In the not-too-distant past…

All yarn was handspun.

Think about that for a minute… yarn that’s been spun up at a mill is a relatively modern invention! I’ve been thinking a lot about our recent history with textiles for two reasons. One, I just finished reading Over-dressed, a book that reviews our history with clothes from the time they were handmade, to when they cost a significant chunk of salary to purchase, up to today, where a new shirt often costs less than a meal. Second, I visited Greenfield Village, a place where you can watch that history unfold in re-created homes and workshops.

Today, I’m going to talk a bit about the handiwork that’s part of the American story, and tomorrow, we’ll peek at some of the mechanical inventions that brought us to where we are today: where we can readily purchase not only finished yarn, but knitted clothing, made by machines.

So, back to our story… just a century and a half ago, most American women lived quite close to a farmer who kept a few of these guys:

and she would either barter or purchase the wool, and spin it up at home. Take a peek inside this tiny little (authentic) home on display at Greenfield Village:

This home was about 10×12 feet (yes, the whole house!)… and what’s right in front of the fireplace? A spinning wheel! (In the back, you can see the kitchen cupboard, and to the right, the foot of the bed… that’s how small this place is!) That’s because a woman would spend her winter evenings by the fire, spinning. Not for fun, but because the family needed clothing!

I spied the finished product hanging in the corner:

This yarn would then be knit/crocheted into clothing for the members of the family. Can you imagine how valuable a skein of yarn would be if you spun it yourself (after, I’m sure, carding and cleaning it!) When the child’s sweater was outgrown, I’m certain it would be passed onto a smaller family member, or frogged so the yarn could be reused.

If you needed supplies, like a crochet hook or buttons, you would head into town to the general store:

Not all clothes were knitted or crocheted. By this time, weaving did occur at an industrial scale, and fabric (for sewing clothes) could be purchased at the general store:

This fabric was used for clothing, and not a scrap went to waste. Small pieces of fabric (or bits from too-worn clothing) was used to make quilts:

This table (again, in front of the fire!) is from the home of Noah Webster, the dictionary guy. Sewing wasn’t an activity reserved for the poor… women of all status-levels worked on making the essentials!

Isn’t is amazing to think about? How many dresses would you own if you had to sew each one yourself? How about your kids?

Tomorrow, I’ll show you some of the machinery that began mechanizing the yarn/knitting/apparel world!

11 replies on “In the not-too-distant past…

  • Vanessa

    Remember, women also raised flax to turn into fiber as well! The first sock knitting machine also appeared during the reign of Elizabeth 1 but it was dismissed as a novelty.

    During the Revolutionary War, even Martha Washington was seen knitting away. She was making socks for the troops!

    I highly recommend “No Idle Hands” for a good history of knitting in America from the first settlers to the 1980s.

  • Meredith Taylor

    great post! i always think about this kind of stuff… and i love that all women were educated in the “home arts” or whatever you want to call them. even women in the royal lines and ladies in waiting took great pride in their embroideries and brocade.

    seeing the little spaces people lived in makes me feel a little silly about complaining about my own tiny apartment… if they could squeeze a spinning wheel between the fireplace, cupboards, and cradle i bet i could squeeze one in here someplace, lol.

  • Su

    What a fun post. Can you imagine – the “crafts” that we now do, by choice, for fun and relaxation would have been part of everyday housework. Ugh! I’m really not enthralled with necessary chores, although I think even I could keep a 10 x 12 “house” in order. Well, maybe!

  • Dave Bennett

    I’m currently reading “Chapters from My Autobiography” by Mark Twain and, in parts dictated in 1906, he talks about summers at his grandparents farm (~1840s) and the constant sound of the spinning wheel in one corner of the main room.

  • Mariana

    What a great post!!
    I recently went to a wool fair and saw some spinning wheels…
    I pretty much felt and thought the same as You did, How accomplished those women were, making themselves all the clothing the whole family needed.
    I live in Chile, over here the winter is just leaving, it was a very cold one. I have a 2 1/2 years old daughter, and She can take off any sweater with zipper or buttons, so I knitted a regular sweater, no zipp no buttons, to keep her warm, and it worked!! She never took my sweaters of, so I knitted 4!! The feeling of knitting something for someone I love, and something that keeps them warm and cozy was great!
    Those women didn’t have a regular job like we have, but they worked in their homes doing things for the family, for me that’s the greatest job ever.
    When I knit or crochet I feel happy, I’m sure women from the past where happy too.
    Big hugs from Chile

  • Erin

    What an awesome post! Looking forward to part 2!
    I’m interested to know, do you read and crochet at the same time? Or just make special time for reading? You manage to get through some good books, even though you are busy!

    • Stacey

      Yes, I do read & crochet at the same time (although, only if it’s a simple crochet project!), but I also walk & read (for example, I walk 30 min round trip to the post office a few times a week) and read during breakfast & lunch. I don’t set aside much time for ‘just reading’, but I seem to sneak a lot in :)

  • Erin

    @Stacey I just downloaded the latest podcast, if I had listen to this on time i would have had my answer already! (its not usually available on itunes straight away (usually the day after your blog post) – and i forgot about it this month :( but at least the next one isn’t far away now!) walking and reading! never would have thought of that! do you get any funny looks?

    • Stacey

      @Erin- I do occasionally get people telling me that I’m not being safe… I assure them that I’m always looking at the sidewalk, and it’s no worse than texting and walking!

  • Amy

    Interesting post. It’s good to stop once in a while and think about how easy we have it compared to our ancestors. Most of us know this, but never think about it. Every now and then I marvel at the luxury of flipping a switch and having the room light up (especially after a power outage like we had the other night!) or turning on a faucet and having hot water come out. I know I’d have a lot less clutter in my closets if I had to spin yarn and make all my own clothes.

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