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What is Cotton? - The History of Cotton Weaving and Fabric

What is Cotton? - The History of Cotton Weaving and Fabric

Cotton grows in several places on the planet, but it has been familiar, cultivated, and used by different communities across the globe for centuries. Cotton is one of the most ancient textiles still widely used today and outside of garments, is a popular textile for curtains, blinds and soft furnishings. Historians, however, are unsure when humans began using it as a textile.


According to historians and scientists, cloth slices or written notes regarding cotton fibre dating back to 7,000 years. The scientists made the most ancient discovery in a Mexican cave, where they found cotton bits and pieces almost 7,000 years old. These remains were much like the ones cultivated in the U.S.A. today.


Archaeologists have even unearthed cloth remains in the Indus Valley, now in Pakistan, which belonged to 3000 B.C, where it was weaved and spun into fabric. At the same time, even Egypt, India, Peru, and China were also making cotton clothes.


In 1500 B.C., a Hindu Rig-Veda hymn referred cotton as threads in the loom. Cotton was first cultivated in India although it grew copiously in other parts of the world. It was only in 800 A.D when the cotton cloth entered Europe through the Arab merchants.


Upon discovering America in 1492, Columbus noticed cultivation of cotton in the Bahamas. By 1500, the plant was recognised throughout the world.



From 14th Century until the Industrial Revolution

By the 14th century, the farmers in the Mediterranean region were into cotton cultivation. The cultivated cotton fibre was then shipped to the Netherlands for spinning and weaving. In the early 1500s, cotton was cultivated by Native Americans. This was evident from the findings of the Coronado voyage during 1540-42. It is believed that the Spaniards planted cotton crops in 1556 in Florida and later in 1607 in Virginia. By 1616, colonists were found cultivating the plant in Virginia along the James River.


In the early 1700s during the peak of British Empire in England, it was illegal to manufacture or import cotton clothes. This law was implemented for protecting the robust wool and sheep industry of the British at that time. As a result, the cotton industry could not expand to the U.S. colonies although it was already introduced by the early 1600’s in North America.


It was only in 1730 that cotton was spun by machine first, in England. The early and late innovations in U.S along with the industrial revolution in England made its way to the vital reputation of cotton today, across the globe.


Before the onset of industrial revolution during the 1760s, production of textile was confined to the cottage industry where wool and flax fibres were used. A standard weaving unit consisted of a handloom run by an individual with the help of his boy, while his consort and other women used to make adequate yarn for that loom.


This know-how has existed for several centuries, which involve manual methods to fulfil the clothing needs adequately. However, the issue started when cotton made its way to imports, which disrupted the balance of supply and demand.


A home-based cotton industry flourished, which used raw materials imported from the colonies. Spinning and weaving were necessary for producing cotton goods from raw materials. This production happened in home-based, cottage industries.


Two spinning systems were in place, which was the Simple wheel employing an irregular process and the Saxony wheel as a more refined option with a continuous process wherein a differential spindle and flyer was droved with a heck escorting the thread onto the bobbin. Through the spinning wheel, the process of spinning was quite slow and that the weavers were stuck by the deficiency of thread.


Both these wheels were proven insufficient in producing enough threads for looms once John Kay introduced the flying shuttle in 1733. The introduction of flying shuttle increased the productivity of the loom twice.



Before the flying shuttle, weaving was restricted up to the maximum of the body’s width, across the arms. This is because it was essential to pass the shuttle to and fro and from hand to hand. However, with the shuttle, the width of cotton cloth increased, and that weaving of thread occurred at a faster rate.


This also increased the speed of generating just a weaver at a loom. However, resistance by workers to the apparent job threat delayed the extensive use of this technology, although the higher production rate resulted in a boosted demand for spun cotton.


In 1738, Lewis Paul and John Wyatt patented the Roller Spinning machine along with the flyer-n-bobbin mechanism for pulling wool to the thickness that is evener. Lewis Paul was a Huguenot weaver whose community was evicted from France on the grounds of religious persecution. He then resided in Birmingham where along with John Wyatt this new spinner came up.


With the two sets of rollers having different speeds, it became quick and efficient to twist and spun yarn. Well, this mechanism was later utilised in the first mill of cotton spinning during the Industrial Revolution.


In 1748, Lewis Paul came up with the carding machine driven by hand. In this unit, a cover of wire slips was positioned around a card, after which it was enfolded around a cylinder. This mechanism was developed and improved later by Samuel Crompton and Richard Arkwright.


1758, Lewis and John improved their machine and patented that too. Richard Arkwright later used it for his water frame model.



The textile industry started to benefit from some early but unrelated developments. In 1691, a vacuum steam engine was invented by Thomas Savery. However, this design was unsafe and was built safely in 1698 by Thomas Newcomen. In 1765, this design was altered by James Watt to come up with an external condenser steam engine. With further modification, Watt came up in 1774 with a separate condenser engine and a rotating condensing engine in 1781. These steam engines were in use by the industry in those days.


Early Inventions Just Before the Industrial Revolution

In the mid-18th century, innovations by artisans led to more productive results. However, many inventions were laid before it. During the latter half of the 17th century, it became possible to import cotton goods from India. Cotton became the most popular and preferred textile over other fabrics such as wool, silk, sheep, and fustian. Cotton was ideal fo


In 1761, the Duke of Bridgewater’s canal linking the coal fields of Worsley to Manchester was opened. In 1762, the Soho Foundry engineering works were opened in Birmingham. Both these events paved the way for cotton mill construction, thus shifting the significance from home-based or cottage industry production. In 1764, the first water-powered mill as Thorp Mill was set up at Royton, Lancashire, England for carding cotton.


During the 1760’s, the production of thread saw a leap with the invention of Spinning Jenny in 1764 by James Hargreaves. The introduction of rolling spinner increased weaving speed, but this resulted in a new issue, as it needed three spinners to sustain one weaver. Well, this problem was solved with the Spinning Jenny that could spin eight cotton yarn threads rather than only one of the spinning wheel. This increased the thread production by eightfold.


Well, the new process of spinning and weaving was carried out at home. This is perhaps because the jenny and shuttle were compact and small enough to be used in little places.


In the decade’s end, Richard Arkwright came up with the Water Frame. In 1769, Richard Arkwright who was a wig maker saw that the aforementioned improvements could not fulfil the cloth demand via the handloom weavers. Thus, he designed a larger spinning unit, which was termed as the Water Frame. It was named so, as it required energy from a watermill. Because it was too big, this new machine was used only in factories.


This consequently resulted in splitting up the family involved in producing woven cloth. The family’s women as the traditional spinners had to work in factories and leave their cottages. These factories were built in regions where fast flowing water was easily accessible and usable. Due to the appearance of big watermills, these early water-powered factories were termed as mills and were mainly seen in hilly regions of Britain where water was copious.


Men and women were split up for the first time. While women left home daily to work in the factory to generate yarn for their men, men remained at home for weaving the same yarn into cloth. However, the Water Frame model significantly improved the thread’s quality. This made the cotton industry independent of line or wool to produce the warp.


In 1771, the first spinning mill of Richard Arkwright, the Cromford Mill, was built in Derbyshire and contained the water frame. This new unit was made from the spinning frame that he had developed with another John Kay. This time, water wheels drove the textile machinery. This mill is conserved as a division of the Derwent Valley Mills. After procuring protection for his investment against disruptive workers and industrial, Richard expanded his operations with his new model to other parts of the country.


In 1775, Matthew Boulton along with the Scottish engineer James Watt came up with a commercial as well as more efficient steam engine featuring a separate condenser.


Soon after the introduction of Water Frame, Spinning Mule was introduced in 1779 by Samuel Crompton who did so by merging the principals of the Water Frame and Spinning Jenny. This newer unit offered even finer and tougher cotton threads than the Water Frame.



As a mill worker, Samuel Crompton knew how to use the Spinning Jenny. While using it, he found that the thread was not strong due to which it used to break frequently. This inspired him to design a new unit, the Spinning Mule that inherited the best feature of both the worlds: Water Frame and Spinning Jenny. This new unit generated a very even as well as fine thread, which was appropriate for spinning yarns to produce muslin.


However, due to poverty, Crompton could not patent his invention and was finally tricked by a few manufacturers for opening the secret of his new machine. The Spinning Mule was, thus, swiftly adopted by the textile industry. In early 1792, a furious mob of spinners damaged all mules in the Grimshaw’s factory in Manchester.


These inventions brought total transformation for the weavers who felt it tough to sustain with the thread supply. In 1770, the Flying Shuttle loom, the invention of 1734, doubled the productivity of weavers and was extensively in use. Together with the Spinning Frame, this innovative loom was utilised in factories of Scotland, Lancashire, and Derbyshire.


By 1780, two feasible hand-operated spinners were used widely, which could be adapted quickly to be powered by water. Because the early mules were fine for generating yarn for muslin, they were called the muslin or the Hall i’ th’ Wood wheel.


In 1783, another mill was constructed at Shudehill in Manchester, at the uppermost point in the city but far from the river. This mill used a steam engine ran by a water wheel of 30 ft diameter. Between the two storage ponds, water from one went to the other, thus moving the wheel. A pump driven by steam brought the water back to the higher reservoir.


In 1784, power loom invented by Edmund Cartwright who also came up with a prototype in the subsequent year. After visiting the Arkwright’s mill in 1784, he was sure to come up with similar technology for helping to weave. In 1785, his first version of his power loom was patented and constructed a factory in Doncaster.


The power loom took not time in being the part of the weaving industry. Its design was further changed by William Horrocks. The loom took ten years to become a perfect model by William Horrocks. Later, Henry Cort introduced iron machines to replace the wooden machines. These new ones required coal, and not charcoal, to generate steam.


In several factories, the power loom and Spinning Mule was used together. Although not a businessmen, Cartwright patented three inventions: The Wool-combing machine in 1789, an alcohol-based steam engine, and the rope making machine in 1797.


In 1789, Samuel Slater introduced textile machinery design in America. During 1790s John Marshall in his mill in Leeds and other industrialists worked on methods to apply a few techniques. These techniques proved quite successful in cotton as compared to other materials like flax.


In 1793, the cotton gin was introduced by the American Eli Whitney who was a Massachusetts native. This gin easily removed stubborn cottonseeds and made extraction of cotton from the plant more manageable. The gin, a short-term for engine, used to work tenfold faster than by hand.


Cotton Gin on display at the Eli Whitney Museum, Hamden, Connecticut


Through the gin, it became possible to make large quantities of cotton available to the fast-growing textile industry. With this machine, the cotton cultivators could meet the demand of raw materials even from the Atlantic. Lint volume increased from 1 to 50 lbs. per worker per day. Up to this time, the separation process was performed by hand.


In 1803, the dressing frame was invented by William Radcliffe, which enabled power looms to run continuously.


With the Spinning Mule, Cartwright Loom, and the Boulton & Watt engine, the onset of a mechanised textile industry was not far away. While there were no major inventions after these pieces, a non-stop improvement in technology was evident. The usage of water power to run mills was supported by water pumps driven by steam and then outmoded entirely by steam engines.


In 1804, Joseph Marie Jacquard introduced a device to weave complex designs, with the help of a punched card. In 1830, Richard Roberts made the first loom featuring a cast-iron frame using a 1822 patent, which is known as the Roberts Loom. In 1842, the Lancashire Loom was set up as a semi-automatic power loom. While it was self-acting, it was finally halted for recharging empty shuttles.


In the same year, Richard Roberts gained exclusive rights for the first self-acting mule. A few years back the mule spinners strike inspired for research into the issue of giving power to the mule’s winding stroke. The pull while spinning was aided by power, but the wind’s push was manually performed by the spinner. Before 1830, a spinner used to run a partially powered mule having not more than 400 spindles after which self-acting mules featuring 1300 spindles were on track.


The latter technology resulted in considerable savings. In the early 18th century, a worker spinning cotton with a manually spinning wheel took over 50,000 hours to spin cotton weighing 100 lbs. However, by the 1790s, it took only 300 hours to spin the same quantity via mule and only 135 hours via a self-acting mule.


By the early 19th century, cloth production shifted to factories, especially for spinning, while the weaving sector took time. By the 1820s, all wool and cotton were spun in mills.


By the early 1830s, America also started producing much of world’s cotton.