By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
My first job was in Junior High School: Shelving books at my local public library; I guess they figured I knew where all the books were already. Twenty-five cents an hour! And when I got my first Social Security card.
But my first real jobs came after I was ejected from the university — it was the early 70s — and I went to work in the mills. Not dark satanic mills, or metal sheds out in the ‘burbs, but multistory brick factories, in town, with tall windows placed next to the power source of the Atlantic Searboard Fall Line: Mills scattered across New England and the Northeast from Bangor to Augusta, Lowell, Fall River, Providence, Hartford. Though manufacturing then was nothing like it had been, it was also nothing like it is today; you could look in the Want Ads and get a job. Today, those brick mill buildings are condos, or artists’ colonies, or business incubators, or outlet stores, and kids get jobs in retail or fast food. Back then, on minimum wage, I could afford my own apartment, and have money left over for books.
The place manufactured cord, like venetian blind cord, or yacht cord. When I’d walk through the door in the morning, the sound of several hundred machines was like the sound of the waterfall that originally drove the plant: Engulfing, overwhelming white noise. (We were all given cotton to make ear plugs, but who wore them? We needed to talk to each other.) In the winter, coming out of the cold, the noise was reassuring, somehow; of course the machines ran through the night. The machines were braider machines, and here’s a YouTube that shows how they work (from China, of course, in a modern factory). Skip to 1:45:
And here is the principle, as shown in the video:
Braiding machines work by a circular weaving process. They were well suited to be driven by the steam engines of the industrial revolution and were common by the beginning of the 20th century being easily powered by electric motors. Common types of braiding machines work in much the same way as the process of decorating a May-Pole. At the start of decorating a May-Pole an even number of ribbons tied to the top of the pole. A group of people form a ring about the base of the pole and take a ribbon in hand. Half the people then travel clockwise and the other half counter clockwise. When the people pass one another they pass alternately to the right and to the left. This results in a downward forming braid on the pole. As the braid works it’s way down the pole, the ribbons become shorter and the angle of forming changes as the braid works lower on the pole. On a standard braiding machine, the supply lines are a constant angle and at a constant tension and hence the output braided product is uniform.
In a braiding machine, bobbins of thread pass one another to the left and right on pseudo-sinusoidal tracks, a peg at their bases is driven by notches in gears. These gears lie below the track plate that the thread carriers ride on, and an even number of gears must be used as there are always an even number of bobbins. The gears must be driven at multiple points on machines with two or more bobbin sets and cross-shafts are used. On a vertically oriented machine, the braided thread is taken up above the machine and height and diameter of a guide ring determines the characteristics of the braided product to some degree.
My machines, unlike those Chinese machines, didn’t run in sealed boxes, and the frames, gears, tracks, and plates were all made out of cast iron; the bobbin shafts were steel; hence the noise. And as the May-Pole ribbons are only so long, so a bobbin holds only so much yarn, and at some point the yarn would come to an end and go slack. The lack of tension would trigger a ratchet that stopped the machine. Then the “braider tender” (I was a braider tender) would notice the stopped machine, slip the empty bobbin off its shaft, slip a full bobbin on, and restart the machine, letting the machine’s rotation weave the new yarn into the existing braid.
I enjoyed braider tending very much: For my whole life I’d been a nerd, an “intellectual,” with no physical dexterity at all; the factory work gave me that; it was a pleasure to toss an empty bobbin ten feet into the recycling can that the yarn department would come to pick up at the end of the shift; aiming and hitting was satisfying (I never missed); the thunk was satisfying; and above all it was satisfying to be more productive, since I didn’t waste time walking ten feet down the line. I’d figured that out. It was satisfying to blast my way down a line of dead, silent braider machines and spin them all up. All for $3.25 an hour to start, a considerable advance on my first factory job. My relation to the means of production, in other words, was in essence the same as that of the young Chinese women in the YouTube video you just saw, except I had to work a lot harder making cheaper cord (cloth, not metal) in far worse conditions. The cotton dust! The oil-stained wood floors! Thank heavens there was never a fire.
In essence the same, except of course I’m a guy, so I also got to do what guys do: Oil the machines, by making the rounds in the morning with an oil can and giving the gears a spritz. Eventually, they made me a mechanic, another thing guys do; the initiation rite was stamping my initials on my pair of pliers. (They also gave me a toolbox; my rival gave me a complement of nuts, bolts, washers, and fasteners, placed in the toolbox in Gerber Baby Food glass jars, which I realized only later was some kind of statement.) Here were even more problems to solve! For example, “a screw loose.” Overnight, a screw loosens, tension slackens on the braid, and the machine stops. Tighten the screw. The same thing happens the next night! (“Doing the same thing and expecting a different result.”) Why does the screw loosen? Well, the mill, and everything in it, is constantly vibrating, from the rotation of the machines, and also from the shafts that transmit power to the machines from the electric motors at the end of each row. So, somehow, the harmonics of the machine with the screw that came loose were out of sync with the building; the screw wasn’t “loose,” or even “coming loose,” but being shaken loose. A shim under one of the machine’s feet solved the problem by removing an extraneous vibration. And so, for my whole life up to that point, I had had a fundamentally unthinking understanding of what the “screw loose” (dead, but now live) metaphor meant!
I loved factory work — though I might not have loved it so much had I ended up in a mine, or a plating shop, or the kind of place where management (looking back on it) didn’t keep giving me new things to learn and do. It never occurred to me that the work wasn’t worth doing, or that that the people who ended up doing it were any different from me — except perhaps that they had chosen to be born into a different family than I had.
What was your favorite job?
NOTE * I’d had experience doing this work at another mill. I was so naive that when the boxes of bobbins ran out, I told my supervisor about it. What I didn’t understand was that there were no more bobbins because we were about to be laid off. So, at the new place, when I applied to be a braider tender again:
BOSS: “That’s a job for women.”
LAMBERT: “The average woman at _____ changes 300 bobbins a night. I do 60 an hour.” Not sure I have the number right; it’s been a long time. There I go, breaking the curve…