Operating Draper Looms
and Other Textile Machinery
I found your comments about not knowing a lot about Draper products interesting. We
all grew up knowing the fact that Draper’s was the “World’s Largest Producer of
Automatic Looms”. It’s amazing how much impact that had. As a kid who had no
intention of working at “The Shop," I had no clue of what the textile industry and textile
machines were about. I do remember working on a Textile Merit Badge back in 1968. I
think Eldon Biggs was the merit badge counselor. And I remember, I was at his house
when the news that Martin Luther King had been shot.
My exposure to looms and other textile machinery actually came four years later. I was
able to get a job with a large textile firm named Albany Felt Company. I worked there
for a few years and then after an extended layoff got a job with a similar company
called Huyck (pronounced Hike) Felt Company. Between the two companies, I got a
REAL education in textile manufacturing and the machines used to produce various
fabrics and yarns.
At Albany Felt, my first position was “wool sorter and blender”. In addition to that job, I
also was a roving carding machine operator, a weaver, a web card operator and
needle loom operator.
I soon learned first-hand that getting to that finished woven and non-woven products
involved many steps that, involved the machinery produced by many companies from
Massachusetts. These included Draper looms.
The process starts with making the threads or yarn as it’s called in the textile industry.
For my job as a blender, I would mix batches of wool and synthetic (nylon-rayon-
dacron) and processed it through a machine that blew the wool through tubes to the
card room. I would also bale mixtures for other uses.
In the card room, they processed my wool blends into “roving,” a very weak and fluffy
“yarn” – The machines were Davis & Furber carding machines made in North Andover.
From there the yarn was put on spools and sent the spinning department where
several ply of the yarn would be sent through spinning rings and put on to bobbins.
The “spinning frame?” Made by Whitin Machine works! Now at this point the threads
were sent to “rewinding” which was prepping for the weaving department. You may
recall in General Draper’s book how patent law suits were the bane of his career. I
think I remember one that involved spinning rings and how fast the Draper rings could
spin without a vibration. Every department had its own sound. When you walked
through the spinning department, it was like the whoosh of the wind. The yarn was
being taken for individual weak yarns into strong multi-ply “threads.”
Some of the threads (actually still called yarn) was either put onto small bobbins or
were wound like you would wind rope around your elbow and thumb/index finger area
of your hand. These two types of rewind were for the two different types of shuttles
that were used in the weave room. These were referred to as “filling yarns”.
The other rewind was putting the yarn on to the “beam”. This would become the “warp
yarn." It was therefore called the warp beam. Some of these terms may sound familiar
and when we get to the weaving room will become clear.
From rewinding department the yarn was steamed. This was to relax the yarn so it
would not produce knots during the weave. Now the yarn, either on the beam or on
bobbins, was sent to the weave room.
Now I did mention that both these companies had the word “Felt” in their names. We
were not making the felt most people know – like for hats or pool tables or the stuff on
the base of your lamps. That’s a “pressed” felt - - at both plants, the main business
was manufacturing custom made “papermakers” felts (and this is a fascinating
Albany Felt specialized in “dryer” felts while Huyck specialized in “pickup” felts. But
both companies would make both. Huyck Felt had another product line making the
green and gray fuzzy tennis ball covers – That will be where Diamond D will come in to
Down in the weave room, the “beams” arrived – these were large round metal tubes
that had gears on either end and depending on the size there might be one in the
middle. The beam with very long and continuous yarn is installed onto the back of the
loom. The process of setting the loom up in itself was fascinating.
This is where a team of ladies jump into the framework of the loom. What an amazing
bunch of women. Their job was to draw the yarn from the beam through the eyelets of
the heddle. The heddle has a wooden frame with thousands of thin wires with eyelets.
The frames are suspended by leather straps that are hitched cables going through
pulleys on the top of the loom’s frame. The cables were attached to cams. The cams
would raise and lower the heddles in certain orders and would ultimately determine the
actual weaving pattern. Now depending on the design of the weave there could be
anywhere from two to six heddles. Now the ladies worked in pairs. One would have a
crochet hook and put the hook through the eyelet and the other would loop the yarn
around the hook.
The lady with the hook would pull or “draw” the yarn through the eyelet and that’s how
they got their job description of “drawing in”. They couldn’t cross any of the yarn. So
you can imagine how complex a job this could be. And they worked lightning fast. The
final step for the Drawing In phase was to draw the yarn through a “reed”. The reed is
a piece of the loom that looks basically like teeth of comb framed on all sides.
Next was the guy called the warp dresser. His job was to finish setting the loom up and
making it ready for the weaver. This step involved changing cams for the heddles, and
gears on the warp beam and adjusting the tension of the “take-up” roll. Where the
warp beam was on the back with individual yarns being fed into the loom, the Take-up
roll was the same type of roll, but it was on the front of the loom and was rolling up the
woven fabric. Once the loom was set up, the “filling yarn” would be delivered to the
loom in large canvas baskets like at the post office. These would be used by the
weaver to fill the “shuttle”. Once the machine was set up and a few feet of fabric was
woven, then the process was turned over to the weaver.
As I had mentioned earlier, the primary process was the making of papermaker’s felt.
Now this fabric is custom designed to fit onto a machine in a paper mill. It’s job it to
either pick up pulp or dry (or wring out the water from pulp) and finish the paper. As
such we were weaving huge pieces of fabric. The felt could be 25 feet wide and
hundreds of feet long. We are not talking tee shirt weaving here.
So it was not a little Draper loom I was operating. The manufacturer of these very long
looms was Compton and Knolls out of Worcester.
As a weaver, it was my job to run anywhere from two to four looms and make sure the
shuttles did not run out of yarn. Now the shuttle is like a double pointed torpedo. The
center is hollow and depending on the design, it would have a small metal rod which a
bobbin would slide over. If completely hollow, then that yarn that I described as being
wound like a rope around your elbow and hand was used.
The shuttles are shot back and forth over a “shuttle runway” on either end of the
runway were two “shuttle boxes” that would catch and shoot the shuttles. So now all in
unison the heddles are moving up and down to arrange the warp yarns in different up
and down patterns, making a small canopy for the shuttle to traverse back and forth
with filling yarn and the reed moves forward and back pushing the filling yarn into the
last filling yarn.
I was required to keep the machines running by anticipating when a shuttle would run
out of yarn. The trip switch was an electric eye. The shuttles had a little reflective dot in
them. When the yarn ran low, the loom would shut down. In addition to reloading the
shuttles, I had to inspect the weave and make sure there were no machine
When my weave was done, it would go to burling and joining where defects were
repaired and the fabric was joined into one continuous “belt”. This was done by a
roomful of Ukrainian women who were extremely talented with a crochet hook.
From there it went to the needle room which had yet different looms called you
guessed it, “needle looms.” These looms were monsters! All of these machines were
manufactured in Germany.
There was a bottom metal “bed plate” with holes and a top plate called a “needle
board” with needles made by The Torrington Needle Co in Torrington, Connecticut.
There are three basic types of needle looms. They are: 1) the felting loom 2) the
structuring loom and 3) the random velour loom.
At this juncture for felting, the woven base fabric is installed on the loom between the
bed plate and needle board. A light fluffy web fabric will be placed onto the woven
base. The fabric is then run through the needle loom while the needle boards go up
and down needling or punching the web into the base fabric. Once finished here, it
was trimmed, washed and shipped.
It was at Huyck felt that Hopedale History and I met. I was assigned to a special weave
room that was not making papermaker felts but tennis ball covers. For this, the
monster looms were not required.
This weaving was quite different than that for the felts. In the felt manufacturing, each
felt was a customized order worth several thousands of dollars in 1970’s dollars. The
further along in the process you were, the more costly the mistake. So while the work
pace was brisk, quality and zero mistakes were the order of the day.
In tennis ball cover department, we had about 100 small, automatic looms. About 2/3s
were Draper looms while the other 1/3 were Compton & Knolls. Instead of two to four
looms I had ten to fifteen, and I just kept loading the bobbin drums. And I kept those
Diamond “Ds” running. We didn’t need to worry that much about short term mistakes in
the weave since the area of a tennis ball was not that big.
Sometimes I have to smile about how ironic it is that my family made a living making
Draper looms and I grew up to make a living running them. Maybe I’m the only person
from Hopedale to run them in a full production environment.
Alas, just like Drapers both Huyck and Albany Felt are gone. Outside of some carpet
mills in Georgia and South Carolina, all of the textile Industry is gone as are the textile
machine companies and the steel mills. Soon the car companies…. About the only
thing we make in American now are excuses.
P.S Couldn’t find a good Huyck Felt link. But an interesting piece of trivia - they had
a mill in Aliceville, Alabama where there was a big German POW camp during WWII.
Memories Menu HOME
A few years after Mike wrote the story above, I had a picture and a link on the
Hopedale in March 2020 page about the look inside the S&D Spinning Mill in Milbury,
Mass when they had a particularly colorful job to do. After seeing it, Mike sent this
memory from his mill days.
I used to run a set of Davis and Furber Carding Machines. Usually the yarn I was
making was a white or off white. The basic color of the wool and polyester/nylon
blend..... But every once in a while we would have a contract to do the green tennis
ball covers and things got colorful! That section of the card is the overhead transverse
section. The fabric blend has come the the hopper and comber into the first section of
carding. Now the fabric needs to be turned to card it into a different direction. That's
the section in the picture where it comes off the first card goes up and over and is laid
in a different direction and a transfer belt feeds it into the next two cards, then is
combed off the final card onto yarn tapes then into the rubbing aprons and onto a
spool where it went over to the Whiten Spinning Frame where it was spun onto
bobbins for the Draper Looms to weave.