The development of the Arkwright water frame made available the first continuous spinning process which could be operated by machine minders rather than skilled operatives.
Arkwright’s first patent, which he obtained in July 1769, was for a machine which spun yarn by means of rollers, flyers and bobbins. The cotton was “drawn” by pairs of rollers, each successive pair moving faster than the preceding one, with twist added by bobbins and flyers. The front pair of rollers was weighted by lead weights hooked over the top roller. This prevented the twist running back up the roving and forcing the rollers apart. The top roller was covered with leather and the bottom one fluted so that the cotton was held firmly as it passed between the two.
The production models used the basic drafting head shown in the patent drawing mounted side by side on a wooden frame and driven from a water wheel by gearing, wooden line shafting and belts.
Joseph Wright’s portrait of Sir Richard shows his subject and, by his side, the invention on which his fame and fortune were based. In selecting the drafting head (the roller device), as the icon of his subject’s achievement, and in painting it so accurately, Joseph Wright demonstrated a genuine understanding of the Arkwright spinning process.
The production models of the water frame varied in size from four spindles to the ninety-six spindle machine, an example of which, from Cromford Mill, is preserved at the Helmshore Higher Mill Museum in Lancashire. The factory masters found it an advantage to have frames of more than one size so that they could produce yarns in varying degrees of thickness, known in the trade as counts, in appropriate quantities according to the demands of the market