In 1913 the LDS church magazine Improvement Era published a lengthy article written by a missionary who was given a tour of a Preston cotton mill.   Elder Clyde Candland Edmonds reported in great detail the whole process of creating the cotton.  His recollection is a wee bit longer than the normal missionary letter home – but provides a fascinating look behind the scenes.   Initially I was just going to give a few excerpts, but decided to put nearly the whole article in.

NOTE: If you don’t have a great interest in how cotton goods are made most of this post will be of little interest, BUT you must, at least, skim down to the 20th paragraph and read what the cotton workers did when they saw the Mormon Elders coming to their departments.

The rest of this post is entirely In Their Words

Through England’s Cotton Mills

Elders Joel Richards, John H. Tillotson, Alfred C. Swift and myself had the pleasure of visiting the world’s largest longcloth cotton mills, namely, “Horrockses, Crewdson &; Co., Ld., Mills.” This firm has other branches, but it was our privilege to visit the Preston mills.

Horrockses, Crewdson & Co. Mills, Preston

The buildings cover about sixty acres of ground in Preston alone, and some six thousand employees are dependent upon this mill for their daily sustenance. Three hundred thousand spindles and eight thousand looms, not to mention countless other whirring machines, all unite in humming the discordant melody of the cotton mills. From the number of employees mentioned, it can be readily understood what a terrible calamity a coal-strike would be to thousands of English homes, where practically a hand-to-mouth existence is lived, if the mills were obliged to close their doors because of fuel shortage. But to start on our journey.


Steam Engine – the power behind the factory

Our guide took us first to the boiler rooms, where the steam is generated to operate the machinery throughout the mills. Each of the many large boilers has a capacity of 120 to 150 pounds, and by means of a system of “economizing” this pressure can be increased to 300 pounds. From the boilers we went to the engines. The first one we saw is spoken of as “old 36,” being installed in the year 1836. Although it has given nearly eighty years of active service, it still represents 500 horse-power toward the operation of thousands of looms and spindles. We are impressed with the immensity of the drive wheel, and the writer remarked to the guide what a large wheel it was. “We call that a little one,” was the smiling reply. That such was the case, was demonstrated as we entered the next room. Revolving with uniform speed and smoothness, a powerful 28-foot wheel, six feet in thickness, moved on in its endless course. This immense 1400 horse-power engine is the result of untiring effort and study on the part of “little” man. It is marvelous to know that this massive driving wheel which would over-top the ordinary English house, and the powerful engines which send it in its course with tireless energy, are the outcome of human knowledge and ingenuity. The operation of countless scutchers, drawing frames, carding machines, spinning mules and frames and looms which rush on in their pulsing, throbbing, buzzing course, is dependent on these great driving wheels. Now let us return to the cotton.

Cotton, Cotton and more Cotton

We were shown into one of the warehouses where hundreds of bales of cotton were stored, each bale weighing from 500 to 750 pounds. At first sight one would imagine that such an immense quantity of cotton would supply the mills for a considerable length of time, and again the writer ventured to remark what an abundance of cotton was kept on hand. Again a smiling reply came, “This store-room isn’t a ‘flea-bite’ compared with others.” Later we discovered that these mills alone consumed 1,000 bales of American and Egyptian cotton weekly, which amounts to over half a million pounds of raw material in five and a half working days.

American Cotton

The raw cotton is a fluffy mass of minute fibres, being, as we all know, the product of the cotton plant. When gathered and packed into bales it is so tightly compressed that it feels like a hard, solid substance. The quality of the cotton varies considerably and is determined by the length of the fibre, its color and its cleanliness. Each little fibre, under microscope examination, is about 1-2000 of an inch in diameter.


The large, compact bales are opened, the cotton is thrown into machines called “mixers.” These machines mangle the cotton and loosen it up, so that it is soon in its soft fluffy condition again. From the mixing machine it is run on to a wide traveling lattice and carried to its next process, where it is subjected to heavy blows by iron and steel blades, revolving as the sails of a wind mill, only at a speed of 800 revolutions per minute. Thus the cotton is cleansed from seeds, dust or other impurities, while it is rendered as light and fluffy as flakes of snow. It issues from the rollers of this machine in broad white sheets and is then run into another purifying machine called the “Scutcher.” Here the fluffy sheets of cotton wool are brought against large perforated rollers, where a strong draught carries all remaining dust, seeds, etc., out of the cotton. Once more the cotton is flung like flakes of snow against whirling edged bars called “beaters,” which deliver about 1200 blows per minute. Then the cotton fleece issues slowly between two big rollers and is wound into a large roll called “lap.”


This roll, or lap, is placed back of the “carding” machines and passed though rollers against a cylinder containing hundreds of minute needles–in fact, so minute that they run about 600 to the square inch, or about 4,000,000 to the cylinder. These needles separate the cotton fibres and they are brought out in parallel order, after which they pass through a combing process, which removes all short fibres and knots or seeds which may have gotten through the scutcher process. The fibres are brought out of this machine like a soft, continuous cord. By this time, each fibre is about 1-1000 of in inch in diameter. All of these threads are now brought through a narrow tubing, and the soft, silky mass of fibres is formed into a fluffy riband of cotton known as “silver.” The cotton has now taken its first decisive step in the process of manufacture.



We now go into the “drawing” room. Here we see the machines doing the work which our forefathers were obliged to do by hand. This work of spinning, however, usually fell upon the shoulders of the maidens, or unmarried women, who were generally termed spinsters. Hence the word “spinster”–a synonym for unmarried women.

We will follow the “sliver” through the drawing machines. Bear in mind that the sliver is a long flat riband of soft, filmy cotton wool, about an inch broad and half an inch thick. In order to separate the short fibres which may have passed through the last combing process, it is combed by another machine which preserves the long fibres that are used for long-cloths, calicoes, etc. After this combing, we come to the drawing process. In this operation, six of the slivers are rolled into one riband, thus giving a certain degree of strength to the cord. Again, six more of these rolled slivers are rolled into a still stronger cord, and six of these into still another. Thus there are 216 slivers converted into one riband of cotton of uniform weight and thickness–at least, as near so as human endeavor can make it. The quality of the cloth depends largely upon the evenness of the thread.


This thick, thread-like tape–still called sliver–must now be spun into a thin thread for weaving purposes. The process used to accomplish this may be classed under three heads: the “slubbing,” the “intermediate,” and the “roving.” These machines are among the most complicated we see, and are of wonderful construction. Our interest, however, centers in three pairs of large rollers through which the sliver passes. But let me state here that each pair of rollers revolves at a different speed than the others. The second pair revolves at a different speed than the others. The second pair revolves faster than the first, and the third still faster than the second. Thus the second pair of rollers, revolving faster than the first, will “draw” the sliver, or thread, to a finer and thinner cord, while the third pair of rollers attentuate and draw it out still more. Passing through the third set, the sliver is twisted and wound on a bobbin. The same process is repeated in the intermediate machines, and then again in the roving machines, so that a finer cotton is brought out of the intermediate than at the slubbing, and still finer after the roving.

1779 spinning mule
An early Spinning Mule – 1799

Now we pass into another large room, where we see what is called the “mule spinners.” Part of this process is similar to the ones just mentioned, by which the cotton, being brought from the roving machine, is passed through rollers of varying degrees of speed, and the process of attenuation is repeated, thus “drawing out” the cotton to a much finer degree. The threads are now attached to spindles, mounted on a traversing carriage which moves slowly outward from the rollers, and revolves the spindles at a rate of 9,000 times to the minute. By these revolutions the tenuous threads are twisted into yarn. When about sixty inches of yarn are spun, this automatic carriage moves slowly back, winding the yarn on the spindle. Again it moves outward, twisting the fibres as they are fed from the rollers, and again it moves back, winding the spun yarn on the spindles. This operation is repeated about four times every minute, so this is one instance when it is quicker done than said.

Spinning Frame


The mule spinning machines are about 120 feet long, and are mounted with 1,300 spindles, each one spinning from sixty to sixty-four inches of yarn four times every minute. Often these tenuous threads break when they are being spun out, but they are promptly joined up by a “piecer” or “minder” who follows the carriage back and forth to keep the spindles fed. It was a noticeable fact that the automatic movement of the carriage never stopped; the threads were broken and the proper connections made without interfering with the action of the machine in the least.

The “ring frame” is a similar machine for spinning the stronger yarn required for calicoes and other textile fabrics, and is no less wonderful, perhaps, but is less interesting to look upon. For comparison, let us refer to the time when spinning by hand was considered so wonderful that the different peoples ascribed its discovery to their various gods and goddesses. The Egyptians, for instance, ascribed its discovery to the goddess Isis, and the Greeks, to Minerva. But if we attribute such a fanciful origin to the astounding feats of the spinning mule and the ring spinning frame of today, we must use the unromantic names of Richard Arkwright, James Hargreaves and Samuel Crompton, who have invented processes unknown to the worshippers of Isis and Minerva. Today, instead of the tedious method of hand spinning, we have these wonderful machines which are the outcome of realized dreams of different Lancashire mechanics, to say nothing of other great inventors. Today one man, with the help of one or two apprentices, can care for two thousand spindles. What a remarkable instance of the ingenuity of man! For experimental purposes, one pound of raw cotton has been so finely spun by these machines, that it has been converted into one thousand miles of yarn. This appeals to the writer, as it may do to others, to be a “stretched yarn,” but the statement comes from an authoritative source. Nevertheless, we, who have so little knowledge of the possibilities of these machines are not in a position to judge the credibility of the statement, as it surpasses our faculties of comprehension.

Beaming Room

Now we will take the cotton that has been spun and wound in bobbins from the mules, and we find that with the aid of another machine it is wound on large rollers called “beams.” Five hundred of these bobbins are wound on the beam in uniform order, being arranged or mounted on the machine of a large “V” shape. The threads are run through a roller and then through a comb in order to keep them separate, and then they are wound on this large beam in parallel order, thus making the “warp.” Often 36,000 yards of warp are wound on one beam. The automatic operation of the warping machine is of considerable interest. On each of the five hundred threads hangs a bent pin, similar to a hair-pin but not quite so long, and should one of the threads break, the pin drops between the rollers, and the machine is instantly stopped. Thus the attendant is warned of the broken thread, which is immediately jointed and the machine restarted. When the desired length of warp is wound on the beams, they are taken to another machine, where five beams are placed in consecutive order, ready to be wound on a still larger beam. It is to be remembered that each of the warp beams carries five hundred threads, and when five of these warp beams are wound on one large “weaver’s beam,” the latter carries 2,500 threads. Now the warp is washed in boiling water, being unrolled from one beam, and passing through the water, is conveyed through a starchy, gluey substance which stiffens the warp. Then it is passed, by a roller system, over two large heated cylinders which dries the thread and it is wound on another weaver’s beam at the opposite side of the machine.


The weaver’s shed will attract our attention next. Thus far, we have not noticed so much the tumult and roar of busy machines and flying wheels but the moment we open the door of the “shed” we are met with a buzzing, rushing, clicking, clacking storm of flying shuttles and an interplay of machinery which, without exaggeration, deafens and amazes!

“The web enwraps the beam, the reed divides,

While through the wid’ning space the shuttle glides

Which their swift hands receive; then poised with lead

The swinging weight strikes close th’ inserted thread.”

These are the words of one Ovid, who thus described the weaving process nineteen centuries ago. The process today is similar, but the operation is entirely mechanical.


We place the large weaver’s beam at the back of the loom, and each one of the 2,500 threads is passed through the eye of a heald, which is similar to the eye of a needle. Let us pause here, to examine an ordinary piece of cloth. We find that the weft thread passes over each alternate thread of warp, while the next weft thread passes underneath the same. This form of weaving is attained by the action of the healds, through which the thread is passed, as every other one raises its thread and allows a passage for the throw of the shuttle, which carries the weft thread. Then that set of healds is lowered and the shuttle is this time passed over the warp threads it had previously under-run, and under the warp threads it had passed over. This alternation of up and down interlacing of weft and warp forms the simplest style of cloth. The different kinds of cloth, with their varieties of designs, are produced by a variation of raising and lowering the healds. It is truly wonderful to witness the marked rapidity with which the shuttles are thrown back and forth by means of automatic strapped arms, as they pass through the opening made by the healds about two hundred times a minute, and each throw of the shuttle plants anther thread in the cloth.


The looms range from 16 to 140 inches in length. So finely is the cotton woven by these looms, that it requires 246 threads to the square inch–120 warp threads and 126 threads of weft. All this is done by automatic machines, which merely require attendants to feed the hungry shuttles with weft, and to make connections when threads may break. Though the loom needs a watchful eye and a pair of experienced hands to care for it, still one attendant is able to care for three or four looms and keep them all in action. The latest invention in a loom–the Northrop–is an improvement even on this. It is a loom which has self-feeding shuttles, and when one cop of yarn is exhausted, it is automatically supplied with a fresh cop. This great saver of time makes it possible for one man, with one or two apprentices, to care for sixteen or twenty looms. It was not our good fortune, however, to see one of these.

Entrance to Horrockses

It is understood that this interlacing of weft and warp makes the cloth, which is wound on rollers as fast as it is woven. Then it is examined for defects, and having been found perfect, or at least up to the standard, it is ready for the market. This all takes place in the warehouse and is of very little interest.

We could not examine as closely as we would like to the delicate parts of the looms, as they were all busy humming the tune of the mills, but the precision and accuracy of their movements were truly astonishing. In one single shed that we visited, there were two thousand of these noisy looms all in action. The noise and vibration of revolving wheels, flying shuttles and humming straps and belts are so deafening that one cannot hear the voice of his companion, and among the weavers it is all “lip-talk.” They convey their message by a mere movement of the lips, and the one spoken to receives the message by a careful observation of the speaker’s lips. An excellent place, this, for a mute to work. It was amusing to see the different hands beckon to each other and send the wireless message–“Mormons”–which we could not help but decipher. It is remarkable how readily the “Mormon” elders are singled out for notice by all classes of people, particularly here in England. But let us return to the mill.

Leaving the weaver’s shed and coming into the open air we seemed to have entered into a death-like silence. After the din and roar of the hundreds of looms, the sensation of stepping from the tumultuous racket of the sheds into the calm outside was one which, for the moment, seemed to invest everything with a solemn quietude.

The “Old Mill” – Yellow Factory – 1791

We have now followed the raw cotton through its many processes until it is made up into fine cloths, ready for the market. But there is just one more place of interest we must visit. It is the “old mill” which was built in the year 1791. Although the machines have been replaced by modern inventions, still the building is unchanged, and is being used today by the firm. When this building was first erected and the machinery installed, it was propelled by one solitary horse in the basement, much after the style in which a horse may operate a merry-go-round. Think of it, readers! A little over a century ago a one horse-power engine (?) was employed, and today their engines run about 10.000 horse-power. What a marvelous contrast! How plainly we can discern the rapid strides made in civilization! And it has all been accomplished by the unceasing efforts of men who lived and loved the motto:

“If at first you don’t succeed; try, try again.”

Dauntless and persistent in their determination to better conditions in the weaving world, many of them realized the dream of their lives; and their inventions, wonderful and complicated as they are, need no eulogizing,–they speak for themselves.

Preston Cotton Workers leave for home

Just to give an idea of the enormous output of this firm, let me quote a few figures. The weekly output averages 29,000 pieces of cotton fabrics of hundreds of varieties and makes. The annual output is about 1,450,000 pieces, and as each piece averages forty yards in length, the annual product of the firm represents over thirty thousand miles–a greater quantity than the entire cotton production of England a century ago.

PRESTON, ENGLAND Improvement Era 1913