The history of textile mills in America seems an unlikely topic of national interest, but within their history you can find the cornerstone of our Industrial Revolution.
The mechanization of labor was not an option for textile weaving until shuttle looms were introduced in England, transforming one of the country’s main exports and changing the relationship between man and machine forever. The shuttle loom’s design was a lucrative secret which England maintained under threat of treason. However, a brilliant rebel by the name of Samuel Slater took a chance and became America’s “Father of the Industrial Revolution.”
In the 1700’s, both England and America were reliant on manual labor or draft animals to support their cottage industries. Weaving was done on hand looms. In 1733, Englishman John Kay invented the flying shuttle, allowing more fabric to be produced in less time. Over the years, England continued to dominate the world’s industry in textiles. As looms ran faster, spinning technology had to keep up. Still, it wasn’t until 1785, when Edmund Cartwright patented the first successful power loom that England’s textile industry truly blossomed.
If you look at the word “manufacture,” you can see that it comes to English from the Latin words manu and factus, more or less meaning “made with the hands.” From ancient times to 1785, manufactured goods were, in fact, made by hand. With the introduction of mechanized looms, the relationship between man and machine was radically changed.
The steam-powered engine was invented in 1712, but it was only used in mining and was not considered a viable option in manufacturing prior to Cartwright’s invention. His steam loom was one of the first manufacturing devices to use a mechanical process. After years of refinement, the resulting shuttle loom produced a more durable fabric within a fraction of the time, making England the leading source of quality textiles.
From England to America
England’s technological advances gave her an advantage over the nascent weaving industry in America. English law protected the secret and made it a crime to carry loom designs out of the country. In 1789, Samuel Slater emigrated to the United States, bringing in his head knowledge of the design and use of power looms. He sold his knowledge and skills to Moses Brown, and America’s first water-powered textile factory in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, was in operation by December of that same year. With the invention of the cotton gin 1793 by Eli Whitney, America’s cotton textile industry took off. The cotton gin is a device which separates the cotton seed from the cotton fiber, a task which previously had been slow and labor-intensive.
The production of textiles continued to be an important part of the US economy into the 1980s. In 1965, 95% of all American apparel and bedding was produced by textile companies in America. By 1995, American manufactured textiles accounted for less than 2 percent. With the rise of globalization and low-cost imports, more and more textile factories have moved to foreign countries. Today, there are very few American textile mills. Brahms Mount is proud to be one of them. We continue to weave our blankets, throws, and towels here in Maine, on shuttle looms from the 1940’s. Many of our materials come from America, as well – our cotton is grown, spun, and dyed in the USA. We’re thrilled to continue the tradition of American produced textiles.