Early spinners worked on a drop spindle, drawing out and twisting the wool fibres to make a yarn. Wool is easy to spin because the scales on each fibre cling together helping to make a continuous yarn. The spindle was made of either wood or bone with a weight, or whorl at the base acting as a flywheel. Twisting the spindle put twist into the fibres, producing a strong yarn. Warp yarn was spun harder for strength.
When a length of yarn had been made, the spinner stopped to wind it onto the spindle and then the process was repeated. (Try doing this and you will
know why it is called a drop spindle). In the 14th century, spinning was done on a great wheel, again with the spinner standing to work. A spindle mounted onto a frame was connected to a wheel which the spinner turned by hand. The drawn fibres were held at an angle to the spindle so that each time they slid off the end of the spindle, a twist was added. Yarn was wound onto the spindle by holding it at right angles and turning the wheel.
The first machine made to spin yarn was the spinning jenny, invented by James Hargreaves in 1764. Hand operated by one person, spinning the jenny produced dozens of lengths of yarn atthe same time. By 1793, women and children could earn 4 to 5 shillings a week. Before any wool was attached to the jenny, it had to be carded and slightly twisted into slubbings. Bobbins of slubbings at the front of the machine were converted to bobbins of spun thread at the back. Yarn was wound onto cones which held ten times the amount of a bobbin if it was warp yarn.
This of course took the place of several hand spinners and meant that the weaver could be kept supplied with as much yarn as he needed. Once the yarn had been spun, it could be plyed or doubled (called doubling) to create a thicker, softer thread.
Ring spinning was first invented in America in the 19th century and was mostly used to make heavy carpet yarns. Not until the 1950s was the method used to spin thread for the fine woollen industry.
Developments in the suppression of the ‘balloon’ which was formed prior to the winding on of the yarn onto the spindle; the improvement of the ‘false twist’ tube which twisted the yarn in the drafting zone (this would be the draw in the mule) and the introduction of lightweight plastic ‘travellers’ all took away a great deal of the strain from the slubbing and the yarn. This meant that continuous spinning was possible, in contrast to the ‘spin and wind on’ process of a self-acting mule.
The self-acting mule (one can be seen in Trowbridge Museum), has a maze of gears, cams and ropes, with one electric motor powering the whole machine.
This mule has individual DC electric motors for all the motions which makes it expensive to run. It is used mainly for the production of fine Cashmere and lambs wool yarns for the hosiery and knitwear industry.
Children generally acted as winders otherwise it was women’s work. Newly spun yarn was wound onto reels or made into skeins. A niddy noddy was used to transfer yarn from hanks to bobbins. These hanks of yarn could be weighed and then wound onto bobbins, locally called quills. The Museum has a mechanical bobbin winder which speeds up a tedious job.