A History of the Textile Revolution

The major steps in the manufacture of textiles and clothes are:

  • Harvest and clean the fiber or wool.
  • Card it and spin it into threads.
  • Weave the threads into cloth.
  • Fashion and sew the cloth into clothes.

Great Britain’s Lead in Textile Machinery

During the early eighteenth century, Great Britain was determined to dominate the textile industry. Laws forbade the export of English textile machinery, drawings of the machinery, and written specifications of the machines that would allow them to be constructed in other countries.

Britain had the power loom, a steam-powered, mechanically-operated version of a regular loom for weaving. Britain also had the spinning frame that could produce stronger threads for yarns at a faster rate.

Meanwhile the stories of what these machines could do excited envy in other countries. Americans were struggling to improve the old hand loom, found in every house, and to make some sort of a spinning machine to replace the spinning wheel by which one thread at a time was laboriously spun.

American Failures with Textile Machinery and the American Textile Industry Flounders

In 1786, in Massachusetts, two Scotch immigrants, who claimed to be familiar with Richard Arkwright’s British-made spinning frame, were employed to design and build spinning machines for the mass production of yarn. The inventors were encouraged by the U.S. government and assisted with grants of money. The resulting machines, operated by horse power, were crude, and the textiles produced irregular and unsatisfactory.

In Providence, Rhode Island another company tried to build spinning machines with thirty-two spindles. They worked badly and all attempts to run them by water-power failed. In 1790, the faulty machines were sold to Moses Brown of Pawtucket. Brown and his partner, William Almy, employed enough hand-loom weavers to produce eight thousand yards of cloth a year by hand. Brown needed working spinning machinery, to provide his weavers with more yarn, however, the machines he bought were lemons. In 1790, there was not a single successful power-spinner in the United States.

How Did the Textile Revolution Finally Happen in the United States?

The textile industry was founded by the work and importance of the following businessmen, inventors, and inventions:

Samuel Slater and Mills
Samuel Slater has been called both the “Father of American Industry” and the “Founder of the American Industrial Revolution.” Slater built several successful cotton mills in New England and established the town of Slatersville, Rhode Island.

Francis Cabot Lowell and Power Looms
Francis Cabot Lowell was an American businessman and the founder of the world’s first textile mill. Together with inventor Paul Moody, Lowell created a more efficient power loom and a spinning apparatus.

Elias Howe and Sewing Machines
Before the invention of the sewing machine, most sewing was done by individuals in their homes, however, many people offered services as tailors or seamstresses in small shops where wages were very low. One inventor was struggling to put into metal an idea to lighten the toil of those who lived by the needle.

Ready-Made Clothing

It was not until after the power-driven sewing machine was invented, that factory production of clothes and shoes on a large scale occurred. Before sewing machines, nearly all clothing was local and hand-sewn, there were tailors and seamstresses in most towns that could make individual items of clothing for customers.

About 1831, George Opdyke (later Mayor of New York) began the small-scale manufacture of ready-made clothing, which he stocked and sold largely through a store in New Orleans. Opdyke was one of the first American merchants to do so. But it was not until after the power-driven sewing machine was invented, that factory production of clothes on a large scale occurred. Since then the clothing industry has grown.

Ready-Made Shoes

The Singer machine of 1851 was strong enough to sew leather and was adopted by shoemakers. These shoemakers were found chiefly in Massachusetts, and they had traditions reaching back at least to Philip Kertland, a famous shoemaker (circa 1636) who taught many apprentices. Even in the early days before machinery, division of labor was the rule in the shops of Massachusetts. One workman cut the leather, often tanned on the premises; another sewed the uppers together, while another sewed on the soles. Wooden pegs were invented in 1811 and came into common use about 1815 for the cheaper grades of shoes: Soon the practice of sending out the uppers to be done by women in their own homes became common. These women were wretchedly paid, and when the sewing machine came to do the work better than it could be done by hand, the practice of “putting out” work gradually declined.

That variation of the sewing machine which was to do the more difficult work of sewing the sole to the upper was the invention of a mere boy, Lyman Blake. The first model, completed in 1858, was imperfect, but Lyman Blake was able to interest Gordon McKay, of Boston, and three years of patient experimentation and large expenditure followed. The McKay sole-sewing machine, which they produced, came into use, and for twenty-one years was used almost universally both in the United States and Great Britain. But this, like all the other useful inventions, was in time enlarged and greatly improved, and hundreds of other inventions have been made in the shoe industry. There are machines to split leather, to make the thickness absolutely uniform, to sew the uppers, to insert eyelets, to cut out heel tops, and many more. In fact, division of labor has been carried farther in the making of shoes than in most industries, for there about three hundred separate operations in making a pair of shoes.

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