antique textiles Hand spinning History Huddersfield

Beyond the Spin Count

Lion statue, Lion Buildings, Huddersfield. Image © Copyright David Ward  Wiki Commons

Huddersfield, yesterday. And having an hour to kill, I found the Local History section of the Library.  I didn’t have time to look for my Huddersfield ancestors, wool weavers and dyers the Smiths, Dawsons and Listers ~ but did find this info I wanted to share, in a fascinating book, ‘The Water-Spinners’, by Chris Aspin, (Helmshire Local History Society, 2003).

The book discusses the textile industry’s widespread adoption of Arkwright’s Water Frame, and why and how it overtook the older invention, Hargreaves’ Spinning Jenny.

Chris Aspin starts off by  discussing some of the reasons handspun was superseded by millspun yarn and the eventual pre-eminence of Arkwright’s Water Frame over older technologies like spinning wheels and the Jenny. The Jenny had come about partly as a response to clothiers needed more yarn than handspinners could provide. But it had its limitations. Handspinners had yet more…

“As well as reaching the manufacturer in irregular sizes, home-spun yarn… was the subject of complaint for many years…” He says. He goes on to quote the historian of the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce, who was discussing the poor quality of homespun flax, said that manufacturers understood handspun’s faults only “too well” – and to their cost. Common faults included:

‘…Slack twine, ill thum’d and spun dry, hard twine, thumb knots, different colours in the same hank, slip ekes [slubby lengths?], coarse pieces, roaney or having the show of straw adhering, spun beyond the grist and hairy, check spales, [badly prepared flax] lumpy, low-spun [not enough twist], etc… ‘ These faults the directors attribute in a great measure to carelessness and inattention, as well as ignorance of the art of spinning. ‘Many,’ they say, ‘where yarn is spun, do not even know how to make a “weaver’s knot”…’

We all know about handspinners spinning “too thick”. But what about those who spin “too thin”? Ie: Spinning “beyond the (Bradford) Count” ~ which is apparently, something some contemporary spinners feel they should aim for.  Yet it is a pointless exercise. Anyone who is routinely spinning beyond Count would, in any case, be spinning cheese-wire and failing to understand how to harness the characteristics of a given wool.

For one thing, Bradford Counts were intended for measuring the grist (thickness) of worsted, not woollen yarn – yet spinning so fine the spinner goes beyond Count is something mentioned in the context of woollen spinning, as well as worsted. For another – the Counts were only a guideline, and deliberately spinning below them was, to our ancestors, the hallmark of a poor spinner. As Mabel Ross remarks in her ‘Encyclopedia of Handspinning’, the Counts were rarely spun to, in industry. They were a broad indication of the fineness of the wool’s staple, and as such, a hint how fine to spin the wool. Ignoring the Count by going beyond it,  is a failure to understand the nature of your raw material.

But there was another reason cited, for poor spinning. And although the source here is discussing Midlands manufacturers, it would be equally true for our West Riding wool spinners, bearing in mind that spinning was, most definitely, fitted in around agricultural labour and household chores.

William Gardiner, the Leicester hosier, gave another reason for irregular [handspun] yarn. ‘As an old manufacturer, I may mention that for the first month after harvest, the work was always worse done than at any other time, owing to the hardening of hands in the harvest work…

West Riding clothiers had to wait on handspinners less in the winter months, when they had more time to spin, according to various sources.(See booklist here).

My final bit of rapid reading gave me this fascinating insight, also from William Gardiner:

In the year 1780, I assisted in knocking to pieces for firewood Hargreaves’ spinning jennies… in consequence of their being superseded by Arkwright’s invention…


A 1775 Water Frame, now at Manchester Museum of Science & Technology. Image from Wikimedia Commons, courtesy Chris55

Arkwright’s Water Frame spun a superior yarn to the Jenny – finally a machine was able to spin a yarn that could compete with a Great Wheel spun wool warp although, as we have seen, it took another thirty years or so to thoroughly oust the Great Wheel from farms and cottages.

  Arkwright’s Water Frame was pre-eminent by the 1780s and manufacturers could begin to rely on wool spun more consistently than by the handspinner or the jenny. And one thing they wanted to eliminate was… wool spun “beyond Count”.

Will be back in Huddersfield next month and this time for a day in the Archives.




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