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Abstract The prevailing explanation for why the industrial revolution occurred first in Britain during the last quarter of the eighteenth century is Allen’s ‘high wage economy’ view, which claims that the high cost of labour relative to capital and fuel incentivized innovation and the adoption of new techniques. This article presents new empirical evidence on hand spinning before the industrial revolution and demonstrates that there was no such ‘high wage economy’ in spinning, which was a leading sector of industrialization. We quantify the working lives of frequently ignored female and child spinners who were crucial to the British textile industry with evidence of productivity and wages from the late sixteenth to the early nineteenth century. Spinning emerges as a widespread, low-productivity, low-wage employment, in which wages did not rise substantially in advance of the introduction of the jenny and water frame. The motivation for mechanization must be sought elsewhere.