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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Weaving Of Textiles

( Originally Published 1940 )



The weaving of textiles is another of the more ancient crafts of mankind, and another of those essential to a pioneer society. Its origins are lost, along with those of many other crafts, in the deep shadow of Time.

Simple fabrics are made by weaving threads in and out across a layer of other threads at a right angle. An obscurity has fallen over the details of this once common process today when the average person has little or no contact with the means by which his cloth is manufactured. Also, it is a far cry from the miraculous efficiencies of industrial weaving to the simple methods of the hand loom. Yet the mysteries of warp and woof, heddle and shuttle, are not very profound and may be easily understood.

The warp is the lengthwise threads. These must be the strongest and are usually of a better type or grade of thread than the crosswise threads, called the woof, or weft.

A loom is a frame upon which the warp threads are vertically stretched. These threads are passed, at top and bottom, through tiny loops of string or wire on small pieces of wood, called heddles, which resemble minute piano keys. At the top of the loom every other heddle is attached to one crossbar, while the intervening ones are attached to another. Thus, when one crossbar is pushed out every other thread is separated from its neighbor. When the other crossbar is pushed out the action is reversed. In weaving this permits the easy separation of every other warp thread so that the woof thread, attached to a shuttle, has merely to be tossed through the intervening space, after which the separation of the warp threads is reversed and the shuttle is passed back again. The above process is for the weaving of simple, unpatterned textiles. When patterns are desired, more than two sets of heddles are necessary, for threads of different colors. The foot-loom, with various pedals to work the crossbars, thus leaving both hands free to manipulate the shuttle, came in the early 17th or late 16th centuries. To produce still more intricate patterns the draw-loom was invented. This was a method whereby the many sets of heddles were operated by cords which were pulled by a skilful small boy who had to swing about precariously, monkey-fashion, atop the large loom.

In 1733 John Kay, an Englishman, invented the flying shuttle; a means of making the shuttle pass back and forth by the pulling of cords instead of by hand to hand tossing. But this invention did not find ready acceptance.

Then in 1784 Edmund Cartwright invented the power loom, which performed all the operations of moving the heddles and the shuttle in any manner desired. Cartwright was an English clergyman with no knowledge of weaving and practically none of mechanics. He is an outstanding example of the frequency with which amateurs in the crafts and sciences make great discoveries, possibly because they are uninhibited by any knowledge of the "real difficulties" involved in their ideas. The superhuman weaving machinery of today's textile mills is essentially based on the principle of the simple loom of antiquity.

It was really not until almost the 18th century that Great Britain became frightened at the possibility of American manufactures making the Colonies economically independent. The London Company had sent weavers, among innumerable other craftsmen, to Jamestown in 1620. There was no 17th century British resistance to cloth manufacture in New England.

The Pilgrims landed at Plymouth in 1620 and the Puritans came to Massachusetts Bay in 1630, and although their hardships were terrible their success was sufficient to induce large numbers of other persons, mostly with similar religious persuasions, to follow them to New England.

Almost all Colonial families sowed flax and hemp. The "hemp" was not really hemp but a species of bark, Apocynum Cannabinum, used by the American Indians. Although cotton was indigenous to the American continent, the only cotton available to the early American Colonists was imported from the Barbados.

A great deal of weaving was carried on by journeymen. These were travelling craftsmen. Their title, however, does not come from the fact that they travelled but from the fact that originally the term "journey" meant a day's work. In other words, they were craftsmen who worked by the day. They were active not only in weaving, but in a greater or lesser degree, in pottery, carpentry, tailoring, and various other crafts. Sometimes, in the later frontier days, they were on their way to a permanent home. Sometimes they simply liked to travel. They were an enlivening influence throughout the Colonies and were depended upon for vivid gossip and tall tales of other places.

Weaving was, in earliest America, for the most part a household industry. Most housewives could perform its simple operations but it did have a professional craft aspect. There were some families having looms but not knowing how to use them adequately. It was for such as these that the journeymen travelled from home to home, weaving various fabrics.

Puritan Governor Bradford was himself a fustian weaver from Austerfield, England, which probably did a good deal for tolerant laws toward weavers in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The warp, in those days, could not be made from cotton for the technique of spinning a sufficiently strong cotton thread had not yet been developed. The commonest fabrics of the period were a mixture of linen and cotton which was variously called "fustian," "dimity," etc.

Weavers who established themselves in a fixed locale were accustomed, according to J. L. Bishop in his History of flmerican Manufactures, ". . . to provide themselves with the linen warp and the new cotton each on his own account. It was then carded and spun by their wives and children and afterward woven by the head of the family. The weaver plied his loom during a part of the day, the remainder being employed in gardening or other affairs." The cloth was then carried to the nearest market for sale. During these times when the Colonial government was so concerned about the home manufacture of textiles, bounties were paid for the growing of fibres and for the weaving of fabrics.

The method of non-itinerant weaving, just described, was made tremendously more efficient about 1740 by a completely new system. Textile merchants sent their agents throughout the country to supply household weavers with linen yarn and raw cotton at stated intervals and received their woven cloth in return.

Thus, by approximately 1767, there were three kinds of American textile manufacture. The greatest amount was probably amateur activity. Most early American housewives could weave as well as spin. They wove fabrics for the family needs and sold any excess in the city markets. Second, were the homes that had looms but did not know how, or did not wish to use them. These were serviced by the journeymen weavers who were paid ten to twelve pence for each yard of a half-yard width of material. Third were the non-itinerant weavers, supplied with threads by central distributors, working, in effect, by consignment.

About 1700, when the population of the English Colonies in America had reached 250,000, the British suddenly became aware of the danger of American manufacturing enterprise and began to fight it with intolerable laws. After they had lost the Revolutionary War thus precipitated they continued to struggle in the purely economic field by selling British goods in America for as much as 25% less than the price in London.

When craftsman-inventor Eli Whitney invented his cotton gin in 1783, he influenced the course of American history, for the first three quarters of the 19th century. Before the cotton gin there had been a stronger "abolition" sentiment in the South than in the North, due to the increasing unprofitableness of slaveholding. This vanished with Whitney's invention, for when the negroes could be used for extensive cultivation and picking, their maintenance became practical. Still more important, the slave-owning plantation owners were no longer confined to the Tidewater areas for they could now use the short-fibred upland cotton which had not previously been satisfactory. With this impetus the Southern cotton interests rose rapidly to a national domination and to a conflict with Northern economy which was only terminated, and not altogether justly, by the Civil War.

Eli Whitney's little machine increased cotton production in America one hundred fold in the first seven years of its existence, and made cotton one of the essential determinants of world situations unto this present day.

Silk worms were nurtured in Georgia as early as 1734, but it was not until 1 8 10 that the first American silk mill was successfully operated in Mansfield, Connecticut.

One of the variations on plain weaving in early Colonial times was the making of coach-lace, which was not lace at all but was a woven strip with ornamental braid in floral or geometric patterns.

As in England, the printing of cotton in this country was early inspired by the beauty of India prints. American cotton prints were at first done in simple colors from rectangular wooden blocks on which the design was either raised, or cut intaglio. That some of these blocks were carved by real artists or craftsmen is indicated in the advertisement of Francis Dewing in Boston, 1716, who claimed that he ". . . engraveth and printeth Copper Plates, likewise cuts neatly in wood and Painteth Calicoes." American cotton printers in general imitated the patterns of India Prints, but after the Revolution eagles and other patriotic symbols came into fashion.

In the process of printing the fabric was fastened to the floor or to a large table. The block was "inked" by pressing it onto a color pad, in the manner of a rubber stamp. The block was then applied to the material. For greater "fastness" the dye was sometimes mixed with glue.

Perhaps the greatest of all American non-professional crafts was that of weaving coverlets. Rural women wove these of coarse yarns from early Colonial times far into the 19th century. They are a truly American expression. The patterns, sometimes recorded on paper, were called "drafts" and were passed around from family to family, town to town, county to county. These patterns, like folk-stories and folk-music, were gradually added-to by the more creative persons who used them until they changed beyond recognition. Each had an obscure evolution of its own.

Some of the patterns have commonplace, realistic names, such as "Sunrise," "Cat Tracks," "Dog Tracks," and so on. Others are direct expressions of Americanism, such as the one called "E pluribus unum," and another known as the "Declaration of Independence." This latter one has a formal floral pattern in its central area, but the border is composed of columns, stars, and eagles holding bunches of arrows in both feet, instead of only the left as in the Seal of the United States. Also, on the coverlet, the eagles have the national shield apparently tattooed on their lower bellies instead of being borne on their breasts. On one such cover is woven: "American Independence. Declared July q., 1776. Wove in 1839. J. A. Getty."

Other patriotic "drafts" are George Washington, and Anthony Wayne. Masonic emblems were also common.

But the majority of these coverlet patterns are rather obscure abstractions entitled, variously: Governor's Garden, Rich Man's Fancy, Bonaparte's Retreat, Winding Leaves and Folding Win dows, Queen of England, Youth and Beauty, Muscadine Hulls, Ladies' Delight, Frenchman's Fancy, Tennessee Trouble, and Missouri Trouble.

Next in prominence to the coverlet are the familiar American "samplers." These are embroidered pictures and words done on a background of coarse linen or canvas. Technically speak ing they are not samplers unless they are signed and dated, but are merely embroidered pictures.

In the beginning samplers were highly intricate displays of embroidering virtuosity. It was in the 19th century that they became primers for the female young. One of the earliest and most excellent specimens, still in existence, was made by Miles Standish's daughter, Lora, in 1623.

In the 19th century the sampler had become largely a device for keeping young girls out of trouble! The young ladies were handed squares of linen, needles, and colored threads and directed to work out pictures of animals, houses, and flowers, combined with religious, filial, and moral sentiments. When the family could not think of any pious sentiment the girls were often instructed to embroider the alphabet, which thousands dutifully did, sometimes in both capital and small letters. Maps were occasionally embroidered as an instruction in geography, and in the second quarter of the 19th century there occurred the celebrated morbid era when the deaths of illustrious persons or relatives were the subject of such art work. Tombs and winged angels of death poured from the needles of all the industrious maidens.

The sampler was also used as a genealogical record, in the manner of the Family Bible. Deaths, births, and marriages were recorded in various appropriate colors whenever an occasion arose.

The final addition to the list of characteristic American household textile crafts is the art of richly-colored and varipatterned quilt-making as it has been practiced by rural house wives from earliest times to the present. These manifold aspects of folk-art and handicraft constitute one of the richest seams of our national cultural heritage.



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