Fibres, Yarns and the Invention of the Spinning Jenny

Open the link below for my 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.


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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 ( It’s partly about my East Asian Journal of British History article ‘Fashion, Textiles and the Origins of Industrial Revolution’ ( I’ve followed the ensuing discussion on Twitter and on various blogs (in particular those by Pseudoerasmus [] and Vincent Geloso []. 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’ pages, at]

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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.


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.


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.


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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The silk throwing mill at Caraglio, Italy

The three-story silk throwing mill at Caraglio, Piedmont, Italy, constructed 1676-8.

The three-story silk-throwing mill at Caraglio, Piedmont, Italy, constructed 1676-8.

This enormous water-powered silk-throwing mill, at Caraglio in Piedmont in north-western Italy, was built in 1676-8. Mills like this were the model for the first successful English factory for manufacturing silk warp yarn [organzine] by water power, built by Thomas Lombe at Derby about 1720. The Spinning Project is currently exploring the links between Lombe’s silk-throwing machinery and subsequent mechanical inventions for spinning cotton, culminating in Richard Arkwright’s water frame of 1768. Lombe’s Derby factory used machines copied from those in Piedmont.

‘The East Prospect of Derby, c. 1728’. The two large brick buildings in the centre of the painting, on an island in the river, are Thomas Lombe’s silk factories, on the left the three-story doubling works and on the right the five-story, water-powered throwing works.

‘The East Prospect of Derby, c. 1728’. The two large brick buildings in the centre of the painting, on an island in the river, are Thomas Lombe’s silk factories, on the left the three-story doubling works and on the right the five-story, water-powered throwing works.

The working reconstruction at Caraglio demonstrates the huge scale of this machinery and its use of a flyer mechanism similar to that employed in Arkwright’s machine.

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