adjustments according to fluctuations in product markets, in the nature of the raw material, and in a number of other variables. The rate would remain fixed, but deductions or supplements to accommodate short-term changes in circumstances would be agreed by, or imposed on the workforce.

A piece rate defined a task. It did not necessarily specify who actually performed the work. In the case of hand spinning, predominantly undertaken by women in their own homes, the work might be performed by a single spinner, or by a number of spinners in a household, or be subcontracted out of the household. The records of the coarse linen manufactory centred at Lowther in Westmorland for 1744 are unusual in listing the number of spinning wheels against the name of each household head to whom flax was delivered for spinning. Households with more than one spinning wheel produced on average twice as much yarn as those with only one wheel, suggesting that at least two members of the household were spinning at the same time. Yet even in households with a single wheel, several members of the household might have spun on it one after another, with significant implications for output. In other households, a single spinning wheel may have been employed part of the time to spin yarn non-commercially for household use. Alternatively, it may have remained idle much of the time, as the spinner performed other kinds of work within the household. Most spinners did not spin for a ‘full time’, 12 hour day. They produced yarn only intermittently.

Different designs of spinning wheel were employed for different fibres. Wheels varied in price according to their size, the type of spindle used, and especially whether they incorporated flyer and/or treadle mechanisms, which were more expensive. Many households acquired their own wheels. Others were supplied with wheels by the local Poor Law authorities, or by philanthropic individuals and organisations. There is relatively little eighteenth-century evidence for putting-out masters supplying spinning wheels.

All this makes establishing the productivity and earnings of a ‘typical’ hand spinner working a notional ‘full time’ day a daunting exercise. It requires information about the piece rate, the definition of the task, the fibre, the time worked, the yarn count, and the spinner’s equipment and skill. Early modern sources rarely supply even fragments of that information.

So where does this leave Robert Allen’s claim that in the middle of the eighteenth century a hand spinner working full time could spin one pound of yarn per day and thereby earn 8d. per day? Is 1 lb. a day credible? Is 8d. a day credible?

The only eighteenth-century source Allen mentions for his 1 lb. a day figure derives from Frederick Morton Eden’s State of the Poor. Eden’s findings on work and wages were collected from local patrician informants, especially clergy. The 1 lb. a day figure was for April 1796 at Seend in Wiltshire, where fine, carded woollen yarn was spun. Eden’s informant reported it was ‘the utmost that can be done’ by ‘a woman, in a good state of health, and not incumbered with a family’ (Eden, iii, 796).

Schneider and Humphries quote the same source, but dismiss it as suspect. They are in good company. Julia de Lacy Mann, the doyenne of textile historians and the acknowledged expert on the West Country woollen industry, described Eden’s output figure for Seend as ‘surprising’ and ‘overstated’. (Mann, 322-3). She pointed out that during labour disputes in exactly the same area during the late 1730s, both sides agreed that a rate of 0.5 lb. a day was the maximum that could be spun by one spinner to the required standard for this type of fine, carded wool.

Mann’s judgement is supported by information Eden reports elsewhere in The State of the Poor, particularly for Worksop in Nottinghamshire, where the out-poor of the parish were provided with flax to spin into extremely coarse linen yarn (Eden, ii, 581). Few of them could spin more than 0.3 lbs per day, yet spinning coarse, heckled flax was substantially less time-consuming than spinning fine, carded wool, especially if foot-treadled flyer wheels were being used.

Eden’s informant at Seend prefaced information on spinning productivity with a long complaint about the recent introduction of spinning jennies in the Wiltshire woollen industry and the deep cuts it caused in piece rates for hand spinning. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Eden’s informant was one of those patrician opponents of mechanisation in the West Country identified by Adrian Randall in his Before the Luddites (Randall, 90, 106, 234-5) and the improbable 1 lb. a day figure a device to demonstrate the misery mechanisation inflicted on the working poor (and on the parish ratepayers who were required to subsidise their meagre earnings).

Allen insists that to understand inducements to mechanical innovation, we need output data for ‘full-time’ spinners, rather than relying on ‘vaguely defined “typical” earnings and output’. Yet he dismisses evidence from institutions – workhouses, philanthropic schemes and spinning schools – where ‘full-time’ spinning was regularly performed in the eighteenth century. He contends the evidence from these institutions is biased towards low-productivity workers.

One way to address this objection is to examine evidence from the spinning contests that proliferated in eighteenth-century England, especially for spinning combed worsted on large non-flyer and non-treadled spindle wheels. Prodigious feats of output were possible over a period of minutes or hours, encouraged by the lure of attractive prizes, but productivity declined rapidly the longer the contest lasted.

– At Sedbergh, Yorkshire in 1767, the winner was the youngest girl, who ran the whole time she spun, producing yarn at a rate that in a 12 hour day would have amounted to 5.4 lbs at worsted count 32. But the contest lasted only 17 minutes.

– At Leicester in 1785, girls aged 16 and under spun to worsted count 16. In a 12 hour day the winner would have produced 2.5 lbs, but the contest lasted only 4 hours.

– At Skipton, Yorkshire in 1785, young women spun for 12 hours. The winner produced 1.6 lbs to worsted count 21, which was described as ‘extraordinary instance of exertion in the art of spinning’.

If the competition-winning level of productivity for spinning pre-combed long-staple worsted fibre for 12 hours at Skipton was so ‘extraordinary’ that it was widely reported in the press, it is hard to believe that an everyday, ‘full-time’ spinner of short-staple wool or cotton, who had to card the fibre as well as spin it on a non-flyer, non-treadled wheel, could have produced anything close to a pound a day.

We can perhaps get nearer to the output of a typical ‘full-time’ spinner if we acknowledge Robert Allen’s objection to evidence from institutions where spinning was conducted on a full-time basis and focus our attention on the best performing spinners in those institutions. Again the evidence is for spinning worsted yarn on a spindle wheel.

– At Catherine Cappe’s spinning school at York in the 1790s, eligibility for the top reward for worsted spinners required an output of 0.75 lbs per day sustained for 6 months, at a fairly coarse worsted count 16. At the other end of the productivity scale, the minimum acceptable output was set at 0.25 lbs per day.

– at Ely workhouse in the 1730s, the top quartile of spinners produced 0.3 lbs per day at worsted count 24, a relatively high count which, according to the Northampton Mercury in 1789, was ‘esteemed good spinning in the schools’.

– at Forehoe Hundred House of Industry in Norfolk in the early 1800s, the best spinners, aged between 12 and 20, produced 0.42 lbs per day at worsted count 20  (https://virtualworkhouse.carleton.edu/scripto/transcribe/3589/4679#transcription).

For worsted yarn, therefore, we might conclude that, for modelling purposes at least, 0.5 lbs per day might be a reasonable output estimate for Allen’s notional ‘full-time’ spinner of worsted, spinning to about 20 worsted count. The weight processed would be more for lower counts and less for higher counts. This estimate would be roughly consistent with the observations made by Arthur Young on his 1780 Irish tour of the time taken to spin worsted yarns in Munster to the counts required for Ireland’s substantial yarn export trade to Norwich for relatively fine worsted camlets. In some cases Young distinguished between full-time and part-time working. His observations indicate a typical 0.5 lbs per full-time day for worsted yarn. This is also broadly consistent with the output estimates offered in Humphries and Schneider’s Table 5 for their category wool, which includes worsted.

This 0.5 lbs per ‘full-time’ day estimate cannot be extended to short-staple fibres such as cotton, where the piece rate included preparation of the fibre by carding as well as spinning it. Unfortunately, there appears to be no surviving direct evidence for productivity in eighteenth-century hand cotton spinning in Lancashire, where the spinning jenny was invented. However, we do have near-contemporary evidence for hand spinners’ productivity across different fibres in Thomas Jefferson’s spinning experiments on his Virginia plantations (in Jefferson’s ‘Farm Book’, online at http://www.masshist.org/thomasjeffersonpapers/farm/).

A precursor of Frederick Winslow Taylor’s scientific management, Jefferson required his experienced enslaved female spinners to undertake a series of timed trials spinning different fibres, in order to establish ‘what may be spun daily’. His notes on these trials are not dated, but the context appears to be his deciding in 1812-14 whether or not to acquire a spinning jenny. We can assume the women were obliged to spin diligently because they were enslaved. Allen’s ‘Reply’ dismisses this evidence as mere projections (footnote 26), but Jefferson was the quintessential Enlightenment man. He trialled, compared and recorded everything, from spinning to vegetables to the weather. Jefferson provides a useful contemporary estimate of maximum daily hand spinning productivity under coerced, trial conditions. It may only be an estimate, but, given Jefferson’s systematic practice in this and other aspects of his scientific and economic investigations, it deserves serious consideration.

The enslaved spinners were producing very coarse yarns from hemp, carded sheep’s wool and cotton for slave clothing and bedding, and doing so under duress. For linen yarn the average output per day was 1.2 lbs, for carded, short-staple woollen yarn 0.9 lbs, and for cotton yarn 0.5 lbs. It was only in spinning linen yarn, spun from hemp fibre (which is coarser and quicker to spin than most flax), that output exceed the pound a day Allen presents as standard across fibres. For cotton, the daily output was dramatically lower. Productivity in hand cotton spinning emerges as very low compared with the spinning of other fibres, including wool which also required carding. This is consistent with the opinion of experienced modern hand spinners who spin a variety of fibres. Some of the reasons are discussed in A.F. Barker, et al., Textiles (New York, 1919), 110-11. Spinners of cotton in Lancashire were free workers producing commercial yarns largely on an outwork basis at much higher (and therefore more time-consuming) yarn counts than Jefferson’s enslaved spinners. It is improbable they could have regularly achieved anything close to an output of 1 lb. per day.

Nevertheless, Allen insists at the start of part 2 of his ‘Reply’ that his pound-a-day productivity figure applies as much to cotton as to other fibres, pointing out (correctly) that Humphries and Schneider fail to offer relevant evidence about cotton spinning. He proceeds to construct a convoluted justification using nineteenth-century sources, specifically retrospective estimates for the mid-18th century offered by Richard Guest in his 1823 Compendious History of the Cotton Manufacture (which greatly over-estimated the time and cost of carding) and studies of hand spinning productivity collected by the US Commissioner of Labor at the end of the 19th century (when raw cottons and hand spinning wheels were very different from those used in the mid-eighteenth century).

Allen uses Guest’s and the Commissioner’s data to confirm his 1 lb. per day full-time cotton spinning rate for yarn spun to cotton count 13, but does so only by separating off and ignoring the pre-spinning processes, primarily carding, which also (at least according to Allen’s interpretation of Guest’s and the Commissioner’s data) needed a day to process 1 lb. of fibre.

Allen offers no justification for disaggregating spinning and carding in this way. The lack of explanation is unacceptable, because to disaggregate the two is to misrepresent the way spinning was costed by manufacturers and workers alike in early-modern England. Those Lancashire cotton putting-out manufacturers who put out work directly to spinners for a wage supplied raw cotton uncarded, expecting the spinner to undertake both carding and spinning as part of the standard task for which she was paid at a single piece rate per lb. The same was also the case for short-staple wool and flax/hemp tow, which were spun much more extensively than cotton. The observations of earnings and output for both cotton and short-staple wool recorded in the Humphries-Schneider data were all made on this basis. So too was the pound-a-day estimate from Seend in Wiltshire that Allen himself quotes earlier in his ‘Reply’. So too were several of the output estimates in Craig Muldrew’s ‘Ancient distaff’ article, which Allen has previously used as evidence for a rise in spinning wages from the seventeenth to the mid-eighteenth centuries.

So it is not surprising that Allen’s output per day for ‘spinning’ cotton ‘full-time’ appears so much higher than that offered by Humphries and Schneider. Allen’s output per day is not the notional output per day for which spinners were contracted and paid, but the fraction of it which involved sitting at a spinning wheel, which Allen calculates according to Guest’s (misleading) estimates. Using Allen’s own figures, ‘full-time’ output per day doing the work for which hand cotton spinners were actually paid (ie. carding + spinning) was less than 0.5 lbs per day.

Yet even 0.5 lbs per day is probably an exaggeration for the mid-eighteenth century. Oddly, Allen ignores the figures provided by the US Commissioner of Labor for hand spinning 12 count cotton yarn (ie. not very different in fineness from 13 count) in 1896. The Commissioner’s productivity rate for hand spinning (ie. carding + spinning) a 12 count yarn was 2.6 full-time days per pound, or 0.4 lbs per day. And this was at a date when American hand spinners benefitted from a century of selective breeding of upland cotton for its spinning qualities and the availability of improved hand spinning wheels, particularly those incorporating accelerating spinning wheel heads based on Amos Miner’s patents, which dramatically increased the productivity of non-flyer wheels spinning short fibres.

Where does this leave the High Wage Economy as an inducement to mechanisation?

Labour costs for cotton spinning in Lancashire rose substantially in the century prior to the invention of the spinning jenny. As Allen points out, referencing my ‘Fibres, yarns and the invention of the spinning jenny’ posted previously on this website (http://spinning-wheel.org/2018/06/fibres-yarns-and-the-invention-of-the-spinning-jenny/), piece rates for spinning (ie. carding + spinning) cotton in Lancashire increased between the 1680s and the 1760s, albeit from a low base. At 0.4 lbs per day, a ‘full-time’ Lancashire cotton spinner in the 1680s producing a 12 count yarn (which would have been a very high count for the period) would have earned 3.6d. per day, excluding short-term adjustments. A ‘full-time’ spinner in the 1760s producing a 12 count yarn (which would have been a relatively low count for the period) would have earned 6d. per day. At 0.4 lbs per day, 24 count yarn would have earned 12d. per day in the 1760s, but in practice the weight spun per day would have been considerably less at 24 count than at 12 count. Nevertheless, in Lancashire, at least, some spinners may well have earned 8d. per day in the 1760s. This would be consistent with the information Arthur Young received at Manchester and reported in his Six Month Tour through the North of England of 1771 of typical spinning earnings from 4d. to 10d. a day (assuming a six-day week).

Pressure on Lancashire spinning labour costs during the middle decades of the eighteenth century was a significant inducement to mechanical innovation in cotton spinning, as I argue in ‘Fibres, yarns and the invention of the spinning jenny’. Humphries and Schneider disagree. They have recently re-iterated their insistence that ‘Allen’s claim for high wages in spinning cannot be supported by the contemporary evidence’, because spinning ‘wages did not rise precipitously in the middle of the 18th century’ (https://ehsthelongrun.net/2019/05/29/spinning-the-industrial-revolution/). Yet Humphries and Schneider provide no information about precisely which fibres, dates and locations they are referring to, nor about how they conceive the relationship between piece rates and ‘wages’.

Between the 1680s and the 1760s, piece rates for spinning cotton in Lancashire increased by two-thirds. That may not have been precipitous, but it was certainly substantial, and it was in cotton spinning that the key mechanical innovations emerged in the 1760s. The flaw in Allen’s wage-induced innovation explantion for those inventions lies in evidence that pressure on spinning costs in mid-eighteenth century Lancashire (and adjacent parts of Yorkshire) was not confined to cotton. It extended to the region’s larger worsted industry, and probably to the region’s linen and woollen industries as well, yet it did not trigger mechanical spinning inventions in those industries. What may have been a necessary condition for innovation was not a sufficient one.

The increase in spinning piece rates in Lancashire was the product of a specific regional context. It was not matched elsewhere in England. As Julia Mann points out, spinning piece rates in Wiltshire for short-staple, carded woollens appear to have changed little between the 1710s and the 1760s (Mann, 324). The substantial growth in cotton spinner’s piece rates in Lancashire does not prove there was a national High Wage Economy for spinners. 8d. for a ‘full-time’ day was not a norm across all fibres and all regions. Indeed, as Arthur Young reported in his Six Month Tour, in Staffordshire and the East Riding of Yorkshire, less than a hundred miles from Lancashire, there were places where there was no paid manufacturing work for women and children (see this website, Gallery: Spinning with Arthur Young). They experienced not a High Wage Economy, but a No Wage Economy.

Regional variations in spinners’ earnings were not confined to England. They can also be observed in France. Cotton spinners’ earnings in Normandy, eighteenth-century France’s counterpart to Lancashire for cotton manufacturing, appear to have been markedly higher than those of spinners of other fibres elsewhere in France. Arthur Young, in his Travels during the Years 1787, 1788, and 1789, recorded information he was given about spinning earnings as he travelled across France. He averaged them out at 9 sous per day, a figure used by Allen in his article ‘The Industrial Revolution in Miniature’ to demonstrate that spinning wages were lower in France than in Lancashire. But Young’s 9 sous per day was his averaging of all his observations of spinning earnings across France, i.e. spinning of flax, hemp, cotton, coarse wool, and fine wool, in many different regions of a country more than twice the size of Great Britain.

According to Young’s informants, as I pointed out in a previous blogpost, earnings in Normandy for spinning cotton were considerably higher than 9 sous a day. Country spinners near Le Havre earned 16 sous per day, at Yvetot in the Caux 12 sous per day, at Rouen, described by Young as ‘the Manchester of France’, 12 sous per day, while good cotton spinners at La Roche-Guyon, on the edge of the Normandy cotton spinning zone to the south-east, earned 12 sous to 15 sous per day. The 12 sous to 16 sous per day Young recorded in Normandy represented 6d. to 8d. a day in English money. That is the mid-range of the 4d. to 10d. a day Young had previously recorded for cotton spinning at Manchester. In other words, if hand spinners in Lancashire benefited from a High Wage Economy, then so too did those in Normandy. Yet high earnings in Normandy failed to induce mechanical innovation in spinning and the jenny enjoyed limited success there.

Of course Allen’s argument for relative factor prices as inducements to technical innovation rests not only on the price of labour, but also on the cost of capital. Capital costs were, Allen argues, higher in France than in England. Yet even if that were the case, it seems unlikely the cost of capital in France would have inhibited innovation in the way Allen suggests, because the capital cost of a domestic jenny was so much less than he thinks. Allen assumes a new 24 spindle jenny cost 70 shillings (‘Industrial Revolution in miniature’, 908, 916). The jennies bought by the overseers at Worsley in Lancashire in the 1770s to be installed in paupers’ houses cost only 34 shillings and 36 shillings. The Lancastrian industrial spy John Holker reported that a jenny with 25 to 30 spindles cost no more than twenty ordinary spinning wheels (which in Lancashire cost 2 shillings each). If so, the Worsley jennies may well have been 24 spindle machines, but at half the capital cost Allen imagines.

If the capital cost of a spinning jenny was half the sum claimed by Robert Allen and if Normandy’s hand cotton spinners earned wages similar to their equivalents in Lancashire, then it is difficult to have any confidence in Allen’s high wage explanation for why the Industrial Revolution in textiles was British.

Bibliography of recent works.

Allen, R. C., The British industrial revolution in global perspective (Cambridge, 2009), chapter 8, ‘Cotton’.
Allen, R. C., ‘The industrial revolution in miniature: the spinning jenny in Britain, France, and India’, Journal of Economic History, 69 (2009), 901–27.
Allen, R.C., ‘Spinning their wheels: a reply to Jane Humphries and Benjamin Schneider’, Economic History Review, online early view (2019).
Humphries, J. and Schneider, B., ‘Spinning the industrial revolution’, Economic History Review, 72 (2019), 126–55.
Mann, J. de L., The Cloth Industry in the West of England from 1640 to 1880 (Oxford, 1971).
Muldrew, C., ‘“Th’ancient Distaff” and “Whirling Spindle”: measuring the contribution of spinning to household earnings and the national economy in England, 1550–1770’, Economic History Review, 65 (2012), 498–526.
Randall, A., Before the Luddites: Custom, Community and Machinery in the English Woollen Industry, 1776-1809 (Cambridge, 1991).

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Fibres, Yarns and the Invention of the Spinning Jenny

Open the link below for John Styles’ paper ‘Fibres, Yarns and the Invention of the Spinning Jenny’, written for the session ‘Popularizing Fabrics and Clothing, 17th to 19th centuries: Materiality, Value Formation and Technology’ at the World Economic History Congress, Boston, USA, 29 July to 3 August, 2018.

Styles-Spinning-jenny-WEHC-2018-2.pdf

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Spinning little stories about the High Wage Economy.

It’s been fascinating seeing the responses to Judy Stephenson’s post ‘Spinning little stories: Why cotton in the Industrial Revolution was not what you think’ on the Economic History Society’s Long Run blog (https://ehsthelongrun.net/2016/12/01/spinning-little-stories-why-cotton-in-the-industrial-revolution-was-not-what-you-think/). It’s partly about my East Asian Journal of British History article ‘Fashion, Textiles and the Origins of Industrial Revolution’ (http://www.history.ac.uk/sites/history.ac.uk/files/eajbhvol5.pdf). I’ve followed the ensuing discussion on Twitter and on various blogs (in particular those by Pseudoerasmus [https://pseudoerasmus.com/2016/12/01/allen/] and Vincent Geloso [https://notesonliberty.com/2016/12/07/the-high-wage-economy-hypothesis/]. Like Anton Howes, I’ve been impressed by the quality of what Geloso calls a Twitterminar. So I’m keen to respond.

There are three issues I’d like to take up.

1. First issue: Robert Allen, induced innovation and the High Wage Economy (HWE).

As Pseudoerasmus has noticed, I’m not arguing that Allen’s induced innovation model is inherently misconceived as a model. It’s just that, as far as textiles are concerned, Allen is empirically defective (to put it politely) with regard to wages and capital costs, rendering his analysis / findings redundant.

On capital costs, Allen hugely overestimates the cost of a 24 spindle jenny at 70 shillings. 24 spindles is bigger than the original domestic jennies, which were 8 to 16 spindles. These were crude machines. Any local carpenter familiar with constructing single spindle, non-flyer spinning wheels of the kind used for spinning cotton in Lancashire could have thrown one together pretty cheaply – essentially the same spindle (@ <0.25 shillings) and drive cord multiplied in a frame + bobbins, clamp bar, faller wire and a wheel. A single cotton spinning wheel cost 2 shillings. Simply multiplying the cost of a single wheel by 24 (which is absurd, but serves to make the point) comes to 48 shillings, way less than Allen’s 70 shillings. Aspin, in a book Allen references, pointed out that as late as 1783 (when small, domestic cotton jennies had already probably peaked), the overseers of the poor at Saddleworth, on the Yorkshire border with Lancashire, bought a jenny for 16 shillings. Elsewhere in West Yorkshire, where probate inventories survive for this period, 20 shillings is a typical valuation for the bigger, wool-spinning jennies.

On wages, Allen doesn’t just misrepresent Arthur Young’s evidence on wages, which I show in my EAJBH article. He clearly doesn’t understand the differences in product mix and organization of work between the principal English and French cotton spinning regions – Lancashire and Normandy (I’m not convinced Vincent Geloso will find answers in Alsace – Mulhouse in particular. Pre 1789, Mulhouse was in the Swiss confederation and most of the calico and cotton-linen fabric used for printing there was spun / woven either in India, or in Alpine Switzerland)

The two key differences between Lancashire and Normandy were:-

(a.) Product mix.

The vast majority of cotton-linen fabrics produced in Normandy (checks and striped Siamoises in particular) were loom-patterned. Very few plain cotton-linens or traditional heavy fustians were produced, at least before the 1770s. To provide the coloured pattern, a proportion of the yarn therefore had to be dyed after spinning, but before weaving. This required a three-stage production sequence in the order (i) spinning, (ii) colouring, (iii) weaving, each undertaken by different people in different places in the region. Lancashire, too, hosted large-scale production of loom-patterned cotton-linens (stripes and checks), but there was also a vast manufacture of plain cotton-linens, decorated by dyeing or printing after they had been woven. They included both the traditional Lancashire heavy fustians (dyed in the region) and the lighter fabrics known as Blackburn greys (sent to London for printing). Their three-stage production sequence was ordered differently from loom-patterned fabrics – (i) spinning, (ii) weaving, and only then (iii) colouring.

(b.) Organisation of work.

In Normandy, the women who spun operated as independent small businesswomen, buying cotton wool in small quantities, spinning it, and then selling the yarn, irrespective of their husband’s occupation. In other words, a classic kaufsystem, which made a lot of sense in a context where the yarn would be then passed directly on to dyers, working in relatively centralized premises/locations, before being re-distributed to weavers. In the parts of Lancashire producing plain cotton-linens – traditional fustians and the newer Blackburn greys – a verlag system prevailed, but one that unusually involved putting out materials at two different stages in their production sequence – a prepared linen warp (sourced in Ireland, Scotland, or the Baltic) and raw, uncarded and unspun cotton wool for the weft. This mix of processed materials and unprocessed materials was put out as a package to male weavers of plain cotton-linen fabric, such as James Hargreaves at Oswaldtwistle, at a piece rate for the finished fabric (ie. not the spinning alone). Weavers were expected to arrange the spinning themselves, which in many cases must have been undertaken mainly by their family. No wonder Lancashire evidence of cotton spinning wage rates can be hard to find – for a lot of Lancashire spinners there wasn’t a rate for spinning as such.

A number of consequences for Allen’s HWE flow from these two Lancashire – Normandy differences, at least as far as spinning is concerned:

They suggest that Hargreaves invented the jenny principally to allow cotton spinning to be concentrated in the weaver’s household. This would be entirely consistent with his previous improvement to domestic stock carding, designed to increase output while reducing the need for physical strength. It was all about keeping as much as possible of the spinning work, which included carding, within the family. Why? Partly because, as I argue in EAJBH, there was increasing competition for spinning labour from a rapidly expanding worsted industry in the vicinity (no such competition in Normandy). But also because the later 1750s and early 1760s saw:

(1) major supply problems with the white, all-cotton calicoes imported by the East India Co. from India to be printed near London for export to Europe and colonial North America. One consequence was extra pressure to substitute cotton-linen Blackburn greys, despite their inferior quality.

(2) big price increases for both linen yarn and cotton wool, amplifying the cost of bad / wasteful spinning for weavers and incentivizing the use of trustworthy, easily supervised and trained family labour (a kind of pre-mechanisation Margolin effect).

(3) the introduction of printing on cotton-linens in Lancashire from the 1750s, which probably involved closer, more active monitoring of yarn/fabric quality.

Many of these considerations did not apply in Normandy, given its different product mix and work organization. In Normandy there was certainly less emphasis on measuring yarn quality. Yarn was sold there by weight, not count, perhaps because yarn uniformity was less of an issue for loom-patterned fabrics than for cotton-linens used for printing. Insofar as the considerations outlined above did apply in Normandy, the consequences were different, as there was no particular incentive to adopt an integrated family model of production, sustained by small 8 to 16 spindle domestic jennies. I suspect the French never had many domestic jennies, but simply did a technological frog leap in the 1780s, going straight to bigger, workshop-based jennies (30-40 spindles or more), like the ones with 40 spindles at Oissel in Normandy I mention in EAJBH, which appear to have been housed in a workshop. In that case, when comparing numbers of jennies in England and France, we should be counting spindles, not machines (i.e. thinking like a textile factory production manager).

 

2.Second issue: hand spinning earnings and work intensity.

I like the way the Schneider-Humphries working paper uses primary sources to demonstrate that most spinners worked, on average, intermittently. Actual earnings were substantially lower than those reported by commentators like Arthur Young. That’s important if what we are interested in is women’s actual earnings compared to men’s – after all, huge numbers of  English women were earning by spinning. It enables Schneider-Humphries to offer an effective critique of the way women’s spinning earnings have been presented in recent literature. But I think they over-claim on what their findings tell us about Allen on spinning jennies and HWE.

They lack Lancashire cotton data. Their only manuscript accounts for spinning cotton come from a workhouse at Marlborough in Wiltshire, 200 miles from Lancashire. There it was probably cotton candlewick that was being spun. Candlewick usually had an English cotton yarn count of somewhere about 5 or 6 (or, for technical textile geeks, Ne 5 to Ne 6). This was extremely coarse, similar to the roving fed into the rollers of an Arkwright water frame, but with more twist. Spinning it was considerably less demanding than spinning a Ne 18 weft yarn for a Blackburn grey, let alone a Ne 40 yarn for a coarse muslin.

If what Arthur Young was doing for England was to report what a healthy adult spinner might earn if working 12 or 13 hours a day, six days a week (which is what he requested from his informants), then that’s probably what he reported for France as well. So the international relationship doesn’t change, despite Young’s exaggeration of the hours spinners actually worked (once, that is, we identify the correct Arthur Young data, which, of course, Allen fails to do). It doesn’t change, that is, unless French spinners worked more (or less) intermittently than their English counterparts. Establishing that is not going to be easy, because in Normandy we’re dealing not with piece rates for spinning, but with the profits of independent contractors.

What Schneider-Humphries don’t give sufficient attention to is the variation and volatility of English spinning piece rates, and probably earnings, according to time, place, fibre, and skill. This reflects a general tendency in much of the literature to think about spinning as if were a single activity – unskilled women’s work. I think a more helpful approach is to think about it in the way we think about metal smelting – something that is common to all metals, but with major technical differences and challenges. The analogy can be taken further, because the mechanization of textile spinning was, like the application of coal / coke to metal smelting in England, a long-drawn out process. Each metal posed its own challenges. Applying coal / coke to smelting the whole range of metals took most of the 17th century to complete, from cementation steel in the 1630s to iron ore in the early 1700s, as the late John Harris pointed out.

English spinners were largely paid according to piece rates (ie. pence per lb. of yarn spun to any particular count and / or twist – warps more highly twisted than wefts, therefore slower to spin). Evidence from worsteds and woolens in Yorkshire and East Anglia suggests piece rates in any particular area might vary by c.25% over a three year period. The same was probably true of the availability of work. And rates varied by region and by fibre (spinning linen generally paid less than wool or cotton). There was international and inter-regional trade in yarns, but markets for yarn were at the same time strikingly regionalized. I suspect a key variable here was the difference between generic yarns and specialized yarns, reflecting the precise yarn specifications for different fabrics in what were often fast-moving export markets shaped by constant changes in fashion.

At some periods, as the Schneider-Humphries paper insists, putting-out masters enjoyed considerable monopoly power, especially in East Anglia towards the end of the c.18th, when the Norwich worsted industry stagnated and used increasing quantities of cheap imported Irish yarn. Yet this was not the case everywhere or at all times, even in the later c.18th. There were periodic complaints from many areas about spinning labour being in short supply, during both the 17th and the 18th centuries. These were highly volatile industries, often export-orientated, and the availability of spinning work fluctuated considerably with the state of the market. Commercial correspondence confirms that there were periods when manufacturers could not supply customers due to labour shortages in both spinning and weaving.

So I think that for spinners we can talk about relatively high wages for spinning in parts of the north of England in the 1750s and 1760s, but only relative to spinners elsewhere in England, or at other times. Personally I can’t see much point in describing that as a regional HWE, but others might.

 

3. Third issue: yarn counts and quality.

For plain cotton-linens and calicoes during the later 18th century and early 19th century , the average fineness of cotton yarns changed rapidly, as Harley has demonstrated. Quality improved, but in ways that make comparisons tricky. John Wyatt discovered in the early 1740s that yarn spun for weft to Ne 12 or less was considered coarse. Above Ne 24 was fine (and unusual). Most hand-spun weft yarn for woven fabrics appears to have been Ne 16 to Ne 20 (Harley’s 1769 data from the Blackburn firm, Cardwell, Birley and Hornby, confirms this). Arkwright water frames could spin up to Ne 60, although generally they didn’t. Ne 60 was good enough for coarse muslins c.1780, but no competition for Bengal hand spinners of muslin, spinning their local short-staple, ultra-fine raw cotton.

The short-staple Old World varieties of cotton would not spin on the Arkwright machine, which would only work effectively with the longer-staple varieties of cotton native to the Americas. Supply of these American longer-stapled cottons came initially from the West Indies and Brazil, and from the USA only after 1815 on a really significant scale (I’ll save my moans about Beckert and History of Capitalism for another occasion).

Michael Edwards’ Growth of the British Cotton Trade is good on the chronology of British muslin production using mule-spun yarn. It was only after about 1810 that top-quality Bengal fine muslins were displaced by English-woven substitutes.

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Robert Allen’s spinning jenny is broken

The late Eric Hobsbawm famously remarked ‘whoever says Industrial Revolution says cotton’. Traditional accounts of the British Industrial Revolution tell the story of an Asian textile – cotton – transformed into a cheap, mass-produced British staple by means of cost-cutting mechanical inventions. Indeed, technology was centre stage in Adolphe Blanqui’s 1837 Histoire de l’Économie Politique en Europe, the book which offered probably the first systematic application of the concept of industrial revolution. Blanqui insisted that Britain had recently undergone an economic revolution comparable to the social and political revolution experienced in France. In a chapter entitled ‘On the economic revolution in England caused by the discoveries of Watt and Arkwright’, he defined that economic revolution in terms of technology, or, to be more precise, in terms of just two machines:

‘Two machines, henceforth immortal, the steam engine and the spinning machine, overturned the old commercial system and, almost at the same moment, gave birth to material products and social questions unknown to our fathers … Hatched in the brains of Watt and Arkwright, two men of genius, the industrial revolution took possession of England.’

Recent quantitative studies of the classic period of the British Industrial Revolution, from 1760 to 1830, have suggested that overall rates of economic growth were significantly lower than had previously been assumed. Yet despite the tendency to downplay the significance of Industrial Revolution for the economy as a whole, economic historians continue to foreground those technological innovations on which the very notion of Industrial Revolution was originally founded. The question of why the crucial technological innovations were British is central to the two most recent (and influential) general treatments of the Industrial Revolution – Robert Allen’s The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective and Joel Mokyr’s The Enlightened Economy: An Economic History of Britain, 1700-1850. Both books employ a distinction between micro- and macro-inventions, identifying James Hargreaves’ spinning jenny and Richard Arkwright’s water frame as key macro-inventions in cotton spinning, along with Samuel Crompton’s later spinning mule, which integrated the principles of the first two machines.

Robert Allen, constructs his argument about technical innovation around Hargreaves’ spinning jenny, famously invented in Oswaldtwistle, Lancashire in the mid-1760s. He offers an explanation for this key macro-invention rooted in economic incentives, in particular in an economy with high wages, but cheap capital and very cheap energy, which rendered worthwhile the high costs of developing macro-inventions and converting them into commercially useful technologies. In his book and an associated article, Allen offers an elaborate cliometric comparison of the jenny’s potential to reduce spinning costs in Britain, France and India. He concludes jennies more than paid for themselves at high British wages for hand spinning, but were not economically advantageous at lower French wage rates, and certainly not at even lower Indian wages. His analysis has been subjected to considerable technical criticism by his fellow cliometricians. However, there is a more profound problem with Allen’s argument. The evidence on which his calculations are based is flawed.

16 spindle version of James Hargreave's spinning jenny, as patented in 1770. Helmshore Mills Textile Museum.

16 spindle version of James Hargreave’s spinning jenny, as patented in 1770. Helmshore Mills Textile Museum.

Allen’s contrast between England and France depends on evidence for low French wages in hand spinning and a correspondingly slow take-up of the spinning jenny in France. He insists that French cotton producers declined to adopt the jenny in any numbers. His evidence is a 1790 French government estimate, which put the number of jennies in the whole of France at only 900, which he contrasts with an estimate of 20,070 jennies for Britain in 1788, almost certainly a considerable exaggeration. He fails, however, to point out that the French estimate was made immediately after the mass machine-breaking riots that accompanied the early months of the French Revolution in the preceding year, 1789. The number of jennies in use in France in the later 1780s was probably much higher, as Jeff Horn has pointed out. Using the small numbers of jennies reported in 1790 cannot demonstrate that the machine was uneconomic in France.

It was certainly not the view of the French government inspectors of manufactures that the jenny was uneconomic. Louis-Casimir Brown, inspector of manufactures for Picardy, reported in 1779 that the jenny ‘combines the advantages 1st of having a yarn of the same degree of twist, 2nd and of a constant fineness, as long as the spinner of the slivers has drawn them out smoothly, 3rd finally it is possible to spin much more’. He provided a detailed breakdown of costs, which indicates a saving over equivalent hand-spun yarn of more than 20%. Eight years later, an evaluation of jennies with 40 spindles spinning cotton at Oissel in Normandy by Jean-Baptiste Goy, the French inspector of manufactures for the Généralité de Rouen, agreed: ‘these machines combine the advantages of reducing labour costs a little, with the production of a yarn that is more uniform’.

Allen is lead further astray by his reliance on French spinning wage data derived from Arthur Young, the English agricultural writer who toured France in 1787-9. Oddly, Allen’s references are not to Young’s own book, Travels during the Years 1787, 1788, and 1789, published shortly after his return to England, but to Constantia Maxwell’s collection of extracts from it, first published in 1929. Nor does Allen reference the wages Young reported for cotton spinning, but rather Young’s averaging of all his observations of spinning earnings across France, including the spinning of flax, hemp, coarse wool, and fine wool, which often paid far less than spinning cotton. Young recorded relatively few observations for cotton spinning wages in France. Those he did report were mainly for Normandy, in the eighteenth century France’s counterpart to Lancashire for cotton manufacturing. Country spinners near Le Havre earned 16 sous per day, at Yvetot in the Caux 12 sous per day, at Rouen, described by Young as ‘the Manchester of France’, 12 sous per day, while good cotton spinners at La Roche-Guyon, to the south-east on the edge of the Normandy cotton spinning zone, earned 12 sous to 15 sous per day. Only at Angers, in Anjou nearly 200 miles to the south-west, did he report lower rates for spinning cotton of 5 sous to 10 sous per day. The 12 sous to 16 sous per day he recorded in Normandy represented 6d. to 8d. a day in English money. That is the mid-range of the 4d. to 10d. a day (assuming a six-day week) Young had previously recorded at Manchester in 1771.

So it is not clear from Young’s data that there was any difference in average wages for hand cotton spinning between the key cotton manufacturing districts in England and France during the years jennies were being introduced. The foundations of the cliometric edifice constructed by Allen to explain international differences in the adoption of the first major spinning innovation of the Industrial Revolution are flawed.

[This is an extract from a longer paper, ‘Fashion, Textiles and the Origins of Industrial Revolution’. It explores the markets for 18th century Lancashire ‘cotton’ textiles and the fibres from which they were woven to re-interpret the key textile inventions of the early Industrial Revolution. The full paper is available at John Styles’ academia.edu pages, at https://www.academia.edu/20778558/Fashion_Textiles_and_the_Origins_of_Industrial_Revolution]

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Richard Arkwright goes to Germany

Ratingen: Hohen Fabrik

Ratingen: Hohen Fabrik

I recently visited LVR-Industriemuseum Textilfabrik Cromford, at Ratingen, near Düsseldorf, Germany. The museum is located in the first water-powered cotton spinning mill to be built in continental Europe. It was constructed in 1783-4 by Johann Gottfried Brügelmann, a Wuppertal merchant, to house copies of Richard Arkwright’s water frames. Its five-story Hohen Fabrik now contains working reconstructions of these machines, built specially for the museum in the 1990s by William Haycock of Ashbourne, Derbyshire. The reconstructions are based on the surviving late-eighteenth century machines from Richard Arkwright’s Cromford factory in Derbyshire, which are now preserved at the Helmshore Mills Textile Museum in Lancashire.

The Ratingen museum provides one of the few opportunities to observe how an Arkwright water frame actually worked. Especially striking is the fixed positioning of Arkwright’s famous rollers that draw out the cotton roving for spinning. The lack of adjustment means the machine is limited in the kinds of cotton it can spin, because the distance between the three sets of rollers has to match the staple length of the cotton fibres. Very short staple cotton, of the kind produced in the eighteenth century in the eastern Mediterranean and India from Eurasian varieties of the cotton plant, cannot be spun. The layout of the rollers is optimised for the longer staple cottons which, in the eighteenth century, were available only from the two New World species. This suggests that Arkwright’s early success was heavily dependent on access to longer-staple, New World cotton, mainly from the Caribbean, but increasingly from Brazil.

 

The video clip above shows the reconstructed water frame at Ratingen in action. Wound around each of the bobbins at the top of the machine is a pre-prepared cotton roving – a long, thin, loosely-wound tube of cotton wool. Each roving is drawn down off its bobbin by a set of three pairs of rollers. They turn at different speeds in a sequence which draws or stretches out the roving. The surface of the lower rollers is ribbed metal; the upper rollers are covered in leather. Each of the three pairs of rollers is weighted. As the attenuated cotton roving leaves the rollers, it is pulled down and spun into yarn by the flyer/spindle mechanism at the bottom of the machine.

Open in full-page view to see the machinery in detail.

The close-ups of the rollers in the video show how they slot into fixed positions in their metal housing. Behind the rollers is a board with metal hooks to guide the roving. It can be seen to move slowly from side to side. This is to ensure that any abrasion is evenly distributed across the upper, leather-covered roller.

Thanks to Claudia Gottfried for showing me the machines at Ratingen.

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Flax dressing in Pennsylvania

Thanks to Christian and Johannes Zinzendorf (and Linda Eaton who arranged it and drove me!) I finally achieved a two year ambition, to turn flax stems into fibre.

Christian and Johannes have been growing and processing flax since the 1980s, and were kind enough to share their expertise with me (even though it was 3 degrees out!)

We started off with 2 year old flax stems, which were harvested when a bottom third of them stem was yellow. In their experience this provides both viable seed and good quality fibre.

Pennsylvania German flax break

Pennsylvania German hemp and flax break

The first stage is to break the flax stems using a flax break or brake.

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You move the wooden blades up and down, which crushes the flax stem into small pieces. As you can see from the first image, the break isn’t made from solid wood. The blades alternate between top and bottom which means that the flax stem is broken into small pieces rather than crushed.

The challenge of scutching on a windy day

The challenge of scutching on a windy day

Next the fibres are scutched or swingled to remove the remaining chaff/stem. This involves holding them on a wooden board and hitting them with a wooden knife or cutlass at a 45 degree angle. The fibres also begin to shine during this process. See this William Hincks print for a contemporary representation of scutching.

Scutched fibre on the left, combed fibre on the right

Scutched fibre on the left, combed fibre on the right

The final process to turn the scutched fibre into fully processed fibre is heckling or hackling. Hackling (the same as combing) pulls out any lumps, remaining stem and straightens the fibres ready for spinning. As the photo above shows, the volume of fibre dramatically decreases. The coarser shorter fibres called tow, separated in the heckling process were still used to make linen, used for heavy duty textiles such as sacks.  The fine fibres, the tear, on the right of the image were used to make the finest quality linen. The William Hincks print shows heckling too.

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You can see the tow left behind in the comb. We used two different heckles; the first had widely spaced nails, to pull out the coarsest fibre, moving onto a finer heckle to refine the fibre further.

Comparing the two stricks

Comparing the two stricks

Christian then showed me how to wind my tear fibre into a strick. The finished product! Comparison of the two stricks emphasises the importance of tacit knowledge.

While I understood the process through my reading and examining contemporary images, I had a sort of mental block about it; I understood it, but I didn’t get it (if that makes sense?)

However, by working the flax myself, breaking the stem into small pieces, scraping them off and combing the coarse fibres out, I really ‘got it’. The whole process now makes sense. For me this experience reemphasised how important it is for people studying material culture to have a go. You won’t master the early modern processes that you are trying out in a day, but you’ll understand the process and the expertise required much better.

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Christian and Johannes also have an excellent collection of flax processing tools and spinning wheels. For information on arranging a visit look at their website.

Further Reading

Leslie Clarkson, ‘The Linen Industry in Early Modern Europe’, in David Jenkins (ed) The Cambridge History of Western Textiles, Volume 1, 473-492

Adrienne D. Hood, The Weaver’s Craft: Cloth Commerce, and Industry in Early Pennsylvania (2003), chapter 3, ‘Flax and Wool: Fiber Production and Processing’

Johannes and Christian Zinzendorf, Big Book of Flax: A Compendium of Facts, Art, Lore, Projects and Song (2011)

William Hincks prints of the Irish linen industry, 1791, search the British Museum Collection online

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Robert and Nathan Hyde pattern book, 1771.

Hyde 1152-1160 aI recently visited Quarry Bank Mill near Wilmslow, Cheshire, one of the early water-powered cotton spinning mills, built on the River Bollin in 1784 to house the mechanical spinning frames invented by Richard Arkwright a decade and a half earlier. Now a National Trust property with working machinery, it also hosts an archive, which includes, on loan, the pattern book of the firm of Robert and Nathan Hyde of Manchester, dated 1771. This is one of a handful of pattern books from the late 1760s and early 1770s circulated by Manchester merchants as they developed a direct export trade, independent of London.* Others are in the USA, at the Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum in Delaware and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. All these books contain a similar range of textiles, representative of the finished goods then being manufactured in Lancashire. The Hyde book includes checks, stripes, silk mixes, diapers, dimities, tapes, fustians, jeans, corduroys, thicksets, and worsted shags and plushes. Missing from this and the other books are printed textiles, because at this date most printing of Lancashire-made fabric was undertaken on the outskirts of London. The surprising feature of the textiles in these pattern books is the relatively small proportion of cotton yarns. The checks consist predominantly of linen yarns, with only some of the coloured yarns spun from cotton. The stripes, the dimities and the fustians (insofar as it is possible to see the individual yarns) are mostly woven half from linen yarns, and half from cotton yarns. We know from other sources that the same was true of Lancashire-produced ‘cotton’ fabric used for printing. It seems likely, therefore, that in the early 1770s what we often refer to as the Lancashire cotton industry was actually weaving textiles containing more linen yarn than cotton yarn. Thanks to Philip Sykas of Manchester Metropolitan University for organizing the visit and to Alkestis Tsilika from Quarry Bank’s archive.

 * For more on this, see Peter Maw, ‘Yorkshire and Lancashire ascendant: England’s textile exports to New York and Philadelphia, 1750-1805, Economic History Review, 63 (2010), pp. 734-768.

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Experimental archaeology – growing flax

After testing out my practical skills on the intensive textile course at the TRC, Leiden,  I bought flax seeds to try some experimental archaeology. I grew flax successfully last year, with the basic aim of getting a better understanding of the plant and its fibres.

This year I set myself a bigger challenge, to follow eighteenth-century instructions to uncover more of the challenges of flax growing, as well as raising new research questions. There are a multitude of guides to flax production, but I settled on a combination of two guides, Directions for Raising Flax (1772) which was published by the Commissioners and Trustees for Fisheries, Manufactures, and Improvements in Scotland to improve the production of flax fibre in Scotland and was given out free at all linen stamp offices and an undated manuscript from Berkshire Record Office ‘Derections to sow fflaxe’ (D/Ewe EP).

Calculating the quantity of seed

The ‘Derections’ suggest a minimum of 2 bushels of flax seed per acre, ‘the Better the ground the thicker to be sowed’. The Directions suggest 3 bushels per acre for seed from Holland or Riga and 2.5 bushels of Philadelphian seed (p.3). Arthur Young in A Tour in Ireland, wrote that people in Armargh used 2.5 to 3 bushels of seed per acre (second edition, vol 1, p. 133). I therefore decided to try a ratio of 2 bushels per acre.

The calculations that I used were as follows, 1 bushel = 72 pints, 2 bushels = 144 pints. 1000ml = 1.75 pints. Therefore the number of ml needed per acre is 144/1.75*1000=82,268ml, with 2ml of seed needed per square foot. (If anyone has problems with my calculations please contact me!)

Choosing the seed

Both guides agree that flax should be planted by the end of April. The ‘Derections’ state that flax should be planted after the last frost in April and the Scottish Directions, that it should be planted between mid-March and April (p.3). The unusually cold spring meant that I left off planting until the end of April. After some time spent calculating the weight of seed needed for 1 square foot of soil, I prepared the soil, making sure that it was flat and that big clods were broken up and stones removed (p.2) and planted the seeds. Within two days, all the seeds had been eaten. – This was my first lesson, while my crop was small, it showed me one of the problems that farmers faced and continue to face.

I then planted my second crop in early May. I used two sets of seeds, one that I had bought in Leiden and were at least two years old and different seeds which I bought from a seed company this year. They were the same species, Linum Usistatissimum, but different varieties. Both the Scottish Directions (pp. 2-3) and the ‘Derections’ offer advice on the choice of seed. Both considered bright, heavier seed as more productive, with the ‘Derections’ specifying plumpness, roundness and a uniform colour; and the Directions giving instructions for bruising and tasting the seed as further criteria for seed quality.

Old flax seedNew flax seed

Old flax seed (left) ; new flax seed (right)

Working out which was heaviest proved impossible. Brightness and uniformity of colour were easier to judge, based on how healthy the seed looked. Plumpness and roundness were more difficult, given differences between the two varieties – most of the new seeds were pitted in places. The photos above show what proportion of the same weight of seed fulfilled the criteria: in each image the pile on the left is seed, that the instructions considered was not fit for purpose. This however excludes uniform colour – the majority of the tips on the old seed were pale – it would have categorically failed this test.

Old flax seed, bruised New flax seed, bruised

Old flax seed, bruised (left); new flax seed bruised (right)

The next instruction in the Directions was ‘that which appears, when bruised, of a light or yellowish green, and fresh in the heart, oily, and smells and tastes sweet, may be depended on’ (p.2). The new seed met these criteria much better. When I bruised them (with a spoon) some specks of oil came of of the old seed, but lots oozed out of the new seed (right hand image) oil came out of both seeds, but more came out of the new seed. (Flax seeds are used to produce linseed oil and are edible). The core of the new seed looked fresher although it was white, rather than the yellow of the old seed. I couldn’t smell either seed, but the new seed had a pleasant almost fruity taste whereas the old seed had little flavour apart from a sweet aftertaste.

Planting the seed

Old seedNew seed

Old seed (left); new seed (right)

To prevent this batch of seed from being eaten again I planted it in two pots – separating the old and new seed, and ahistorically taped clingfilm over the top until they had germinated. The pots were 30cm in diameter, which meant that the area was smaller (at 706.5 cm squared) than the one square foot (900 cm squared). I oversowed because I was unable to measure any smaller volume than 2ml, and reasoned that up to 4 bushels could be sown per acre, so I was still following contemporary instructions.

The ‘Derections’ state that ‘to know if you have sowed thick enough wet the underside of your thumb and see if it take up of the seed sown 14 or 15 seeds at once’. I only picked up 5 or 6 seeds on my thumb, so next year I will try a really dense sowing to see how it affects the growth of the flax.

Germination took a long time because the atmosphere was too hot under the clingfilm. When the weather cooled the flax started to germinate. Clearly I’m going to need to change this next year. The seed that did grow, grew well however and had gone to seed by mid-July. The majority of seed did not germinate at all, not helped by a squirrel digging a hole in one of the pots! I am not sure which factor was most responsible for low germination  – the heat under the clingfilm, animals, the ‘dud’ seed, or something else and as a result I am going to repeat the experiment next year to try and work out the answer.

Flowering flax

The new flax seed flowering

However, I did successfully grow two crops of flax. The difference of the varieties was apparent in the flowers – the new seeds bought from a seed company had larger, more attractive flowers.

What have I learnt?

  • Two very basic points which I saw for myself; birds and mice could decimate crops and the impact of unusually hot or cold weather.
  • Distinguishing between good and bad seed is relatively common sense – because the seed is supposed to be shiny any problems are quite obvious. The most helpful  test was bruising the seed.  The quantity of oil that comes out reveals how old the seed is. There was a noticeable difference in taste too. It would also be easy to learn which seed to choose if taught by someone else.
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Learning to Spin

In May 2012 John and I visited the excellent Textile Research Centre (TRC) in Leiden, Holland to take the Intensive Textile Course with six other people run by Dr. Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood. The course provides a highly practical introduction to textiles – you learn the basics of spinning, weaving, dyeing and other processes. Gillian encourages you to find answers through experimentation.

The first day was an introduction to different fibre types and we each built up a reference collection of fibres. We developed our fibre identification skills and got to see different individual fibres under the microscope for the first time. This proved a conclusive way of telling cotton and linen apart (worn linen develops a fuzzy texture and it can be difficult to tell it apart from cotton).

One dye was used for each column

Our dyed wool. Each column shows the effects of different mordants on one dye.

We learnt about dyeing next and used natural dyes to dye wool. This was particularly interesting because we used different mordants – each mordant produced a different colour from the same dye! We can also confirm that indigo does smell of manure, although our dyeing attempts were unsuccessful. We also managed to dye madder more effectively than cochineal (see the 4th and 5th rows from the left).

My attempt at spinning wool

My attempt at spinning wool

John tries out a spinning wheel

John tries out a spinning wheel

 

 

 

 

 

Spinning was the next challenge, we tried out spindle whorls and spinning wheels. Neither John nor I are natural spinners and a morning was not enough to teach us the techniques and the rhythm needed to use a spindle whorl. However trying out the tools developed our understanding of spinning and reinforced the idea that for experienced spinners the process is intuitive and automatic as well as highlighting the importance of rhythm.

Recreating a textile

Recreating an archaeological textile

The result of our labours

The result of our labours

I much preferred weaving. After trying out weaving a tabby and different twills I helped Hedwig Landenius Enegren out with some experimental archaeology. We worked on recreating a design from the bottom of a garment based on a fragment of an archaeological textile. In the meantime John created a colour-coded treadle system on one of the basic looms.

Linen from the dead sea scrolls. Copyright Alice Dolan and Textile Reseach Centre, Leiden

Linen from the dead sea scrolls. Copyright Alice Dolan and Textile Reseach Centre, Leiden

The next few days were spent learning about decorative techniques and handling textiles from the CTR’s outstanding collection. One of the highlights of the trip for me was seeing some of the linen that was wrapped around the Dead Sea Scrolls.

So what did we learn?

  • We developed our textile knowledge and gained a new understanding of the different processes involved in textile production before industrialisation.
  • Our practical understanding of textiles improved. We learnt about the physicality of the processes, the rhythm needed for spinning and the smells of dyes.
  • I had a go at experimental archaeology which can both provide (or suggest) answers and inspire new research questions. The outcome of this was that I tried growing flax to see how this changed my understanding of the fibre, the topic of another blog post.

We both heartily recommend the Intensive Textile Course as a solid foundation for academic textile research.

 

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Inspiration in Copenhagen

Spending a week at the Centre for Textile Research in June this year proved an inspiration. CTR brings people together to share ideas and inspiration – one of its strengths is that academic writing and experimental archaeology are undertaken alongside each other. You are as likely to see someone trying out a warp-weighted loom to recreate ancient textiles as proof-editing. Everyone at CTR (too many to name!) was extraordinarily welcoming and made me feel at home.

Joining the annual summer trip, to Christiansø and Frederiksø, two islands in the middle of the Baltic gave me a chance to get to know everyone. The following day I got a new insight into Chinese costume through the joint expertise of Manlin Wu (Chinese textiles) and Laila Glienke (embroidery).

I also got to share ideas and methodologies with Paula Hohti, who has just joined CTR and is working on a fascinating new project on the clothes worn by ordinary people in early modern Scandinavia.

When I wasn’t working in the CTR, I visited a few of the historic textiles in Copenhagen – Mette Bruun, the administrator at CTR gave a great tour of the Islamic galleries in the David Collection, which has a fantastic collection of decorative arts and saw Tiraz textiles for the first time, which were status symbols associated with rulers.

A visit to the National Museum with student assistant Sidsel Frisch was another highlight. Denmark has extraordinarily rich prehistoric survivals due to low oxygen levels in bogs. There are astonishing textile survivals (some of the images are distressing). The Egtved girl was buried c1370 BC yet her clothes still survive, including a corded skirt. Scholars at CTR have been involved in investigating the textiles and uncovered the original colours of the striking outfit from the 2nd century BC worn by the Huldremose woman.

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Viking ship museum Roskilde: inside the museum; recreation of a woollen viking sail; rope workshop.

While John was at CTR we visited the Viking Ship Museum at Roskilde to meet Jörn Bohlmann an enthusiastic PhD student whose practical knowledge of boat building lays the groundwork for his thesis on sails. Jörn showed us around the museum while we animatedly talked about sails, spinning, linen and hemp and ended up with more questions than answers! The biggest questions that we asked were about the supply of yarn for sail making. Different ships require sails using different qualities of yarn, yet spinners specialised in producing a particular quality (or width) of yarn. How (if at all) did the process of putting-out change when different sails were needed? Also how did the putting-out system cope when countries went to war – how was the need for more sails managed? It is these kinds of basic, but unanswered questions that the Spinning Project aims to explore. Have a look at this Old Bailey Case t18031130-35  to see the putting out system in action – it even features childbirth! The researchers at the Viking Ship museum are keen to collaborate with people working on subjects that intersect with Vikings and boats.

This trip to CTR was the beginning of a longer research collaboration that will be developed through the Costumes, Clothing, Consumption, Cultures network.

All images are (c) Alice Dolan

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