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Roseanna M. White IS A CHRISTY FINALIST!!!

Roseanne M. White's winner is . Elaine Marie Cooper's winner of a $10 Amazon gift card is Nicole Wetherington. Carrie Fancett Pagels’ winner of choice of ebook or paperback of Saving the Marquise's Granddaughter goes to Deanne Patterson and the White Rose teacup set goest to Lena Nelson Dooley . Angela Couch's winner of Threads of Love e-book is Melissa Henderson and Marguerite Gray is the winner of Mail-Order Revenge print. Denise Weimer's ebook of Redeeming Grace winner is Ashley Penn. Congrats all!!!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Spinning A Yarn


I can imagine all sorts of activities that might take place during Colonial American celebrations—perhaps games or speeches. But spinning on a spinning wheel?

 Much to my surprise, the skill of spinning wool and flax was much celebrated, as described in Shirley Glubok’s Home and Child Life in Colonial Days.” And, at least on one occasion, was on display for all to admire:

 “At the fourth anniversary in 1749 of the ‘Boston Society for promoting Industry and Frugality,’ 300 ‘young spinsters’ spun on their wheels on Boston Common. And a pretty sight it must have been: the fair young girls in the quaint and pretty dress of the times, spinning on the green grass under the great trees.”

 If you have recovered by now from the image of this unexpected and spectacular exhibition, you may now marvel at the term “young spinster.” In Colonial America, a spinster was a word attributed to a woman, whether young or old. It, of course, implied that only women did this particular art of turning raw flax or wool into the useable strands that were woven into cloth.

The history behind the production of flax in America is fascinating. When the colonies were young, they needed a way to clothe the growing numbers of people. Animal skins only went so far.

 So a mere 20 years after the Mayflower found refuge at Plymouth, the Court of Massachusetts passed a law for colonists to grow flax. This is the plant that, after many months of growing and processing, can be spun into linen—the material used for much of their clothing. It was determined which colonists were already adept at growing the crop and using a spinning wheel, and it was ordered that both girls and boys be taught the art of spinning. Classes were started so the children could learn the skill.

 Flax was so important to these early settlers that a bounty was offered to encourage the growing, spinning and weaving of the plants. Families were actually required to spin a certain number of pounds of flax per year or be fined!

 The fields of flax were a lovely display when in bloom, adorned with small blue flowers (see photo).

 Months of arduous labor went into preparing the flax plants just so they could be readied for the spinning wheel. The long process was back-breaking, starting in the spring with planting the seed (thrown the same way you would toss grass seed) and weeding the tender plants, which was done barefoot by women and children. If thistles were in the field, they had to wear 4 layers of woolen stockings to protect their legs.

 By July, flax was ready to be man-handled, pulled out by the roots, laid out to dry, combed for seeds, and the seeds collected for the next year. Then the heavy work began: stacking, washing, more drying, braking, hetcheling—terms we rarely use anymore.

 A hetchel tool is very intimidating to view with its sixty-or-so long, sharp, iron spikes protruding from a heavy board. It is so frightening to look at that I used this flax tool as a weapon between enemies in my first novel,The Road to Deer Run.” The hetchel was not a tool one wanted to trip over in the dark!

 But over time, growing flax lessened in importance in the colonies. The process took over a year from the time of its planting to being useable as linen ready to be sewn. Flax could also be difficult on the land.

 “Growing flax was very hard on the soil so farmers eventually started raising more sheep, for their wool and for meat, plus they could live off of pretty marginal land,” said Dennis Picard, historian at Storrowton Village Museum in West Springfield, Massachusetts. 

Colonists began blending the fibers of linen and wool, producing the cloth known as “linsey-woolsey.”

 The men were not without responsibility in the production of clothing, however. The looms used to weave the yarn into cloth were heavy and difficult to use. While women certainly did do weaving, men often did this cumbersome task as well.

 Of course, once the cloth was produced, then came the arduous task of hand-sewing this material into clothing for the entire family.

 While today we casually add to our wardrobe by a trip to the mall, the early Americans must have highly valued each and every shirt or gown as precious—evidence of the skilled labor that invested months of hard work into its production. Pieces that were homespun treasures, indeed.

 Photos of spinning wheel, loom, and linen garments taken by the author at Storrowton Village Museum, West Springfield, MA.

16 comments:

  1. Great post, Elaine! A few months ago I became fascinated with Elizabeth Jackson, Andrew Jackson's mother, who was a Christian woman with a selfless, loving spirit. In c. 1761, she married Andrew Jackson, the son of a prosperous linen weaver. Both were of lowland Scottish Presbyterian families who had settled in Ulster in the seventeenth century. They came to America in 1765. She was known for her superior ability of weaving flax.

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    1. That is so interesting! I never knew anything about Andrew Jackson's parents, and what a blessing to know that his mother was a devout Christian! It certainly took amazing skill to produce fine linen from flax. And patience. :-) Thanks for commenting, Susan!

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  2. Thank you for this post! It is really quite fascinating to learn how the colonists would make these things. One would have never guessed at how much work it was to make the cloth.

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    1. It is awe-inspiring to learn how difficult it was. Truly a fine art! Thanks for reading and commenting!

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  3. Excellent post, Elaine. Thanks so much! I know they did this in Virginia and have wondered about the process but had not researched what all was involved. Great info!

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    1. SO much work involved, Carrie. It is mind-boggling in this day and age of store-shopping. It makes me understand why colonists re-used the same cloth when the styles changed. They highly valued every bit of material! Thanks for commenting!

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  4. Wonderful post, Elaine. Now that galleys are off my desk, I'm getting ready to dive further into your book and can't wait! I simply loved the beginning I've read and am so glad there is a sequel!! This post is dear to my heart as my upcoming heroine is a spinster/spinner. It was fun researching the part and I grew a bit fainthearted reading about all that flax prep! Times have sure changed but the feel of that fabric must have been something. I have a linen shift in my tiny collection of 18th-c. things and love the texture and quality of it. Bless you for being here and sharing such wonderful history.

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  5. Oh thank you, Laura! You are so sweet! And I understand about getting through your galleys. I am nearing the end of my WIP and ready to see this first draft complete before sending it to my editor so I can get back to the reading that I want to do as well. Looking forward to your book with the spinster! That flax prep was unreal...how did they ever figure it out in the first place? Hope you enjoy my book—which one are you reading? I have two of yours on my shelf that I am anxious to devour! Blessings!

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    1. I have The Road to Deer Run and The Promise of Deer Run on my Kindle and as much as I like my Kindle, I must have my fav colonial books in paperback! There's just something about a book in hand I can't get past! I'm so glad you wrote a sequel as it doubles the reading pleasure:) And I'm with you about all that flax prep - wonder who on earth came up with that idea. The time and effort it took is mindboggling. Though the result was wonderful! Bless you today! And thanks so much for looking forward to my books!!

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  6. So interesting. I hope to visit that museum in June.

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    1. You will love it, Carla. Contact Dennis Picard there and tell him you are affiliated with this website (he knows about it and enjoys it!). Try to arrange for a private tour - he is a fount of information!

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  7. We have a couple of spinsters in our small central Kansas community. Spinning has long fascinated me, and I've wanted to learn the art. Unfortunately, I simply haven't the time. If we didn't have to sleep and could have 48 hour days, it might help. Or not...

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    1. Struggling with you, Judith, about wishing there were more time! I always have to pray the Lord will help me to use each moment effectively and for His glory. I would love to watch the actual spinning! Almost a lost art...but not quite! Thanks for commenting!

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  8. I've been spinning for 34 years. Eeeks! That makes me seem old! I learned to spin at the age of 16, back when nobody else on earth (it seemed) was doing it.

    Now spinning has made a huge surge in popularity in the fiber arts world. I sell my sheep fleeces to handspinners around the country and have even shipped some overseas.

    I have spun flax but didn't enjoy it much. Not only is it a more difficult fiber to work with, it needs to be spun damp and working with wet fiber didn't appeal to me.

    Linsey woolsey was an interesting woven combination of a linen (flax) warp and a wool weft. Warp threads are those that dress the loom and weft threads are those that are woven through the warp. Flax and wool were not spun together, they were combined in the weaving process.

    Clothing was precious way back when but it also lasted longer. Wool is a very hardy fiber that doesn't wear out under normal usage. Sweaters might wear out at elbows, collars and cuffs, but a frugal wife would simply unwind the garment and re-knit the yarn into another - probably smaller - sweater for someone else.

    Today's petroleum based synthetic fabrics can't compare!

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  9. While I find this laborious process of growing, working, spinning, weaving and fashioning garments fascinating, I am SO glad I live now, and can learn and write about it instead of depending on it to keep the clothes on my back!

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  10. I love learning things of historical value and past careers of folks. I learned to spin on my ashford drop spindle but it is hard to do. I would much prefer a wheel by far. I love making yarns to use to crochet with. I have a friend Amanda who does a awesome job of fiber spinning and she started all this due to my doing rabbits years ago and having angoras myself, so she got angoras from others and jersey woolies too. I rather like old fashioned styles anyways and I have a love for sewing when I find time to do it. I will be teaching my girls over the coming years as they go from preteens to young ladies. I loved reading all your comments. My grandmother MEG Martha Elnora Gunn did undo and redo sweaters , reusing anything she could do it with. I look at thrift stores for yarns and crochet threads today and look for ways to remake clothing to look vintage.
    Blessings,
    Linda Finn
    Faithful Acres Books
    http://www.faithfulacresbooks.wordpress.com
    faithfulacresbooks@gmail.com

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