The eighteenth century cotton mills in Britain with their rows of spinning frames and thousands of rattling bobbins heralded the coming of the Industrial Revolution. But these mills also had a darker side to their story as most of the cotton came from plantations in the south of the USA, picked by enslaved people forcibly transported from Africa by European traders.

The first textile mill, however, was a silk twisting mill. The five-storey building in Derby was constructed as early as 1720, and contained more than 26.000 water-driven spindles. Since the Middle Ages Italy had been the centre of silk processing, and the machines came from there. The problem was that the machines were incapable of spinning, they simply twisted thin silk thread into strong yarn.

One of the forerunners of mechanisation was John Kay’s flying shuttle which he invented in 1733. This speeded up weaving considerably as the weavers no longer had to push the shuttles through the warp threads over the spinning frame by hand. Nevertheless Kay’s invention remained an isolated step forward on the long road to power looms. The mechanisation of the textile industry began with spinning.

The striking lack of yarn in the wool industry, one of the most important sectors of the British economy, led to attempts to mechanise the work of the spinners. The women workers would take a bundle of extremely thin short fibres, the so-called shear wool, and pull out the fibres by hand, before stretching and twisting them. In the 1730s two inventors by the name of Lewis Paul and John Wyatt developed a machine with two sets of differential rollers which were able to draw out the strands of wool and spin them into yarn with the help of spindles, similar to the process in a spinning wheel.

But it was not until 1769 that Richard Arkwright succeeded in constructing a workable spinning machine able to produce strong yarn suitable for the warp threads of the spinning frame. Since he intended his invention to be driven by water it was called a water frame. Arkwright opened his first spinning mill in Cromford, and soon built up an empire and became one of the most powerful entrepreneurs in the industrial era.

An alternative solution was offered by the spinning jenny, invented by a weaver called James Hargreaves in 1764. In it, two boards with several spindles were used to imitate the hands of the spinning women. Experienced workers were necessary to operate the machines, but nonetheless productivity was much higher than by hand spinning. Since the threads produced by the spinning jenny lacked strength they were an ideal complement to those produced on the water frame, and the machine was used for decades by homeworkers.

In 1779 Samuel Crompton invented a hybrid machine in Lancashire which combined the best features of both its predecessors. His spinning mule was not only capable of spinning warp and weft thread, it could also produce a much stronger, finer yarn. Over the next ten years British wool-processing accelerated dramatically and new spinning mills were built in many locations. Based on Arkwright's original factory, they were usually long, redbrick buildings several stories high and containing water driven machines with a capacity of up to 1000 spindles. rompton’s spinning mule was soon adapted to be steam- powered.

In 1824 the Welsh engineer Richard Roberts invented his “self-acting spinning mule”, the first fully automatic spinning machine. The introduction of this machine    robbed many of the mill workers of their livelihoods which led to desperate and violent protests.

The final major change was the invention of the ring spinning machine, which was much more reliable. It was developed in 1828 in the USA and slowly established itself in Great Britain, where spinning was already highly mechanised. All the technical problems involved in changing over from hand-spinning to machinery had now been solved, and mechanisation – with the concomitant protests - now expanded into weaving.

Edward Cartwright had already developed a mechanically-driven weaving loom in the 1780s. He took over all the basic elements of a hand weaving loom and adapted them so that they could be driven by a machine which could size the warps, push the shuttles through the weft thread and stretch the resulting cloth. But it was not until 1822 when (once again) Richard Roberts succeeded in perfecting the technical details and manufacturing the machines mainly from iron and steel, that mechanically-driven weaving looms began to establish themselves. Thousands of handloom weavers were made redundant and faced starvation. The last skilled workers were replaced by cheaper, specially trained women. In protest, the desperate workers began to destroy the machines and attack anyone who tried to construct them; at times the social conflicts resembled a bloody civil war.

The complete production process was now mechanised, from the original ball of fibres to the completed cloth. Manufacturing was now increasingly concentrated in factories where the fibres were not only spun but also woven. The port of Liverpool with its important stock exchange, and the expanding industrial city of Manchester made the county of Lancashire the leading textile region in the world. Hundreds of thousands of workers abandoned the countryside for the cities.

The textile industry became the leading sector in the British economy, with cotton processing the most important. In India, which had previously exported cotton fabrics to Britain, British entrepreneurs now bought raw cotton to process in their spinning mills which led to the demise of the centuries-old Indian textile industry. Furthermore, most of the raw material was imported from the slave plantations in the south of the USA: there, in 1793, the ginning machine had been invented, which mechanically separated the troublesome bolls from the cotton fibres. This made production more profitable, the plantations expanded and demand exploded. In Europe, where a textile industry had developed in other countries since the end of the 18th century, a cotton boom broke out.

The first cotton spinning mill on the continent was built by the German entrepreneur Johann Brügelmann in Ratingen in 1783 and named "Cromford" after its forerunner in Britain. Other factories based on Arkwright's factory were built in France and Bohemia.

Since mechanisation in weaving came much later than in spinning, other countries were able to keep pace with Great Britain. Competitive weaving industries were established mainly in the New England states of the USA, in France, Switzerland, Germany and Belgium. These also contributed to further technical improvements. For example, the Frenchman Joseph Maria Jacquard invented the automatic production of pattern weaving in 1805 by punching designs into pattern cards joined together to form a continuous chain. The weavers operated the first industrialised jacquard machines by foot.

The cotton processing revolution did not contribute any fundamental technical innovations to industrialisation that had consequential effects on other branches of industry. With centralised production in factories, however, it provided both the blueprint for the machine-based mass production of the industrial age and the model for the new social structure: an agrarian society determined by land ownership was replaced by the opposition between capital and labour.