30 March, 2011

Ersatz in the Confederacy

As I told you Saturday, some members of my guild and I went and spun yarn to demonstrate handspinning for the public at a museum that interprets the Confederacy side of the American Civil War.  I'm Canadian and even though I've lived in Virginia for a while now and have even demonstrated spinning at another museum for the same time period, I have only a basic understanding of what went on in daily life.  So I asked for help in getting ready for the demo.  Mary Massey's Ersatz in the Confederacy was recommended to me.  Massey gives a good picture of what went on regarding textile shortages, substitutions, and production.

As it turned out, I got few questions about history and handspun from the onlookers during our handspinning demonstration.  It was good to be able to volunteer snippets of information I learned from the book but as usual my time was largely spent showing the drop spindle in motion and talking about the mechanics of handspun yarn.

Back to Massey's book.  It was mentally and emotionally difficult to read just how unprepared the South was for the switch.  Before the war, they had regular trade and, well, you can't call it importation since they bought from the more industrialized northern states in their own country before the hostilities and embargoes, but anyway, clothing and sheets and stays and shoes brought in from outside their area.  I should qualify that: there was trade for those that had money and choices.  They transitioned to an almost completely collapsed system of outside trade with inadequate home production and materials to take its place.  Made me wince to hear how optimistic they were at the start about ramping up production, and how quickly and decisively they were brought up against physical limits.

Eighteen months, that's how long people had before they needed to replace their goods, the clothes that wore out and the linen sheets that they tore up for bandages.  From the book it sounds as though they never did replace their goods satisfactorily.  They got a lot done and did what ordinarily they would never have done.  They wore wooden shoes, made shoes out of old leather from pocketbooks (which are what they call wallets in the South), learned to spin and weave at home, made handcards in factories for preparing cotton for spinning or brought handcards through blockades, pieced old material, cut down curtains, cut down adult clothes for children, refurbished hats, knit nonstop, lined their clothes with sheets of newspapers, and appropriated cloth meant for enslaved people.  I won't tell you what they did with dogskin because you would not like it.

The positive aspect is Massey's description of how civilians applied themselves, learned, and produced what they could when their clothes depended on it, and how, along with professional itinerant teachers, the poor and enslaved people (who knew how to spin yarn) taught the rest.

I think it's worth pointing out, and this is my leap of thinking not the book's, that fossil fuel use increased enormously during the American Civil War and fabric was already being produced in factory settings with waterpower, mostly in the North.  However, despite this, you can tell from Massey's descriptions that Confederate textiles for civilians were made for the most part by hand on a cottage industry level for personal use.  Given the inadequate local industrial infrastructure, the fossil fuel resources applied to ships, trains, and iron foundries, the impossibility of bringing large looms through the blockade, limited money to invest, and the need for a quick response, hand tools–in many hands wherever they were–were it.  Like victory gardens in England in the Second World War.

A pair of cotton handcards in the American South cost about 40 cents in 1861 but $30 in 1863.  Today, they cost about $72.  Shows you how highly a tool is valued when necessity drives, and how crucial good fibre preparation is to handspinning.

As I said, the chapter was difficult to take.  The people on the homefront were highly stressed, displaced, overcrowded, and underfed for the most part.  They were put to extraordinary measures that you could tell from the anecdotes were demoralizing to them.  Mostly, they came into textile production underprepared, under-skilled, under-equipped, and so on to the point where I was flinching thinking how much different their lives could have been if they'd made suitable investments in advance.  But I guess in advance such a need was pretty inconceivable.

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