The Fascinating Stories of the Historic People Who Built the Textile Industry

Historic People of the Textile Industry
January 30, 2023

Summary Historic People Behind the Textile Industry

James Hargreaves, Jedediah Strutt, and Sir Richard Arkwright were pioneers in the field of textile manufacturing. Robert Hooke predicted that one day we would chemically create a fiber that resembled silk. In 1785, James Watt invented the first steam engine for a cotton mill. Joseph Marie Jacquard, a Frenchman, is credited with the invention of the Jacquard loom. Edmund Cartwright used engine power to improve power looms driven by steam. Jedediah Strutt, an Englishman, invented the knit stocking machine. Samuel Slater was known as “the father of the American cotton textile industry”. Wilkinson Slater built the first cotton mill in the United States. In 1845, Elias Howe invented the sewing machine. Ira Draper improved the fly-shuttle handloom in 1816. E.J. Bevan and Charles F. Cross developed synthetic fibers in 1893–94. John Kay and Doctor Carothers were two of the pioneers who helped create nylon, the first non-cellulose textile fiber. In 1733, John Kay received his first patent for a machine that could twist, card, and worsted. His father owned and operated a wool mill in Colchester, England.

The Fascinating Stories of the Historic People Who Built the Textile Industry

Robert Hooke was an English naturalist who is best known for his work in microscope optics and his discovery of cells. However, Hooke was also ahead of his time in many other ways. In 1664, Hooke prophesied that one day we would chemically create a fiber that resembled silk. And while it would take over 160 years for this prediction to come true, today we know this fiber as rayon.

Hooke’s other predictions included the idea of fossil fuels, the existence of black holes, and the concept of an asteroid belt. While not all of his predictions have come true, Hooke’s impact on science is still felt today.

James Hargreaves was a highly skilled English carpenter and weaver. Between 1754-1768, he realized ways to better spin yarn and created the spinning Jenny – named after his wife – as a result of his inventions. This machine could accommodate up to 100 spindles at a time, hastening the speed at which yarn was spun and lessening production costs. Sadly, his actions caused considerable distress in Nottingham among workers who feared that their jobs were threatened by Hargreaves’s advances. Consequently, his home in Nottingham was set ablaze in 1768 and he had no choice but to flee.

Jedediah Strutt made a groundbreaking advancement that revolutionized the textile industry in 1758. He was responsible for inventing the machine that produced a lacy ribbed fabric, which he then utilized at his manufacturing facility in Derby, England. His invention set off a domino effect of other inventions related to weaving and hosiery production. Strutt’s invention was truly revolutionary.

Sir Richard Arkwright is renowned for his development of the cotton mill, which revolutionized the production of textiles. Before devoting himself to textiles, however, Sir Arkwright worked as a barber and developed a unique method for dyeing hair. He spotted an opportunity for profit by collecting hair from women in Preston and selling it on to wigmakers with a markup. In 1769, Sir Arkwright moved to Nottingham –the center of the cotton industry– and created what is now known as the spinning frame. After establishing patents for carding and roving machines in 1770 and 1771 respectively, he opened England’s first cotton mill in Cromford, Derbyshire. His organizational skills within factory production earned him a knighthood for his accomplishments and cemented him as remembered today as the ‘Father of the Factory System’.

James Watt, a Scottish inventor, successfully applied steam power in 1785 to a cotton mill. This use of steam proved crucial in redefining the technique of bleaching linen and cotton fabric with chlorine. His initial invention of the steam engine occurred in 1769 and is credited with beginning the industrial revolution.

Edmund Cartwright, an English inventor, was the first person to use a power loom driven by a steam engine. He applied a vertical wrap and an engine-driven combing machine for further development. In 1790, Cartwright had 400 working looms in a mill; unfortunately, the same year saw it burned down out of fear of lost work.

Joseph Marie Jacquard, a Frenchman, designed and created the first mechanized loom. His amazing invention was introduced at the Paris Industrial Exposition in 1801. The Jacquard loom not only enabled weavers to produce intricate designs by individually warping each thread of fabric, but it also foreshadowed the advancements of binary encoding. Unfortunately, his invention stirred up a lot of animosity among French weavers who saw it as a threat to their jobs, leading to ongoing mobbing and violence against him. Despite such opposition, Jacquard stayed determined and kept making improvements in his creation before it was eventually destroyed. Sadly, the inventor died in poverty in 1834; yet his legacy is still alive today with his contribution to computer encoding technology. 

Paul Lewis and John Wyatt worked closely together in the 18th century. Together, they collaborated to create a drawing device that used operating rollers to press cotton fibers at two different speeds. The device was patented on June 24, 1738.  On August 30, 1748, they took out a patent on the carding machine they did not invent. Finally, on June 29, 1758, the men applied for and received a patent for a spinning machine.

Samuel Crompton of Firwald, England, invented the mule spinning frame in 1779. a device that encompassed two techniques previously invented by Hargreaves and Arkwright, the spinning Jenny and the spinning frame.

Samuel Slater, an Englishman, was known as “the father of the American cotton textile industry.” His father, William Slater, was a well-known timber merchant and land agent in Derbyshire, England. Jedediah Strutt, a neighbor and family friend, invented the knit stocking machine. As a child, Samuel was greatly influenced by Strutt and spent a lot of time at the Strutt factory in Derbyshire; he began apprenticing there at the age of 14. During his apprenticeship, he learned the art of cotton spinning, became a master machinist, and invented a device to enlarge the bobbin capacity for struts machines. In 1789, he moved to Pawtucket, RI, and selected a site for his mill. With the help of an accomplished blacksmith, Wilkinson Slater built the first cotton mill in the United States. Slater was an inspiration to others, and by 1812, there were 53 cotton factories within 30 miles of Rhode Island.

Elias Howe was an American inventor born in 1819 in Spencer, Massachusetts. In 1845, Elias invented the sewing machine at the age of 26. It could sew 250 lock stitches a minute. He was wise enough to patent this machine. Although there was no interest at first, in 1849, Isaac Singer started manufacturing his sewing machine in the United States. Elias Howe took him to court and fought a lengthy battle to establish his right to collect royalties on all the sewing machines that Singer manufactured, and in 1854 he won his case.

George Otis Draper was an American inventor accredited with several variations of the spindle between 1876 and 1887. Many of his inventions were patented. Ira Draper, his son, founded Draper Co. in Hopedale, Massachusetts. Ira has been credited with having improved the fly-shuttle handloom in 1816. Inventing the looming temple, a moving device that allowed a weaver to handle two looms at a time, in 1818.

English chemists E.J. Bevan and Charles F. Cross collaborated and developed synthetic fibers in 1893–94. They specifically created a way to regenerate cellulose and began the industrial movement to manufacture fibers.

Doctor Carothers, head of the chemical division of E. I. DuPont de Nemours, was a member of the team that invented nylon. From 1928 to 1931, a research program to study polymers was established, with several papers about a new fiber published in the American Chemical Society. In 1938, after extensive research and experimentation, DuPont announced the creation of the first non-cellulose textile fiber, which they called nylon, and commercial production began in Delaware in 1939.

John Kay made some incredible, revolutionary contributions to the textile industry. His father owned and operated a wool mill in Colchester, England. At a young age, John became an excellent machinist and engineer. He was charged with running the mill and making many improvements to the carding machines. John received his first patent at the age of 26 in 1730 for a machine that had the capacity to twist, card, and worsted. In 1733, he received a fly shuttle patent, which some consider his greatest contribution. The fly shuttle was created by affixing an erase board beneath the warp of the loom and placing what was called a shuttle box at each end, with a spindle and a picker on each box. A cord was passed from each picker to a lever in the weaver’s hand, and the weaver pulled the lever and the pick, which is what shuttles or races through the warp threads. Fear of job loss led to a great deal of violence in Colchester. Kay’s home was burned, and he fled to Leeds; however, trouble followed him, and he was nearly killed. He fled again to France, where he died in poverty. His invention was capitalized upon in his absence and brought great prosperity to the mills. John attempted and failed to persuade the English to recognize his patent and pay him for his contributions. Robert Kay inherited his father’s engineering genius, and some of his contributions to the textile industry are still being used in today’s modern textile machinery. His most notable invention, the Dropbox, allowed one weaver to operate several shuttles at the same time on the same loom; these looms came to be called box looms.

Louis Pasteur, a French scientist, made contributions of worldwide importance in the areas of chemistry, medicine, and industry. Pasteur’s most notable discovery was that bacteria spread disease. This discovery was made in 1865 when the silk industry was threatened by a disease called prebrine, which was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of silkworms. Scientists didn’t know what caused the disease, but they did discover that it was caused by a microbe that attacked and killed silkworm eggs, and the disease was eliminated by destroying that germ.

Sir William Henry Perkin, a distinguished Englishman, and chemist produced the first synthetic dye in 1856; it rendered the color mauve and was called mauvine. When he was only 18 years old, he established a dye factory in Freeburg, near London. Perkin’s discovery had a profound effect on the worldwide community of chemists.

That prophecy came 160 years later when Count Hilaire of Chardonnay invented the first synthetic textile fiber, rayon. The development of rayon, the first synthetic textile fiber, was a groundbreaking event led by Count Hilaire of Chardonnay. It marked a milestone in the scientific community and revolutionized fabric production. This new type of fabric was cheaper and more durable than natural fibers like cotton and wool and quickly became hugely popular. Rayon was used in a wide variety of products, from clothing to home furnishings. It was even used in the production of military uniforms during World War II.

References: Jerde, J. (1992). Encyclopedia of textiles. Facts On File.