The Domestic System (Classroom Activity)

In the 18th Century the production of textiles was the most important industry in Britain. As A. L. Morton, the author of A People's History of England (1938) has pointed out: "Though employing far fewer people than agriculture, the clothing industry became the decisive feature of English economic life, what which marked it off sharply from that of most other European countries and determined the direction and speed of its development."

During this period most of the cloth was produced in the family home and therefore became known as the domestic system. There were three main stages to making cloth. Carding was usually done by children. This involved using a hand-card that removed and untangled the short fibres from the mass. Hand cards were essentially wooden blocks fitted with handles and covered with short metal spikes. The spikes were angled and set in leather. The fibres were worked between the spikes and, be reversing the cards, scrapped off in rolls (cardings) about 12 inches long and just under an inch thick.

The mother turned these cardings into a continuous thread (yarn). The distaff, a stick about 3 ft long, was held under the left arm, and the fibres of wool drawn from it were twisted spirally by the forefinger and thumb of the right hand. As the thread was spun, it was wound on the spindle. The spinning wheel was invented in Nuremberg in the 1530s. It consisted of a revolving wheel operated by treadle and a driving spindle.

Finally, the father used a handloom to weave the yarn into cloth. The handloom was brought to England by the Romans. The process consisted of interlacing one set of threads of yarn (the warp) with another (the weft). The warp threads are stretched lengthwise in the weaving loom. The weft, the cross-threads, are woven into the warp to make the cloth.

In 1733 John Kay devised the Flying Shuttle. By pulling a string, the shuttle was rapidly sent from one side of the loom to the other. This invention not only doubled the speed of cloth production, but also enabled large looms to be operated by one person. When Kay showed his invention to the local weavers it received a mixed reception. Some saw it as a way to increase their output. Other weavers were very angry as they feared that it would put them out of work.

By the 1760s, weavers all over Britain were using the Flying Shuttle. However, the increased speed of weaving meant there was now a shortage of yarn. Kay therefore set himself the task of improving the traditional spinning-wheel. When local spinners heard about Kay's plans, his house was broken into and the machine he was working on was destroyed.

Kay was so upset by what had, happened that he left Britain and went to live in France. Others continued with his work and eventually James Hargreaves, a weaver from Blackburn, invented the Spinning-jenny. By turning a single wheel, the operator could now spin eight threads at once. Later, improvements were made that enabled this number to be increased to eighty. By the end of the 1780s there were an estimated 20,000 of these machines being used in Britain.

The woven cloth was sold to merchants called clothiers who visited the village with their trains of pack-horses. These men became the first capitalists. To increase production they sometimes they sold raw wool to the spinners. They also sold yarn to weavers who were unable to get enough from family members. Some of the cloth was made into clothes for people living in this country. However, a large amount of cloth was exported to Europe.

Primary Sources

(Source 1) This painting of a spinning-wheel appeared in George Walker, The Costume of Yorkshire (1814)
(Source 1) This painting of a spinning-wheel appeared in George Walker, The Costume of Yorkshire (1814)


(Source 2) Daniel Defoe, A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724)

The nearer we came to Halifax, we found the houses thicker, and the villages greater. The sides of hills, which were very steep, were spread with houses; for the land being divided into small enclosures, that is to say, from two acres to six or seven acres each, seldom more; every three or four pieces of land had a house belonging to it.

Their business is the clothing trade. Each clothier must keep a horse, perhaps two, to fetch and carry for the use of his manufacture, to fetch home his wool and his provisions from the market, to carry his yarn to the spinners, his manufacture to the fulling mill, and, when finished, to the market to be sold.

Among the manufacturers' houses are likewise scattered an infinite number of cottages or small dwellings, in which dwell the workmen which are employed, the women and children of whom, are always busy carding, spinning, etc. so that no hands being unemployed all can gain their bread, even from the youngest to the ancient; anyone above four years old works.

(Source 3) Cotton imported into Britain (1741-1800)

















(Source 4) William Radcliffe, The Origin of the New System of Manufacture (1828) page 59

In the year 1770... the father of the family would earn from eight to ten shillings at his loom, and his sons... along side of him, six to eight shillings per week... it required six to eight hands to prepare and spin yarn for each weaver... every person from the age of seven to eighty years (who retained their sight and could move their hands) could earn... one to three shillings per week.

(Source 5) This drawing of a woman using a spinning-wheel appeared in 1835.
(Source 5) This drawing of a woman using a spinning-wheel appeared in 1835.


(Source 6) Richard Guest, A History of the Cotton Manufacture (1823)

The cotton, after being picked and cleaned, was spread upon a hand card, and was brushed, scraped or combed with the other, until the fibres of the cotton went in one direction; it was then taken off in soft fleecy rolls, about twelve inches long, and three quarters of an inch in diameter. These rolls, called cardings, were converted into a coarse thread, by twisting one end to the spindle of a hand-wheel, turning the wheel which moved the spindle with the right hand, and at the same time drawing out the carding with the left.

(Source 7) Edward Baines, The History of the Cotton Manufacture (1835)

In the year 1738, John Kay... suggested a mode of throwing the shuttle, which enabled the weaver to make nearly twice as much cloth as he could make before... In about 1764 James Hargreaves constructed a machine called a Spinning Jenny... instead of gaining for its inventor admiration and gratitude, the spinners raised an outcry... and a mob broke into Hargreaves' house and destroyed his jenny.

George Walker, Clothiers (1814)
(Source 8) George Walker, Clothiers (1814)

(Source 9) Samuel Bamford, Early Days (1849)

The farming was generally done by the husband and other males of the family, whilst the wife and daughters attended the churning, cheese-making, and household work; and when that was finished, they busied themselves with carding and spinning wool or cotton, as well as forming it into warps for the looms. The husbands and sons would next, at times when farm labour did not call them, size the warp, dry it, and beam it in the loom. A farmer would generally have three or four looms in the house, and then - what with the farming, the housework, the carding, spinning and weaving - there was ample employment for the family.

(Source 10) George Walker, The Costume of Yorkshire (1814)

The manufacture of cloth affords employment to the major part of the lower class of people in the north-west districts of the West Riding of Yorkshire. These cloth-makers reside almost entirely in the villages, and bring their cloth on market-days for sale in the great halls erected for that purpose at Leeds and Huddersfield.

Questions for Students

Question 1: Describe how the domestic system worked. Why was the domestic system popular with the British people?

Question 2: What was the object at the bottom right-hand corner of source 5 used for?

Question 3: Why was there a shortage of yarn in Britain in the 1760?

Question 4: Study sources 1, 4, 5 and 7. Explain the advantages and disadvantages of Hargreaves' invention.

Question 5: Do the sources in this unit suggest that people stopped using the spinning-wheel after Hargreaves inventing the Spinning Jenny?

Question 5: Give as many reasons as you can why cotton imports increased in the 18th century.

Answer Commentary

A commentary on these questions can be found here.