The Industrial Revolution and Berroco Yarns

A Lowell Mill Girl

Bobbin Girl by Winslow Homer, 1871

The Industrial Revolution was the period from around the 1760s through the 1850s (the exact dates are debatable) when there was a shift from home production to automated, machine-powered, factory made products.  At the heart of the Industrial Revolution was textile production.

For most of human history textile production was done in the home.  A woman produced what her own family needed, from spinning the wool to knitting garments or weaving fabric using primarily her own raw materials.

If a woman needed extra income she could hire herself out for piecework.  A merchant would provide her with raw materials then return later to pick up the finished products.  Pieceworkers set their own hours and were free to include their children or other family members as additional helpers, and were paid a price “per piece” rather than a set hourly wage.  It was an inefficient system, with some producing more than others and merchants never quite knowing how many completed pieces they would receive.

Mill Girl—1908—Public Domain—www-loc-gov—01357v

Mill Girl, 1908

Everybody needs clothes, and with such an inefficient system to produce clothing it’s not surprising that entrepreneurs realized the value of increasing textile production efficiency … and invent they did!  The spinning jenny was invented in 1764.  While a handspinner could produce one bobbin of thread at a time, the first spinning jenny produced eight spindles at a time and later models spun 120 spindles.  The spinning mule was invented in 1779, which combined the spinning jenny and the water-powered spinning frame to spin 48 spindles of long, strong fiber suitable for the warp threads on a loom.

Why the silly names?  “Gin,” “jen” and “jenny” were common slang terms for an engine in the 18th century.  But my hands-down favorite silly name is the spinning mule.  Really, a mule?  But the name is not as silly as it seems to us.  In a world that depended on animals for transportation, everyone knew that a mule was the offspring of a female donkey and a male horse.  Horses and donkeys are two separate species, but together produce an animal that is in many ways better than its parents—more sure-footed and hardy than a horse, while faster and less stubborn than a donkey.  Combining the best features of the spinning jenny and a water frame and calling the new product a “spinning mule” sounds funny to us but would have been a perfectly understandable name for people of the 18th century.

Cotton Gin—Harpers Weekly—Dec 1869—Public Domain—www-loc-gov—3c03801r

An early cotton gin, about 1790 *

All this automated spinning was great—except for one problem.  The first step in spinning cotton is to remove—by hand—the seeds that are tightly entwined with the cotton fibers.  With the ability for one spinner to only produce so much, thread manufacturers soon discovered that cotton couldn’t be picked clean fast enough.  Within a generation, the modern mechanical cotton gin was invented by Eli Whitney in 1783, which mechanized the seed-removing step.

With textile production automated to be faster and faster, it’s no wonder that other industries picked up on textile inventions and modified them for their own industries.

Textile production was the dominant industry of the Industrial Revolution—and Berroco was right there at the start! In 1810 Jerry Wheelock, the great-great-great-grandfather of the current Berroco president, Warren Wheelock,

joined one of the first mills in the U.S. to produce woolen cloth.  In 1905 Stanley Wheelock established his own mill, the Stanley Woolen Mills, in Massachusetts.  The family continued to produce exceptional wool cloth through two world wars, depressions and recessions.


Photo from the Berroco Archives, 1950s

My favorite part of the family history is 1968—when the Wheelock family formed a new handknitting subsidiary called Stanley Berroco.  There was never anyone named Stanley Berroco, so why the funny name?  “Stanley,” of course, was from the parent company name “Stanley Woolen Mills.”  “Berroco” combined the first syllables from the last names of two sales agents, Mr. BERglass and Mr. ROsenberg.  Add a “CO” for company, and you have “BER-RO-CO.”  Later Stanley Berroco was reestablished as Berroco, Inc., and it has become one of the largest importers and wholesalers of handknitting yarns, patterns and supplies in the United States and Canada.

For the month of April we’ve got all of our Berroco yarn—that’s over 30 brands!—on sale at 20% off.

Happy Knitting . . . .Scout

*Although this cotton gin engraving shows an idealized scene of slaves using a cotton gin around 1790, it was actually engraved some 70 years later and published in Harper’s Weekly, December 1869.

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