Toyota Automatic Loom, Type G
Last weekend was Convergence, a biannual meeting of spinners and weavers in North America! The meeting location alternates between the East and West Coasts, this year it was in Reno, Nevada. I am fabric dyer and shibori artist, not a spinner or a weaver, but did manage to get an item into the exhibition – I caused quite a bit of confusion when I brought it in (What? Wait? That’s not weaving!).
Even though spinning and weaving aren’t my thing, one afternoon I went to see the sales floor at the conference.
It was a wonderful maze of colorful yarns and textiles, and spinning wheels and looms of all sorts. As I wandered about admiring the displays (confusing salespeople who tried to sell me looms), I remembered a display at the National Museum of Nature and Science in Ueno Park, Tokyo. One wing is devoted to technology and advances in mechanization. There, sandwiched between an old car and a recovered Japanese satellite is a very special loom known as the Toyota Automatic Loom, Type G.
I was a little surprised; I thought Toyota made cars! But the story is much more interesting and complicated than that.
It starts with an apprentice carpenter named Sakichi Toyoda who loved to learn. In 1885 he decided to become an inventor and began experimenting with different types of looms in an effort to improve the design. He wanted to build a hand loom that was more efficient, while producing better quality fabric. He even got a patent for one in 1891! But he was convinced that powered machines (water, steam, electricity) would be better yet and began studying engines.
By 1905 he had an electric prototype. But, it had a problem: the loom could only go so long and then it ran out of thread on the shuttle and the machine would have to be stopped while a person put a new shuttle in. Not efficient enough…. Still, the machines became a success and he started a business manufacturing them while continuing to experiment.
If you aren’t familiar with looms, the shuttle problem will probably need a little explanation. Essentially, fabric is woven with thread or yarn going in two directions: warp and weft. Warp is the thread strung on a loom (sometimes dozens of yards long!). The weft is on the shuttle; in my drawing it is the green thread. In a loom, warp (in my picture below it is yellow and blue) is threaded through a square mesh contraption known as a “heddle”. With each movement of the heddle, the blue and yellow warp threads alternate positions (blue on top, then yellow on top). Between each alternation, the shuttle is passed through the middle on a groove made for the purpose. All three colors are braided together into fabric. (This can get a LOT more complicated, but this is the basic method.)
In 1924, Mr. Toyoda finally succeeded in building a loom that would (reliably) switch shuttles. This is the loom we saw at the museum: The Toyota Automatic Loom, Type G. This particular loom was made in 1926 as part of a pilot project. It was modified and used in a textile factory until 1965. Then, when it was retired it was refurbished to its original appearance and donated to the museum. It is a gleaming mass of black wrought iron gears and polished wood, very different than the hand looms at Convergence! The all-important shuttle re-loading mechanism is the box on the left side, a box of spindles sits in the box on the upper left, ready to be loaded into shuttles. A box stands under the machine, ready to catch the emptied shuttles.
So where do cars come into the picture?
In 1929, Sakichi Toyoda sold the patent for his Type G to Platt Brothers and Co. in England. With that money he created an additional company: Toyota Motor Company. Sakichi Toyoda died in 1930 but his sons, Risaburo and Kiichiro Toyoda, continued the companies. Kiichiro Toyoda, a mechanical engineer, researched engines and began developing automobiles in addition to powered looms and loom equipment. By 1935 they had a prototype car and then in 1938, as Japan entered World War II, they switched to manufacturing war machines as all Japanese companies did at the time. After World War II the company (now a group of several companies) continued to grow into the Toyota we are familiar with today. There is still a Toyota Loom Works; it makes textile machinery (looms, giant thread spools etc.) and strangely enough, parts and engines for various other Toyota machines.
I wonder what Sakichi Toyoda would have thought of the computerized looms I saw at Convergence?