The Flying Shuttle

For centuries handloom weaving had been carried out on the basis of the shuttle bearing the yarn being passed slowly and awkwardly from one hand to the other. In 1733 John Kay patented his flying shuttle that dramatically increased the speed of this process. Kay placed shuttle boxes at each side of the loom connected by a long board, known as a shuttle race. By means of cords attached to a picking peg, a single weaver, using one hand, could cause the shuttle to be knocked back and forth across the loom from one shuttle box to the other. A weaver using Kay's flying shuttle could produce much wider cloth at faster speeds than before.

Handloom Weaver using Kay's Flying Shuttle
Handloom Weaver using Kay's Flying Shuttle

Primary Sources

(1) Edward Baines, The History of the Cotton Manufacture (1935)

In 1738, Mr. John Kay, a native of Bury, in Lancashire, then residing at Colchester, where the woollen manufacture was at that time carried on, suggested a mode of throwing the shuttle, which enabled the weaver to make nearly twice as much cloth as he could make before. The old mode was, to throw the shuttle with the hand, which required a constant extension of the hands to each side of the warp. By the new plan, the lathe (in which the shuttle runs) was lengthened a foot at either end; and, by means of two strings attached to the opposite ends of the lathe, and both held by a peg in the weaver's hand, he, with a slight and sudden pluck, was able to give the proper impulse to the shuttle. The shuttle thus impelled was called the flying-shuttle, and the peg called the picking-peg (i.e. the throwing peg). This simple contrivance was a great saving of time and exertion to the weaver, and enabled one man to weave the widest cloth, which had before required two persons.

(2) Richard Guest, History of Cotton Manufacture (1823)

John Kay brought this ingenious invention to his native town, and introduced it among the woollen weavers, in the same year, but it was not much used among the cotton weavers until 1760. In that year Robert Kay, of Bury, son of John Kay, invented the drop-box, by means of which the weaver can at pleasure use any of three shuttles, each containing a different coloured weft, without the trouble of taking them from and replacing them in the lathe.