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

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