Spinning the Industrial Revolution

by Jane Humphries (All Souls College, University of Oxford) and Benjamin Schneider (Merton College, University of Oxford)

The full paper is published on The Economic History Review and is available here


The wages of hand spinners have been pushed to the forefront of economic history in recent years by Robert Allen’s ‘high-wage economy’ interpretation of British industrialization. Allen contends that rising earnings of hand spinners in the mid-18th century can explain why the spinning innovations of the industrial revolution were invented and adopted first in Britain. This is an extension of his broader argument that the ratio of wages to capital and energy costs in Britain was higher than in other parts of the world and served as a general spur to innovative activity. However, many gender historians and scholars of women’s work have contended that spinning, like other occupations dominated by women, was systematically underpaid. We set out to resolve this dispute by constructing a large dataset of spinners’ earnings from primary sources.

Spinning is the process by which raw fiber (cotton, flax, wool, or synthetic fibers) is turned into yarn. Hand spinners undertook this work on spinning wheels, imparting twist and draft into the fibers with their fingers. Qualitative sources suggest that spinning was a very common employment in the early modern period, especially for women and children. It was organized along the lines of the putting-out system, with many spinners receiving fiber from yarn merchants, spinning it in their homes, and returning the finished yarn in return for payment.

Fig. 01 Pieter Nys, Woman Spinning, 1652 (Dulwich Picture Gallery)

Allen presents a set of claims regarding spinners’ time rates which are taken from the work of Craig Muldrew and Charles Feinstein. Muldrew brought spinning into the limelight with a 2012 article that presented much larger estimates of the number of women employed in yarn production in the 17th and 18th centuries. However, the primary sources underlying Allen’s composite wage series are mostly claims about earning levels provided by commentators interested in emphasizing the value of Britain’s textile industry or showing the reduction in spinners’ earnings produced by mechanization at the end of the 18th century.

To address the question of spinners’ wages with firmer evidence, we collected more than 2500 observations of hand spinners’ earnings from the late 16th to the early 19th century. Spinners were generally paid by piece rates—payments per weight of yarn—which made constructing their remuneration challenging in many cases. In addition to sources that provided recorded earnings per day or a total amount earned over a known time span, we also collected data on their output per time in order to estimate their productivity. We then combined the productivity estimates with piece rates in primary sources to construct daily wages. These constructed wages supplemented the observed earnings per time and claims about remuneration. Our series incorporates the claims of interested parties, the writings of social commentators, and, more importantly, a very large body of new evidence on direct payments to spinners in the account books of putting-out enterprises, spinning schools, and the writings of putting-out merchants.

Fig 02
Figure 2: Nominal daily wages, decadal averages. Source: See online appendix S4 and table 2 in the paper

Our results show that Allen’s claim for high wages in spinning cannot be supported by the contemporary evidence. Productivity in hand spinning was far below the optimistic claims of social commentators, who wrote that a “sturdy woman” could spin a pound of fiber in a day. Direct evidence of spinners’ output shows that most of them produced less than half of this level each day. Unsurprisingly, we also find that earnings per day (even when discounting the constructed wages that use our productivity estimates with piece rates) were also substantially lower than previously claimed. Spinners barely earned enough to support themselves throughout most of the 17th and 18th centuries, and their wages did not rise precipitously in the middle of the 18th century.

At the same time, we know that cloth production expanded substantially in early modern England. We present several possible explanations to resolve this apparent paradox of rising labor demand and stagnant wages. First, we know that the geographical extent of spinning grew in the 18th century. Flax spinning, for example, spread further into the Scottish Highlands. We also provide extensive documentation regarding the involvement of the Poor Law and charitable enterprises in spinning. These entities allowed production to expand while taking advantage of the low wage demands of impoverished families, particularly in the countryside. Finally, we present evidence from contemporary descriptive sources that suggest most spinners faced monopsony power: the putters-out could act as a cartel and hold down spinners’ wages.

The growth of hand spinning provided modest but valuable household earnings for a growing number of poor families in 18th century Britain. However, spinning wages did not rise in the 18th century and therefore they cannot explain the invention of the spinning machines of the Industrial Revolution.


To contact the authors:

Benjamin Schneider (benjamin.schneider@history.ox.ac.uk)