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THE life of John Kay is sketchy and frequently confusing. Even the Oxford Reference Encyclopaedia manages to get it spectacularly wrong.

The fact that there were TWO John Kays, both from Lancashire and both inventors of textile machinery, doesn't help matters in the slightest

The Kay we are concerned with here was born to a yeoman farming family at Park, a tiny hamlet just North of Bury, on June 17th, 1704. His father died before he was born, and the youngster was eventually apprenticed to a reedmaker - reeds are comb-like devices attached to the handloom that keep the warp threads separated. Reeds at that time were actually made from canes or reeds, but Kay showed the first hint of his creative genius when he designed a replacement made from polished wire.

It was a vast improvement, and proved so popular with weavers that Kay was kept busy making, selling and fitting them to looms all over the country.

But by 1730, he was back in Bury where he patented a machine for twisting and cording mohair and worsted.

Then three years later, he revealed to the world his flying shuttle - the invention that arguably was to do more than any other to kick start the Industrial Revolution.

To understand how the flying shuttle worked, you must understand how fabric is woven. Use a magnifying glass to examine a piece of cotton cloth, and you will see that the threads from which it is made run at right angles to each other, forming an interlocking, under-and-over pattern.

Imagine the loom as a harp, with the lengthwise threads, or warp, as the harpstrings, all in the same plane.

To weave the crosswise, weft threads through the fixed strings would require a tedious, under-and-over motion - but the loom is

JOHN Kay's impressive memorial in Bury's Kay Gardens
cleverly designed to avoid this. Each warp thread passes through an eyelet, attached to one of two horizontal bars, called heddles.

By raising these heddle bars alternately, every other warp can be raised simultaneously by the weaver, forming a gap or tunnel - called the weft shed - through which he can throw the shuttle, trailing the weft thread behind it, from hand to hand.

Having done this, he reverses the process - the raised heddle is lowered and the lower one raised. He then throws the shuttle back, repeating the operation ad infinutum to build up his piece of cloth.