Cotton mill

Cotton mill

A cotton mill is a factory housing spinning and weaving machinery. Cotton was a leading sector in the Industrial Revolution, as cotton spinning was mechanised in mills. During this time, the success of cotton mills gave birth to Mill towns, which became significant settlements, following the foundation of mills in them. First constructed in England, cotton mills facilitated huge and rapid economic expansion for many parts of Britain, particularly in North West England, for example Manchester, Oldham, Preston, Blackburn, Burnley, Ashton and Rochdale; and in Stockport, and other towns and cities.

Great Britain

Cotton manufacture (like that of other textiles) started as a domestic industry. This changed with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, when the output of cotton textile increased dramatically. There were many inventions leading up to the Industrial Revolution. The flying shuttle was invented in 1733 by John Kay which made weaving faster and left the weaver wanting more yarn than the spinners were making. The solution to this was new technology to speed up spinning. The mechanisation of cotton spinning involved two parallel threads of inventions.

Water frame

In 1738 Lewis Paul and John Wyatt, of Birmingham, patented a roller spinning machine and a flyer-and-bobbin system, for drawing cotton to a more even thickness, using two sets of rollers that travelled at different speeds. Mills using this patent were established at Northampton and Leominster, which spun cotton in 1742 and 1744, but were far less successful that the spinning jenny or water frame. The Northampton mill worked until about 1764, but does not seem to have been a commercial success. The Leominster mill, built by Daniel Bourne, burnt down in 1754.

Both Paul and Bourne patented machinery in 1748 for carding cotton. Carding is a premilinary process that must be undertaken before spinning. Mr Morris (probably Henry Morris) set up a carding cylinder at Brock Mill near Wigan in 1763. Ralph Taylor of Royton followed this with a powered cotton mill at Thorpe Clough in 1764, reputedly the first of its kind.

The roller spinning principle of Paul and Bourne was the basis of Richard Arkwright's later water frame, patented in 1769. This invention was initially put into operation at Nottingham, where hosiery was being produced from imported Indian yarn. Arkwright set up the water powered Cromford Mill in Derbyshire in 1771. His partner Jedediah Strutt set up mills at Belper and elsewhere in the following years. Arkwright's second patent (of 1775) combined his previously patented machine with a carding machine, but when he attempted to enforce that patent, it was found not to be a new invention and hence invalid.

Many other mills followed, particularly after Arkwright's original patent expired in 1783. By 1788, there were about 210 mills in Great Britain, the counties with the greatest number being Lancashire, Yorkshire, and Derbyshire. The water frame produced a strong yarn suitable for the warp.

Spinning mule

The spinning jenny was developed by James Hargreaves in c.1764, but patented only in 1770. Like Arkwright, Hargreaves moved from Lancashire to Nottingham. The jenny was a manually operated machine, which speeded up spinning, but it was not initially powered by mills. This produced a softer yarn suitable for the weft, so that the two inventions were in a sense complementary.

The principles of both were combined by Samuel Crompton in his spinning mule, but water power was not applied to the mule until David Dale did so at New Lanark Mills in about 1792.


These inventions facilitated a great expansion in cotton spinning and the related production of cotton cloth. Cotton was one of the leading sectors in the Industrial Revolution, and in the rise of socio-economic prosperity in England. From the 19th century cotton manufacture was concentrated in Lancashire, whereas the West Riding of Yorkshire concentrated on wool, although there was some overlap. Initially the main source of raw cotton was India during the British Raj, but later the southern United States became the main source, the cotton being imported into England through Liverpool.

United States

At the time of the American Revolution, 1775-1783, most cloth was still made at home. An Uxbridge, Massachusetts farmer by the name of Richard Mowry successfully built and marketed the equipment needed to manufacture woolen, linen or cotton cloth.

The first textile mill in the United States was built in Beverly, Massachusetts in 1787 by entrepreneur John Cabot and brothers, after being interested in the textile industry by American investors Thomas Somers and James Leonard. The mill differed from later mechanized mills in that it was horse-powered. This changed with the development of the first commercially successful cotton-spinning mill with a fully mechanized water power system in the United States in 1790 by Samuel Slater on the Blackstone River in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.

Then, in 1814, the Boston Manufacturing Company's first "fully-integrated" mill was completed on the Charles River at Waltham, Massachusetts. One of its proprietors was Francis Cabot Lowell, who had traveled to Manchester, England to study the mill system and memorize its construction. This venture was highly successful, due to the development of the first successful power loom in America, built by Paul Moody, a skilled mechanic hired by Lowell and his associates to construct the machinery in the new mill. The methods devised by this group came to be known as the "Waltham System", which would later be duplicated at Lowell, Massachusetts and several other new cities throughout New England. Another important improvement made by Paul Moody was to power the mill machinery using a system of overhead pulleys and leather belting. This system would prove to be more efficient than the old "British" method of shafts and gearing, and required much less maintenance.

While the production of cotton cloth in the United States grew rapidly in the first half of the 19th century, the general sizes of the cotton mills built during this time were generally limited by the power of the streams they were built upon. Then, in the 1850s, George Corliss of Providence, Rhode Island would make notable improvements to the steam engine, making it highly reliable and much more suitable to power industrial machinery. Mill owners began supplementing the water power from their dams with steam engines. Soon, mills were being designed to be powered entirely by steam power. After the Civil War, the typical size of cotton mills grew very quickly and production reached record levels. This trend would continue throughout New England into the early decades of the 20th century.

In the years following the American Civil War, dozens of cotton mills sprang up along the Carolina Piedmont, where cheap labor and plentiful water power made operations profitable. Cotton could be processed into fabric where it grew, saving transportation costs. Indeed, New England mills found it increasingly difficult to compete with those in Southern States, and many went into gradual decline until finally bankrupted during the Great Depression. Cotton mills and their owners dominated the economy and politics of the Piedmont well into the twentieth century, when many textile operations moved overseas.

Processing the cotton

Cotton mills get the cotton shipped to them in large, 500 pound bales. When the cotton comes out of a bale, it is all packed together and still contains vegetable matter. In order to fluff up the cotton and remove the vegetable matter, the cotton is sent through a picker. A picker looks similar to the carding machine and the cotton gin, but is slightly different. The cotton is fed into the machine and gets beaten with a beater bar, to loosen it up. The cotton then collects on a screen and gets fed through various rollers, which serve to remove the vegetable matter.

The cotton comes off of the picking machine in large bats, and is then taken to carding machines. The carders line up the fibres nicely to make them easier to spin. The carding machine consists mainly of one big roller with smaller ones surrounding it. All of the rollers are covered in small teeth, and as the cotton progresses further on the teeth get finer (i.e. closer together). The cotton leaves the carding machine in the form of a sliver; a large rope of fibres.

Next, several slivers are combined. Each sliver will have thin and thick spots, and by combining several slivers together a more consistent size can be reached. Since combining several slivers produces a very thick rope of cotton fibres, directly after being combined the slivers are separated into rovings. These rovings are then what are used in the spinning process. Generally speaking, for machine processing a roving is about the width of a pencil.

The spinning machines take the roving, thins it and twists it, creating yarn. The roving is pulled off a bobbin and fed through some rollers, which are feeding at several different speeds.This thins the roving at a consistent rate. If the roving was not a consistent size, then this step could cause a break in the yarn, or could jam the machine. The yarn is twisted through the spinning of the bobbin it is rolled on, exactly like a spinning wheel but just in a different configuration.

Plying is done by pulling yarn from two or more bobbins and twisting it together, in the opposite direction that that in which it was spun. Depending on the weight desired, the cotton may or may not be plied, and the number of strands twisted together varies.

After being spun and plied, the cotton thread is taken to a warping room where racks of bobbins are set up to hold the thread while it is rolled onto the warp bar of a loom. Because the thread is fine, often three of these would be combined to get the desired thread count.

When cotton mills first came into being, the next step would be to manually thread the warp through the heddles. Later on, a machine was invented for tying the new warp onto the old warp. This saves time, but means that the cloth will have the same pattern as the previous warp. If a new pattern is wanted, the warp still has to be threaded through the heddles.

At this point, the thread is woven. Depending on the era, one person could manage anywhere from 3 to 100 machines. As time progressed new mechanisms were added that stopped the loom any time something went wrong. The mechanisms checked for such things as a broken warp thread, broken weft thread, the shuttle going straight across, and if the shuttle was empty.

See also


Further reading

  • A. P. Wadsworth and J. de L. Mann, The Cotton Trade and Industrial Lancashire 1600-1780 (1931)
  • R. S. Fitton and A. P. Wadsworth, The Strutts and the Arkwrights 1758-1830: a study of the early factory system (1958).
  • S. D. Chapman, The Early Factory Masters: the transition to the factory system in the Midlands Textile Industry (Newton Abbot 1967).

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