7.5. Lack of Negative Effects of the Power-Loom

Returning to the question, as to if the introduction of the power-loom had had a negative effect on the wages of the domestic hand-loom weavers, the persons interviewed by Select Committees (owners and workers) were all clear that there had been no – or very little – effect.

“Then you are of the opinion that the distress which now exists is not caused merely by the introduction of the power-loom?” “No; I do not think, generally speaking, that the introduction of power-looms has had so material an effect as many persons might suppose. I stated, as the reason why I formed that opinion, that the cotton trade of this country had increased to a very great extent, within a certain number of years, since the operation of the power-loom had come into effect.”

(Select Committee on Hand-Loom Weavers Petitions, 1834, p. 117, evidence of Mr. William Craig, Coloured trade, handkerchiefs and ginghams)

“Do you attribute the reduction of the wages of the weavers in any degree to the competition of the power-loom?” “I doubt whether the power-loom has tended to bring down wages at all; it is possible that it may have had a small influence, but nothing to the extent to which wages have been reduced.”

“Have the classes upon which the competition of the power-loom has principally fallen been inferior weavers, old people, and persons beginning to weave?” “No; if it has operated at all, it has operated upon weavers competent to weave anything. When power-looms were first introduced, they were employed upon coarser fabrics than they are now employed upon; but generally speaking, the power-loom is now employed upon a distinct species of cloth from what the hand-loom weaver is now employed upon.”

……

Then you think the power-loom has not had the effect of producing, to a very great extent, the evils complained of by the petitioners, but that some other cause is at work, of an evil tendency to hand-loom weavers?” “I think so. I conceive that if the power-loom had not been in existence at all, the same result which has now ensued would have happened, or nearly so.”

(Select Committee on Hand-Loom Weavers’ Petitions, 1834, pp. 380-381, evidence of Mr. John Makin, Manufacturer, Bolton)

“How was it that home competition did not beat down the wages in weaving before the power-loom was introduced?” “It had brought down the weaving at that period of time very low; the great evil had been accomplished before ever the power-loom was introduced; the wages had declined up to that period of time three-fourths whence they set out.”

(Select Committee on Hand-Loom Weavers’ Petitions, 1834, pp. 419, evidence of Mr. John Makin, Manufacturer, Bolton)

It is also not true that the power-loom took away the work from the hand-loom weavers, and thus forced them to offer their cloths at a very low price. For a long time the power-looms could not work the “fancy” weaves.

“Are you enabled to state to the Committee whether it is likely, in your part of the country [Scotland], or any part of the country with which you are personally conversant with the improvements which are taking place in power-loom weaving, that it will be possible for the hand-loom weavers to continue long to be occupied in that branch of the trade?” “I think that a grand mistake exists in supposing the power-loom supplants the hand-loom universally; the power-looms erected in Scotland manufacture a kind of goods in general, which the hand-loom weaver of Scotland was not in the practice of working at all; and therefore they are only partial substitutes for the hand-loom. Before the power-loom weaving was introduced at all in Scotland, about the year 1814 or 1815, the kind of goods generally manufactured by them were not made at all in Scotland, or at least very few of them; and the number of hand-looms in Scotland now, I apprehend to be much more than the number of hand-loom weavers in Scotland at the time that the power-loom was first introduced. I would also say that the hand-loom weaver can work a great many things which it would not be in the interest of any power-loom manufacture to make, especially all the finest goods, fancy goods of all kinds; in addition to this, it is to be recollected that it never can be in the interest of the power-loom manufacturer to make a kind of goods of which he cannot regularly and constantly dispose of a large quantity of the same kind, because changes of any sort are to him extremely inconvenient and troublesome, as well as expensive.”

(Select Committee Shipping Manufacture, 1833, p. 73, evidence of Mr. Kirkman Finlay, General merchant and cotton spinning and weaving manufacturer, Glasgow)   

“Are the hand-loom weavers greatly improved in weaving plain cloth?” “In our part of the country [Manchester] they are; but in other districts they are employed upon finer fabrics, muslins, ginghams and shirtings; they have not yet begun to work on those in the power-loom.”

(Select Committee on Manufactures, Commerce and Shipping, 1833, p. 565, evidence of Mr. George Smith, Cotton-spinner and hand-loom calico manufacturer, Manchester)

“Is there anything in the hand-loom that the power-loom cannot do?” “I should wish to answer that question in this way; I am convinced that the power-loom can do anything that the hand-loom can do; at the same time it will take as much expense to do it, because they can only weave one warp at once. I know that the power-loom can weave a jaconot and a hair-cord, and one man can only attend at one loom.” 

(Select Committee on Hand-Loom Weavers’ Petitions, 1834, pp. 429, evidence of Mr. Richard Needham, Weaver, Bolton)

It was not true, before 1835, that the power-looms could produce more cheaply than the hand-looms. Further, the comparison by unit costs did not cover the whole of the financial calculation, as there were other factors to be taken into account.

“Supposing that you cannot manufacture that particular species of cloth, will not the effect of the power-loom still be that, by causing printed goods to be still cheaper and cheaper, it will throw that species of cloth out of demand?” “I do not think that the power-loom does cause the cloth to be cheaper; the advantage of the power-loom is in being able, and that is a very great advantage, to produce a certain quantity of cloth in a certain time, so that you may with confidence make your contracts complete, and also that you keep a control over the manufacturing materials; these are the two great considerations which have built up the power-loom.”

(Select Committee on Hand-Loom Weavers Petitions, 1834, evidence of Mr. John Makin, Manufacturer, Bolton, p. 407)

“One power-loom is said to do the work of three hand-looms?” “I doubt the fact very much; but I have not sufficient experience whereupon to ground an opinion.” 

“Does it do the work of two hand-loom weavers?” “No, I think not.”

“Does one person do as much work by the power-loom, as three people can do by the hand-loom?” “I should say, without experience, no, decidedly no; as a matter of argument, I think I could prove it.”

“Will you state the grounds of your opinion?” “In the first place there is a mill to be built; there is labour; there is the machine for dressing, which has to be attended by some one, and in the mere fact of weaving the power-loom does execute so much more work in a certain time than what the hand-loom weaver will perform, but the advantage of the power-loom is, in having the yarn already dressed, which the hand-loom weaver is obliged to lose one-fourth of his time to get ready.”

(Select Committee on Hand-Loom Weavers Petitions, 1834, evidence of Mr. John Makin, Manufacturer, Bolton, p. 414)

“Is the distress of the hand-loom weavers attributed to the power-loom by the hand-loom weavers of Preston?” “No, not so much as might be expected. They consider that the power-loom neither is nor ever will be able to manufacture what they do; and when one expense is put to another, they consider it will cost the manufacturer as much to make the manufacture in the power-loom as in the hand-loom.”

(Select Committee on Hand-Loom Weavers Petitions, 1834, evidence of Mr. Robert Crawford, Weaver, Preston, p. 440)

“ …… Then look at the vast capital necessary to be sunk in a power-loom establishment.”

(Select Committee on Hand-Loom Weavers’ Petitions, 1834, p. 150, evidence of Mr. William Buchanan, Hand-loom weaver, Glasgow)

Work in the power-loom halls was not easily accepted:

“In your opinion the power-loom has been an injury rather than a benefit? “I do not think it has been an injury to those employed upon it, for the men on those looms got more wages, and are now getting more wages than they can do by hand.”

“Is not the work much easier, at the same time that they get better wages?” “Comparing one with the other it is easier for the body; but I do not know what effect it may have upon the mind with the eternal clatter there is in those places.”

“The noise in the power-loom manufacturing establishment is such as in your opinion to make it an undesirable state of manufacture?” “Yes.”

(Select Committee on Hand-Loom Weavers Petitions, 1834, evidence of Mr. John Makin, Manufacturer, Bolton, p. 394)

…. “My view of the subject is this, it is not the case with us; all persons working on the power-loom are working there by force, because they cannot exist in any other way; they are generally people that have been distressed in their families and their affairs broken up; they have had a family and they could not continue their employment as hand-loom weavers; they are apt to go as little colonies to colonize these mills; now if those people had the same wages in the hand-looms as in the power-looms, they would leave the power-loom work of their own accord.”

(Select Committee on Hand-Loom Weavers Petitions, 1834, evidence of Mr. Richard Needham, Weaver, Bolton, p. 440)

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