February 03, 2011

The Age Of Homespun

I read The Age of Homespun: Objects and Stories in the Creation of an American Myth.  With a title like that, you can imagine the content is rather weighty and academic.  There's a great deal about the people who lived in the New England area from the late 1600s to early 1800s, how they got along (or didn't–a lot about how they didn't) and what they produced and traded.

When I was a teenager, I heard general stories about teen girls in the old days who used to fill their hope chests with linens and towels they made.  The Age of Handspun gives specifics drawn from original records and objects.

There are some practical tidbits.  In the eighth chapter, I was rewarded with the information that flax should not be retted in July or August because, so they said, strong sunlight hits drops of water and scorches the fibre, and because "in hot weather fermentation produced a dark stain."

I was surprised to learn that in the late 1700s, Ireland harvested its flax before it was ripe and imported new seed each year from the United States.  I would have thought that they would have pulled most early to make fine linen but left some plants to mature and give them seed to save.  The Irish outsourced and off-shored their flax seeds.  I can't find where it is now, but I am pretty sure the author states somewhere that the War of 1812 cut off the supply.

I learned that duffle is a type of cloth, not just a style of coat.  The children's book character Paddington Bear wears a duffle coat and I wore one as a child.

The copy I read was purchased by the guild from the estate of an elderly, accomplished handspinner who favoured the walking wheel.  There is one margin note in the entire 500 page book, an exclamation point next to this passage in the second chapter: "Using one hand to give the wheel an occasional turn, the spinner drew out her fiber with the other.  As the thread lengthened, she stepped backward inch by inch until she had gone as far as her arm could reach."  I've used a walking wheel; not that I'm any expert but I stepped back in normal-sized steps and drew my arm back smoothly, and I can't imagine backing up inch by inch.  I think the margin note means the book's late owner strongly disagreed with this technical description of inching backward.

An overarching motif of the author's is that our perspectives and biases not only drive what we do (make certain textiles) but what we select, keep, display, and emphasize (collect for museums).  I agree.  I know that my projects reflect my belief that making handspun is desirable, beneficial, and relevant today.

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