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Quill and Musket Guest Lecturer Series. Colonial Women – From Fiber to Fabric by Jennifer Thompson. Women and servants or slaves were responsible for the production of clothing for the family. This process took many hours and many steps to reach the final product.
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Quill and Musket Guest Lecturer Series Colonial Women – From Fiber to Fabric by Jennifer Thompson
Women and servants or slaves were responsible for the production of clothing for the family. This process took many hours and many steps to reach the final product. • There are three main steps in the production of clothing: the gathering of the fibers, the spinning of the fibers, and the weaving of the thread.
Gathering of the fibers • Colonial women made clothing from wool, linen or a combination of the two (linsey-woolsey, which although warm can be very scratchy). • The first steps of the wool process involved shearing the sheep, and the sorting, cleaning and teasing of the wool fibers in preparation for spinning.
Sheep shearing Conner Prairie Pioneer Settlement Fishers, Indiana Thompson family photo album
Sheep were sheared up until the 1800s with shears similar to those used by the Romans. The wool was hand sorted, then either spun “in the grease” or cleaned before spinning. For cleaning, the sheep were washed in the nearby brook before shearing or the wool would be scoured in kettles after shearing. The wool would still have dirt, vegetation and even bugs imbedded in the fibers. • The wool was teased with cards to remove the impurities from the wool and to straighten the fibers before spinning. Once the fibers were combed, they were carefully rolled off the cards into a shape called a rolag, which can be seen on the left side of the next photo. The wool fibers were now ready for spinning.
Woman Carding Wool (La Cardeuse) Jean Francois Millet 1855-1856 etching Brooklyn Museum
Flax Wildflowers of Colorado
Flax is useful in many ways. The seeds can be pressed to produce linseed oil, which is used in wood finishing, and some people include it in their diet. The fibers are found in the stalk of the plant. Once the plant begins to grow, it is important not to step on the plants or the fibers will be broken and cannot be used to make linen. • Flax is planted in the spring and pulled from the ground just before it matures. The plant is dried and the seeds are removed, in a process called rippling. It is then submerged in water or spread on the grass to be exposed to dew for the process called retting, to rot the outside stem of the plant.
Flax brake Home Textile Tool Museum
The next step in the processing of the linen fibers is the flax brake. This breaks up the outside stem of the flax plant. As a teenager, I learned this process of preparing the retted flax for spinning at Conner Prairie Pioneer Settlement in Fishers, Indiana. Visitors do not see this process at the museum today.
Scutching knife and board Mercer Museum Folk Fest, May 2001 pennridge.org
The worked flax is now placed over a wooden board and the wooden scutching knife is used to beat and remove the broken stem, the chaff, from the flax fibers. A final step is necessary to straighten the fibers and remove the remaining chaff. Several different hackles are used for this process, depending on how fine the linen needs to be. A hackle has steel teeth set close together on a board. The closer the teeth, the finer the linen. These teeth are very sharp and can easily cut fingers when you are hackling the flax. What is left behind in the hackles is called tow, which is useful for stuffing mattresses, spinning into rope or a coarse thread used in burlap bags, or for starting fires. A child with the hair the color of tow is called a “towhead.”
Hackles Mercer Museum Folk Fest, May 2001 pennridge.org
These fibers are now soft and made into a twist, almost like braiding one’s hair, and are stored this way until they are ready for spinning. • The photo in the next picture is a set of twists from 1843 saved by a German farmer in his Lehigh County, Pennsylvania farmhouse. (pennridge.org)
Twists of flax Mercer Museum Folk Fest, May 2001 pennridge.org
Spinning the fibers drop spindle finniwig.com wildflowerfiber.com
There are several methods used to spin fiber. One can use a drop spindle, but this a very slow process. Children learn to spin using a drop spindle. The spindle is suspended and whirled like a top to twist the fibers. Flax is spun on the spinning wheel pictured in the previous slide. The fibers have been arranged on the distaff, which is a series of spindles that spread out the fibers. The word distaff comes from the Anglo-Saxon. “’Dis’ meant flax and ‘staef,’ stick.” (Channing, 15) • There are many different types of spinning wheels, including one for spinning tow. Wool wheels do not have a distaff. The spinner keeps her fingers moist as she pulls on the fibers as her feet push the treadle on the spinning wheel. The wheel twists the flax fibers into linen thread and the wool rolags into yarn. My mother learned the spinning process at Conner Prairie and bought a spinning wheel so she could practice at home.
Final steps before weaving NiddyNoddy Pacific Wool and Fiber Yarn winder clock reel schowauction.com
The NiddyNoddy • The linen thread is generally rolled into a ball when being removed from the spinning wheel. Wool, however, is measured into skeins. A niddynoddy “ordinarily produces a skein two yards around.” (Channing, 27) • The yarn is wound onto the niddynoddy while reciting the following counting rhyme: “Niddynoddy, niddynoddy, Two heads, one body, Here’s one, ‘Taint one, “Twill be one, bye and bye. Here’s two, ‘taint two, “Twill be two, bye and bye. Etc.” (Channing, 28) • A skein is 560 yards, so this was a very slow process.
The clock reel • The clock reel does the counting for you with the same two yard span around the arms of the reel. After forty turns, one hears a pop or click that indicates that eighty yards are now on the reel. The song “Pop Goes the Weasel” is associated with this sound. Each time the reel “pops,” the housewife can tie a knot to indicate eighty yards or she can just count the pops. When she reaches seven knots or seven “pops,” she has measured a skein of yarn.
Washing and Dying the Yarn Home Textile Tool Museum
After the fibers have been spun, this is usually the time to wash the wool; however, it should be dried under tension. It is also a good time to dye the yarn. Most colonial women used natural items such as wildflowers, walnut hulls, berries, bark, and other natural items to get various colors. Blue colors were derived from an imported indigo dye, and red colors were derived from the Cochineal insect imported from Mexico and South America. Cochineal is still used today in food coloring and to color cosmetics.
A reel is used to wind the yarn, but a swift, which expands and turns, is used to hold the yarn and allows the woman to unwind the yarn into balls for knitting, With the use of a bobbin or quill winder, she can unwind the yarn onto bobbins, goose quills and spools for weaving. • The linen thread is also wound onto bobbins, goose quills and spools for weaving. • And now we are ready for the final process of weaving the fabric.
Weaving the fabric on the loom Home Textile Tool Museum
The beginning process of weaving involves carrying the thread back and forth from the spool across the loom to form the warp threads. The center part of the loom has heddles on a harness that can be lifted up and down by using a foot pedal. The quill is placed inside a boat shuttle or the thread is wrapped around a piece of shingle that is used as a shuttle. The shuttle holds the weft threads that are passed from side to side as the harness is raised or lowered each time it passes through the warp threads. Several shuttles can be used to create different colors in the fabric as it is being woven. A busy weaver can make a shuttle fly back and forth.
Most of the spinning and weaving was done during the winter months, when the women were usually inside. • There is an old saying that “A man works from sunup to sundown, but a woman’s work is never done.” The process of taking fiber to fabric is only one of many chores that the colonial woman did for her family.
Sources: • Channing, Marion L. The Textile Tools of Colonial Homes. Marion, MA: The Channings, 1971. • “Planting and Harvesting Grain in the Past – Flax Process.” http://www.pennridge.org/works/flaxprocess.html (Accessed 18 May 2011). • Thompson, Jennifer. Personal experience from listening to other tour guides and working as a tour guide at Conner Prairie Pioneer Settlement, Fishers, IN.