Who Invented the Spinning Jenny?

A machine that improved textiles also threatened a lot of jobs

Wikimedia Commons/Markus Schweiß

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

Credit for the spinning jenny, a hand-powered multiple spinning machine invented in 1964, goes to a British carpenter and weaver named James Hargreaves. It was the first machine to improve upon the spinning wheel. At the time, cotton producers had a difficult time meeting the demand for textiles and Hargreaves was looking into ways to ramp up the supply of thread. 

James Hargreaves

Hargreaves’ story begins in Oswaldtwistle, England, where he was born in 1720. Working as a carpenter and a weaver, he had no formal education and was never taught how to read or write. Legend has it that Hargreaves' daughter Jenny knocked over a spinning wheel, and as he watched the spindle roll across the floor, the idea for the spinning jenny came to him. However, the story is just a legend. Jenny was rumored to have been the name of Hargreaves' wife and that he named his invention after her.

The original spinning jenny used eight spindles instead of the one found on the spinning wheel. A single wheel on the spinning jenny controlled eight spindles, which created a weave using eight threads spun from a corresponding set of rovings. Later models had up to one-hundred and twenty spindles.

James Hargreaves made a number of spinning jennies and started to sell a few of them in the area. However, since each machine was capable of doing the work of eight people, other spinners were angry about the competition. In 1768, a group of spinners broke into Hargreaves' house and destroyed his machines to prevent the machines from taking work away from them.

Opposition to the machine caused Hargreaves to relocate to Nottingham, where him and partner Thomas James set up a small mill to supply hosiery makers with suitable yarn. On July 12, 1770, Hargreaves took out a patent on a sixteen spindle spinning jenny and soon after sent out 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, although he requested 7,000 pounds. Hargreaves lost the case when it turned out that the courts rejected his patent application for his first spinning jenny because he had made and sold several for too long before he filed for a patent. 

While Hargreaves' invention did in fact decrease the need for labor, they also saved money. The only drawback was that his machine produced thread that was too coarse to be used for warp threads (the weaving term for the series of yarns that extended lengthways in a loom) and could only produce weft threads (the weaving term for the crossways yarn).

The spinning jenny was commonly used in the cotton and fustian industry until about 1810. It was eventually replaced by the spinning mule.