The Din of Machines: The Technology of Textile Production
Jamie H. Eves
Windham Textile and History Museum
Sometime around 1880, William E. Barrows, the President and General Manager of the giant Willimantic Linen Company in Willimantic, Connecticut (which despite its name manufactured mostly cotton thread, not linen) published a booklet entitle How We Make Our Thread, intended for “the private use of the [Company’s] work-people.” “If each person engaged in the business of thread making understands what has been done to the cotton before it reaches him, and what will be done after it leaves his hands,” Barrows wrote in the introduction, “the work will be much more intelligently performed.” Although no longer in print, Barrows’s booklet remains a useful primer on the technology of industrial textile production.
When bales and bags of cotton arrived at the train station on Railroad Street in Windham’s factory city of Willimantic, where the Willimantic Linen Company’s mills were located, workers quickly unloaded it and transported it to the mill. There, other workers opened the bales and bags with machines called breakers, then pushed the cotton into other machines called pickers, which picked out stones, sticks, seeds, and other foreign objects.
The cotton came out of the pickers in flat sheets known as lap. Workers rolled the lap and carried it to the carding rooms. Rolls of lap were heavy – they weighed several hundred pounds – and workers usually transported them in large, wheeled carts. Enclosed wooden bridges joined many of the different wings of the mills, making it easier to roll the carts from room to room.
Carding machines had powerful metal brushes. Workers fed the lap into the cards, whose fine metal teeth brushed it so that all the fibers faced the same direction. The cotton came out of the cards in the form of long, thick strands of cotton known as sliver. Carding machines were dangerous: unwary workers sometimes lost fingers or arms in their crushing grip. Until the 1940s, picker and card operators were almost entirely men, as the work generally was considered too strenuous and dangerous for women.
After the cotton was carded, workers ran the sliver through a series of machines – drawing heads, slubbers, roving frames, and jacks – that prepared it for spinning by twisting and folding it. The end result of the twisting and folding was a substance known as roving, which looked a lot like thick yarn, but – because it had yet to be spun – was no where near as strong and could fairly easily be pulled apart by hand. Workers wound the roving onto large bobbins – in Barrows’s time made of a hard wood known as ironwood, but today made of plastic – and took it to the spinning room. There, a mostly female workforce used machines called spinning frames to stretch and twist the cotton until it emerged as thin cords of strong thread. Spinning frames were noisy, like most mill machinery, and workers frequently suffered from hearing loss. Spinning frames also produced copious amounts of cotton lint that, when inhaled, often led to lung diseases.
From the spinning room, the thread usually went to another room to be twisted (combined with several other threads to make a stronger, thicker product; sewing machine thread, for example, was usually six-cord) and prepared for dyeing. In the nineteenth century, thread was dyed in loose skeins in open vats, but in the twentieth century, large, new, efficient sealed pressure vats made it possible to dye thread while it was wound onto special metal spools. Once twisted and dyed, the thread was taken to another location to be mercerized, a finishing process that kept it from fraying, and rewound onto wooden (later plastic, Styrofoam, or cardboard) spools, tubes, cones, or pre-wound sewing machine bobbins for distribution.
In order to maximize profits, textile mills often sought to control as many steps of the manufacturing process as possible. This strategy is known as vertical integration. The American Thread Company (which purchased the Willimantic Linen Company in 1898) owned a township in northern Maine – also named Willimantic – where it harvested paper birch for spools, which it manufactured in sawmills in Milo and Lakeview, Maine. It also had its own print shop, where it printed its own labels and boxes. And it had a machine shop, where skilled machinists crafted replacement parts for the various machines.
How We Make Our Thread ends with the finished thread being boxed and sent to market. But other textile mills in Willimantic and elsewhere in Connecticut took the process further, weaving thread into cloth on water-powered looms. Like pickers, carding machines, and spinning frames, power looms were both noisy and dangerous. Their metal-tipped flying shuttles moved back and forth at around 60 mile per hour. Sometimes they came loose and flew out of the machines, seriously injuring workers.
Once it was woven, the cloth was shipped to sweatshops – usually located in large cities like New York, Boston, Hartford, and Providence – where other workers, most of them women using heavy, noisy industrial-sized sewing machines, cut and stitched it into garments.