If you have toured 18th-century homes, you may have noticed the absence of closets in bedrooms. Colonial people stored their clothing on pegs or in wardrobes because average people owned only one or two sets of clothes and didn’t need big closets. They owned few clothes because the making of cloth was a labor-intensive series of tasks that made it expensive.
Dale Taylor in “Everyday Life in Colonial America” said a fine 18th-century dress with 20 yards of fabric had a value equivalent to a minivan today and most people owned two or three changes of clothes. Dresses were meant to last 15 years or more. The common fabrics were linen and wool, and, contrary to today’s cheap cotton and expensive linen, linen was relatively cheap and cotton was expensive until the cotton gin made it easier to produce. Not that linen was easy to make.
Linen is a soft, rich beautiful fabric that comes from the flax plant through a series of jobs involving long, intense labor. Flax looks like wheat and dries to a golden brown after the seeds are removed and the stalks are rotted (retted) in standing water. Once the flax stalks are dry, the worker breaks them open on a flax brake, a long hinged piece of wood on a wooden frame, and places it on a scutching board, where he beats it with a scutching knife (a wooden machete) to make it pliable. He removes the tow (the outer casing) and straightens the soft fiber by pulling it through hackles, which are pointed metal combs. Now the flax is ready to spin.
Here is where “Pop Goes the Weasel” comes into play. A distaff fed the flax to the spinning wheel, the spinner turning loose strands into thread with a consistent diameter, a craft learned by years of application. Spinning could also be done on a drop spindle, using the hand and gravity. The thread was wound onto a reel, and the story goes that when the reel made the required number of turns to make a skein a little wooden peg popped out. In colonial America, women, older children or servants spun at home, often in the evening by the fireside, and could spin enough in a day to weave a yard. Next the thread went to the weaver.
Weavers in colonial times were often professionals. Weaving involves converting dozens of threads into fabric on a loom, turning thin threads into durable material. The weaver set up the warp threads — the vertical threads — on the loom and wove the weft, or woof, threads over and under the warp. The type of weave determined the pattern and finish. A plain weave involved the weft simply going over and under the warp, and a twill involved the weft going over one warp and under two, creating a diagonal pattern. A weaver in colonial America could weave six yards of material a day. You can thus imagine that fabric was hard to come by and was something people hung on to and reused. The trade of the weaver is celebrated in this old Scottish song, “The Work of the Weavers.”
If it wasna for the weavers what would ye do?
You wouldna hae a claith that was made o’ woo’
You wouldna hae a coat o’ the black or blue
If it wasna for the wark of the weavers.
The weaving’s a trade that can niver fail
As long as we need claithes for to keep another hale
So let us all be merry o’er a pitcher of good ale
And we’ll drink to the health of the weavers!
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