Tuesday, March 8, 2011

2010 Elizabeth Lyon Fellowship Project Update

The Ever Changing Textile Process

Discussions about how textile mill construction and architecture changed following WWII can be very interesting and relevant because of the number of mills that expanded in this period. At its heart though, a mill is simply a place to house a production process. A textile mill might be built with modern construction techniques, such as steel interior supports, concrete floors, non load bearing brick walls, and such, but the machinery inside the mill was what truly made a modern mill, modern. In this post I will step away from talking about changes in mill architecture and briefly focus on the changes in textile mill technology. The changes underwent by textile mill machinery in the decades following WWII could fill several books, so only the broad changes will be focused on. The textile process is best visualized and textual representation of the process could never do it justice.


The process that turns fiber to fabric is an ever changing and complex process. We are only a few centuries removed from when a single worker would labor for hours, days, or weeks, to manufacture enough fabric to make a piece of clothing. It took hundreds of man-hours to create a single yard of fabric, with every step in the process, including the cleaning of the cotton (or wool), straightening the fibers, the making of the yarn, and finally the making of the fabric, being extremely tedious and labor intensive, and the final product far from perfect. Today the number of man hours it takes to make a yard of fabric is minuscule, because technology has improved and sped the process up tremendously. The process has undergone a number of significant changes since WWII, making a mill and an individual worker ever more productive.

What changed to allow this increase in productivity? One trend allowing for increased production following WWII, was the combination of steps and machinery. There are three main processes that turn a fiber (cotton, wool, or manmade) into a fabric. The first step is the cleaning and straightening of the fibers, the second step involves the spinning of the fiber into a single yarn, and the third major step is the making of the fabric. The first stage (cleaning and straightening) is an excellent example of the combination of processes. When cotton arrives at a mill it has been ginned to remove the seeds and large pieces of trash, but it is still very dirty. The process in the 1940s-1950s involved the cotton being opened and blended manually and fed by hand into a system that used air to propel the cotton to be picked, where excess trash was removed. Following picking the cotton still had to be carded (which produced a thick cotton lap, similar to a thick mat of cotton), doubled (where multiple laps are combined), and combed (which turned the multiple laps into a thick cotton sliver, similar to a thick piece of web like yarn). Today these processes are largely combined into one fluid step, where the cotton is manually blended, compelled by air to the carding equipment, with no separate picking operation required, and off of the carding machines comes the thick cotton sliver.

The spinning process also underwent a number of significant changes. The spinning process involved a complex set of steps that turned a thick cotton sliver into a compact piece of yarn. Following the combing process, multiple slivers are combined into a single large sliver. This sliver is then placed on a slubber (where the sliver is drawn out and placed on bobbins), then a roving frame(See Photograph Below) (where the material is starting to take on a yarn like consistency), and finally placed on the spinning frame (See Photograph Below) (where the yarn receives the appropriate twist and a final drawing out process). This multi-stage process, while still used in some form for finer yarns, was rendered mostly obsolete(except for the drawing process) with the introduction of open end spinning(See Photograph Below). Open end spinning combined roving, spinning, and winding(which was an additional process that combined multiple bobbins onto a large spool) onto one piece of machinery. Open end spinning works along the same lines as pulling clothing out of a running clothes dryer. The continuous spinning of the dryer will give the clothes a twist as you remove them. Open end spinning was a simple premise that dramatically revolutionized the spinning process in textile mills.

Above: Photograph of Roving Frame at Lawrenceville Cotton Mill. 1920s, Lawrenceville, Gwinnet County. gwn 241. Photograph courtesy of Vanishing Georgia.

Above: Photograph of spinning frame at unidentified LaGrange Mill. 1930s. LaGrange, Troup County, trp251. Photograph courtesy of Vanishing Georgia.

Above: Modern open end spinning frame used at Trion’s Mount Vernon Mills, which combined the processes done on the above photograph roving and spinning frames. Photograph taken January 17th. In possession of author.

Once the fiber is prepared into yarn, it is not yet ready to be woven. The yarn has to be warped (whereby many fibers are laid parallel onto a single beam) then slashed (whereby multiple warper beams are combined and chemicals are added to strengthen the fiber), in some cases depending in the end use dyed, and finally if dyed rebeamed (which involves relaying the fibers parallel on a single beam). This final beam is ready to be woven. These steps have remained largely unchanged, in principle, but are now much more efficient. Weaving however has undergone a dramatic change since WWII. For generations, a loom relied on a shuttle to convey a weft thread back and forth through the warp threads. The adoption of shuttleless looms revolutionized weaving. (See Photograph Below) Removing the shuttle dramatically increased the productive capability of weaving. The weft thread in shuttleless looms is conveyed back and forth by air in air jet looms, which are the most popular, or water, in water jet looms. The speed of these looms was far greater than looms with shuttles.

Above: Modern shuttleless air-jet loom used at Trion’s Mount Vernon Mills. Photograph taken January 17th. In possession of author.

As steps are being combined, the overall process is also being sped up. The proliferation of air conditioning, which allowed for a consistent moisture content in the fibers, reduced breaks, further increasing production speeds. Increasing productive capability, and combining processes could free up a great deal of space within a mill, allowing for the installation of even more equipment. There are also many small improvements to machinery that could increase speed as well as reduce downtime. There were also improvements in other phases of textile production, including the dying, bleaching, or finishing stages, which further improved the ability to get the product to customers faster. Thus the ability to improve technology and utilize new machinery benefited textile mills in a plethora of ways.

The above discussion is based on three key sources as well as a January 17th site visit to Trion’s Mount Vernon Mills:

“A Bird’s-Eye View of the Manufacture of Cotton Cloth” from The ABC of Textiles form Raw Material to Finished Fabric Cotton, 1938. Located in Debbie Curtis Toole, editor, Cotton Mills, Planned Communities and the New Deal: Vernacular Architecture and Landscapes of the New South. Athens, GA: Green Berry Press, 1999), 126-127.

United State Department of Labor and Bureau of Labor Statistics. Technology and Manpower in the Textile Industry of the 1970’s. Washington : Government Printing Office, Bulletin No. 1578 August 1968.

Zeisel, Rose N. “Modernization and Manpower in Textile Mills” Monthly Labor Review. June 73 (Vol. 96 Issue 6), 18-25.

Steven Eubanks is a graduate student at West Georgia University and recipient of the 2010 Elizabeth Lyon Fellowship. The Elizabeth Lyon Fellowship provides financial assistance for projects that acquaint undergraduate and graduate students, and young professionals with preservation programs and practices.

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