An automatic loom, hand loom, or a frame is required to perform weaving wherein a fabric is created by interlacing warp (horizontal) and weft (vertical) yarns when they are perpendicular to each other. Among the technological inventions of looms in last 900 years, the automatic loom is of utmost significance.
As the name suggests, an automatic loom has a shuttle carrying the weft yarn across the cloth and is automatically replaced or reloaded without stopping the machine or taking the help of a weaver. As a result, such a loom operates incessantly, rather than halting each time once the thread on the shuttle’s bobbin is over. This is obviously more efficient than a standard loom wherein machine stop is frequent, as at every few minutes, a fresh bobbin needs to be added manually.
Some developments occurred before 1700, but they were not so critical to have a permanent impact. The first loom did not begin to evolve radically until the Middle Ages. Before any mechanical inventions, looms for weaving were totally operated by hands. Standing besides the weaver, a helper pulled a few grips to the loom’s side to raise the heddles so that the warp yarn could go by them. Such invention is considered of Chinese origin.
The best example of this weaving process is the draw loom whose resulting different combinations were associated with several runners that a helper would lift. However, this process was simplified in the early 18th century by Claude Dangon, a French weaver.
While this process was slow and tiresome, weavers were paid as per the length of fabric generated and luckily they could produce a bit longer fabric. Still, the productivity could not go beyond 10 cm of fabric per day. In short, a single weaver along with a helper operated a single loom, especially for weaving a complex pattern.
An issue that inventors were facing during this time was aggressive opposition from cloth workers who hated any innovations accelerating one’s productivity, thus reducing the required numbers of weavers.
Mechanization of weaving started intensely in the 18th century. During this period, many improvements were introduced to increase the speed of weaving, the most significant being that of mechanical spinner for creating yarn.
Before the introduction of this machinery, one weaver was required to generate the output of three to four spinners. This period also marked acceptance of progress in loom technology, which was assisted by ongoing improvements in the spinning technology.
While the handloom was around, it faced a major transformation in 1733 with the introduction of the Flying Shuttle by John Kay, a British weaver. This marked the first critical move towards automated weaving. Before its invention, a shuttle was in use for a long time to push the weft through the warp. This shuttle included the weft thread and was manually glided into the warp opening, which actually restricted the material’s width. For making big pieces, weavers passed the shuttle to each other. This was quite inefficient.
However, with the introduction of Flying Shuttle, this inefficiency vanished. The new mechanical system enabled the shuttle to fly uninterruptedly from one end of the warp to another, which considerably accelerated the weaving process by four times.
The shuttle was moved once the weaver pulled a handle or a cord that pushed it across the textile’s width. As a result, a weaver could not have a cloth whose width is more the arm's reach. This mechanism ruled for over two centuries, until the invention of mechanical looms. However, it fueled the industrial revolution.
Weaver's Cottage with a Hand Loom and Flying Shuttle
In 1725, Basile Bouchon who was a worker in the Lyon’s silk centre came up with a way to use perforated paper tape for controlling a loom. This resulted in partial automation of the tedious draw loom process. This was believed to be the first industrial semi-automated machine.
Basile Bouchon's Semi Automated Loom 1725
In this new mechanism, the cords of warp passed via horizontal needles gliding in a box. The working was analogous to a piano roll introduced in the late 19th century. A constant paper roll was punched in chunks manually, each representing a lash. However, this loom was not that profitable, as it could handle only some number of warp threads.
In 1728, Bouchon’s assistant Jean Baptiste Falcon who was a great silk weaver. He worked on the above model and expanded the number of cords. He did so by organizing holes in rows as well as by utilizing rectangular cards connected to each other in an infinite loop. This arrangement could manage to handle more warp threads.
Technically, Jean introduced an attachment that paper strip was taken over by a series of many punched cards. This new mechanism removed the faults occurring while lifting threads. However, it required an additional operator for control purpose. So, even this improved mechanism was semi automated.
Jean Falcon's Semi Automated Loom 1728
However, the first attempt was making the aforementioned mechanism fully automated was made in 1745 by Jacques de Vaucanson. With the responsibility of undertaking reforms for the French silk industry, he came up with the first fully automated loom. This loom was based on the work of both Bouchon and Falcon. Curiously however Vaucanson did not adopt the more robust punch card setup of Falcon's design. Instead it used the same punch paper system of Bouchon's but in a upper positon to avoid becoming damaged. The punch card system however would make a return over 50 years later by Joseph-Marie Jacquard.
Vaucanson’s mechanism eliminated the intricate system of weights and cords for choosing which warp threads should be raised. Finally, even this automated system was unsuccessful, as it could not handle sufficient warp threads for manufacturing a good number of complicated patterns, keeping in mind its high cost.
Vaucanson's Automated Loom 1745
The Vaucanson’s silk loom was not fully developed. However, its working principles were implemented in Edmund Cartwright, an English inventor and clergyman, to bring up the first automatic loom 1784. This first power loom was patented in 1785. Initially, this new automated loom was driven by an oxen, which was finally replaced by the James Watt’s steam engine patented in 1769.
In 1786, the steam engine contributed to the establishment of quick automated weaving looms. The credit goes to the introduced cost efficiency.
However, this power loom of Cartwright was not accepted quickly, as his ideas were believed to be infeasible. Further, it was limited to manufacturing plain textiles only. It was only during the 1830s that this loom’s new versions were out to allow a weaver and a helper to manage four looms at once.
Nevertheless, the efforts of Bouchon, Falcon, Vaucanson, and Cartwright did not go in vain. These efforts were finally brought together to come up with the first economically feasible automated loom, called the Jacquard loom in 1801. This is the loom, which is even widely used even in today’s times.
In the 19th century, simplification of automated looms was a major revolution. One such notable example was of the Jacquard loom, which was named so after its inventor from Lyon, Joseph Marie Jacquard.
The Industrial Revolution and boom of automated processes resulted in mass production of plain fabrics at a lower cost than what was in the bygone days. However, skill weavers could not generate anything else than very simple patterns such as stripes and checks. Still, it was expensive to generate complex patterns.
Joseph Jacquard acknowledged that the delicate and intricate job of weaving is a repetitive process. He was of the firm opinion that it is possible to automate weaving of complex patterns just as simple patterns.
Based on this, Jacquard came up with a loom that used rigid pasteboard cards with punched holes of different patterns. At each shuttle throw, a card used to get positioned in the way of rods. In the card, a pattern of holes found the rods that could pass by, which in this way acted as the loom’s program. This control system facilitated different levels of pattern complexity and weaving flexibility.
The main underlying design was the arrangement of hooks and punch cards. The cards were too thick with punched rectangular holes in them. These holds guided the hooks and needles for weaving. Upon coming in contact with the card, the hooks remained still unless a punched hole was detected. Next, the hook passed via the hole with a needle adding another thread to form the pattern.
In simple terms, each row of punched holes in cards corresponds to a single line of design. On each card, several lines of holes are punched and all of these cards holding the fabric design are tied together in order. This simplified weaving textiles with complex patterns like matelassé, damask, and brocade. Intricate patterns were formed with the help of several cards arranged together. For this loom, Jacquard also won a bronze medal.
According to the French records, it was in 1803 when Jacquard came across the Vaucanson’s loom at an exhibition in Paris. Being inspired by it, he brought it in Lyon where he joined the idea of perforated cad with rotating machinery that aimed to regulate shedding. Herein, the cards were drawn individually onto one of the four rotating areas of a square cylinder that converted card’s instructions into hooks.
The loom of Vaucanson pointed out various improvements in the Jacquard’s model, which was then finally perfected in 1804. While Jacquard managed to obtain a patent, the French government detained the loom as the public property in 1806 by paying a small pension and royalty for it. Before that, it was violently resented by the silk weavers who were striving to save their livelihood that could be taken away by this loom.
The punch cards were remarkable, as they enabled weaving complex patterns more efficiency than by hands. They also contributed to the advancement of technology. The new loom reduced the amount of labour as well as facilitated reusing the patterns, as the patterns were now stored on cards. The punch cards revealed that a machine is capable of following a program or an algorithm and storing information. After all, the cards could store information on them. As a result, the technological revolution of computers was triggered.
Jacquard's Automated Loom Design
Detailed Jacquard Loom Walkthrough Video from The Loom Room
In 1835, the automatic shuttle change system was introduced. This machine automatically added weft yarns of different colours. In 1842, Kenworthy and Bullough came up with the Lancashire loom but it was not completely automatic. This was because the loom had to be halted every time the shuttle’s weft yarn was over.
In 1894, the company of George Draper in Massachusetts came up with a fully automatic loom, known as the Northrop loom having a self supplying shuttle. It was invented by James Henry Northrop. This loom was the outcome of efforts of five inventors discussed above. Thus, Northrop introduced the automatic weft supply or prin change in the shuttle.
By 1911, this loom was in used in several mills of Europe and America. However, in Europe despite of wide interest, the high cost of this loom forced several manufacturers to look for a cheaper alternative. Well, these looms were for weaving only plain fabrics with simple figures and stripes generated by handling the warp threads.
It was more problematic to find a device for supplying weft automatically to a drop-box loom that employed filling of many colours. Ginghams and checks are the best known fabrics woven upon drop-box looms.
A few of them had very thin weft stripes, due to which the failure to change shuttles on time, insertion of wrong color thread, or passing of an empty shuttle resulted in a severe fault. These strict requirements and a series of shuttle boxes hindered the invention of an automatic drop-box loom. Nevertheless, this issue was resolved.
In 1895, soon after the Northrop loom, the loom manufacturers named Crompton and Knowles started to try automatic gingham looms in Massachusetts. The first patent was obtained in 1905. Then, for next five years, non-stop refinement led to the loom improvement, now various colours been inserted at preset intervals and implementing electrical detector and safety devices.
Initially, these automatic drop box looms had circular revolving repository, from which shuttles got their bobbins. It was in this repository that the bobbins were set up in a precise order so that the loom always grabs the thread of right color. This kind of repository was then replaced by a vertical stationary one having individual section for each weft colour. Similarly, the detector was succeeded by a mechanical detector that feels the yarn amount on the bobbin whenever the shuttle passes.
Many patents of Northrop loom were used for the novel gingham loom. The auto gingham loom operated as fast as the normal loom doing related work. It also did not stop whenever a bobbin was empty.
Northrop Automated Loom
In the beginning of this century, the arrival of electricity replaced steam machines by big electric motors without removing the pulley system. The mechanization of looms nearly completed in 1940s. The flying shuttle being too bulky and subsequently slow in speed was taken over by the projectile tool in 1945. The tool was also improved later.
However, finally, it was overtaken by a simpler technology called a fluid jet loom invented by Sulzer, a Swiss loom manufacturer. As the name suggests, a pressurized craft of air or water was used to thrust the weft yarn via the warp. It is surprisingly the chief technology in use in mass production via weaving even today. These jet looms are fast enough to weave up to 85 inches of width.
During the 1950s, automatic weft twisting on the weaving unit became commercially feasible. This was evident in the Unifil system of the Leesona company.
Just as Jet, many other shuttleless looms were introduced in the middle of this century, which used mechanisms such as grippers and rapier. Gripper machines employed a small projectile raising a weft from a side supply and taking it to the other side. On the other hand, rapier machines employed a narrow but long rod moving from a side and picking a weft yarn.
These shuttleless looms give fabrics without a selvage, due to the weft not being an incessant yarn. One can seal the edges by using resin or heat. Until now, these looms were restricted only to high volume weaving. Nevertheless, shuttle looms are even in use today for weaving simple stuff in low-wage areas as well as for high quality fabrics.
During the 1970s, the concept of multiphase loom boomed, wherein all loom tasks occurred simultaneously. The latest multiphase loom is capable of generating 1.5 yards in a minute.
During the 1980s, CAM/CAM or computer-aided design and manufacture technology was introduced due to which the design process started taking only 24 hours instead of several weeks or months. These samples of this design are capable of replacing the literally woven samples due to which it became possible to produce them instantly and transfer electronically anywhere.
So, the history of automated looms shows that inventions are not erratic or random. All growth in automatic looms is the outcome of stretched efforts directed toward a certain direction.