|Detail of a 17th-century English|
broadside depicting the many parts of
the woolen industry
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|
|Woman spinning with water mill|
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.