The American colonies produced much of the raw material used to manufacture fine linen. Up to the time of the Revolution, the finest materials traditionally came from overseas; American-made was scorned as homespun and worn only during work or by those of lesser means. This reputation was altered drastically during the time of the Revolutionary War.
The British government prohibited manufacturing in the American colonies. Their reasoning was simple: America was England’s largest consumer of manufactured goods. The colonies were rich in natural resources. Colonial merchants shipped their raw materials to England for manufacture. The end results were sold back to the colonists. It was a double-win situation for England. British merchants and traders made a strong profit in the quantity of goods sold to the colonists and the market exchange rate on raw materials sold to manufacturers in England as well as Europe. The shipping industry thrived. Ships docked along American shores, their holds loaded with furniture, cloth, household goods, and farm equipment, were ready to deliver to a hungry and needy market. Upon their return trip to England, the ships were filled with timber, tobacco, flax, rice, wheat, iron, lead, etc. The British government enjoyed its cut from taxes and duties. Industry in general supported an enlarged working class pumping revenue back into the economy.
This symbiotic relationship between England and her subjects deteriorated as the rhetoric and increased hostilities between the colonies and Britain finally lead to a general boycott and ultimately to war. Fine linens became more difficult to find. More reliance was placed on homespun linens. The bias of inferior quality for products made in the colonies lessened as Americans skills became more refined.
The cloth of choice in the colonies, even among the Native Americans, was linen. Leather clothing endured the rigors of wilderness living, but it was extremely uncomfortable, as recorded in the journals of those who wore it. Wool was irritating to the skin and stifling during summer’s heat. Also, wool was hard to come by, as England disallowed the sale of wool breed sheep to the colonies. Cotton was in its infancy (Yankee schoolmaster Eli Whitney didn’t invent the cotton gin until 1792). Cotton cloth worn in America and England came from India, more specifically Calcutta (hence the term calico) and was therefore very expensive. Flax, from which linens are made, is comfortable was readily available; it was first grown in America as early as 1640.
With the loss of English goods, it was natural that more and more reliance was put on producing cloth from home. Nearly every family had a spinning wheel for weaving cloth, mainly for work and laboring in the kitchen, except for those pioneers on the fringe of the wilderness who produced all their linen from homespun. War dissolved the use of homespun as mainly for work. All classes of society had to rely on the family’s spinning wheel or wheels to make the cloth worn for all aspects of everyday life. This occurred on such a grand scale, that that during the war, England referred to the colonists as ‘homespun rabble.’
Flax, that from which linens are woven, was easy to grow and had a short growing season; flax sown in May could be harvested in July. Flax was planted in the spring and many times two harvests could occur in one growing season. The acreage of land set aside for flax was determined by the size of the family and if any was sold to those residing in town. Usually one quarter of an acre was planted per family member. There were many labor intensive steps taken before the plant would become fibers that could be spun.
Flax plants were ripped from the soil in mid-summer. They were allowed to dry in the field, then rippled. One rippled by running a coarse wooden comb through the plant to strip the seedpods, which were collected and saved for the next harvest or to make oil. Flax fibers lay between the stalk’s core and outer bark. The plants were laid in wet piles on the ground and allowed to rot so to weaken both core and bark. The stalks had to rot to what was considered a ‘ripe fragrance’ and the correct shade of gray, usually taking two to three weeks. Then they were gathered, dried a second time, and stored. The next process occurred in the winter months when family members had more time.
The next step required a flax brake. The brake was a sort of table built with short stout legs. It averaged five feet in length, half that in width, and three feet off the floor. There was a bottom portion made of parallel planks called knives. A second frame housed another set of knives. This frame was attached to the lower portion by a hinge. The knives of the upper frame was offset slightly from the lower frame so when the upper frame was brought down, the blades meshed, crushing the plants laid on the lower frame. The upper portion was brought down repeatedly, shattering the stalks into chaff that fell to the floor. This did no harm to the long, hair-like fibers that remained on the brake.
The broken chaff had to be knocked out of the flax fibers. This was done by draping the fibers over a wooden blank and striking it with a wide stick or ‘knife’. This got rid of most of the chaff, but just as important, it softened the natural resins in the flax so they could be washed away. If the resin was not cleared from the flax, the fibers would not absorb the dye that would be applied after it was spun into threads and prior to weaving. The fibers were then combed out by using several hetchels. Hetchels were flat boards with a series of metal ‘teeth’ in the center. The flax was drawn through a course set of teeth, then another set of increasingly finer teeth until the last of the impurities were combed out. The flax was wrapped around a distaff,* a small staff for holding the flax. It was now ready to be spun into threads for the weaver’s loom.
During the process of combing the flax through hetchels, short coarse fibers known as tow were removed. Tow was collected and spun separately as a coarse cloth. Besides its use in tinder boxes to start fires, it was used in cleaning kettles, tools, and gunpowder residue from muskets. Tow shirts and trousers were also quite common for work and with the American military. Like leather, tow cloth was extremely durable.
*Note: The word distaff was also used to describe women’s work or the female branch of the family.
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Baumgarten, Linda and Florine Carr and John Watson. Costume Close-up. Clothing Construction and Pattern 1750 – 1790. 1999: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation & Quite Specific Media Group, New York, NY.
Braudel, Fernaud. Civilization & Capitalism, 15th – 18th Century, Vol. 3. 1982: University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.
Earle, Alice Morse. Two Centuries of Costume in America, 1620 – 1829. 1903: The Macmillan Company, New York, NY. Reprinted 1970: Dover Publications, New York, NY.