‘Sketches of Life in a Jute Mill’ Part 2 (21 May, 1881)

The following is the second of eight stories about life working in a Jute mill. These sketches give a great insight into the operations of these mills, from the different machinery to the way leisure time was occupied. They also give a sense of how a family unit could be impacted by this new way of life, which was a world away from a quiet little toun in the Howe of Fife.

Chapter II.—The Low Mill.

Soon after entering the full time list I was shifted—I may say promoted—to a place in the “Low Mill.” This part of the establishment is where the heaviest kind of machinery is placed, and almost always on the basement flat. I had observed long ago that the great barrow-loads of softened and scutched jute which had been removed from the batching house were always taken in here; and I was now about to have my curiosity gratified by learning what was done with it.

The particular duty assigned me was to attend a roving frame, with two boys as my companions, and as this much engrossed me at first, it was some time after, and only by repeated observations, that I learned the processes by which the great bunches of jute were gradually converted into the soft rope-like material which I saw wound on the big bobbins at our frame. The great room in which I was now employed contained two or three rows of heavy machines, standing about eight or ten feet high, and which were attended by a number of boys about my own age and a little older, and a few women. These were the carding machines, or more familiarly the “cards.” In the first row the jute was received as it came from the batching house, and after passing through came out in the form of a broad, soft ribbon or “sliver.” This sliver was received in long tin cans, which cans were speedily removed to the second row of cards, where a great many slivers were run in and treated so as to come out at the side as one. The first range of these cards get the name of breakers, the second that of finishers. One important service of the doubling of so many slivers was to make the texture of the composition as regular and fine as possible. It was some time before I could discover the processes by which their connection was effected, but one day being called away to assist at the removal of a lot of staves, I found one of the cards opened up, the shrouding cover being removed, and two mechanics busy unscrewing those staves from the surface of a large cylinder about 6 feet long and 4 feet in diameter. The cylinder surface was completely covered with sharp wire teeth, and which revolving and working into other smaller cylinders combed and separated the jute even as I had found it partially done in the scutching machine. The teased product I had already seen streaming down a great tin conductor and being drawn into slivers by smooth iron rollers. This was next conveyed to a range of “drawing frames,” through which it was passed, and the broad soft stuff reduced to a narrow and comparatively fine ribbon, about an inch and a-half in width. This was effected by being drawn out in passing over the hackle teeth, one part of the machine going faster than the other. The drawing frames were attended by boys whose duties were to keep the supply running regularly, or, in the technology of the mill, to “keep up the ends.” The cans thus furnished were then removed to the back of the roving frame, and the finished sliver carefully fed in, when it received a twist as it came out, and was wound on the big bobbins.

My duties were not irksome, having to watch the filling and removal of those bobbins in a regular manner, and study to keep the machine standing as short a time as possible. In a couple of days I understood my work, and was able to hold my own with boys who had been there a long time before me. Notwithstanding this I was sometimes liable to a sharp word, and even an occasional cuff, from the foreman, who was a very hasty, blustering fellow. He may have been able enough for his duties, but was constantly quarrelling with some one, and keeping himself and all about him in misery.

The women employed in the low mill have very important matters to look after. The first supply of jute to the breaker card is under their control, and the whole subsequent texture of the yarn is dependent on the regularity of their feed. To aid them in this the jute is weighed in bunches before leaving the batching-house, and the speed of the card is indicated by a rough kind of clock attached to it, so many bunches being spread out on the feed cloth during one round of the clock. The feed of the roving frame is also under female control, and everything depends on that supply being regular and unbroken. The intermediate processes—not requiring such exact treatment—are generally in the hands of the boys. Probably from those careful and responsible habits, the low-mill women are generally recognisable by their heavy and deliberate style and gait, and even on the street may be distinguished from their more nimble sisters of the spinning and weaving departments.

Notwithstanding all the precautions used to prevent accidents they did happen now and then; as when a boy at a safe distance from the sharp pins of his drawing frame would observe that he had allowed too thick a piece to pass his hand, and made a hurried snatch to drag it back, but found it too strong and too quick for him, and before he could relieve himself had his hand drawn in and transfixed with a whole gill of long spikes. A good thing when himself or comrade was ready-witted enough to stop the machine instantly; even then having sometimes to stand for some minutes till the foreman or mechanic undid the fittings and let him go, perhaps with the brass bar and its row of hackles dangling from his pierced hand. A sharp stroke of a hammer would relieve him of this easily enough, and when the hand was fomented and bound up, or if need be, dressed by a surgeon, it soon healed up, and scarcely ever left any bad result. A worse case, that in which, through careless folly or perhaps mad venturesomeness, a youth would put his hand among the teeth of pinions, the result being almost certainly the ultimate loss of a hand, a finger, or a joint. These “nips,” as they are familiarly termed, in every case occur through a neglect of the regulations which are always made for the fencing of machinery—a matter which the Inspectors of Factories are particular in seeing about and enforcing in their periodic visitations.

I saw that the bobbins of rove were always put in a box-like hand-cart, and quickly removed to another part of the mill. And as I had got familiar with all the processes within my own ken, my curiosity began to be excited as to the destination of that same rove cart. But none of the lads who had charge of it would or could tell any more than that they took the full bobbins to the spinning flat, and brought back empty ones. So I had to wait the unravelment of that mystery.

It is right here to explain that in consequence of the need of a variety of fabrics in one work, it is necessary to have several different ranges running at the same time. Thus while a long and strong fibre is selected as the basis of a warp yarn, other qualities are found more suitable for weft, and there may again be varieties of each of these. These modifications of quality are effected by mixtures of different kinds of jute in the batching, where there may be three or four varieties under treatment at the same time. It is manifest that all benefit of such separation would be lost if the different kinds were allowed to get mixed afterward. To secure the special integrity of each there are therefore separate ranges of machinery, from the first preparing to the final finishing, which work together on each separate quality of yarn. Those ranges are called systems. Such longitudinal sections of work must be arranged and studied by the general manager, who has opportunity to trace the process of each from beginning to end, and to balance the supply and treatment. The foremen of the different departments, again, can only see a transverse section of the work as it passes through their hands, and judge of its condition at their stage of the work. Long familiarity and a native fitness for the work enable a good manager to comprehend both longitudinal and transverse sections, and to bind all the different departments together.

This separate treatment renders necessary a number of specially different carts and barrows for the conveyance of bobbins of rove to the spinning-frames, and of yarn from them, forming what we may call arterial and venous systems of communication, complicated to an onlooker, but simple enough when each one minds his own business and keeps by his particular orders thus is the body industrial knit together, by joints and ligaments, and vitalised by circulation. To expedite the passages, doors, bridges, and steam elevators; so that from any one part of the whole ramifactions of the work to any other there may be a way for wheeled vehicles, stairs being avoided by the lifts or elevators between the flats. Here comes a lad with his rove cart, hardly leaving standing room for you as you step in; he pulls a chain, up mounts the cage, and in a trice you may walk out on the floor above. All those lifts, long or short, are moved by belts from shafts driven by the engine. Of course they are not used for exit or entrance of workers, stairs being furnished for such purposes.

Here, as in other places of the work, there were droppings of half-manufactured stuff on the floor, which if allowed to accumulate would have rendered the place not only untidy but dangerous. But we had a woman constantly employed sweeping up and bagging this waste. The very dust and caddis were gathered too; and I soon noticed that all thus collected was turned to account. Some portions came back to pass through the cards again mixed with the fresh supplies, and what was not thus available, whether of card waste, or rove, or threads of yarn, was sold to dealers, through whom it found its way to those who could severally utilise every atom of it.

(To be continued.)

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