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The Lancashire cotton industry owes it existence mainly to the engineers who evolved the ingenious machines that carry out the complicated operations of spinning and weaving formerly done by hand


ROVING FRAMES effect the last stage in the combining and drawing out of the weak strands of cotton

THE inventive genius of four men created the machines on which the cotton industry was founded. Before the coming of the machines the spinning used to be done on the spinning wheels by the women whose husbands wove the thread on the wooden looms set up in the kitchens.

The first step in the revolution was the invention of the fly shuttle by John Kay in 1733. Born in the neighbourhood of Bury, Lancashire, in 1704, Kay was a farmer’s son whose occupation in his youth was to make reeds for weavers. Cotton spinning and weaving were going on in all the cottages round about, and the time and toil entailed in weaving so impressed themselves on his mind that he puzzled his brains to see if he could bring about an improvement.

ROVING FRAMES effect the last stage in the combining and drawing out of the weak strands of cotton before they go to be spun into strong yarn either on the mule or on the ring-frame spinning machine. The hairpin-shaped parts on the spindles in front revolve at a high speed and twist the strands as they wind them on to bobbins.

He patented a new shuttle when he was 29 years old. Where the old shuttle always needed both hands to work it, and often required two men, Kay’s shuttle could be manipulated with one hand. This was so big an advantage that a weaver’s output was easily doubled. The shuttle could be sent flying back and forth so rapidly from one side of the loom to the other that it soon became known as the fly shuttle.

The manufacturers instead of gladly paying Kay a royalty, combined against him and forced him to fight legal actions which, although he won them, ruined him because of the expense entailed. The very weavers whom he had toiled to benefit regarded him as a menace to their livelihoods. They thought that, as his shuttle enabled one man to do the work of two, there would soon be no work for half their number; so they gathered in their fury and wrecked his weaving sheds and everything in his house. Kay himself managed to escape the vengeance of the mob and get away to Paris, where he died many years later in absolute poverty.

Unhappily, James Hargreaves, the second of these Lancashire inventors, met with no better treatment. Lacking education, he toiled in a cotton mill in Blackburn as a boy, while the men round him used to struggle to comb the cotton fibres straight by hand. In a flash of inspiration he visualized a roller with hundreds of thousands of pinpoints tearing their way through the tangle of cotton and coaxing the fibres to lie in the same direction so that they could be spun easily. He made his roller, and the first carding machine was born. The factory which employed him, took his invention and made full use of it without paying Hargreaves any more than his usual wages. The invention of the carding machine in 1760. was another big step forward in the cotton industry.

Later on, a trifling mishap inspired Hargreaves to invent the spinning jenny, which spun eight threads at once in place of the usual single thread. One day he accidentally knocked his wife’s spinning wheel on to the floor. As it lay there spinning he realized that if he set a number of spindles upright upon a wheel he might spin a number of threads at a single operation. More thread would enable him to weave more cloth, which would bring in more money and make life a great deal easier.

The First Spinning Jenny

Without delay he selected some wood and began to shape it with saw, chisel and plane into the first epoch-making spinning jenny. Not a word did he breathe to a soul, but when it was completed he set it up for a test. He and his wife were overjoyed at the result. The spinning jenny acted exactly as Hargreaves had expected; so they worked in secret to turn out all the thread and cloth they could. Their output was so great that the neighbours began to ask one another how the couple managed to accomplish it. They grew jealous of the money Hargreaves was earning, began to say spiteful things and utter threats, until the whole of Blackburn, which was then a town of 5,000 people, and the villages round about came to regard Hargreaves as a public enemy instead of a public benefactor.

The bad feeling culminated in a riot, which led to the rioters smashing up the spinning jennies of Hargreaves, after which the inflamed spinners and weavers invaded the factory and destroyed everything it contained.

While Hargreaves was struggling over his inventions, Samuel Crompton, the third outstanding genius of the cotton industry, was fighting to eliminate another of the drawbacks of cotton spinning. Living with his mother in a gloomy old mansion on the outskirts of Bolton, he was called upon after school hours to help to spin the cotton yarn which she wove into quilting.

The continual breaking of the thread in the process of spinning proved so irksome to him that he began to puzzle out a way to overcome the nuisance. Slowly a machine began to take shape in his mind.

Crompton toiled away secretly in the night struggling to create his machine, afraid to tell anybody what he was striving to do. He knew the temper of the people and their attitude to new inventions; he realized that a hint of what he was about might lead to an outburst that would destroy his machine and endanger his life.

By the laborious method of trial and error, relying solely on his own patience and genius, he succeeded in 1779, after five years of effort, in making his machine function as he desired. He called it a mule, because it was a cross between two earlier machines. It had a moving carriage which relieved the tension on the thread as it was being spun and largely obviated the breakages.

Richard Arkwright, the fourth Lancashire genius who helped to found the cotton industry, was born in Preston two days before Christmas 1732. The thirteenth child of poor parents, he was quite illiterate, but he was endowed with plenty of grit. Wherever he went the talk was of spinning and weaving. It was necessary in those days to import Irish linen thread to be used as warp, because the cotton thread spun by the jenny was too weak to be used for the purpose. The idea came into his mind that by using rollers such as he had seen in an ironworks, he might be able to make a spinning frame that would produce a thread strong enough to be used for warp as well as weft.

With the help of a clockmaker and blacksmith and toolmaker Arkwright created his first model, which he set up in the school house at Preston. All the money he could scrape together went into the making of his machine, which he patented in 1769. It made a great noise, but it worked as he expected. By this time he was almost in rags, but he had unbounded faith in his machine. At the first signs of opposition on the part of millowners and millhands he removed his spinning frame to Nottingham, where he started a factory in which he used horses to supply the power.

It needed only the genius of Edmund Cartwright, the parson, poet and inventor, to apply steam power to weaving, and Lancashire was equipped to spin and weave for the world.

As in Crompton’s day, so to-day the experts admit that mule spinning still produces the finest yarn of all. To see the modern mules at work, as in the Ross Spinning Mills at Bacup, is one of the many impressive sights of Lancashire. The nine spindles on the original mule have been increased more than a hundredfold. Each of the mules at these mills spins on 1,136 spindles at the same time.

How the Mules Work

On the upright back frame of the mule the cops with the rovings are set up. The cops resemble giant reels and the rovings are the great lengths into which the cotton has been drawn to prepare it for the spinning process. At this stage the cotton fibres are all lying lengthwise, but as there is no twist in them, and there is thus nothing uniting them to give them strength, the rovings cling together so lightly that they are easily broken.

In these mules two rovings are spun into one thread. The rovings, unwinding from the bobbins, pass down between three steel rollers which, increase the length and fineness of the rovings in an ingenious manner. The back two pairs of rollers work at a certain uniform speed, but the front roller works faster than the back rollers. Thus the front roller drags the rovings through at a

faster rate than the back rollers will allow them to pass; so the rovings are being continually stretched or drawn out between one roller and the other, before they are guided together to form the thread which is attached to the bobbin on the moving frame of the mule.

The moving frame, running on metal wheels, starts close against the back frame and moves away from it a distance of 64 in. While it is running out, all the spindles in the frame are spinning and putting the twist into the thread which remains at the top of the spindle. The tops of the spindles themselves resemble thousands of knitting needles set up in a row.

REPLICA OF THE MULE SPINNING FRAME, invented by Samuel Crompton.

REPLICA OF THE MULE SPINNING FRAME, invented in 1774-79 by Samuel Crompton. His invention was called a mule because it was a cross between two earlier machines. The modern mule, though the same in principle, is much more elaborate. It is used for spinning the finer sorts of cotton yarn and needs skilled attention. The other type of spinning machine in common use is the ring-frame machine. This is continuous in action, the mule being intermittent. It is used to make the less fine yarns and is looked after by women or girls.

As the frame starts to move in, a fine wire rod, supported on curved arms, that has remained above the thread up to this moment, is moved down automatically by the levers. As it moves it pushes down to the tops of the bobbins all the thousand odd threads that have been spun while the carriage was moving outwards. Then as the carriage moves inwards the bobbins continue to spin round and wind up the 64 in. length of cotton thread that has just been spun. Directly the moving carriage reaches the back frame, the rod which has kept the thread down so that it can be wound on the bobbins is automatically raised, and another rod set below the thread rises into position and pushes the thread to the top of the spindles again, holding it there until the carriage has moved away to its limit and the spindles have spun another 64 in. of yarn or thread.

The mules, which are about 40 feet wide, are set up in pairs that extend the full width of the mill, another pair being set up facing them, so that the carriages of each pair, in moving away from the frames, run inward toward the centre, where they come to a stop about a foot apart. An overseer and two assistants suffice to tend four mules, and all day long they walk up and down between them, following the carriages in and out to piece up each broken thread they see, walking in a series of zigzags. Up and down and to and fro they pass, observing 4,500 flashing spindles, where the threads lengthen and recede, detecting a broken thread in an instant and joining the broken end by slipping it under the wooden rollers with movements almost as automatic and skilful as those of the machines.

The atmosphere resembles that of a tropical palm-house and soon brings the beads of perspiration to the brow of the stranger. But the male spinners get used to it. Summer and winter, they go about their work lightly clad, walking up and down the oil-soaked floors in bare feet to avoid slipping. This continuous exercise in a torrid atmosphere makes them lithe and wiry, without an ounce of superfluous fat on their bodies.

When the spindles are full the time comes for doffing off, that is, removing the full spindles and fitting on a new lot of paper cartridges round which more thread can be wound. The men doff off at breakneck speed. The process resolves itself into little more than one movement of the right hand, which grasps the full cop to sweep it from the spindle to the left arm. The full cops are piled on the left arm until no more can be carried; then they are deposited in baskets.

Testing the Samples

To avoid the time that would be lost in placing each new cartridge individually upon the ends of the spindle, an ingenious machine is brought into use. It is honeycombed with holes in which the empty cartridges are placed, and has a series of tubes that move beneath the holes across the tray from back to front, one row at a time. The ends of the tubes are designed to fit easily over the ends of the spindles, and one deft movement, with a pressure on the handles, sends the cartridges sliding down to the bottom of the spindles. Those two movements suffice to recharge fifteen spindles at one operation.

In the Wye Mill at Shaw, in Lancashire, the whole process of spinning can be seen from the time the cotton leaves the bales until it becomes the finished thread. The bales of cotton arrive from America, from Egypt and the Sudan and from other parts of the world. Before an ounce of cotton is used, an armful is first removed from the bale and taken to the testing room. Along one side of this room is a wide, black shelf or counter directly under the windows. Here the samples of cotton from the various bales are placed in separate heaps, which are numbered and tested by the experts.

AUTOMATIC COTTON LOOMS are among the most amazing machines in industry

AUTOMATIC LOOMS are among the most amazing machines in industry. They stop if a thread breaks, and the shuttle is automatically recharged with a full cop, or reel, from the wheel-shaped magazine seen to the right of each loom. The shuttle, too, is automatically threaded.

Having taken a double handful of cotton between two fists, held side by side close together, the experts lever the hands apart by pressing on the thumbs. This serves to draw the fibres of cotton in one direction, after which a tuft of cotton is drawn by the thumb and finger of the right hand from the cotton protruding from the left fist. A glance indicates whether the fibres are too short or whether they are up to standard length. The expert can tell by the way the cotton breaks between the hands whether it is suitable or not. A dragging movement is produced by the longer staples (fibres), whereas the short fibres break off at once. After the cotton has been tested, it has to be blended according to the length of staple and the kind of thread that is wanted - an art that calls for great skill and experience.

The bales of cotton, weighing 480 lb. each, are protected by sacking and bound with steel bands, which the men cut with an axe. Stripped of the sacking, the bale is wheeled to the opening and mixing room, where the men take the cotton in layers from the bales and throw it upon the moving lattice that feeds the first machine, known as the cotton bale breaker and opener. This machine is made up of wooden strips equipped with multitudes of steel points, resembling the points of French nails, which tear open the lumps of cotton, while the dirt drops through between the cleaning bars.

The cotton then passes through two hopper feeders, and is carried to a revolving cylinder studded with so many steel points that it is known as the porcupine cylinder. Here the cotton is whirled round, while the steel points disentangle and loosen it a little more. After this it is carried by forced draught into another cylinder named the Crighton opener, which continues the process of loosening the cotton and removing the dirt.

Drawing and Doubling

Swept by an air current into the exhaust opener, the cotton moves between various wire cages and steel rollers to the beater, which revolves at 950 revolutions a minute to rid it of further dirt. Travelling on between more wire cages and rollers, the cotton comes out in a wide, thick layer with the fibres all mixed up and pointing in every possible direction. This layer moves on in an endless stream between two big steel rollers which compress it into a lap, or layer of cotton, about half an inch thick and four feet wide. This is wound up in a roll. The machines seem to be more than human in the way they work. They are set to produce a lap of so many ounces of cotton to the yard. When the correct weight of cotton is in one of the machines, all further cotton is excluded until that cotton is dealt with. The machine then automatically opens to allow more cotton to pass in.

The weight of the cotton in the machine presses on certain levers that are operated in conjunction with two conical drums, one drum working with the small end up and the other working with the small end down. As the belts move up and down these cones, the openings through which the cotton passes in and out are closed or opened to a greater or lesser degree. In this way the amount of cotton in the machine can be regulated.

In a similar way, directly the roll of lap reaches a certain size it touches a lever which stops the machine. The operator then thrusts an iron bar inside the hollow steel bar on which the lap is wound, lifts out the roll of lap, slips out the big steel bar and replaces it in the machine ready for the next roll. He is then able with the thin iron bar through its centre to handle the lap with ease.

Having passed through another machine called the finisher scutcher, in which the fibres are still further cleaned and loosened, the lap is formed into another roll, which is placed upright on the lap bogie with half a dozen similar rolls and wheeled along its rail to the carding room.

SETTING UP THE WARP IN A LOOMThe rolls of lap feeding the carding machine are drawn into a big drum studded inside with myriads of wire points. A great cylinder studded with myriads of wire points revolves in the drum so that the wire points on the cylinder move between the wire points on the drum and comb the cotton fibres continually in one direction, thus forcing them to lie lengthwise side by side. Having passed between more rollers equipped with more steel# points, the cotton is stripped from the last roller by a comb and streams out in a filmy sheet, to be drawn in from the sides toward the centre, fan-shape, where it is concentrated in a continuous length, about an inch wide, known as a sliver. This passes through the hole of a coiler and coils round round in a can about three feet high.

SETTING UP THE WARP IN A LOOM. The operator passes the ends or threads through the reed, which is a comb-like frame used to separate them. He uses the reed hook, seen in his left hand, to puli the threads through the slits between the wires of the reed. This task demands keen eyes and sure hands, so closely are the wires set together.

The slivers pass into the drawing frame to undergo the process of drawing and doubling. Six slivers are passed between one set of small steel rollers, and six slivers between the other set. The slivers are then drawn out, as in the mule spinning process, and joined together to form one length of cotton. From the drawing frame the cotton passes to the slubbing frame in which it receives a slight twist. Two of these ends, as they are termed in the mill, are again combined and drawn out to a greater length on the intermediate frame, which imparts to the ends a little more twist. After this they go to the roving frame, where two ends are again combined and drawn to a greater length and fineness and twisted a little more to prepare for spinning. The number of times the ends are combined varies according to the thread that is to be spun, and sometimes it takes the slivers from 1,196 cans to form one thread of finished yarn.

The Wye Mill is devoted solely to ring spinning, which is the type of spinning mostly practised in other countries. One of the main advantages of ring spinning is that it is possible to house twice as many ring spinning frames as mules on the same floor. The ring spinning frame has no moving carriage that demands a space of 64 in. in which to move backwards and forwards. In ring spinning two rovings are spun continuously upon the bobbins with a space of only 10 in. between the cotton ends and the tops of the bobbins. Thus 10 in. of thread are being twisted all the time and wound upon the bobbins in their orderly ranks below. The yarn is stronger than that from the mule, and the number of twists to the inch may be sixty-four or any other number, according to the purpose for which the yarn may be required.

At the top of each bobbin is a metal ring, of about 1½ in. diameter, and T-shaped in section. Over the edge of this ring is fitted a tiny ring which has split ends. This small ring fits over the top of the bigger ring in the same way as pincers meet over the top of a nail. If we drove a number of nails in a circle partly into a plank so that the heads touched one another, and imagined the nippers of the pincers moving round and round the circle, we should have a good idea of how ring spinning is done.

Moisture-Conditioned Yarn

The end of the thread is slipped under the split end of this tiny travelling ring, which flashes round and round the top of the fixed ring so fast that the eye cannot detect it, although the passage of the ring can be felt with the tip of the finger. The ring may flash round 8,000 times a minute, and as it goes round and round it imparts the twist that turns the ends into cotton yarn.

If the yarn be unwound at this stage it is inclined to twist up; so it is conditioned by placing the bobbins on long trays and covering them for twenty-four hours with damp cloths, from which the spun cotton absorbs moisture. The Board of Trade has fixed the standard of absorption at 8 per cent to prevent manufacturers from making cotton too wet and thus selling to the weavers, who buy the yarn by weight, too small a proportion of spun yarn and too big a proportion of moisture.

In the next stage the bobbins of yarn are placed in a creel, which is a tall wooden frame of a wedge shape, or the shape of a V lying on its side. The ends are wound from the bobbins in the creel upon a big roller to form the warp of the cloth, which, assuming it is to be 32 in. wide, may have 640 ends, or twenty to the inch. It is quite common to receive an order from the weavers for 20,000 yards of warp, which runs to a length of over eleven miles.

The loss that would be entailed if one thread broke without the operator noticing it can be imagined; but this has been made impossible in a way that displays a touch of genius in its very simplicity. A split pin is placed upon each thread immediately above the point where the threads cross the back rollers of the machine. The threads, while they remain at tension, suspend these split pins in a long line across the back rollers. If one thread breaks, it allows the split pin to fall between the rollers which give a jerk against a spring that stops the machine by throwing it out of gear.

IN THE COMBING MACHINE, the ropes of cotton are run together

IN THE COMBING MACHINE, the ropes of cotton which have been formed in the carding machine, and are known as slivers, are run together a number at a time to insure a parallel arrangement of the fibres of cotton, to mix them thoroughly and to produce slivers of uniform length. The next stage is carried out in the machines seen below.

If the buyer desires the warp to be marked off in lengths of 100 yards, the machine is set to stop at every hundred yards, so that the operator can thread a double tape across the warp to indicate to the buyer that it marks another length. Should the buyer wish to dye one length red and the next blue and so on, he can do it without going to the trouble of measuring the material all over again.

In the great Manchester warehouses, where materials are packed and baled in powerful hydraulic presses, machines may be seen measuring and folding material into yard lengths. With expensive materials such as velvets they will automatically clip into the selvedge a tiny disk that marks every yard with its number. A pointer revolving round a dial indicates to the operator the number of yards measured off.

In Brooksbottoms Mill at Summerseat, near Bury, 250,000 yards of cloth are woven every week. The first step in weaving is to pass the warp through a bath of hot size that is made from sago and ordinary flour. The threads are then wound over an enormous metal drum in which steam is, continually circulating to keep it hot enough to dry the size upon the threads. As they emerge from the other end of the machine they are passed between dividing rods. Alternate threads running under and over the rod keep each thread separate and prevent it from sticking to its neighbour. They are then wound up on the weaver’s beam.

The next process calls for great skill on the part of the operators, who must have quick fingers, a light touch and keen eyes. Each end or thread is first passed through a cotton eye, known as the heald eye. When this task is completed, the ends must be drawn through the reed, which is composed of a series of thin metal strips held in a frame that has the same width as the cloth.

Linked with this process is one of the latest wonders of the cotton industry, a machine that can tie knots. The operating part of this machine resembles a tiny duck’s head of polished steel that spins round, opening and closing its beak as it spins. The beak is made of three sections resembling the three middle fingers of the hand, the centre section or finger moving up and down to give the impression of a duck’s beak opening and closing. As it spins, it catches two loose ends in its open beak, the central part of which closes to bring-the ends together.

Uncanny Sureness of Touch

The two threads spiral up the neck and slide over the polished back of the head, slipping down over the beak as the head turns, to complete the tying of the knot.

The skilled operator, pushing the reed hook between the metal strips of the reed, catches up the threads from the heald eyes and draws them down through the reed ; the reed hook flashes up and down rapidly, and each time with an uncanny sureness of touch the operator selects the next aperture in the reed. Even those born with the necessary sure touch and keen eyes must practise assiduously for five or six years before they attain their greatest skill in this difficult craft.

It is not easy to draw single threads through the reed to make the usual straightforward weave, but when a fancy weave demands one thread, then two threads, then one thread, and three threads, the difficulties are increased enormously; yet those engaged on the work seem to do it with the greatest of ease. When the warp passes from their skilled hands it is ready for the loom, in which the shuttle, flying back and forth and laying a length of thread at each passage, completes the weaving of the cloth.

Automatic looms at one time met with some opposition among the Lancashire operatives, in the same way as other important inventions designed to aid and improve the cotton industry. But other countries are using them widely, and Lancashire will doubtless take full advantage of the most up-to-date machinery that the inventors can create.

Noise is inseparable from the cotton industry. The machines give forth a roar that completely deafens the stranger. But Lancashire is used to it. The workers know how to make themselves heard above the clatter. Moreover they have their own system of signs by which they can pass on news from one end of a mill to the other without uttering a word.

Perhaps one of the most startling experiences in a mill is to see a red light suddenly glow over a door and to be plunged without warning into a dead silence. The relief is unbelievable. The red light signifies dinner-time, when all the machines are stopped and the operatives have their midday meal. Then is the time for the visitor to think of the geniuses who created these machines.

THE DRAWING MACHINES carry the preparation of cotton a stage farther

THE DRAWING MACHINES shown in this picture carry the preparation of the cotton a stage farther. The band of slivers from the combing machine is drawn out into a single narrow sliver, again improving parallelism and ensuring uniformity of thickness. In the next process, that of “slubbing”, the slivers are still further drawn out. slightly twisted, and wound on to bobbins which are then transferred to the roving-frames seen in the full-page picture at the top of this page.

[From part 16, published 15 June 1937]

You can read more on “Measurement of Noise”, “The Modern Coal Mine” and “Modern Shoemaking Methods” on this website.

Machinery of the Cotton Mill