Do you own a spinning wheel? If you answered no, then you aren’t alone! Most families in the colonial period did not own tools that could be used to create their own fabric. “Fewer than one and ten households owned a loom, used for making linen or cloth” (Mays, 353) However, almost every woman knew how to sew, for one of a colonial woman’s primary duties was the sewing of clothing, bedding, and linens. Aside from their houses, most colonists admitted that their second most valuable possession was bedding and clothing—60% of Massachusetts colonists listed bedding as their most valuable item, followed by clothing, and then furniture (Mays, 353). These basic skills were essential when the American Revolution called upon women to create homespun clothing that could replace imported British goods. With a little bit of training, women were able to efficiently utilize the spinning wheel and create homespun clothing as well as a new American identity. Curious how they did it? Find a spinning wheel, follow the steps below, and try it out for yourself!
Visualize a piece of cotton, imagine pulling on one end so the cotton grows longer and thinner. This step is called “drawing”, and essentially, spinning is just a continuous process of drawing and twisting (Ulrich, 87). A spinning wheel is a mechanical device for keeping a spindle (a weighted stick that can be spun like a top) in motion. “The spindle is attached horizontally to the post, then connected by a single cord to the drive wheel” (Ulrich, 87).
1) With one hand occasionally turning the wheel, use your other hand to draw out your fiber.
2) As the thread lengthens, inch backwards until you go as far as you can reach.
3) Reverse the action of the wheel, and wind the yarn onto the spindle as you move toward it.
FUN FACT: This back and forth motion explains why some people called the spindle wheel the walking wheel.
PRO TIP: Although a good spinning wheel can help make a fantastic final product, the true determining factor of the clothes’ quality is the spinner’s ability to draw evenly, maintain the right tension on the yarn, and control the speed of twisting. Also, don’t forget that flax, hemp, cotton, worsted, and wool all require different techniques, as do yarns for warping, knitting, weaving, lace-making, embroidery, and shoe-binding. (Ulrich 91-92).
The process seems simple enough. So if your family ever needs some homespun clothes, you can happily provide some.
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Curious for more? Try these sources:
- Mays, Dorothy A. “SearchWorks Catalog.” Women in Early America : Struggle, Survival, and Freedom in a New World in SearchWorks. ABC-CLIO, 23 Nov. 2004. Web. 10 Nov. 2015.
- Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. The Age of Homespun: Objects and Stories in the Creation of an American Myth. New York: Knopf :, 2001.