The first industry in Massachusetts was the textile industry. Until about 1810 most clothing was made by hand. House wives spun cotton into yarn , wove it into cloth and then sewed the cloth into pants, skirts and shirts. In the late 1820's, machines for spinning fibers into yarn and weaving into cloth were developed in England . The textiles were woven into thread and cloth by machines called spinning mills. The spinning mills were able to produce much better cloth than housewives could make and they also produces large quantities. The spinning mills were powered by water, therefore the factories had to be built in the country side next to a river or stream. The textile industry later became the first major industry in America.

The textile factories created jobs for people living in Massachusetts.

Many young women came off the farms to work in the textile mills. The

young girls lived in homes owned by the factories. The girls were told when to get up in the morning, when to begin their work , and when to go to bed. Along with young women, groups of immigrants from Ireland, Scotland and Germany also came to work in the mills . The mill workers helped operate the machines and folded the finished cloth.

The working conditions in the mills were very poor. The Machines made very loud noises and the air was filled with dust and tiny particles of cloth. People had to work for twelve hours a day, six days a week. The worked from dawn until dusk for very little money. The workers who were not happy with the terrible conditions joined labor unions to tory to get better working conditions and better pay.

Products of the Mills

Cotton cloth was always Lowell's major product. But from its earliest years, the mills turned out a variety of textile goods. The Middlesex Company, for instance, manufactured woolen cloth. The Lowell Manufacturing Company was a leading producer of carpets. During the Civil War years, the Lawrence Manufacturing Company moved into the production of hosiery.

Lowell's cotton textiles ranged from pattern weaves to printed cloths. The Merrimack Company specialized in calico prints and pioneered in the development of cloth printing technology. Skilled printers were recruited from England in the early years. The head printer hired by the company in 1825 commanded a salary higher than the treasurer's. Other companies specialized in coarse drillings, sheetings, twilled goods, and shirtings, minimizing competition among Lowell textile firms.


Working Conditions in a Textile Mill

By 1900 competitive pressures and technological developments had dramatically changed the working conditions of Lowell millhands. In every department of the mills, fewer workers tended more machinery in 1900 than in 1840. Not only did Lowell workers tend more machines, but the machinery operated at much greater speeds. All told, the demands of textile employment and the toll it took on workers' health and safety were far greater by 1900 than in the city's early years. A knowledgeable observer in 1903 found that New England mills demanded more work from their employees than was common even in English mills.

The declining work week made up somewhat for the faster pace of work. Still, the mills did not reduce the working hours on their own. The hours were cut back only under pressure from the state. From an average 73 hours a week in the 1830s and 1840s, a 60-hour week was common by 1874. By 1912 mill owners could demand no more than 54 hours. But that year, when the mills shortened their hours in response to a new state law, management cut daily wages proportionally. This action prompted the famous general strike in Lawrence, led by the Industrial Workers of the World, and triggered protests in Lowell, Fall River, and New Bedford. United mill workers won and enjoyed raises rather than the initial pay cuts imposed by management. These series of strikes led to important gains for New England's immigrant textile workers.

Making Textiles

Picking removed foreign matter (dirt, insects, leaves, seeds) from the fiber. Early pickers beat the fibers to loosen them and removed debris by hand. Machines used rotating teeth to do the job, producing a thin "lap" ready for carding.


By Hand

By Machine

Carding combed the fibers to align and join them into a loose rope called a "sliver." Hand carders pulled the fibers between wire teeth set in boards. Machines did the same thing with rotating cylinders. Slivers (rhymes with divers) were then combined, twisted, and drawn out into "roving."


By Hand

By Machine

Spinning twisted and drew out the roving and wound the resulting yarn on a bobbin. A spinning wheel operator drew out the cotton by hand. A series of rollers accomplished this on machines called "throstles" and "spinning mules."


By Hand

By Machine

Warping gathered yarns from a number of bobbins and wound them close together on a reel or spool. From there they were transferred to a warp beam, which was then mounted on a loom. Warp threads were those that ran lengthwise on the loom.


By Hand

By Machine

Weaving was the final stage in making cloth. Crosswise woof threads were interwoven with warp threads on a loom. A 19th century power loom worked essentially like a hand loom, except that its actions were mechanized.


By Hand

By Machine

Like food and shelter, clothing is a basic human requirement. When settled neolithic cultures discovered the advantages of woven fibers over animal hides, the making of cloth, drawing on basketry techniques, emerged as one of humankind's fundamental technologies. From the earliest hand-held spindle and distaff and basic hand loom to the highly automated spinning machines and power looms of today, the principles of turning vegetable fiber into cloth have remained constant: Plants are cultivated and the fiber harvested. The fibers are cleaned and aligned, then spun into yarn or thread. Finally the yarns are interwoven to produce cloth. Today we also spin complex synthetic fibers, but they are still woven together the way cotton and flax were millennia ago.


Source: Lowell National Historical Park Handbook


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