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.

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