Invention of the Flax Spinner

While visiting Great Britain, Robert Fulton invented a flax-spinning machine that would significantly advance the American textile industry, although it would ironically be used for spinning cotton and wool rather than flax. The steam-powered spinning machine built upon the legacy of English inventors and contributed to the rapid growth of textile mills during the Industrial Revolution in the United States.

Summary of Event

In 1795, American engineer Robert Fulton Fulton, Robert invented a steam-powered flax-spinning machine that could run multiple spinning frames from the same engine. Fulton drew upon the technology invented by English engineers that enabled England’s textile production to move from rural cottage industries Cottage industry to urban industrial factories. These inventions, collectively, expanded the capacity of textile mills Textile mills in terms of workers and production, leading to the factory system in England and, by 1800, the entry of the United States into the world textile market. [kw]Invention of the Flax Spinner (1795)
[kw]Flax Spinner, Invention of the (1795)
Flax spinners
Spinning technology
Textile industry
Machines;textile manufacturing
Industrial Revolution;textiles
Steam engines;textile industry
[g]England;1795: Invention of the Flax Spinner[3180]
[g]United States;1795: Invention of the Flax Spinner[3180]
[c]Inventions;1795: Invention of the Flax Spinner[3180]
[c]Science and technology;1795: Invention of the Flax Spinner[3180]
[c]Science and technology, agriculture;1795: Invention of the Flax Spinner[3180]
[c]Manufacturing;1795: Invention of the Flax Spinner[3180]
Fulton, Robert
Arkwright, Sir Richard
Crompton, Samuel
Hargreaves, James
Marshall, John
Watt, James

Several eighteenth century inventions prepared the way for the flax spinner. In 1765, James Hargreaves, of Blackburn, England, had invented the spinning jenny, Spinning jennies a device that could twist and spin as many as one thousand threads at once on a single spinning frame. Thus, one person using a spinning jenny could spin as much yarn as twenty to one hundred workers using spinning wheels. Hargreaves took out a patent in 1770 to protect his invention, but copiers made free use of the easily built spinning jenny.

In 1769, Sir Richard Arkwright of Preston, England invented a water-powered spinning frame, Water frames with rollers and flying spindles, that could spin flax, cotton, or wool. Arkwright’s water frame was an improvement over Hargreaves’s spinning jenny in that it could both twist rovings (carded fiber) and spin finished yarn. In 1771, Arkwright founded the first great cotton mill Cotton industry in Cromford, Derbyshire, England, thereby becoming the father of the factory system in England. His was the first mill to employ children, which became standard practice in English textile factories as devices such as the water frame made it possible for workers with less strength than an adult male to operate heavy machinery.

In 1774, Samuel Crompton Crompton, Samuel combined the rollers of Arkwright’s water frame and the carriage of Hargreaves’s spinning jenny and created his spinning mule Spinning mules (thus named because it was a hybrid). Crompton’s mule ran up to thirty spindles and could spin both warp and weft threads. Crompton’s machine was adopted throughout the world. In 1785, James Watt’s steam engine was applied to spinning machinery, and the shift from waterpower to steam power began.

In 1788, John Marshall and his two partners, draper Samuel Fenton Fenton, Samuel and linen merchant Ralph Dearlove, Dearlove, Ralph leased Scotland Mill, near Leeds, and established the first flax mill Flax mills there. The machines in Marshall’s mill did not work well at first, and Marshall asked engineer Matthew Murray Murray, Matthew to help him. By 1790, the firm was producing good quality yarn, and Marshall was ready to terminate his lease at Scotland Mill and build a new steam-powered factory. He moved to Holbeck, just outside Leeds, and built Temple Mill. He installed a twenty-horsepower Boulton and Watt steam engine, twenty-eight handlooms, fourteen spinning frames, and fourteen carding engines. By 1793, the mill employed two hundred workers and produced eighty-five tons of cloth for sale annually. Marshall established a second mill at Castle Foregate, and his business grew rapidly over the next two decades, becoming a major producer of linen fabrics. With the exception of Marshall’s mill, however, flax mills were rare until the nineteenth century.

In 1787, coincidental with the rise of steam-powered textile mills in England, American engineer Robert Fulton arrived in that country. Even before he left Philadelphia, Fulton had become interested in the idea of using steam engines to power boats. Fulton’s genius was in seeing what the market needed, looking at what had been invented by others, and seeking ways to improve upon those devices and to market his improvements. For seven years, however, Fulton ignored these talents and worked instead to become a gentleman artist. He became adept in charming noblemen, becoming a guest in their households and making valuable contacts.

In 1793, Fulton returned to engineering. He was intrigued by the idea of applying James Watt’s rotary steam engine to power sailing vessels and focused on improving England’s canal system. In 1794, Fulton patented his double-inclined plane for canals, Canals which he believed would do away with the need for water cisterns to raise and lower canal levels. In 1794, he patented steam-powered machines for sawing marble, dredging canals, and making rope, and in 1795 he patented a steam-powered flax-spinning machine. Apparently, Fulton’s flax-spinning machine was patented only in England and never in the United States. The manuscripts containing descriptions of Fulton’s 1794-1796 inventions were lost in a shipwreck in transit from Paris to the United States in 1804.

After the American Revolution, textile manufacturers in the United States adopted the Arkwright machine, expanding textile production and establishing new mills in the northeastern and southern coastal states. Despite England’s law of 1774 forbidding export of its textile machinery, the new inventions reached America. In 1789, one of the earliest American factories to make use of the spinning jenny was that of Hugh Templeton Templeton, Hugh at Stateburg, Sumter District, South Carolina. Waterpower propelled the ginning, carding, and spinning machines at Templeton’s factory, the latter of which drove eighty-four spindles each. In 1790, Rhode Island’s first textile mill was established by Samuel Slater and Moses Brown. With the advent of steam power, mills in the Northeast and the South were set for explosive growth early in the next century.

Flax mills, as in Britain, were virtually nonexistent in the United States in the late eighteenth century. Settlers from Europe had brought flax seed for planting, and most farmers and planters raised flax for their own use, but converting flax to linen was labor intensive, and there were no large commercial producers of flax. Flax fiber had to be harvested by hand-pulling the plants completely out of the ground, as the fiber extended into the roots. It was then dried in the field, the seeds were removed by combing, and the fiber was then submerged in a pool or lake, weighed down with stones, where it rotted. The process could take up to three weeks, depending on the method and temperature of the water. After rotting, the flax would be sent to the mill, where scutching rollers would break up and separate the usable fiber from the woody portions of the stalk. Next, the fibers were cleaned and straightened by combing. Then the flax fiber was ready for carding, drawing, roving, and spinning, in the same manner as cotton. The final treatment before spinning depended on the finish desired for the linen cloth and its use.

The availability and relative ease of production of cotton and wool and the absence of commercial cultivation of flax for fiber in the United States led to a concentration of wool and cotton mills in the American textile industry. Flax was cultivated for fiber mostly in Spain, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Ireland, and on several English estates. In the United States, flax was cultivated commercially for harvesting the seed, a source of flax oil and linseed oil. Fulton’s steam-powered flax-spinning machine was therefore used primarily in cotton and wool mills in the United States.


The advances made in spinning technology during the last quarter of the eighteenth century led to the rapid rise in industrial textile mills in England. Steam power applied to new inventions had an immediate effect upon the textile industry, ushering in the urban factory system Factories and marking the rapid decline of cottage textile production. Fulton’s steam-powered spinner was one of the last such inventions of the century, and it built upon and improved all the devices invented previously. After the American Revolution, the steam-powered flax-spinning machine, which could spin cotton and wool as well, enabled the fledgling textile industry of the United States to grow rapidly and enter the world textile market in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, beginning the rise of the United States as a great industrial power that would culminate in the twentieth century.

Further Reading

  • Editors of American Fabrics Magazine. AF Encyclopedia of Textiles. 2d ed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1972. Lists fibers, fabrics, inventions and inventors related to textile industry. Does not include Robert Fulton.
  • Morgan, John S. Robert Fulton. New York: Mason/Charter, 1977. Candid biography of Fulton, focusing on the late eighteenth century inventions and his schemes for making money in France and England. Bibliography.
  • Raistrick, Arthur. Industrial Archaeology: An Historical Survey. London: Eyre Methuen, 1972. A survey of historic textile mills and machinery in England.
  • Thurston, Robert H. Robert Fulton: His Life and Its Results. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1891. Available at An overview of Fulton’s life and inventions.

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Invention of the Spinning Jenny

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Invention of the Water Frame

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Spinning technology
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