Power loom

Two Lancashire looms operating in 2013 in Lancashire
A Northrop loom manufactured by Draper Corporation in the textile museum, Lowell, Massachusetts.

A power loom is a mechanised loom powered by a line shaft, and was one of the key developments in the industrialization of weaving during the early Industrial Revolution. The first power loom was designed in 1784 by Edmund Cartwright and first built in 1785. It was refined over the next 47 years until a design by Kenworthy and Bullough made the operation completely automatic.

By 1850 there were 260,000 in operation in England. Fifty years later came the Northrop Loom that would replenish the shuttle when it was empty and this replaced the Lancashire loom.

Shuttle looms

Shuttle with pirn
Shuttle loom operations: shedding, picking and battening

The huge components of the loom are the warp beam, heddles, harnesses, shuttle, reed and takeup roll. In the loom, yarn processing includes shedding, picking, battening and taking-up operations.

With each weaving operation, the newly constructed fabric must be wound on a cloth beam. This process is called taking up. At the same time, the warp yarns must be let off or released from the warp beams. To become fully automatic, a loom needs a filling stop motion which will brake the loom, if the weft thread breaks.


Operation of weaving in a textile mill is undertaken by a specially trained operator known as a weaver. Weavers are expected to uphold high industry standards, and are tasked with monitoring anywhere from ten, to as many as thirty separate looms at any one time. During their operating shift, weavers will first utilize a wax pencil or crayon to sign their initials onto the cloth to mark a shift change, and then walk along the cloth side (front) of the looms they tend, gently touching the fabric as it comes from the reed. This is done to feel for any broken "picks" or filler thread. Should broken picks be detected, the weaver will disable the machine and undertake to correct the error, typically by replacing the bobbin of filler thread in as little time as possible. They are trained that, ideally, no machine should stop working for more than one minute, with faster turn around times being preferred.

Once the weaver has made their circuit of the front of the machines, they will then circle around to the back. At this point they will gently stroke their hand over the raised metal "tells" on the back of the machine. These tells, located over a special metal circuit, are held up by the tension of the thread coming from the warp. Should the warp thread be broken, the tells will drop and cause the machine to stop working. However, it is possible for them to become stuck in the upward position, and by doing so create problems in the weaving. By gently touching the tells, then, it is possible for the weaver to find tells which have become stuck in the up position, and correct the error. As with pick breaks, the weavers are trained to keep the machines running as much as possible; with speedy knot tying and correction being stressed. In this situation, they are expected to take less than a minute, with the mean ideal being ten to thirty seconds, to correct a break. The weaver also watches for warps that are about to run out, or problems in the warp itself which were not detected in the slashing process. Typically, weavers can expect to make several dozen circuits of their machines a night, with most of their time spent ensuring the quality of the cloth and the company standards of production.


A loom from the 1890s with a dobby head. Illustration from the Textile Mercury.

Edmund Cartwright patented a power loom in 1785. This used water as power instead of human power which sped up the weaving process. Weavers were able to use all the thread that spinners could produce.[1] It was to be forty years before his ideas were modified into a reliable automatic loom. Cartwright was not the first man to design an automatic loom, this had been done in 1678 by M. de Gennes in Paris, and again by Vaucanson In 1745, but these never developed and were forgotten. Those designs preceded John Kay's invention of the flying shuttle and they passed the shuttle through the shed using levers.

It was not a commercially successful machine. His ideas were licensed first by Grimshaw, of Manchester who built a small steam-powered weaving factory in Manchester in 1790. The looms had to be stopped to dress the warp, but the factory burnt down before anything could be learned.

Series of initial inventors

A series of inventors incrementally improved all aspects of the three principle processes and the ancillary processes.

Further useful improvements

There now appear a series of useful improvements that are contained in patents for useless devices

At this point the loom has become automatic except for refilling weft pirns. The Cartwight loom weaver could work one loom at 120-130 picks per minute- with a Kenworthy and Bullough's Lancashire Loom, a weaver can run up to six looms working at 220-260 picks per minute- thus giving 12 times more through put.

Looms and the Manchester context

The development of the power loom in and around Manchester was not a coincidence. Manchester has been a centre for Fustians by 1620 and acted as a hub for other Lancashire towns, so developing a communication network with them. It was an established point of export using the meandering River Mersey, and by 1800 it had a thriving canal network, with links to the Ashton Canal, Rochdale Canal the Peak Forest Canal and Manchester Bolton & Bury Canal. The fustian trade gave the towns a skilled workforce that was used to the complicated Dutch looms, and was perhaps accustomed to industrial discipline. While Manchester became a spinning town, the towns around were weaving towns producing cloth by the putting out system. The business was dominated by a few families who had the capital needed for the investment in new mills, and buy hundreds of looms. The mills were built along the new canals so immediately had access to their markets. Spinning developed first and, until 1830, the handloom was still more important economically than the power loom when the roles reversed.[4] Because of the economic growth of Manchester, a new industry of precision machine tool engineering was born and here were the skills needed to build the precision mechanisms of a loom.


Number of Looms in UK[5]

Draper's strategy was to standardise on a couple of models which it mass-produced. The lighter E-model of 1909 was joined in the 1930 by the heavier X-model. Continuous fibre machines, say for rayon, which was more break-prone, needed a specialist loom. This was provided by the purchase of the Stafford Loom Co. in 1932, and using their patents a third loom the XD, was added to the range. Because of their mass production techniques they were reluctant and slow to retool for new technologies such as shuttleless looms.[6]

Decline and reinvention

Originally, power looms used a shuttle to throw the weft across, but in 1927 the faster and more efficient shuttleless loom came into use. Sulzer Brothers, a Swiss company had the exclusive rights to shuttleless looms in 1942, and licensed the American production to Warner & Swasey. Draper licensed the slower rapier loom. Today, advances in technology have produced a variety of looms designed to maximise production for specific types of material. The most common of these are Sulzer shuttleless weaving machines, rapier looms, air-jet looms and water-jet looms.[7]

Social and economic implications

The power loom reduced demand for skilled handweavers, initially causing reduced wages and unemployment. Protests followed its introduction. For example, in 1816 two thousand rioting Calton weavers tried to destroy power loom mills and stoned the workers.[8] In the longer term, by making cloth more affordable the power loom increased demand and stimulated exports, causing a growth in industrial employment, albeit low-paid.[9] The power loom also opened up opportunities for women mill workers.[10] A darker side of the power loom's impact was the growth of employment of children in power loom mills.[11]


When operated by a skilled and attentive weaver, looms are not dangerous by themselves. However, there are a number of inherent dangers in the machines, to which inattentive or poorly trained weavers can fall victim. The most obvious is the moving reed, the frames which hold the heddles and the "pinch" or "sand" roll utilized to keep the cloth tight as it passes over the front of the machine and onto the doff roll. The most common injury in weaving is pinched fingers from distracted or bored workers, though this is not the only such injury found. There are numerous accounts of weavers with long hair getting it tangled in the warp itself and having their scalp pulled away from the skull, or large chunks of hair pulled off.[12] As a result of this, it has become industry standard for companies to require weavers to either keep hair up and tied, or to keep their hair short so as not to allow it to become tangled. Also, due to possible pinch points on the front of machines, loose, baggy clothing is prohibited. One complication for weavers, in the terms of safety, is the loud nature in which weave mills operate. Because of this, it is nearly impossible to hear a person calling for help when entangled, and has led OSHA to outline specific guidelines[13] for companies to mitigate the chance of such circumstances from happening. However, even with such guidelines in place, injuries in textile production, due to the machines themselves, are still commonplace.

See also


  1. Marsden 1895, p. 64
  2. Marsden 1895, pp. 70,71
  3. Marsden 1895, pp. 88–95
  4. Miller & Wild 2007, p. 10
  5. Hills 1993, p. 117
  6. Mass 1990
  7. Collier 1970, p. 111
  8. Anna Clark (1997), The struggle for the breeches: gender and the making of the British working class, University of California Press, p. 32ff, ISBN 0520208838
  9. Geoffrey Timmins (1993), The last shift: the decline of handloom weaving in nineteenth-century Lancashire, Manchester University Press ND, p. 19ff, ISBN 0719037255
  10. Gail Fowler Mohanty (2006), Labor and laborers of the loom: mechanization and handloom weavers, 1780-1840, CRC Press, p. 114ff, ISBN 0415979021
  11. Neil J. Smelser (2006), Social Change in the Industrial Revolution: An Application of Theory to the British Cotton Industry, Taylor & Francis, pp. 208–209, ISBN 0415381371
  12. "Lucy Larcom (1824-1893)". National Women's History Museum. Retrieved 2014-03-25.
  13. http://www.ilo.org/oshenc/part-xiv/textile-goods-industry/item/888-weaving-and-knitting


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