December 10, 2011

Farmer Boy

A friend mentioned that she finds inspiration in Laura Ingalls Wilder's Farmer Boy, part of the autobiographical Little House on the Prairie series, because it contains descriptions of home textile production, such as weaving and shearing.  Re-reading, I found it to be so.  For a children's book, there is a fair bit of detail in the text too.

The breed of sheep is named (merino) and reasons given for why Wilder's father-in-law raised them and not Cotswolds (finer quality wool).  The action of the loom is given (horizontal treadle), as well as the benefits of fulling cloth (warmth) and of sending wool to a commercial carding mill (cost-effectiveness).  I'm not sure if the loom had an actual flying shuttle or if the shuttle flew back and forth.

For people who like to dye, there are descriptions the family dyeing skeins with natural dyes of roots and bark.  In addition, there's a mention of colour blending using naturally-coloured wool with white wool.  I would guess this was probably done by plying a strand of one with another or by holding two rolags together to spin a single.  However, the blending by twisting is mentioned in the context of weaving so I'm not sure whether the blending was done at the spinning stage or weaving stage.

The only thing that isn't clearly identified is Wilder's mother-in-law's spinning wheel.  All I could tell is that it must have been a treadle wheel not a walking wheel, since she "never sat down in the daytime, except at her spinning wheel or loom."  The woman must have been industrious: "She knitted so fast that the needles got hot from rubbing together."  And her work is given priority.  The bedrooms might be cold in winter but her workroom has heat and good natural light to work by, storage shelves for yarn, and room for her floor loom and wheel.

The origin of the linen cloth the family uses is never given: they don't seem to have raised, processed, spun, or woven it.

Textiles and the steps of production are scattered all through the narrative, artfully imbedded in vignettes that show them as part of family life.  The trick Wilder's husband plays during shearing, his envy over a cousin's store-bought, machine-woven hat with a clever new design.  I know the series is American agitprop but it's still easy to take, the writing is so well done.

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