Wool, Cotton, Spinning, Yarn, Plying, Loom and Flying Shuttle

Posted by PITHOCRATES - May 15th, 2013

Technology 101

Cotton and Wool are two Excellent Fibers that Entrap Air

Some animals migrate.  Some stick it out during the winter.  As the glaciers retreated some animals followed them.  Eating the new flora that grew in the earth once covered by the glaciers.  And man followed these animals.  And stuck around for the winter, too.  Because after eating these animals they wore their skins.  Which kept them from freezing to death during the winter.

What is it about fur that keeps both animal and man warm?  Air.  Air entrapped within the fur fiber provided insulation.  A thick matt of fur provided a lot of entrapped air.  And a lot of insulation.  Which worked better on animals than man.  As fur fully covered an animal while man could only drape animal pelts across parts of his body.  And had to supplement the warming insulation of animal pelts with the warmth of fire.  In time, though, man would figure out how better to cover his body in fur.  And other fibers.

As man thought more he did more.  Developing tools.  Like the plow.  That helped him farm the land.  Growing food.  And cotton.  He also learned how to domesticate and raise animals.  Like sheep.  Which grew wool.  Cotton and wool are two excellent fibers that entrap air.  And became the leading fibers of the Industrial Revolution.  As we took the raw fiber and turned it into clothing.

When Twisting Plies together we Twist them in the Opposite Direction of the Twist of the Singles

Of course, the cotton fiber grown on a plant is not that long.  Neither is the length of wool sheep grow.  Yet after processing this fiber we get long lengths of it.  We can put together these short lengths of fiber to make longer lengths of yarn because they have rough surfaces.  Which makes them bind together when we twist these fibers together.  A process we call spinning.  But before we spin we must first clean any foreign matter from the fiber.  And align the short lengths to run parallel to each other.  (A process we call carding.)  We used to manually comb these fibers.  Then we automated the process.  Such as using Eli Whitney’s hand-cranked cotton gin.  Or machinery in water-powered mills.  To the large mills of today.

After carding we get rovings.  Smooth bundles of slightly twisted fibers.  Which we feed into the spinning machine.  Which started out as a foot-operated spinning wheel in the home that spun hand-combed fiber that looked a little like cotton candy.  Where the ‘women folk’ sat at these machines for hours feeding this fiber into the machine.  Running the fiber through their slightly punched fingers.  Holding it back to let the spinning wheel stretch and twist the fiber into yarn.  The automated spinning mill pulls and twists numerous rovings into yarn at one time.  Filling rows of bobbins with thin yarn.

To thicken up these yarns for weaving into cloth to make warm clothing (more entrapped air) we twist these single yarns (singles) with other singles.  When twisting these plies together we twist them in the opposite direction of the twist of the singles.  To balance the twist.  Instead of tightening the original twist in the singles.  When we twist two strands together we call it 2-ply.  When we twist three strands together we call it 3-ply.  And so on.    The end product of this plying is what we use to weave into cloth.  On looms originally operated by the ‘men folk’.  Due to the strength requirements to operate a hand loom.

The Flying Shuttle removed the Width Limitation of the Woven Cloth

We weave on a loom.  Which basically holds threads of yarn in one direction.  With a lifting device to lift every other thread (or some other combination of threads).  We then pass another thread (on a shuttle) between the lifted and un-lifted threads.  Tap it down (or batten it).  Lower the lifted threads.  And lift the adjacent threads.  Then pass the shuttle back the other way between the lifted and un-lifted threads.  Then repeat.  Again and again.  A man’s reach to feed the shuttle into the loom from either side limited the width of the woven cloth.  The addition of an apprentice allowed wider cloth.  But the added cost of an apprentice made the cloth more expensive.  Then came the flying shuttle.

The flying shuttle was a ‘hands-free’ shuttle.  It flew back and forth between two boxes.  A tug on a cord triggered the mechanism in one box to propel the shuttle across the loom.  Another tug on a cord triggered the mechanism in the other box.  Propelling the shuttle back the other way.  The flying shuttle removed the width limitation of the woven cloth.  Consumed so much yarn that a shortage of yarn sparked the mechanization of the spinning industry.  Eliminated the need of an apprentice.  And allowed the mechanization of the loom.  Introducing the power loom.  That unskilled women could operate.  They mass produced cloth which lowered the price for the garment industry.  But it also eliminated the need of skilled and muscular hand-weavers.  Throwing a lot of men out of work.  Leading to the anti-technology rebellion of the Luddite movement (1811-1817) in the textile capital of the world.  England.  Where people went around smashing these new textile machines.

But the Luddites could not stop the march of progress.  The spinning and weaving industries became more mechanized.  Technology not only made better machines but it introduced new synthetic fibers.  Like nylon.  And polyester.  Which may not have felt as good as natural fiber.  But it offered certain benefits natural fiber didn’t.  It was stronger.  It didn’t wrinkle as much.  It held its color better.  And it was more wind and water resistant than natural fiber.  Some of these benefits were so advantageous that we blended them with natural fiber during the spinning process.  Allowing us not only to entrap air.  But protect us from the elements.  Just like the animal pelts early man draped over his body.  Only better.



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