The Birth of the Factory System

The real change in the English weaving industry began in 1769, when Richard Arkwright patented the water frame, which improved both the speed and quality of thread spinning. Unlike the jenny, Arkwright's water-powered spinning frame was designed to be a factory machine.

A few years later, Samuel Crompton's mule combined the principles of the jenny and the water frame, producing a smoother, finer yarn that allowed English cotton to compete with Indian goods in terms of quality. In 1795, Arkwright's patent was canceled, making the water frame available without restrictions for anyone who could afford the capital investment. That same year, a steam engine was used to operate a spinning mill for the first time. Large-scale factory production was now feasible.

Improvements in spinning technologies were followed by carding, scutching, and roving machines that replaced the tedious hand labor of preparing fibers for spinning. Each technical improvement moved the textile industry further away from the domestic system. By 1812, one spinner could produce as much yarn in a given time as 200 spinners could have produced using hand spindles.


Parliament passed the first child labor law in 1802. Aimed at “apprenticeship” of orphans in cotton mills, it had no enforcement provisions-and little effect. The use of child labor was largely unchecked until the Factory Act of 1833, which set the legal work age at nine and limited children between nine and thirteen to a 48 hour workweek.

The factory system was more than just a new way to organize work, it was a new way of life. Factories were dark, loud, and dangerous. The discipline and monotonous routine of the mill was very different from the workday of farmer or hand weaver. Both agricultural workers and weavers often worked 14-hour days.

But agricultural work was varied and seasonal and independent weavers controlled their own schedules. In the factories, the same 14 hours included few breaks plus a long walk to and from home at each end of the day. Supervisors discouraged workers from song or chatter-either of which were hard to hear over the noise. As more women and children were hired, the fathers of families were thrown permanently out of work.

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