From Pins to Patterns: Following the Threads of Productivity

division of labor pin factory innovation productivity textiles fabric

Joy Buchanan for AdamSmithWorks

Adam Smith and Virginia Postrel share a common thread. Both authors recognize the significance of specialization and the division of labor in creating productivity and progress. 
In the tapestry of human progress studies, two authors, Adam Smith and Virginia Postrel, have left their mark on the story of productivity and innovation. Their books, written centuries apart, both explore the power of specialization and the division of labor. Smith wrote, 
The greatest improvement in the productive powers of labour, and the greater part of the skill, dexterity, and judgement with which it is any where directed, or applied, seem to have been the effects of the division of labor. To take an example, therefore, from a very trifling manufacture; but one in which the division of labour has been very often taken notice of, the trade of the pin-maker…
Wealth of Nations
Smith described a pin factory where workers performed specific tasks, demonstrating how breaking down the pin-making process led to remarkable increases in productivity. Smith's insights highlighted the efficiency gains achieved through the division of labor, emphasizing the importance of focused expertise in driving economic progress. See the pin factory for yourself at AdamSmithWorks! 

The Industrial Revolution was underway when Adam Smith pondered the pin factory. Postrel, writing in her book, The Fabric of Civilization, describes how advances in textile production resulted in the world’s first factories and created high paying jobs for workers who became skilled at using the new machines. She explores the innovations that revolutionized thread production, such as the spinning jenny and water frame, which mechanized the spinning process and enabled mass production.

Adam Smith and Virginia Postrel share a common thread. Both authors recognize the significance of specialization and the division of labor in driving productivity and progress. Smith's pin factory exemplifies the principles of breaking down complex tasks into specialized components, while Postrel emphasizes the importance of freeing up time that people (especially women) had formerly spent in tedious home production of thread. Today only a few people specialize in thread production. That allows other people to specialize in building bridges or animating movies. 

Postrel describes a visit to a modern yarn factory in the United States that has recently been upgraded. She calculates that, “each worker produces about 60,000 pounds of yarn a year with the old machines and 75,000 pounds with the new ones- enough to keep [a woman] spinning for three centuries.” 

You can also hear amazing statistics from Virginia Postrel on her EconTalk episode. For example, she explained, 
So, you take a pair of jeans, which, in the scheme of things is not that much fabric. Pair of jeans, to weave that amount of fabric, takes about six miles of thread. Six miles of thread is a lot of thread. And, nowadays, you can spin in a modern spinning plant that amount of thread in a few seconds. But in the pre-Industrial Revolution period, the very fastest, best spinners in the world were in India; and they could spend 100 meters of thread an hour. And, that means that it would take about 13 days, 13 eight-hour days, to spin the amount of thread in a pair of jeans.
Benefits to specialization extend beyond just higher output. Postrel documents a highly specialized dying plant in Los Angeles today. Through experimentation, the owners have figured out how to use less electricity and water. More efficient processes economize on production time which not only saves money but cuts down on carbon emissions.  

Specialization is not just about providing us with multiple shirts for different occasions or vibrant green athleisure apparel. Mike Munger reminds us that specialization saves lives. The women who are not spending half the day spinning thread now have time to be nurses or surgeons when you need heart surgery. Thanks to Adam Smith and Virginia Postrel for helping us understand what makes the modern world.

If you want to put on some more layers:
Adam Smith Needs a Paper Clip, Virginia Postrel in Reason Magazine
Amy Willis, The Division of Labor: Early Examples in China and India
Brianne Wolf, Why Does the Division of Labor Matter?
Virginia Postrel on Textiles and The Fabric of Civilization, EconTalk, November 2020 + Amy Willis' Extra Where Crafty Comes From
Ask Me Anything: An Interview with Virginia Postrel, EconLog, April 2021
Sarah Skwire's review of Postrel's book: Time, Technology, and Textiles