Before the 1760s, textile production was a cottage industry centered in homes rather than in factories, using mainly wool and flax. Textiles were among the most expensive objects people owned. Ordinary, working class families typically owned only two sets of clothing—one for every day and one for Sunday best. Household textiles such as quilts, bed sheets, and towels were highly valued, so much so that well into the 19th century people frequently listed them in their wills and estate inventories.
In a typical household, young girls and women were the hand spinners. Although handspinning was a slow process, they generally made enough yarn to keep up with the demands of the household weaver. John Kay’s invention of the flying shuttle in 1733 changed this, making looms twice as productive, as well as increasing the width of cloth.
The shortage of yarn to feed the faster looms sparked the development of more productive spinning techniques, triggering the start of the Industrial Revolution. In the early 1760s, James Hargreaves invented the spinning jenny and by the late 1760s Richard Arkwright had developed the water frame.
These inventions improved the quality and strength of yarn, allowing short, hard-to-spin cotton fibers to be spun into yarns strong and uniform enough to be used in both the warp and filling (weft) of fabrics. This made possible 100% cotton fabrics—the type best suited for prints. Prior to this most cotton fabrics were mixtures with wool or flax (linen) warps and cotton filling yarns.
In 1779, Samuel Crompton combined the principals of the spinning jenny and the water frame to produce his spinning ‘mule,’ so called because it was a hybrid of the two machines. The mule produced even tougher and finer cotton thread.
As a result of these inventions, spinning moved out of the home and into mills, located where fast-flowing streams could provide water power for the larger machines. By the 1820s, mills manufactured most cotton and wool yarns, which then went to weavers who continued to work from their own homes.
Weavers soon found it hard to keep up with the supply of yarn, sparking another invention—Edmund Cartwright’s power loom (1785)—which eventually brought yarn and fabric production in sync once again, after 50 years of innovations. These developments set the stage for inexpensive printed cotton fabrics—the essential ingredient for democratizing quiltmaking in America.