Friday, January 29, 2016

Weaving a Social Web: Textile Production in Martha Ballard’s Diary

Martha’s diary
In this post we’re going to look at some of the tools and techniques of domestic textile production through the experience of Martha Ballard, a midwife who lived on the Maine frontier during the early republic. Martha was born in Oxford, Massachusetts in 1735 and married Ephraim Ballard in 1754. They had nine children, three of whom died in a diphtheria epidemic in 1769. In 1777, the family moved to a settlement on the Kennebec River which eventually became the town of Hallowell, Maine. And that’s about all we would know about Martha Ballard, were it not for the fact that she kept a diary for almost thirty years, from 1785 until her death in 1812.

In her diary, Martha recorded of her midwifery and medical practice, kept track of the comings and goings of family and neighbors, and noted the kinds of work she and the members of her household did. Textile production was an important component of this work, from the sowing of flax seed to the bleaching of the finished linen cloth. Although much of this work was done within the Ballard household, it also brought Martha into a network of exchanges with her neighbors. As historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich put it, the production of cloth wove a “social web.”

Drop spindle and distaff
When Martha began her diary in January 1785, she was fifty years old. Her oldest daughter was married, but her five other children were still living at home. Most importantly for the purpose of textile production, two of these children were teenaged girls: Hannah, fifteen, and Dolly, thirteen. Hannah and Dolly already knew how to spin, using the two wheels the Ballards owned—the large wool wheel and the smaller flax wheel. 

Spinning was in many ways the most time-consuming and most skilled element of textile production. The basic idea behind spinning is fairly simple and requires minimal equipment, but to do it well and quickly is another matter. Spinning is the process of drawing out and simultaneously twisting a fiber. The trick is that spinning really requires four hands—one to hold the fiber, one to draw it out, one to twist it, and one of hold on to the new thread. As early as the Neolithic era, the drop spindle was developed as a solution to this problem. 

“A spindle is a weighted stick that can be spun like a top. Attaching a leader of yarn to the shaft, a spinner gave the spindle a quick turn, then dropped it, letting it twist the yarn as it fell. When the spindle stopped, she wound the newly spun yarn onto the shaft and started the process over again.” The spinning wheel was a much later development, and is really just a mechanical device that keeps a spindle in motion.

Walking wheel for spinning wool
Hannah and Dolly would have used a wheel very much like the one in the Alice’s collection to spin wool. This large wheel was also known as a “walking wheel.” The spinner used one hand to turn the wheel and drew out the fiber with the other, walking backwards until she had gone as far as her arm could reach. Then she reversed the wheel, winding the yarn on to the spindle as she walked forward. Flax and cotton, on the other hand, could be spun on a much smaller wheel with a foot treadle, allowing the spinner to sit while she worked.

Regardless of the kind of wheel, the quality of the finished thread was determined by the skill of the spinner and her ability “to draw evenly, maintain the right tension on the yarn, and control the speed of twisting.” The condition of the fibers and environmental factors also affected the finished yarn. Different fibers required different techniques, which also varied according to the intended purpose of the yarn. No wonder, then, that it required 8 to 10 spinners to keep one weaver supplied with yarn. 

Clock reel, used to wind and measure
 skeins of yarn prior to weaving
For the first two years of the diary, spinning was Hannah and Dolly’s main responsibility. Then, in the summer of 1787, Hannah learned to weave. This was an enterprise that involved the whole Ballard family and their neighbors. Her brother Cyrus brought home “the bars & other utensils for weaving” (presumably from neighbors who had borrowed them) and Mr. Ballard spent some time “fixing the loom.” Martha combed flax, measured yarn, and “quilled.” Neighbor Dorcas Pollard warped the loom and another neighbor, Hannah Cool, was also on hand to help instruct Hannah, who completed forty yards of “linning” (as Martha always called linen) six weeks later.

Like spinning, weaving is also a fairly simple process. At its most basic, a loom is simply a device that holds a vertical set of threads (the warp) taut while a horizontal set of threads (the weft) is interwoven with them. If you’ve ever made a potholder with stretchy loops, you get the general idea. By the 18th century, people were using much larger and more complex looms, but the essential idea remained the same. Martha’s loom was probably very similar to the barn-frame loom in the Alice’s collection—a four-harness, foot-powered loom. Treadles or pedals below the loom control harnesses, “each carrying hundreds of heddles with a single thread passing through the central eye of each heddle. After the weaver depresses a treadle raising one or more harnesses, she throws the shuttle through the shed, the open space created between the activated threads. The shuttle carries the weft thread, which is wound onto a quill, or bobbin. After throwing the shuttle with one hand and catching it with the other, the weaver beats the weft into position.” Another harness is activated and the process repeats.

Diagram of a four-harness loom
Before weaving can begin, the loom has to be prepared, or “warped.” This required a good deal of skill and time, which explains why Dorcas Pollard did it the first time Hannah wove. Each warp thread had to be individually threaded through a heddle and tied to the cloth beam at the front of the loom, and the foot pedals tied in the proper sequence. The whole process could take anywhere from 7 to 10 hours, depending on the pattern. 

On any given day, any female member of the Ballard household might perform one or more of the elements of textile production, interwoven with other household duties. A typical entry in Martha’s diary, from October 1789, recorded that “Hannah wove 6 yds, Dolly did house work & Spun 2 Skeins of Linning, Han[na]h 14 knotts Cotten. I quilld & knitt.” Dolly also learned to weave, and over time, the girls took over more and more of the responsibility for supplying the family with textiles, while also making the sheets, blankets, towels, and coverlets they would need for their own homes when they married. Their skills also allowed them to go out and work for other families, earning money that could be used to purchase goods they couldn’t make themselves.

In an era before mechanization, it might truly be said that textile production ran on “daughter power.” As they did in other New England towns, the women of Hallowell exchanged daughters, sending them out to work for relatives or neighbors during slack times in their own households, then calling them back when needed. Martha herself supplemented Hannah and Dolly’s labor with the work of her nieces Clarissa, Pamela, and Parthenia Barton, all of whom lived with the Ballards for a time. By 1795, the Ballard girls and Parthenia were all married, and Martha depended on the short-term assistance of other women and girls—at least, until her granddaughters were old enough to take up spinning, just as their mothers had.

If you would like to learn more about Martha Ballard, check out Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812, or the PBS program based on the book. You can also follow Martha on Twitter @Martha_Ballard

Friday, January 22, 2016

An “Industrious Revolution”: Textile Production in New England

Detail of a 17th-century English
broadside depicting the many parts of
the woolen industry
When colonists first came to New England in the 1630s, they brought with them the technology that had been used for centuries to produce linen and wool textiles—not only looms and spinning wheels, but hatchels, flails, bobbins, quills, reels, and niddy-noddies. However, they left behind the large-scale textile production that had developed in England since the middle ages. 

In England, labor was divided among families and individuals and organized by middlemen who sold and shipped raw fiber, spun yarn, and undyed cloth all over the country until the finished product was complete. Adam Smith wrote in The Wealth of Nations in 1776 that even the simplest laborer’s woolen coat was the end result of a complex chain: “The shepherd, the sorter of the wool, the wool-comber or carder, the dyer, the scribbler, the spinner, the weaver, the fuller, the dresser, with many others, must all join their different arts in order to complete even this homely production.” 

New England colonists did not attempt to reproduce this system. For one, there simply weren’t enough people in 17th-century New England to do it. Even if there had been, English law “prohibited the export by ship of raw wool, yarn, or finished fabrics” from any English colony in order to protect the mother country’s textile industry. Nor was inter-colonial trade permitted. So whatever textiles colonists produced were for their own household use or for local exchange.

Family working together to process flax, 1780s
The other significant difference between the old world and the new was that in New England, women became weavers. In Europe, weaving was strictly a male occupation—guild regulations forbade weavers from employing their female relatives. But over time, in New England, weaving shifted from being a skill practiced by male artisans and learned through apprenticeship, to one performed by women within a network of neighbors who exchanged labor and tools. Although later writers like Horace Bushnell looked back to a golden Age of Homespun in which women produced all the textiles for their household, in reality, domestic production supplemented but did not replace imported cloth. It was one piece of the larger household economy.

Woman spinning with water mill
in background
If there ever really was a “golden age” of domestic textile production, it was probably the period from around 1790 to the 1830s, when the introduction of machines that combed wool and spun cotton allowed women to dramatically step up their production. By producing more textiles for their own use or for exchange, women were able to acquire more imported goods—calicos and chintzes, china and clocks. They were thus a key part of what historians have called the “industrious revolution”—an increase in the demand for goods which encouraged households to organize their labor in such a way that would produce disposable income.

Later writers tended to idealize the self-sufficiency of colonial and early American families, but as we’ll see, domestic textile production required cooperation not just within households but with larger networks of neighbors and communities. Household production was not separate from the broader economy but firmly embedded within it. In the next post, we will take a closer look at the process of making cloth through the experience of one woman who lived during the age of homespun.

Once again, I have relied mainly on Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s The Age of Homespun for the material in this post.

Friday, January 8, 2016

The Age of Homespun

New-England Kitchen at the Brooklyn Sanitary
Commission Fair, 1864
If you read a lot about the Colonial Revival, you start to notice certain recurring symbols and themes. Perhaps the most persistent, and most interesting, is the spinning wheel, which for many Americans in the 19th and early 20th century was the quintessential symbol of the bygone era that came to be known as the “age of homespun.” Beginning in the mid-19th century, spinning wheels started to appear everywhere—the New England Kitchens of the Civil War-era sanitary fairs; early historical exhibits like those at the Essex Institute in Salem and the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association in Deerfield; the photographs of Wallace Nutting. The spinning wheel was both an obvious and immediately recognizable relic of the past, as well as a powerful emblem of virtues like thrift, piety, and industry.

Platt Ryder, Woman at Spinning Wheel,
ca. 1860
Minister and theologian Horace Bushnell coined the phrase “age of homespun” in 1851, in a speech he gave at the celebration of the centennial of Litchfield County, Connecticut. Bushnell encouraged his audience to look to the everyday lives of anonymous people as the source of the nation’s greatness: “It is not the starred epitaphs of the Doctors of Divinity, the Generals, the Judges, the Honourables, the Governors, or even of the village notables called Esquires, that mark the springs of our successes and the sources of our distinctions. These are rather effects than causes; the spinning-wheels have done a great deal more than these.” But by the time Bushnell gave his speech, the age of mechanized textile production was well under way. Those women who still spun or wove did so by machine in the factories of Lowell, Lawrence, and other New England mill towns. “This transition from mother-and-daughter power to water-and-steam power,” said Bushnell, “brought with it a complete revolution of domestic life.”

Demonstration of spinning flax,
Alice T. Miner Museum, 1926
The spinning wheel and all that was associated with it, then, became a way for Americans to make sense of the dramatic changes that industrialization had brought about. To understand the significance of wheels, looms, and other paraphernalia of domestic textile production to collectors like Alice Miner, we must (to use an obvious metaphor) unravel various skeins. First, what did textile production in the 17th and 18th centuries actually look like? Then, how did 19th and 20th century antiquarians and collectors interpret the tools and products (particularly woven coverlets) of colonial women, and what do their choices about collection and display tell us? And finally, why did some Americans in the early 20th century feel that it was important to preserve or revive the arts of textile production?

These are some of the questions that I will try to answer over the coming months. Along the way, we will see some familiar faces, like Frank Gunsaulus, William Morris, and Jane Addams, and we will meet some new ones, like Martha Ballard, Anna Ernberg, and Eliza Calvert Hall. Who knows, I may even try to do some spinning myself!


Christopher Monkhouse, “The Spinning Wheel as Artifact, Symbol, and Source of Design,” in Kenneth L. Ames, ed., Victorian Furniture (Victorian Society of America, 1982), 155-159.

Beverly Gordon, “Spinning Wheels, Samplers, and the Modern Priscilla: The Images and Paradoxes of Colonial Revival Needlework,” Winterthur Portfolio 33 (July 1998), 163-194.

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, The Age of Homespun: Objects and Stories in the Creation of an American Myth (Knopf, 2001).