Woven in the Past

In a town near my parent's house there is a museum specializing in industrial and mechanical items, all housed in a range of barns and sheds. They have a huge collection of steam and gas-powered tractors and engines made to power threshers and harvesters ... all of those ingenious inventions which came about towards the end of the 19th century as an improvement on the brute muscle-power of horses or oxen or even humans. In a good many ways, we have become so accustomed to things powered by electricity, or various fuels that we take them for granted. Only when the power goes out, or when it becomes necessary to dig a hole with a shovel, do we have any clue about how much sheer physical labor it took to do things in the old way.

I wasn't at the museum to look at the antique, steam-powered tractors, though - I was looking at the vast collection of working looms, the oldest of them going on two centuries and the process of working them even older than that. I had a chance to do some last-minute authentication for my next book. This book features the minor character of a woman who brings a loom with her to Texas in the 1820s, and thereafter weaves much of her families' clothing and household fabrics herself. So - I wanted to get a better notion of what that would have involved: what would her loom looked like, sounded like in use? What would her homespun cloth looked like, how fine or coarse, how would she have set up her loom to weave a length of cloth; how wide and long would her fabric would have been? All different from today in what I have in my San Antonio home.

So - when internet searches have only taken me so far, what better way than to consult with experts, re-enactors and hobbyists, those hands-on amateur scholars who explore such matters out of sheer love - and are most pleased to share their expertise. Like most things pre-industrial, transforming plant or animal fiber into garments turns out to have been labor intensive. Leaving alone the process of harvesting cotton or sheering sheep -and let's not even get into processing flax - it starts with combing or carding the cleaned fiber. That is done with a pair of square paddles set with short wire bristles, which straighten the fibers, pull them all into one direction, and remove some of the debris.

That process is followed by spinning it into thread, which pulls out the fibers and twists them together; this can be done with either a drop-spindle, which spins as it falls, or by a spinning wheel. There are two kinds of spinning wheels; one is worked by a foot-lever - which turns a wheel, which turns the spindle which draws out and twists the thread. The other, the older kind and larger kind, is a walking-wheel: the spinner turns the wheel and takes a few steps to be in position to draw out and twist the thread upon the spindle, and then steps back to turn the wheel again. In any case, it generally took about five spinners to keep one weaver at work - or five hours of spinning thread to one hour of weaving it into cloth.

The actual weaving goes very fast, so the hobby weavers told me, especially if it is plain weaving. The tedious part is setting up the warp threads in the loom; threading them individually through the batten - which packs the woof threads together as they are woven back and forth - and the heddles, which raise and lower the warp threads as the weaver sends the shuttle back and forth, from left hand to right, then right to left, between the raised and lowered threads; pulling the batten forward at every pass. It all gets to be pretty hypnotic. One can sit there, for hours and hours, in a kind of zombie-zone, thinking of all kinds of things, while the inches of woven fabric grow.

Many households went on home-weaving for decades after machine-woven cloth was available: store-bought fabric cost money, and home-spun cost nothing but time.


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