Last Updated September 6, 2023.
Act 1 takes place on the ground floor of Dreissiger's house. It is here that weavers bring their cloth to be weighed and inspected for payment. Pfeifer is Dreissiger's manager and the one in charge of the crowd of weavers who have converged here. Immediately, the conflict becomes evident. The weavers are desperate, one of the first women begging for an advance on her pay. Pfeifer insults the cleanliness of the cloth, the lumps in the fabric, and the uneven widths. He insults them over and over, telling them that they can't produce "honest work" and calls it "slop-work." The weavers begin to exchange their stories of personal trials with each other. One woman has endured two miscarriages. No one has enough food for their families. Several people beg for advances on their pay. Baumert admits that he's killed the family dog for meat. In return, Pfeifer, Neumann, and an apprentice sing songs that belittle the conditions of the poor: "Every year brings a child to the linen weaver's wife, heigh-ho, heigh-ho, heigh." A young boy comes in and collapses, barely uttering "I'm h..hungry." The managers are not moved. Driessiger himself comes out and briefly speaks to the crowd, ultimately dismissing their concerns.
Act 2 takes place in the house of Wilhelm Ansorge, a weaver. The family is hungry, but there is nothing to eat. They have collected potato peelings in hopes of exchanging them for a bit of skim milk with a nearby farmer for their four-year-old, Fritz. Mrs. Heinrich comes by to beg for food for her family, but Mother Baumert tells her that they have nothing to offer. She notes her own troubles; she's developed arthritis and has possibly had a stroke and cannot even contribute to the work of her family any longer. Jaeger drops by to visit and is compelled to action by the family's plight. He notes that the manufacturers metaphorically eat everything in society, leaving nothing for anyone else. He begins to form a movement against the way the wealthy have been treating the poor weavers.
In act 3, the conflict grows more evident as the wealthy are seen sitting enjoying coffee and conversation while unrest grows outside. They make condescending comments about the poor decision-making abilities of the poor, insinuating that their condition is their own doing. A couple of weavers enter and discuss the growing sense of unrest, and the "Weaver's Song," which infuriates Dreissiger, builds momentum in the background. The weavers begin to speculate that their situation will never improve by peaceful measures and that it is time for a different approach. A foreboding line closes out the act: "It'll not surprise me if this ends badly . . . We all set our hearts on something!"
In act 4, the unrest is taken to Dreissiger's house. As his family entertains guests, the weavers begin to gather outside his house. The most compassion the wealthy group gives the impoverished group is this: "For after all, they are hungry and they are ignorant. They are giving expression to their dissatisfaction in the only way they understand." Dreissiger carries on for quite a while as normal, giving no thought to the possibility of an actual threat from the poor as he has deemed them powerless. He notes that they offer only insults to "unoffending people" such as him and his family. Even when Jaeger makes his way inside Dreissiger's house, Dreissiger insults him: "I'll...
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thank you to remember that this is not a stable." He is completely disillusioned about the power of a collective group of angry people and about how upset they have become. When his guests comment that the group is growing into a full-fledged riot, Driessiger's wife comments, "This really is too bad, William. Our whole evening's being spoiled." Again, they consider themselves utterly untouchable because of their societal status. They soon learn the power of the poor when their house is taken over and destroyed at the end of this scene, with the poor taking the wealth that the Driessigers have accumulated by force.
In act 5, the uprising is seen spreading to other towns as weavers take their destinies into their own hands. The Hilse's daughter is discovered to have found a spoon that was looted from the Driessiger's house, and her mother demands that it be returned to the police while Luise comments that it could provide enough money to live on "for many a day." Surgeon Schmidt, also part of the upper class, notes that these weavers are "like a pack of raging wolves. Riot—why it's a revolution! they're plundering and laying waste right and left." The wealthy are finally awakening to the effects of leaving a class of people with no hope as rioting grows in strength around them. Old Hilse is seen as the dissenting voice of the poor, noting that those who are rioting are wicked and influenced by Satan. She believes in living the course of suffering so that she can enjoy a better afterlife. The group of weavers arrive at the Hilse household, offering a new world to them. The Hilse women want nothing the group has to offer, and they are told that "Him that's not with us is against us." Jaeger tells them that things have to change, and Old Hilse tells him that she'll wait for things to change on Judgement Day. Violence breaks out, and Old Hilse is mortally wounded, symbolically dying on top of his loom.