The roots of industrialisation in 18th-century Britain can be located in small-scale manufacturing enterprises based in small private workshops, village outbuildings and the homes of domestic workers. The early textile industry is typical of these arrangements. Until mid-century most preparation, spinning and weaving of worsted and woollen threads (and occasionally cotton) was carried out as part of the ‘putting out’ system, where merchants supplied raw materials to workers in their own homes to be worked into thread or woven cloth for the domestic market.

In this early image we see typical textile industry activity based in the homes of workers: the process of ‘carding’ that involved the disentangling of woollen or cotton fibres in preparation of spinning into yarn or thread. Note how three generations of the family take part in the process. Out-working such as this was by definition small-scale and labour intensive and was thus ripe for mechanisation.

Before the industrial revolution any growth in productivity or output was limited by the small-scale nature of many manufacturing activities. In the woollen textile industry for example processes were highly specialised and scattered across the country, centred on domestic manufacturing carried out in the homes of workers. Early technical innovations continued to depend on this ‘putting-out’ system as a form of commercial organisation. Initial technical developments in spinning and weaving (such as John Kay’s ‘flying shuttle’) thus remained relatively small-scale, with new machinery still operated by just one pair of hands.

As demand for textiles developed however, and technical innovations continued to develop, manufacturing machinery became larger and more expensive to purchase and maintain. The cotton spinning industry in particular was highly suited to mass-production carried out by large workforces located in one place, all of which was financed by a handful of wealthy industrialists capable of investing in these new technologies. This situation prompted the emergence of the familiar factory system and signalled the end for many centuries-old modes of production.