The machine in front of you is an industrial spinning machine. It is 10 feet long and seven feet high, with 18 bobbins and bobbin feeds on each side. It looks big, but most industrial spinning machines were four times as long, with 72 or more bobbins per side – meaning that a single machine spun 144 or more individual threads at a time. The workers who ran the spinning machines were called spinners, and almost all of them were women. One spinner tended her side of four different spinning machines, meaning that she was responsible for 288 or more strands of thread at a time. Spinners never got to sit down – they were constantly in motion, pacing back and forth in front of their machines, watching each strand and bobbin. This spinning machine is a “ring spinner,” manufactured in 1953 and powered by an electric motor. At the top of the machine hang large, cylindrical bobbins of “roving,” or unspun cotton thread. Roving looks like yarn, but it is really a refined version of the sliver produced by the carding machines. Strands of roving feed down into the machine. Each strand feeds between rubber rollers, which stretch it until the strand become thin, like thread, a process known as “drawing.” The drawn roving is then feed further down, to a spinning ring that twists it to give it strength, a process called “spinning.” Finally, the finished spun thread is wound onto a second cylindrical bobbin. When these bobbins are full, the spinner shuts down the feed, removes the full bobbin, and replaces it with an empty one.
Although spinners were unlikely to be maimed by their machines, the machines were dangerous in other ways. Small strands of cotton fiber came loose and were inhaled by workers, often resulting in “brown lung disease.” This 1953 machine has a built-in safety device – suction tubes capture most of the stray fibers and pull them into a “lint trap” on the right side of the machine, where workers would not inhale them. But such safety devices were not installed until very recently.