The constant innovations of weaving and the weaving loom played a pivotal role during the industrial revolution. This period would see the rise of automated mechanical weaving looms, which allowed for mass production of textiles, without the need of skilled weavers to operate them. Unsurprisingly, these innovations weren't all that popular with the skilled weavers!
Instead of skilled labour, the machines would use punched paper rolls or punch cards to replicate the pattern consistently and without the need of an experienced weaver. These automated looms were the computers of their time and the punch card concept would later be used by Charles Babbage to invent the first programmable computer.
Before any mechanical inventions existed, looms for weaving were operated entirely by hand. These looms are called drawlooms, and their origins are considered to be from Asia and likely invented for silk weaving.
In 1605, Lyon, France, a French weaver by the name of Claude Dangon improved the drawloom design quite significantly, by simplifying the intricate design and tripling its capacity. This model is known as the lever drawloom, which saw continued use until the early 19th century for damasks. Even with the improved the lever drawloom, production was slow and tiresome. Weavers were paid on the length of cloth they produced, which was typically less than 10cms per day. For the more complex patterns, weavers also employed an assistant, who would need to be paid by the weaver.
Mechanization of weaving started to intensify in the 18th century. During this period, many improvements were introduced to increase the speed of weaving. The most significant being the Spinning jenny which was invented in Britain by James Hargreaves in 1764.
Before the introduction of the Spinning Jenny, one weaver was required to generate the output of three to four spinners. This period also marked the acceptance of progress in loom technology, which was assisted by ongoing improvements in the spinning technology.
While the handloom was around, it faced a significant transformation in 1733 with the introduction of the Flying Shuttle by John Kay, a British weaver and 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 restricted the material’s width. For making big pieces, weavers passed the shuttle to each other, which 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 with a width broader than 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 concept resulted in partial automation of the tedious draw loom process and is believed to be the first industrial semi-automated weaving loom.
Basile Bouchon's Semi-automated Loom 1725, on display at CNAM, Paris, France
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 continuous 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 an excellent silk weaver. He worked on the above model and expanded the number of cords. He did so by organising holes in rows as well as by utilising 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 device was semi-automated.
Jean Baptiste Falcon's Semi-automated Loom 1728, on display at CNAM, Paris, France
However, the first attempt at making the mechanism mentioned above entirely automated occurred 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 design but in an upper position 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. Unfortunately for Vaucanson, this automated method was unsuccessful, as it could not handle sufficient warp threads for manufacturing a good number of complicated patterns. The weaving loom was also expensive and had high running costs as well.
Vaucanson's Automated Loom 1745, on display at CNAM, Paris, France
The Vaucanson’s silk loom was never fully developed. However, its working principles were eventually implemented by Edmund Cartwright, an English inventor and clergyman, to bring up the first automatic loom in 1784. This first power loom was patented in 1785. Initially, this newly designed automated loom was driven by an ox. The ox was later replaced by the James Watt’s steam engine, patented in 1769.
In 1786, the steam engine contributed to the establishment of faster 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 unfeasible. Further, it was limited to manufacturing plain textiles only. It was during the 1830s that this loom’s new versions were out to allow a weaver and an assistant 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.
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 much lower cost than what it was in the past. However, the mechanised looms could not generate anything other than simple and highly repetitive 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 intricate patterns just as it was for simple designs.
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 into 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 the perforated card with rotating machinery that aimed to regulate shedding. 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 complex weaving patterns and was far more efficient than weaving by hand. 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, on display at the Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester England
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 entirely automatic as 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 an entirely 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 the inventors discussed above. Thus, Northrop introduced the automatic weft supply or prin change in the shuttle.
By 1911, this loom was in use at several mills in Europe and America. However, in Europe, despite broad interest, the high cost of this loom forced several manufacturers to look for a cheaper alternative.
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 the wrong colour 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 a 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 correct coloured thread. This kind of repository was then replaced by a vertical stationary one having an 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 traditional loom doing related work. It also did not stop whenever a bobbin was empty.
Northrop Automated Loom
At the beginning of this century, the arrival of electricity replaced steam machines by big electric motors without removing the pulley system. The mechanisation of looms nearly completed in the 1940s. The flying shuttle being too bulky and subsequently too slow was taken over by the projectile tool in 1945. The device 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 pressurised craft of air or water was used to thrust the weft yarn via the warp. It is surprisingly the leading 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 and 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 applied a narrow but long rod moving from a side and picking a weft yarn.
These shuttleless looms give fabrics without a selvedge, 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 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 were introduced due to which the design process started taking only 24 hours instead of several weeks or months. The samples of this model are capable of replacing the woven samples due to which it became possible to produce them instantly and transfer electronically anywhere.