Thursday, May 5, 2011

Colonial Cloth Making

If you enjoy sewing and quilting you may have noticed the price of fabric going up. In actuality the cost of raw cotton has doubled in just a years time, which has been followed by an increase in fabric and clothing prices. This rise is due to difficulties around the world: droughts in China, restricted imports within India and devastating floods in Pakistan. Centuries ago, trade began between countries for commodities. Today however, we have become so specialized and reliant on imports, that we no longer possess the skills to create some of the items that people in the past used to. One of these antiquated skills was making linen cloth, which seems like a very complicated and daunting project that would take more patience and skills than many of us possess.

Early colonial women were among those who knew how to make linen cloth.  They began the process by planting, tending and harvesting a quarter-acre of flax each year. After it was harvested, the seeds were removed and the flax stalks were spread on wet ground and the edges of ponds, which allowed the stalks to rot and loosen the flax fiber from its woody cores and outer bark.

After the fibers had sufficiently rotted, the bundles were dried over a fire and broken into smaller pieces that were then “hackled.” This was done by separating the flax fibers with combs - known as hackles, which were made from pieces of wood with steel spikes in them. The women used three sizes of hackles to produce finer fibrous strands. At this point the hackled flax looked like limp, thin hair. Next it was spun into linen yarn, then into linen thread and lastly, woven into linen cloth.

The linen cloth was then beaten with wooden clubs, sized and flattened to lessen the gaps between the weaves of the fabric. The cloth produced was always a dull, gray color that matched the dreary autumn sky they worked under.

Before the linen cloth could be used for making clothes, it was bleached in lye. This was done in a “bleaching yard” which was simply a fenced off area, far from the kitchen garden; the fence kept dogs, geese and children from running across the drying linen cloth. The bleaching process began, as the linen cloth was soaked in warm water for a few days, then saturated for two days in lye and cow dung. Afterwards it was stretched out in the bleaching yard, washed off and beat with wooden paddles for approximately three hours. The process of soaking, stretching and drying was completed 5-6 more times. Next the cloth was soaked in buttermilk for two days and stretched in the bleaching yard. This buttermilk procedure was completed six more times after which the cloth was finally transformed from a dull grey, to a clean white.

The fabric could then be transformed from fabric into clothes, however, remember this was accomplished during a time when there were no paper patterns or sewing machines. Often women chose to sew simple dresses for themselves and mend clothes that were wearing out instead of making now cloth and clothing.

If we had the expertise to make our own cloth, we would not have to worry about the price of cotton in China. However, I think I will use up my fabric stash and not complain too much about rising cotton prices. I do not think my neighbors could tolerate the assorted smells of lye, cow dung and buttermilk during the final month of a hot summer.
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Cross, Gary and Rick Szostak. Technology and American Society: A History. (New Jersey: Pearson, Prentice Hall, 2005), 45-47.

Messer, Sarah. Red House. (New York: Penguin Books, 2004), 90-92.

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