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The Spinning Jenny

one of the machines that launched the Industrial Revolution and the modern industrial age

Until the 18th century, cloth was manufactured largely by means of what was known as the "putting out" system. A cloth merchant would provide raw wool, cotton, or flax to spinners and weavers, who would then process it into bales of cloth and return it for marketing to the merchant, who would pay them at the current piecework rate. It was a true cottage industry for the most part, as the vast majority of the spinners and weavers worked out of their cottage homes.

the spinning of linen in an Irish cottage

James Hargreaves (ca. 1722-1778), who lived in the village of Standhill, Lancashire, England, was one of those cottage weavers who owned his own spinning wheel and loom. According to his own story, the idea for the spinning jenny came about in 1764, when his daughter Jenny tipped over a spinning wheel by accident and the spindle continued to revolve. It made Hargreaves think that a whole line of spindles could be worked off one wheel.

Hargreaves built his first model of the jenny using eight spindles onto which the thread was spun from a corresponding set of rovings. All eight threads could then be spun by the muscle power of one person. The jenny's primary limitation was that the thread it produced was coarse and lacked a certain degree of strength, making it suitable only for the filling or weft, the threads woven across the warp. He began to build his machines for more general sale, and gradually improved them to the point where each could work up to 30 spindles. After a group of local weavers broke into his house and smashed all of his machines, Hargreaves moved to Nottingham and established a partnership with a businessman. The two constructed a small mill which used jennies to spin hosiers' yarn. Unfortunately, Hargreaves delayed in applying for a patent for his spinning jenny, and did not get it patented until 1770. Although he did make money on his invention, his resulting fortune was far less than it could have been.

spinning jenny

In 1779, Samuel Crompton invented the spinning mule, an adaptation of Hargreaves' jenny. Crompton's machine produced yarn of a tensile quality matching that produced by hand spinning. The mule also applied some of the principles of the water frame developed by Richard Arkwright some 10 years earlier. One operator on the mule could spin up to 1,000 threads. Like Hargreaves, Crompton failed to profit from his invention. Although there were 360 mills using the spinning mule by 1812, most manufacturers neglected to honor guarantees given to him. A parliamentary grant of 5,000 went some way toward compensating him, but he sank most of that money into business ventures that failed.

Richard Arkwright

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This page was last updated on January 14, 2017.