James Hargreaves and the Invention of the Spinning Jenny

Spinning Jenny
Wikimedia Commons/Markus Schweiß

During the 1700s, a number of inventions set the stage for an industrial revolution in weaving. Among them were the flying shuttle, the spinning jenny, the spinning frame, and the cotton gin. Together, these new tools allowed for the handling of large quantities of harvested cotton.

Credit for the spinning jenny, the hand-powered multiple spinning machine invented in 1764, goes to a British carpenter and weaver named James Hargreaves. His invention was the first machine to improve upon the spinning wheel. At the time, cotton producers had a difficult time meeting the demand for textiles, as each spinner produced only one spool of thread at a time. Hargreaves found a way to ramp up the supply of thread.

Key Takeaways: Spinning Jenny

  • Carpenter and weaver James Hargreaves invented the spinning jenny but sold too many before he applied for a patent.
  • The spinning jenny wasn't only Hargeaves' idea. Many people were trying at the time to invent a device to make textile manufacture easier.
  • The increased size of the spinning jenny led to spinners moving their work to factories and out of the home.

Spinning Jenny Definition

Illustration showing the machine for spinning cotton, invented in 1764 by James Hargreaves
Print Collector/Getty Images

The people who took the raw materials (such as wool, flax, and cotton) and turned them into thread were spinners who worked at home with a spinning wheel. From the raw material they created a roving after cleaning and carding it. The roving was put over a spinning wheel to be twisted tighter into thread, which collected on the device's spindle.

The original spinning jenny had eight spindles side by side, making thread from eight rovings across from them. All eight were controlled by one wheel and a belt, allowing for much more thread to be created at one time by one person. Later models of the spinning jenny had up to 120 spindles.

James Hargreaves and His Invention

Hargreaves’ story begins in Oswaldtwistle, England, where he was born in 1720. He had no formal education, was never taught how to read or write, and spent most of his life working as a carpenter and weaver. Legend has it that Hargreaves' daughter once knocked over a spinning wheel, and as he watched the spindle roll across the floor, the idea of the spinning jenny came to him. This story, however, is a legend. The idea that Hargreaves named his invention after either his wife or his daughter is also a long-standing myth. The name "jenny" actually came from the English slang for "engine."

Hargreaves invented the machine around 1764, perhaps an improvement on one created by Thomas High that collected thread on six spindles. In any case, it was Hargreaves' machine that was adopted widely. It came at a time of technological innovation in looms and weaving as well.

Opposition to the Spinning Jenny

After inventing the spinning jenny, Hargreaves built a number of models and started to sell them to locals. However, because each machine was capable of doing the work of eight people, spinners became angry about the competition. In 1768, a group of spinners broke into Hargreaves' house and destroyed his machines to prevent them from taking away their work. Increased production per person eventually led to the drop in prices paid for the thread.

Opposition to the machine caused Hargreaves to relocate to Nottingham, where he found a business partner in Thomas James. They set up a small mill to supply hosiery makers with suitable yarn. On July 12, 1770, Hargreaves took out a patent on a 16-spindle spinning jenny and soon after sent notice to others who were using copies of the machine that he would pursue legal action against them.

The manufacturers he went after offered him a sum of 3,000 pounds to drop the case, less than half of Hargreaves' requested 7,000 pounds. Hargreaves ultimately lost the case when it turned out that the courts had rejected his patent application. He had produced and sold too many of his machines before filing for the patent. The technology was already out there and being used in many machines.

The Spinning Jenny and the Industrial Revolution

Prior to the spinning jenny, weaving was done at home, in literal "cottage industries." Even an eight-spindle jenny could be used in the home. But when the machines grew, to 16, 24, and eventually to 80 and 120 spindles, the work then moved to factories.

Hargreaves' invention not only decreased the need for labor but also saved money in the transportation of raw materials and completed products. The only drawback was that the machine produced thread that was too coarse to be used for warp threads (the weaving term for the yarns that extend lengthwise in a loom) and could only be used to make weft threads (the crosswise yarns). It was also weaker than what could be made by hand. However, the new production process still lowered the price at which fabric could be made, making textiles more available to more people.

The spinning jenny was commonly used in the cotton industry until about 1810, when the spinning mule replaced it.

These major technological improvements in looms, weaving, and spinning led to the growth of the textile industry, which was a significant part of the birth of factories. The British Library notes, "Richard Arkwright’s cotton factories in Nottingham and Cromford, for example, employed nearly 600 people by the 1770s, including many small children, whose nimble hands made light-work of spinning." Arkwright's machines had solved the problem of the weak threads.

Other industries were not far behind in moving out of the local shop to large factories. The metalworks industry (producing parts for steam engines) was also moving to factories at this time. Steam-powered engines had made the Industrial Revolution possible—and the ability to set up factories in the first place—by being able to supply steady power to run large machines.