Cotton Textile Manufacturing Processes

What follows is an illustrated outline of the stages and processes involved in manufacturing cotton textiles. I worked it up to support a lecture I’m giving to the N.C. Humanities Council Teacher Institute in Chapel Hill, which is this year studying the theme “The Culture of Textiles in North Carolina.” All of the historic photographs illustrating the processes were taken in Randolph County; most of them in the Franklinsville Manufacturing Company. George Russell, the superintendent of that mill from 1905 to 1925, created a remarkable album of his own amateur photographs in and around the mill, circa 1916.

Raw Material: Cotton Agriculture.

Randolph County has long been known as the foremost county in the state for wheat production, while its tobacco and cotton crops have always been minimal. It is ironic therefore, that this iconic postcard photograph of North Carolina cotton agriculture illustrates a farm near Asheboro. The photograph was taken by the state’s best known female photographer of the early 20th century.


FMC Teamsters, 1915. Mule teams were the usual choice to draw heavy loads such as these 500-lb. Bales of cotton. The Randolph Mfg. Co. on the east side of Franklinville used oxen instead.

The Cotton Gin .

The cotton Gin, whether located near the cotton field or the cotton mill, was the beginning point in processing the cotton boll into cotton cloth. Farmers brought their cotton to the gin, where the seeds were pulled from the fiber by the teeth of tiny “saws,” and the cotton fiber then pressed into five hundred pound bales. The gins were located in the upper floor of the two-story frame building at left; wagons bringing cotton from the fields unloaded sacks underneath, and the ginned cotton was baled at an adjacent screw press. This photo is probably not of the original gin, which was located beside Elisha Coffin’s grist and saw mill. The cotton gin also operated at a site on the head race east of the dam near the ox barn and and horse stables, and this may be a photo of that operation. In the early twentieth century the gin was moved to a location behind the new company store on Main Street, now the site of the Franklinville Volunteer Fire Department.

The Cotton Warehouse.

Before the factory was in operation, farmers hauled the bales to larger cities for sale; later the cotton bales were stored in a cotton warehouse until needed by the factory or until transport by railroad to some other factory. Until the Cape Fear and Yadkin Valley Railway opened service to Staley in May 1884, raw cotton and finished products had been carried to Greensboro by wagon. On November 15, 1886, the shipping point was changed to Millboro, northwest of Cedar Falls; by May 17, 1890, regular rail freight and passenger service was available in Franklinville. Frame cotton houses were used throughout the nineteenth century, until the pictured brick warehouse was built in the summer of 1900.

The Opening Room/ Picker or Lapper House.

The ties binding a bale of cotton were cut in the Opening Room, and cotton from several different bales mixed together in the middle of the floor, as shown. Handfulls of cotton were then thrown into the hopper of a Opener-Feeder, where large metal teeth shredded the compressed cotton and fans blew out some of the leaf fragments and trash. A moving belt then fed the cotton into the Picker, or Lapper, which created a flat lap, or roll of cotton. These rolled laps were taken off the end of the picker and hung on racks, ready to be rolled into the Card Room.


Carding Engines.

These are the Saco-Pettee revolving flat top cards installed in 1907. In the background the gear end of a set of slubbers is visible, with cast lettering that says “Saco-Pettee/ 1911.” Examples of both of these machines survive in the mill today. The laps were cleaned and condensed on the carding machines and twisted into “sliver” or ‘roving’ (about the size and shape of rope) that was coiled into the roving cans shown.

Drawing frames.

The cans were next taken to “Drawing Frames” (pictured above) where sliver from multiple cans were twisted together and coiled into another can, which was then taken to Roving Frames, starting with Slubbers (shown below) where multiple cans were again twisted into roving, about the size of a pencil, and wound onto large wooden bobbins. The roving bobbins would be carried to the spinning room by the card room hands.


The Card Room Hands (1915).

As shown, all the card room hands were men and boys. The work was mostly heavy lifting.

The Spinning Room.

In the Franklinsville Manufacturing Company of circa-1910, the Weave Room (and separate Opening Room and Slasher Room) was on the first floor, the Card Room was on the second, and the Spinning Room was on the third floor. Two types of spinning frames were required, one set to produce coarse warp yarn, and another to produce finer filling yarns. Warp yarns were spun onto stubby wooden bobbins, which could then be transferred to larger packages in the warper creel, taken to the dye room for dyeing, or spooled off and warped into skeins for sale as bundle yarn, or twisted together to make packing twine. Finning yarns were spun directly on to the pointed “quills” which snapped into the Draper filling battery on a loom.

The Spinning Room, Franklinsville Mfg. Co., before 1915.

The Spinning Room

Most spinners were women, although the supervisors were male, and “Bobbin Boys” “doffed” the full bobbins, throwing them into waiting buggies for transport to the next stage.

The Warper Room and Drawing-in Room. The woman is standing beside the warper and warping creel. To the far left may be a drawing-in stand, or it may be part of a warp-tying machine, which was a later advance on drawing-in a pattern by hand. Filling yarns were “drawn in” to the desired pattern through reed and harnesses in the “Drawing-in” Room; the loom’s entire “tackle” could be taken to the weave room to change the pattern on a loom. In the foreground are full warp beams waiting to be taken to the weave room.

The Drawing-In Hands, 1915.

The Dye House.

Colored cloth could be made by weaving with colored yarns or by dyeing natural cotton finished cloth by the yard. Colored yarn could be made either by dyeing the raw cotton before it was spun (often the method of choice for denim production), or by dyeing the natural yarn after spinning. In the 19th century only the signature red, blue or brown stripes in seamless bags needed to be dyed, so the dye house was a small addition to the back of the boiler room. In the 20th century, a bleachery was built at the Lower mill and flannel was dyed and printed in multi-colored patterns. Plaids were woven in many other Deep River and Alamance County mills, but never in Franklinville. A very simple one or two-color check could be woven on a plain or Draper loom, but multi-color plaids required a “box” loom with multiple shuttles carrying the different colors. Crompton and Knowles, or “C&K,” made the most popular American box looms.

The photograph above shows a view of the Central Falls Manufacturing Company dye house around 1900. Raw cotton is being forked out of the dye kettle; it would next have to dry completely before it could be picked, carded and spun. The blue indigo yarn used in Denim twill was usually “dyed in the raw” like this because the twill weave also used a natural white filling yarn; dyeing the denim after weaving would have colored both warp and weft yarns blue.

The second photograph shows a different dyeing process about 40 years later. Women’s hosiery at Acme-McCrary corporation in Asheboro was dyed after the knitting process was complete but before inspection and packing.

The Slasher Room.

Even coarse cotton warp yarn was too delicate to weave on mechanical looms without special treatment. Each individual warp thread was strengthened by dipping it into a vat of hot starch, or “sizing,” and then pulling it around a steam-heated copper drum to dry, before wrapping it onto a warp beam. The Franklinville mills used two circa-1900 Lowell Machine Shop slashers when they closed; the machines were perhaps the oldest then in use in any American factory. Because of their size (each the size of a tractor trailer) they could not be easily salvaged when the lower mill was demolished. Slasher room hand was one of the heaviest, hottest and stickiest jobs in the mill. From here the iron beam of warp yarn could be taken to the floor of the weave room and tied directly onto a working loom, or stored for future use.


The Weave Room (1915). The bag looms used in the Franklinsville mill throughout the nineteenth century were made by the Lewiston Machine Works of Lewiston, Maine. The first bag was woven in 1872 by Kate Russell, the daughter of Weave Room Overseer J.B. Russell. Most weavers were women. Men who learned to weave usually did so to learn how to repair the looms, and ultimately became “fixers” and supervisors. Weavers and Fixers were the most skilled and highly-paid floor employees in the mill. The bag looms used in the Franklinsville mill throughout the nineteenth century were made by the Lewiston Machine Works of Lewiston, Maine. Before 1915, weavers were paid by the number of bags that were woven on each machine per day. After the change to sheeting production, weavers were paid by the “cut”, or number of yards woven per day. In 1909 four bag looms were purchased from the Draper Company of Hopedale, Mass., because the company’s “Northrup battery” was revolutionizing the process of weaving. Draper’s innovative battery (the revolver-like cylinders shown to the right) automatically replaced empty bobbins in the shuttle with a new bobbin full of yarn. This automated one of a weaver’s most time-consuming tasks, and made it possible for a worker to double, triple or quadruple the number of looms he or she could operate. Labor activists later referred to this as “the Speed-Up.” When the changeover to sheeting manufacture was made in 1916, all 160 new looms were purchased from the Draper Company. The Draper “E” model looms shown were introduced in 1898 and became the workhorse of the southern textile industry. They were made in various sizes up to 1930. The standard width of cloth woven in 1915 was just 28 inches; forty inches or more in width was considered a ‘wide’ loom. A dozen 40″ or 42″ looms remain at the mill in Franklinville.

The Weave Room Hands, 1915.

(Hugh Buie, Weave Room Boss, 4th from left).

Parks-Cramer Humidifier, or “Air Conditioner”

The Parks-Cramer Company involved one of the outstanding figures in the development of the southern textile industry in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Charlottean Stuart Warren Cramer. The company was founded in 1918, when the G.M. Parks Company, manufacturers of industrial piping, heating, and ventilation systems based in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, purchased Cramer’s business interests. The new company established business operations in Fitchburg, Boston, and Charlotte. Stuart Warren Cramer was one of the principal inventors and entrepreneurs promoting the growth of southern cotton textiles. Born in 1868 in Thomasville, North Carolina, he attended the United States Naval Academy and the Columbia University School of Mines. In the early 1890s Cramer was chief engineer and manager of the D. A. Tompkins Company in Charlotte, the South’s foremost distributors of cotton-mill machinery and supplies. Its owner, Daniel Augustus Tompkins, was a major builder of cotton mills and a leader of New South industrialization. Cramer soon established his own textile engineering and contracting firm in Charlotte.

Cramer’s specialty in industrial engineering was in the humidification systems for textile factories, and it is said that Cramer coined the term “air conditioning”. In 1904, he introduced an electrically operated heat and humidity control mechanism, and in 1905, an automatic hygrometer. These instruments were predecessors of the Psychrostat, a humidifier control instrument, which injected a fine mist of water into the air, to moisten and “condition” the cotton fibers. Cramer’s best known patent was for the “Cramer System of Air Conditioning,” not just a method of cooling air, but automatically regulating temperature and humidity (high humidity static electricity and made cotton fibers adhere together and spin better).

The Cloth Room.

The Bushnell Baling Press is in the left foreground. In the center background is an automatic cloth folding machine. Sheeting is being packaged for sale here, although seamless bags were baled up and shipped in a similar fashion. From the cloth room, bales would be taken to the warehouse for storage until shipping out on the railroad.

The same Bushnell Press, in the ruins of the Columbia Factory, 2004.

Seamless Bags.

From 1872 to 1915, the Franklinsville Manufacturing Company made woven tubular “seamless” bags. The process of weaving a tube was invented by Cyrus Baldwin, a supervisor in the Amoskeag Machine Shop, and the bags were first woven in the huge Amoskeag Company mills of Manchester, NH. The Franklinsville mill was one of the first factories in the south to import the technology after the Civil War. By 1890 several dozen mills in the US were weaving the bags, which were widely used for shipping flour, corn, seeds, and frozen meat on railroad and steamships. Their popularity was due to their strength (no side or bottom seams to burst) and their durability (seamless cotton bags were returned to the processer, washed, and reused many times). The product suffered a precipitous decline after 1934, when the Pure Food and Drug Act prohibited re-use of food product packaging. Some mills retooled to produce a revised product, “pillow tubing”—actually seamless bags made of much lighter count yarn, and used for craft embroidery of decorative designs. The Franklinville mill retooled in 1915 to switch production to sheeting and other plain weave products. The last seamless bag was woven in the mid-1970s in Alabama by the Bemis Company.



6 Responses to “Cotton Textile Manufacturing Processes”

  1. Robin Elliott Says:

    very interesting – thank you

  2. Dparker Says:

    do you have info on the factory in Lewiston, Maine. My great grandfather and great uncle owned the bobbin factory. Harry J. Parker Everett Parker

    I hope to learn more about the mill, location and manufacturing. Recently there was a horible fire at one of the original mill buildings in Lewiston, I can send you site to view images and info.

  3. macwhatley Says:

    I visited Lewiston about 15 years ago, trying to find out more about the Lewiston Machine Works. It was evidently started as an adjunct to the mill corporations, to make their original machinery. It was later spun off into its own independent company.

    This is also what happened in Lowell, Manchester, and Saco. But the Amoskeag and Lewiston machinery mfrs. (which eventually specialized in very narrow market segments) didn’t do as well as Saco and Lowell, which merged and covered the entire textile machinery market.
    The Machine Works buildings were still standing, and empty, near the train station when I was there.
    Fires in these enormous buildings don’t surprise me, once the sprinkler systems are disabled.

    Bobbin manufacture was an ancillary industry, like shuttle manufacture.
    Both had more to do with wood-working production machinery than with textiles.

    Here in the South, bobbin and shuttle production is what grew into the furniture industry after the Civil War.
    Bobbins just needed a lathe to be turned. In the antebellum times, I think it was one lathe, one bobbin, but very soon they started to use pattern lathes, originally developed by the US Armory in Springfield, MA to make gunstocks, to turn multiple bobbins from a single pattern guide.
    There were many different types of bobbins- one for every different kind of spinning frame, roving frame, winder, twister, creel, etc. (Then, as now, manufacturers didn’t try to make their parts interchangeable).

    • dparker Says:

      Thank you so much for replying! I just saw this as I was trying to research the mill once again.

      I will be sure to map out the mill location in hopes that the mill fire in summer of 09 was not the Machine Works mill.


  4. dparker Says:

    One other thing is the Parker’s started in Boston and this mill in Lewiston was started by the sons of William Parker.

  5. margy Pettit Says:

    Looking for info on hosiery and knitting mills in charlotte, nc and mint hill, nc between 1945 and 1960. Specifically Kingscraft Mill in Mint Hill, president was Henry C. Lomax. We own the building at 7714 Matthews Mint Hill Road. My Dad purchased building in 1963. Thank you. Margy Pettit

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