Invention of the Spinning Jenny

The spinning jenny, invented by James Hargreaves in 1764, was the first in a series of inventions that adapted mechanical power to the production of textiles. It laid the foundations for the vast expansion of output achieved by the textile industry in the Industrial Revolution.

Summary of Event

The decade of the 1760’s was a period of great technological innovation in Britain. In particular, two devices invented during that decade transformed the production of textiles. The first of these, the spinning jenny, was the work of James Hargreaves, a weaver and carpenter whose experiences and skills gave impetus to the series of inventions that turned spinning and weaving from crafts into industries. [kw]Invention of the Spinning Jenny (1764)
[kw]Jenny, Invention of the Spinning (1764)
[kw]Spinning Jenny, Invention of the (1764)
Spinning jennies
[g]England;1764: Invention of the Spinning Jenny[1750]
[c]Inventions;1764: Invention of the Spinning Jenny[1750]
[c]Manufacturing;1764: Invention of the Spinning Jenny[1750]
[c]Science and technology;1764: Invention of the Spinning Jenny[1750]
Hargreaves, James
Crompton, Samuel
Kay, John
Arkwright, Sir Richard

Although nothing is known of Hargreaves’s birth and family, he appears to have been established as a handloom weaver in the town of Standhill by 1750. By that date, the flying shuttle of John Kay was beginning to transform weaving, increasing the output achieved by weavers using handlooms. This increased production capacity of handlooms, in turn, increased the demand for yarn. Yarn, however, was still produced predominantly by hand spinners working with spinning wheels in their own homes. This preindustrial arrangement was often inadequate to fulfill the demand of the growing textile industry, a demand that Hargreaves set out to satisfy.

Before cotton could be woven on a loom, it had to be carded and converted to a loose, rope-like form called a “roving.” It then had to be twisted under steady pressure to form yarn, a thread strong enough to withstand the weaving process. The technical problem that Hargreaves needed to solve was how to replace the human fingers of the spinner operating a spinning wheel with mechanical devices that could simulate the twisting action of the spinner’s fingers. His solution was the jenny, a device resembling the loom itself in its general design. Built on a square wooden frame, it used four spindles in place of the single spindle employed by the spinning wheel.

The jenny passed the roving through sets of rollers revolving at different speeds. This process twisted the roving while at the same time applying pressure to the strand so that the fibers were gradually stretched out to the fineness of thread. After passing through the rollers, the thread was wound under tension onto spindles on which bobbins were mounted that could then be transferred directly to the loom.

Hargreaves’s machine made possible a fourfold, later an eightfold, expansion in the quantity of yarn a single spinner could produce, thereby enabling English spinners to supply the quantity of yarn required by English weavers. A further advantage of the jenny was that it required very little physical strength to operate and could therefore be “tended” by children.

At the same time that Hargreaves was developing the spinning jenny, another inventor, Sir Richard Arkwright, was creating another spinning machine called the water frame. Water frames Unlike the spinning jenny, the water frame bore little resemblance to the loom, but like the jenny, the water frame used rollers to simulate the twisting effect of human fingers. It also used multiple spindles, so that production was increased fourfold or more over that of preindustrial spinning methods.

Hargreaves began using his machine to supply the material for his own looms. Although he apparently completed the work on the jenny in 1764, he did not immediately apply for a patent for it. As word got around that such a machine existed, he sold a few copies of it to others. Then, in 1768, spinners who had learned of the jenny and feared the loss of their livelihood gathered into a mob that burst into Hargreaves’s home and destroyed both the machine and the home. Hargreaves moved to Nottingham and formed a business on a small scale, producing yarn with his invention.

In 1770, Hargreaves applied for a patent on the spinning jenny. As news of the jenny spread, many manufacturers in Lancashire began using pirated versions of it. Hargreaves tried to protect his patent by suing, but in the course of legal action it was revealed that he had sold copies of the machine in the late 1760’s, before he had applied for a patent, and this circumstance led to the invalidation of his patent. Hargreaves himself died in 1778, but his widow and son attempted by legal action to maintain his rights to the spinning jenny, though without success.

James Hargreaves’s spinning jenny, shown in this early photograph, was used well into the nineteenth century.

(Library of Congress)

The pirated jennies were not the only source of Hargreaves’s legal battles: The virtually contemporaneous water frame of Richard Arkwright, which also used rollers to twist the roving as it was converted into yarn, led to litigation to determine who was the actual innovator of this use of rollers. Arkwright patented his machine and thereby laid claim to the invention of the rollers, but the evidence seems to indicate that both men used rollers as an integral part of the spinning process. Their inventions were developed at the same time, so it is impossible to attribute the concept to one or the other. Hargreaves’s machine, however, had the advantage that it could be operated by a single individual without the use of additional power, and this advantage led to its being adopted by a number of spinners who were operating on too small a scale to justify the application of power, whether such power was generated by a water wheel or by a steam engine.

Neither Hargreaves nor Arkwright was successful in defending his patent against those who copied their machines. Arkwright, however, built up a substantial business on the basis of his frame, which he adapted to the use of water power, whereas Hargreaves’s jenny continued to be used on a small scale by individuals in small workshops. The yarn produced by Arkwright’s frame could be used for the manufacture of stockings, whereas the yarn produced by Hargreaves’s machine was not strong enough to be used in a variety of applications. Neither machine produced yarn of the necessary fineness, or count, to be used in the weaving of the light cotton materials that were then rapidly coming into popularity, so both machines were soon superseded by a machine that combined the features of both, the spinning mule, invented by Samuel Crompton. The mule produced yarn with counts up to three hundred, more than ten times the maximum possible on a Hargreaves machine, and as it also could be enlarged and adapted to the use of water power, and later, steam power, the mule became the dominant machine in the textile industry.


Although Hargreaves’s spinning jenny was soon superseded, his work was the first to use mechanical ingenuity to increase output on a large scale. Unlike the flying shuttle, which created the demand for more yarn, the spinning jenny was not merely a tool, helping workers to work. It was a machine that used mechanical power to amplify human labor power, greatly multiplying the productivity a spinner could achieve. This use of machines in spinning set the stage for the Industrial Revolution, in which the production of goods occurred on a mass scale in factory situations.

Further Reading

  • Cardwell, D. S. L. Turning Points in Western Technology. New York: Neale Watson Science History, 1972. Concise description of the textile inventions of the eighteenth century, along with a few diagrams.
  • Chapman, S. D. The Cotton Industry in the Industrial Revolution. London: Macmillan, 1972. Sets the inventions of the eighteenth century in the larger context of the Industrial Revolution.
  • Floud, Roderick, and Paul Johnson. The Cambridge Economic History of Modern Britain. Vol. 1. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Provides the most detailed and clear explanation of the nature of the various textile inventions, complete with a number of line drawings of the different machines to facilitate understanding.
  • Mann, Julia de L. “The Textile Industry: Machinery for Cotton, Flax, Wool, 1760-1850.” In A History of Technology, edited by Charles Singer. Vol. 1. New York: Oxford University Press, 1958. This chapter in the classic, multivolume history of technology explains at some length the nature of the technological innovations, complete with line drawings.
  • Mokyr, Joel. The Lever of Riches: Technological Creativity and Economic Progress. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. Although the treatment is brief, the book contains a diagram showing how the innovation of Hargreaves was able to transform the production of yarn.

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Darby Invents Coke-Smelting

Kay Invents the Flying Shuttle

Watt Develops a More Effective Steam Engine

Invention of the Water Frame

Crompton Invents the Spinning Mule

Cartwright Patents the Steam-Powered Loom

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Sir Richard Arkwright; James Hargreaves; John Kay. Spinning jennies