Two years at th' mill -- King Cotton


Laps, Carding and more

A mill process start to finish

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Fire was no laughing matter in the mill, cotton burns on a par with petrol, it gives off terrible fumes and smoke that chokes you in seconds, breathlessness and streaming eyes soon follow if you don't get out of the area hospital or worse awaits.The mill was a labyrinth of air ducts connected to fans to suck the loose fibres floating around the machines to what was called the bagging room whilst this kept the rooms relatively dust free it would,when a machine caught fire,suck the burning cotton down to the basement as well,the room was like a inferno when you got down there and once or twice we just shut the fire doors and left it to the firemen with breathing apparatus on. I've seen fire running along a ledge in the wall at an alarming rate of knots with nothing apparently there to burn, it looked like someone had poured meths onto the ledge but was actually cotton fibres burning, the firemen never took any chances and totally doused the flames with tons of water despite any pleas from the managers to use dry power or co2.The consequences of this was a lot of cleaning up and attempts to dry the machines off as the rollers started to rust as soon as the water hit them.Crawling underneath to clear out any debris left behind, removing screens to remove all the burnt crap was not a nice job and could leave you feeling ropey for a day or so afterwards. but I have to say they were bloody spectacular events to watch, the biggest of which managed to get between the floor boards under one of the second floor carders and weakened it enouge to send the whole machine crashing down to the ground below,luckily it was a part not directly over a room but over a loading bay it lay there for weeks.


The Work Place
The mill contrary to popular myth was not the smog of dust that it was in the early years although after a few hours your hair,face,and togs tended to turn white with bits of cotton fibres attaching themselves to any part of you not covered up.The temperature and humidity were controlled in each room but it did get rather nasty in summertime but was nice and warm in winter, swings and roundabouts as they say.For the most part all the people I worked with were happy being at work and there wasn't many scivers to be found,most had been there since school and although it was repetative to some degree there was always a upbeat feeling about the place.One practise they had was to take 2 or 3 quid from the wages of every worker and add a bit to it and keep it saved up,then at the Whitsun and Xmas hols you would get a extra sum maybe of 200 quid on top of wages so all had some money to have a holiday with and you never noticed that it was being taken out.The wares made at Whiteheads were mainly cotton sheets,towelling,dusters,and blankets.The finished quality of the sheets of woven material were not good enough for the likes of shirts etc as there was too many little flaws in the warp and weft but, the other items listed looked ok, the woven rolls from the looms were dyed if required and then taken by road to a place in Blackbun to be finished off,some probably finished up on the various markets around the area.Looking back the decision to leave and go back to vehicles was right as the King Cotton industry has died but I have not worked in any place since that is anything like as enjoyable and if cotton had stayed alive I would have happily worked there till retirement and it knocks spots off working for the council once you had been accepted it was like being part of a big family and that went for the bosses too.





The invention of the spinning jenny (1764),the spinning frame(1789) powered by water,and the cotton gin(1793) heralded the boom in the British cotton industry by allowing weavers to increase production at a commercially viable cost. India was the main exporter but in the 1850's competition arrived with suppliers from N and S America,West-Africa, China and Egypt joining the club. The fibres used to create the thread are seedcases called bolls and are nearly pure cellulose, when opened they dry out and tend to twist together. The stable length of the fibre varies from ¾ to 1¼ of an inch, the longer, the finer the thread,which is part of the reason why south sea island cotton garments are more expensive. Man made types such as Rayon etc are mixed in with natural fibre to offset the rising price of importing,and give the product a longer lasting strength.

The Mill
Lower mill was owned by David Whitehead & Sons and was situated near the centre of Rawtenstall and consisted of two huge five storey buildings and a two storey add-on that they called the No 4 shed, the road between the two blocks led up the hill to the large house that was once the Whitehead family home, whilst I worked there it housed the offices for the higher ups in more ways than one.The left hand block had draw -frames on the second floor,spinning frames on the third ,the first floor was for storage and the forth floor odd bits of all sorts.To the left of this is No 4 shed filled with carding machines in the first section of ground floor and the second section up to the outside end wall housed two Truzcherler scutching machines the first stop for the bales of cotton.The second floor had a few carding machines and a lot of space.The right hand block had cone winding and weaving on the ground floor and cone winding on the second floor plus a third scutching machine hidden in a backroom.Up the road, the rooms on the left were the dying and finishing departments on the right were maintenance sections.

Scutching room
The Trutzschler machines looked a letter L with its long side on the floor this was a conveyor big enouge to hold 4 to 5 bales which were 4ft x 4ft x 5ft, in the floor rubber coated rollers moved the bales back and forward about four feet.In between the rollers five inch slots allowed spring steel fingers(look like tuning forks) to access the bales, these came together in pairs like someone praying and as they did they grabbed a lump of cotton and dropped it onto a belt running underneath.The bales were tore to bits slowly but surely,this was one place you didn't want to fall into.The tower at the front was about twenty feet high with two sections, the rear section was above the end of the conveyor and as the cotton fibres arrived they were sucked up the tower by a fan in the top,all the heavy seeds,stalks,and other bits went downwards, the fibres when at the top were blown over the central divide to cascade down the front to a small conveyor belt into a pair of fluted rollers, through these they came out like a thin carpet of fleece 3.5ft wide wrapped round a steel rod - this is the 'lap' seen in the film.These two machines at the start of the process were always No1 priority when they broke down fortunately not very often, five of us struggled one day to change the electric motor in the tower it was a huge lump and it was a heck of job hauling it to the top, the other frequent job was changing the broken forks which was done by isolating the particular operationing arms whilst the rest of them clanked away -- no stopping the machine completely yer had to watch out for the other moving arms.

Carding is the process of aligning the fibres and thinning them out,the lap was placed at the back of the carder and fed through an aperture into a fierce stripper cylinder covered with hundreds of barb like teeth on its surface and from the other side into the main housing in which turned a roughly 4 ft diameter cylinder with thousands of pin like teeth with a slight kink near the top, very much like the animal groomers you can buy.The cylinder was fully enclosed with shaped alimimium sheets that were highly polished on the inside and set to a very close fit about 5-10 thousand of an inch ,the fibres were further staightened and thinned by the centrifugal forces involved and sat on the surface on the cylinder until two or three layers thick at which time a small cylinder at the front of the central housing peeled the top layer and fed it out via two rollers. When the cotton came off this front cylinder it looked like a large spiders web very thin and very fragile it was twisted together and fed into a collecting can via small rollers,the yarn at this stage was approximately 1" wide and a ¼ " thick if you pulled at two ends it came apart very easily.The cans had a spring loaded plate inside that helped compact the coils as it twisted round on a moving base this mean't that when they were removed the head of cotton rolls was two feet higher than the lip of the can,when you pushed a arm down the side of a full can it had a lovely soft warm feel to it.The carding machines in shed No 4 had twin main cylinders unlike the ones on the second floor which were like the picture singles,the quality of the doubled ones being far better plus they were much faster machines being very modern compared to the others some of which dated back to 1890 ish it was a credit to the engineers who designed and built them that they were still running 80 odd years later.The newer carders were driven directly by electric motors and had quite a few electronic gismos attached to them whereas the poor old dears up stairs whilst using electic motors had very large leather belts,which originally picked the drive up from a shaft running the full length of the room no doubt powered by what ever engine was situated in shed No 4 then.All of the floors had large slots in them to accomodate the belt drive system in use before electric took over the job.The maintenance of these machines was fairly straight forward replacing worn out parts like bearings and rollers,but every so often the main cylinders had to be sharpened using a grinding wheel that moved on a shaft across the face of the cylinder whilst it was spinning very slowly, the sparks this operation produced had everybody on tender hooks because of the fire risk an event not to be taken lightly.

Draw frames
The drawframe was used to stretch and put a slight twist in the cotton.The red cans at the rear are from the carding machines and the yarn is fed through vinyl rollers in the drawframe and down a spinning funnel into the can beneath.These machines were were checked by Q.C. twice a day by weighing a known length of yarn and inspecting some the sample under a large magnifier.The ideal view was a bit like one of them strong tissues that don't fall to pieces when wet,with the fibres well aligned and spaced,a reject was several fibres twisted or locked together in a clump or lots of bits showing up as big spots,to correct this we had to increase or the gear teeth to stretch or compact the yarn as required.The biggest problems with the frames were banding on the rollers and a build up of cotton debris in the guide for the spinning tube,the first needed the rollers to be skimmed on a lathe to re-new the surface the second meant stripping out the grubbings and cleaning the guide channels, if this was not done sooner or later the wad of fibre overheated due to friction and would smoke and eventually catch fire.On hot days this job made you sweat like a pig because you had to lean over the front and the heat would catch you like cooking over the top of a bbq,not pleasant when the temperature in the room could be high eighties to low nineties,and one summer it reached ninety-five with the humidifier spraying water vapour like a firemans hose that afternoon it was nearly impossible to stop banding on the rollers as the cotton got very sticky in high humidity not to mention most of us workers.

Cone winding
The winding department had two sections cone and bobbin winding it took the cans from the draw frames and spun the yarn onto plastic tube in a cone shape about 10" tall ,these would go on to become the warp in the weaving machines and the bobbins which were about 15"long shaped like a top hat with a small brim went to the spinning room to be spun onto the pirns which went inside the shuttles on the weaving machines.sorry its not a good picture they are not the same machinery we used but give a little idea of what they looked like.The now very fine yarn on the cones was wrapped slowly (hundreds of them) onto a large drum that fitted into the back of the loom.See picture on left.The bobbin (shown in the picture below) less any yarn on it was Mad Eric's (as we called him) preferred weapon of choice whenfights broke out between the different factions of pakistani spinners and the odd carding room scuffle.Luckily there wasn't many of these usually set off because of the caste discrimination between themselves, lower caste pakistani's were not tolerated by their betters no matter how long they had worked in the job or how much experience they had,it was a problem that never got sorted properly in the mill or out of it.Mad Eric was the foreman and had worked in Madagascar and other places in and about Africa and wouldn't truck any funny stuff off the workers although he was a very nice bloke at all other times, and knew the job inside out I learned quite a lot of the why's and wherefores from working with him.

The last process that I actually worked on the machines were the spinning frames these were long and very noisey not quite in the weaving shed bracket but it was a very high pitched whine that had you grating your teeth after a while.They had lots of gears,cogs,bearings,and sets of very heavy weights installed in the back of them suspended from metal hooks in arms that held the front apron up on which the spinnerettes and bobbins sat.These wieghts offset the weight of the front apron as the bobbins filled up,they had a lousy habit of parting company with the hook and clattering onto the floor of the machine this caused the yarn being spun onto the bobbin to only cover a third or so of it making a bulge in the middle.It was very cramped in the back and fitting a new hook (which had usually snapped off) and trying to re-fit the weights made you grunt just a little.Another rule was never to stop the machine right at the top or bottom of the lift because for some reason unknown to me when you restarted it every piece of yarn that was threaded through the spinnerettes snapped off and all of them had to be rethreaded it didn't increase your popularity with the operatives who had to redo each one, it was one of the few things I never mastered yet the men and women running the things used to fly from one end of the machine to the other in no time.Unfortunately the pictured machine is only a slight resemblance to the actual ones at Lower mill but at least give some idea of the length of them.The yarn produced on these spinners had been twisted drawn so many times that it was now identical to the stuff you get when you buy a reel of cotton to sew with...very thin and very strong.

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