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Flying shuttle showing metal capped ends, wheels, and a pirn of weft thread
Flying shuttle showing metal capped ends, wheels, and a pirn of weft thread

The flying shuttle was one of the key developments in the industrialization of weaving during the early Industrial Revolution. It allowed a single weaver to weave much wider fabrics, and it could be mechanized, allowing for automatic machine looms. The flying shuttle, which was patented by John Kay (1704–c. 1779) in 1733, greatly sped up the previous hand process and halved the labour force. Where a broad-cloth loom previously required a weaver on each side, it could now be worked by a single operator. Until this point, the textile industry had required four spinners to service one weaver. Kay's innovation, in wide use by the 1750s, greatly increased this disparity.[1]


The device appears to have been invented in the region of Languedoc of southern France one year before its purported invention in England, but was destroyed by state cloth inspectors of the rent-seeking Ancien Regime.[2]


In a typical frame loom, as used previous to the invention of the flying shuttle, the operator sat with the newly woven cloth before them, using treadles or some other mechanism to raise and lower the heddles, which opened the shed in the warp threads. They then had to reach forward while holding the shuttle in one hand and pass this through the shed; the shuttle carried a bobbin for the weft. The shuttle then had to be caught in the other hand, the shed closed, and the beater pulled forward to push the weft into place. This action (called a "pick") required regularly bending forward over the fabric; more importantly, the coordination between the throwing and catching of the shuttle required multiple operators if the width of the fabric exceeded that which could be reasonably reached across (typically 60 inches (150 cm) or less).

The flying shuttle employs a board, called the "race," which runs, side to side, along the front of the beater, forming a track on which the shuttle runs. The lower threads of the shed rest on the track and the shuttle slides over them. At each end of the race, there is a box which catches the shuttle at the end of its journey, and which contains a mechanism for propelling the shuttle on its return trip.[clarification needed] The shuttle itself has some subtle differences from the older form. The ends of the shuttle are bullet-shaped and metal-capped, and the shuttle generally has rollers to reduce friction. The weft thread is made to exit from the end rather than the side, and the thread is stored on a pirn (a long, conical, one-ended, non-turning bobbin) to allow it to feed more easily. Finally, the flying shuttle is generally somewhat heavier, so as to have sufficient momentum to carry it all the way through the shed.

Social effects

The increase in production due to the flying shuttle exceeded the capacity of the spinning industry of the day, and prompted the development of powered spinning machines, beginning with the spinning jenny and the waterframe, and culminating in the spinning mule, which could produce strong, fine thread in the quantities needed.[3][4] These innovations transformed the textile industry in Great Britain. All were attacked as threats to the livelihood of spinners and weavers, and Kay's patent was largely ignored. It is often incorrectly written that Kay was attacked and fled to France, but in fact he simply moved there to attempt to rent out his looms, a business model that had failed him in England.[citation needed]

The flying shuttle produced a new source of injuries to the weaving process; if deflected from its path, it could be shot clear of the machine, potentially striking workers. Turn-of-the-century injury reports abound with instances in which eyes were lost or other injuries sustained and, in several instances (for example, an extended exchange in 1901), the British House of Commons was moved to take up the issue of installing guards and other contrivances to reduce these injuries.[5]


The flying shuttle dominated commercial weaving through the middle of the twentieth century. By that time, other systems had begun to replace it. The heavy shuttle was noisy and energy-inefficient (since the energy used to throw it was largely lost in the catching); also, its inertia limited the speed of the loom. Projectile and rapier looms eliminated the need to take the bobbin/pirn of thread through the shed; later, air- and water-jet looms reduced the weight of moving parts further. Flying shuttle looms are still used for some purposes, and old models remain in use.


  1. ^ "History of technology". Retrieved 2 November 2017.
  2. ^ See Heller, Labour, 180-1, for Lyon; James K.J Thompson, Clermont-de-Ledéve 1633-1789: Fluctuations in the Prosperity of a Languedocian Cloth-Making Town (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 336-7, for Languedoc. ----- cite from an Essay Craft Guilds, Apprenticeship, and Technological Change by S. R. Epstein in the collection Guilds, Innovation and the European Economy, 1400-1800, Cambridge University Press, 2008, page. 68
  3. ^ Landes, David S. (1969). The Unbound Prometheus: Technological Change and Industrial Development in Western Europe from 1750 to the Present. Cambridge, New York: Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge. ISBN 0-521-09418-6.
  4. ^ Ayres, Robert (February 1989). "Technological Transformations and Long Waves" (PDF). Research Reports. Laxenburg, Austria: International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis. ISBN 3704500925. Archived from the original (PDF) on 1 January 2018. Retrieved 6 February 2018.
  5. ^ House of Commons of the United Kingdom (January–August 1901). "Factories and workshops: Annual report for 1900". Sessional Papers. H. M. Stationery Off. X: 289–290. OCLC 4689281. During the past year I have investigated many shuttle accidents, and on no occasion where serious injury had resulted, has the shuttle guard been placed in that position for which it was intended.