by Anniel 2/9/15
Two important revolutions rocked the world in the mid to late 1700’s, and both were tied together in the political battles over wool.
In another lifetime I was a spinner and weaver and learned much about how the herding of sheep, goats and other fiber bearing animals controlled the politics and life of different civilizations. China and the Far East were heavily invested in the silk trade from very early times, even traveling as far as 4,000 miles to trade silk with Rome. The fertile plains and grasslands of Central Asia were used to establish trading routes all over the Medieval World.
In most European areas clothing was woven from sheep and goat wool, and later from long staple Egyptian cotton. The Irish are still famous for their fine linens. In mid-eastern countries, such as Palestine, camel hair was the warm fiber of choice. Yak fiber, musk ox, horse, cashmere goat and other animal fur and hair have been used for textiles in different lands.
In the early Americas the textiles used by different groups consisted of native sheep and llama wool, alpaca and vicuña fiber, mostly from the Andes, and some forms of native silk, linen and cotton. The Rulers were the only ones allowed to use certain fibers, such as vicuña, for clothing. The rulers in some areas reserved only the best of everything for themselves. For instance, they were the only ones allowed to consume chocolate.
When the earliest settlers came to the English colonies they were bound by English law, and the textile industry was jealously guarded. Many of the colonists complaints centered around the restrictions placed on what they could use for clothing, the production of woolen cloth and the onerous taxation placed on woolens.
Making clothes the King’s Way was very involved. No one-hundred percent wool cloth was permitted to be woven in the colonies. The death penalty for piracy could be imposed for trading in fine all wool fabric without the King’s seal, and of course there was a black market for smuggling in that wool. Sheep could be raised and wool spun for use as taxes, but the yarn kept at private homes could only be used by the colonists as weft (also known as woof), which are the crosswise threads. So the colonists, were allowed to grow flax, spun crude linen and used it for warp threads. When they wove the linen with wool it made a cheap cloth fifty/fifty wool and linen fabric known as “Linsey-Woolsey,” used by the poor. Only wealthy folks could afford pure wool fabric, suits and clothing from England.
In 1764 an Englishman from a small town in Lancashire named James Hargreaves began the Industrial Revolution when he invented the Spinning Jenny. His daughter knocked his wife’s spinning wheel over and he was intrigued to realize that the spindle and bobbin kept spinning while the wheel was lying free on its side. He got the idea of maximizing production of yarn by having more than one spindle and bobbin on the wheel. His Spinning Jenny consisted of a multiple line of spindles and bobbins turning from one wheel. His invention led to the building of factories for large scale production of yarn and fabrics. (As an aside, a loom known as a Dobby Loom is said by many researchers to have been the first step towards the computer. I owned a Dobby Loom once and it filled half the living room.)
Before the Industrial Revolution, one of the burdens placed on the American colonists was a levy on each household for spun yarn. Because the levy was so high, almost every household kept one daughter or other female relative (preferably unmarried so she wouldn’t be distracted by children) employed as the family “Spinster.” Now you know where that term originated. The yarn they spun was a tax and shipped back for use by the weavers in England for some years after the invention of the Spinning Jenny.
Women were the spinners in the colonies. Preparation and spinning of flax was a long and cumbersome process. After harvesting, the flax plants had to be “retted,” that is, rotted in water until the fibers could be peeled and separated into strings, then further softened in wet ditches by being walked on. The fibers were then placed on distaffs (another name for the female line) before spinning on huge wheels known as “walking wheels.” And then there was the cleaning, carding and combing of wool for use with the smaller wool wheels, which are the wheels most people are familiar with. (Another aside: A Walking Wheel would have filled the other half of our living room.)
Men were the weavers during colonial times. A man who was a weaver would stay at home, plant and tend his crops, build and repair fences and barns during spring and summer, until he finished harvesting and storing his crops in the fall. Then he would travel from village to village, from home to home, and weave blankets and cloth from all the wool and flax prepared and spun in those homes during the previous year. The families he wove for would house and feed him until his work was done. Then they would pay him, in coin if possible, or with some of the blankets and cloth he had woven.
The weaver could choose to stay for the final step in the preparation of all kinds of cloth, including his share. This step is the “fulling” process. The bible says the Lord will cleanse His people with “refiners fire and fuller’s soap.” “Fuller’s Soap” is defined as a caustic soap used to clean cloth. Well, yes, but fulling cloth properly is still a very exacting profession. In Biblical times, and well into early colonial days, cloth was often stretched out and placed in long trenches filled with urine, manure, dirt and water. After resting the fabric there for several days, the people of the village would line up bare-foot and walk and stomp on the woven fabric until the individual fibers were evenly softened and broken down, thus making the fibers in the cloth cling to each other. This “whole cloth” was then washed in soap and clean water, rinsed, dried, shaved and pressed before being made into clothing. Blankets were also fulled but left wooly and unshaven for greater warmth.
There were many indignities heaped upon the heads of the colonists by the King before they finally rebelled to claim their God-given rights. The actions taken by the King and mill owners in England on the matter of wool contributed greatly to the sentiments which led to the war.
When it came time for his inauguration, George Washington, who loved fine clothing, chose to wear a suit of one-hundred percent wool cloth, every inch of which was sheared from American sheep, then spun, woven, fulled, and sewn in the new United States of America, a visible sign to his countrymen that they were freemen. They were free from England’s tyrannical treatment in many matters, one of which was the bondage of the King’s foolish wool policies. • (9400 views)