American Frontier Weaving in the 17th and 18th Centuries: Janice Hensley
On March 15, 2014, Janice Hensley,
a dedicated re-entactor, who produces textiles using traditional practices of the American frontier, gave a Rug and Textile Appreciation program here at The Textile Museum in Washington, D. C., on her work. She raises Leicester sheep and shears their wool. She discussed how shorn wool was spun and dyed and woven into blankets, shawls, straps and other utilitarian textiles like those made during the 17th and 18th centuries in frontier America.
Below is an image of Janice and her husband, Hunter, set up and dressed for a re-enacter event.
Janice began with a illustrated lecture. She gave it conversationally and has shared her notes with me. Since this is a virtual version of Janice’s programs I have taken some liberties with these tabulated notes, grouping them by subject and adding some items from the literature as well as some illustrations to make things concrete.
Here are the groupings I’ve used:
- Historical background for American frontier weaving
- Processes and tools
- Woven and plaited products
Let’s start with:
Historical Background for American Frontier Weaving
Essential for all cultures – Food – Clothing – Shelter – Color.
The time required for the array of tasks needed to produce textiles from plant or animal sources was the greatest of all those required for living in early societies, including 17th and 18th century frontier America.
12th c – raw wool No. 1 export from Britain
14th & 15th c – private lands taken over for sheep pastures – monasteries controlled land & sheep
16th c – England & Spain at war. Spanish explorer found New World – present South West and Florida.
1660 – Navigation Act – no trade except on British ships to Britain
1699 – Wool Act – no wool or items made of wool can be bought or sold by Colonies except with England
1750 – Dr. Thomas Walker discovered Cumberland Gap.
1783 – End Revolutionary War
1796 – Cumberland Gap open to wagon traffic – D. Boone
A re-enacted frontier cabin of the American frontier in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The interior of a frontier house.
A bedroom with a woven blanket or bedspread.
The image below, repeated elsewhere in this post, is another view of such an interior.
Having ticked off these disparate historical markers (their significance will get clearer as we move along), let’s move to:
Sheep domesticated 9,000 to 7,000 BC (Barber)
Mouflon breed seen as the most likely major influence on domesticated breeds (notice dark, not woolly, coat and large horns).
Early domesticated sheep (and goats) were not very “woolly.” Raised mostly for their milk and meat.
Individual more woolly sheep occurred naturally and were selected and bred, primarily, for their wool.
6000-5000 BC – carved statue showing sheep with fleece – Iran
Every invasion or migration of people has brought sheep.
No sheep in Europe until about 7,200 BC. Likely came from the Middle East. (Barber)
4500 BC – sheep to England from Europe
550 BC – selection for white wool in sheep
1200’s – Marco Polo reported sheep seen on his travels (Silk Road)
“WHEREVER SHEEP’S FEET TOUCH THE GROUND, THE LAND TURNS TO GOLD.” SPANISH PROVERB. Wool profits from the Spanish Merino sheep financed the discovery and exploration of America by Coronado and others in the mid-1540’s.
16th c – England & Spain at war. Spanish explorer found New World – present South West and Florida. Brought sheep to both areas.
There are now a great many breeds of sheep (the site below says 200, but it’s likely many more).
(Note: Click a letter at the top of the page on this site and breeds starting with it are listed on the right. Click the one you want.)
1609 – first sheep to Colonies
Jamestown – 1620 – 30 – more sheep arrived from England – Old Leicesters, Romney Marsh, and Southdowns
1643 – 1000 sheep counted in Mass.
1760’s – Robert Bakewell in England began breeding sheep using principles of genetics. Developed the Leicester Longwool breed of sheep and other livestock breeds
1793 – George Washington acquired Leicester Longwool sheep on his farm in Mt. Vernon. Wrote to King of England – “…not withstanding your prohibitory rules & customs…”
Janice has some images of sheep she owns (shown below). But first here is a piece of wisdom about doing so.
These images are of Janice’s sheep and their sheep dog, who looks somewhat like the sheep.
The sheep dog that Janice and her husband, Hunter, have is a Great Pyrenees. This breed is a guard dog and does not herd the sheep but protects them. Janice said they have had three Great Pyrenees over the years and have never lost a sheep from predators either in the field or the barn. I don’t think they shear him, but he seems a candidate. “Yes, John, we did shear our Pyrenees one time each Spring.”
Shearing sheep is a cross-over item, between sheep, on one hand, and, since it is a process in which tools are used, and our next topic,:
Processes and Tools
Sewing of animal skins using a needle and animal sinews probably preceded fiber spinning. This suggests that embroidery is an early technique and a computer search of 17th and 18th century textiles will yield mostly embroideries. Most of these embroideries will be of an urban rather than a frontier character, but the American Indians (whose usages did influence American frontier textiles) did use applique, beadwork and embroidery on animal skins.
Birds and primates plait the elements of their nests and so provide observable models of plaiting to humans. (Barber)
Basket making seems to have preceded weaving (Barber)
4000 BC – Babylonians weaving and selling “manufactured” clothing
3000-2000 BC – China, India, & Swiss weaving textiles
Swiss Lake Dwellers, 3,000 BC to 700 BC – woven linen
Felt can occur in nature (Janice says that it can occur, without human intervention, on the live wool on a sheep). So felt likely also preceded weaving.
Woven items are sometimes felted (to increase their warmth and ability to shed water).
No tools needed for spinning (fibers can be spun by running one’s hand over them on the thigh or cheek)
7,000 BC to present – Spindle spinning. There seem to be pre-ceramic spinning whorls that are pierced flat stones.
Instructions for “dressing” a distaff. Distaffs were devices to hold the wool, used in spinning, conveniently nearby. Sometimes the wool was wrapped around one’s arm but it became seen to be convenient to have a separate tool to perform this function.
Wool reeling tool.
Earliest clear illustrations of the spinning wheel are from Baghdad in the 13th century.
Earliest evidence of weaving seems to be about 7,000 BC.
First looms were likely horizontal.
Swiss Lake Dwellers, 3,000 BC to 700 BC – wove linen and had extensive dye techniques
2000 BC – Madder root mordanted with alum
500 BC – to AD 750 – Spindle was “mechanized”
1200’s – Marco Polo reported dyes seen on his travels (Silk Road)
AD 50 – Romans built woolen mill (fulling) in Britain
AD 500 – early spinning wheel to Europe from Asia
Image of an American spinning wheel.
1200’s – sketches showing women combing wool at home
Another image of
1300’s – sketch by L. da Vinci showing current style flyer and bobbin wheel
1350 – able to draw steel thin enough for wool/cotton cards – Bavaria
1300’s – Asian wheel raised and used with a bench – hand turned
1530 – adaptation of flyer-bobbin wheel
14th c – raw wool exports replaced by cloth due to fulling mills. Spinning and weaving still a cottage industry
16th c – knitting machine invented by Rev. Wm. Lee in Britain (questioned since it is said to have occurred before spinning and weaving was mechanized)
16th c – common mordants – alum, iron, copper & stale urine
16th c – Spanish found Cochineal on cactus in “Mexico” – kept control of this dye stuff
Major dyestuffs in 18th & 19th America were:
- Madder & Cochineal – red
- fustic & quercition (this latter, a bark) – yellow
- logwood – black
- Sumac – Color varies with part of the plant used as well as the mordant chosen
Only quercition, madder & sumac were native American plants
1740’s – Indigo grown in S. Carolina for about 30 years – Janice talked, in this context, about a remarkable woman.
Here is an image of some of the plants that are used to make natural dyes.
Janice described them as follows: “Yellow bloom-Golden Rod, white bloom-small White Fall Astor, purple bloom – light and dark –Purple Fall astor. This photo was made in early October in Kentucky. The Golden Rod must be cooked immediately after harvesting. The Astors can be dried to save for later use, if necessary. It is best to use only the blooms of all of these plants.”
The image below shows some natural colors Janice has produced.
1733 – Fly shuttle loom in use
Fulling or tucking or walking (“waulking” in Scotland) is a step in woolen clothmaking which involves the cleansing of cloth (particularly wool) to eliminate oils, dirt, and other impurities, and making it thicker. The worker who does the job is a fuller, tucker, or walker.
1760’s – Fulling mill in America – spinning and weaving done at home for personal use only
There is a literature on fulling in Roman times (see Miko Fiohr, The World of Fullo). Roman fullers “…played a vital role in the ancient cities, taking tunics and cloaks and making them thicker, softer, warmer and especially bright.” Roman senators wanted their robes to be a dazzling, shiny white. It was one of the fullers jobs to make them that way.
1769 – John Wiley. Wiley wrote a treatise on the “Propagation of Sheep, the Manufacture of Wool, and the Cultivation and Manufacture of Flax – with directions for making several utensils for the business.” (republished by Colonial Williamsburg printing office). Written at the time of the stamp act, it did much to promote manufactures in VA. It was for home use to help people prepare their wool to be sent to the fulling mill to be finished. Mr. Wiley owned a fulling mill.
1770 – Spinning Jenny in Britain saw the end of spinning as a cottage industry. The spinning jenny is a multi-spindle spinning frame.
It was invented in 1764 by James Hargreaves in Stanhill, Oswaldtwistle, Lancashire in England. The device reduced the amount of work needed to produce yarn, with a worker able to work eight or more spools at once. This grew to 120 as technology advanced.
Spinning & weaving remained a cottage industry prior to 1770 and the invention of the spinning jenny. Remained as work at home until after the Revolution in America.
The following image is of a warping board. It is a tool for measuring that amount of warp needed for a given weaving.
Clock reel – sometimes called a ‘weasel’ – used to measure yardage of spun yarn.
Squirrel cage swift – used to block spun yarn after it is washed
counter balanced treadle loom designed in Berea, KY, by Anna Ernberg, in the early 1900’s during the “craft revival”
The “little rocking loom”- one of two types of looms commonly used in the Appalachian region
1770’s – recorded importing 70 tons of dye woods to Provinces from England
1790 – knitting machine in America
1793 – first water powered woolen mill in America
1793 – Cotton gin in America
1794 – water powered woolen mill to spin broadcloth, Hartford, Connecticut
1798 – 1st known commercial dye manual in America – Asa Ellis
(The dye manual above is available for free on-line.
1806 & 15 – Eliza Bemiss – dye manuel
1817 – J & R Bronson – dye manuel
1850’s – combing process mechanized
1856 – Mauve/lavender synthetic dye discovered from coal tar
1888 – Indigo synthesized
Janice had brought a number of tools to her session.
Description: temple – used to stabilize the weaving width on the loom
Description: “twisty stick” – perhaps the 1st actual tool used for spinning
Description: two spinning heads used on the walking wheel; right hand-with attached minor’s head added in the mid-1800’s to increase spinning speed; left hand – without the minor’s head
Description: “heddle jig” – used to tie standard size fiber heddles for looms
Description: “kniddy knoddy” – used to measure a standard skein of yarn; can be any size
Description: square frame loom – could be rectangle, triangle, square and were simple, easily made looms
Description: simple “tape loom” or “box loom”
Description: wool combs – used to prepare locks of wool longer than 3 inches; work sometimes done by professional combers, but also done in the home
Now we’re ready to consider some:
Woven and Plaited Products
(The image above is Janice in clothing items she has made. They are the sort of thing that would have been made and worn by American frontier people in the 17th and 18th centuries. Note that Janice showed no actual American frontier textiles (these are difficult to find). As a re-enactor, she is showing contemporary items made using 17th and 18th century methods from “sheep to weaving.”)
I asked her whether she collected any actual American frontier textiles of the sort she was making. She said: “As to reliable sources of information for clothing, in particular for folks who were not in the towns, it is difficult to find anything other than some journal accounts to describe articles of clothing for the working class people. The two books on my bibliography, “Whatever Shall I Wear” & Everyday Dress of Rural America, 1783-1800″ are among the best, but there are others as well. Some of the museum pieces have been disassembled and studied and also provide good information. Style was not important among the working class or those traveling the frontier, as you would expect.”
Her tabulated items of information continue:
Factors influencing the style of clothing historically – Size and type of loom, fabric/fiber, history of wearing skins, climate, type of work terrain, body cover.
Often wealthy wore same garments, but with trimmings
“I shall cut my cote after my cloth.” – English
Prior to the Revolution, wearing homespun became a political statement
1765 – persons offered 6 lbs. of tobacco for each yard of cloth knitt.
“EVERYTHING YOU WEAR DOES NOT NEED TO BE IMPORTED.” Washington and Jefferson wore homespun suits to inauguration. Finishing work done in American factories.
Typical clothing for early Colonial wear made from wool, cotton, & linen. Few paintings depict everyday life.
I looked around to see if there are actual 17th and 18th frontier clothes with pictured or for sale, but as Janice predicted, I didn’t find much. Here are a few gleanings.
bonnets in above photo were not introduced until 1800’s
There are some illustrations from re-enactor dealers. These pieces are contemporary, of course, but made as American frontier clothing was made in the 17thand 18th centuries. Here are a few such items. Janice had a few, too.
The following clothing images are courtesy of “Bradley Company of the Fox,” who make and sell re-enactor clothing.
Women’s wrap-around skirt – Janice: “I don’t know when the wrap-around skirt was first used.”
Women’s French style cap
Men’s fly-front breeches
Men’s Drop-front Breeches (seen to be more appropriate)
Men’s Pullover Waistcoar (outer garment)
Men’s flat hat
Men’s Tricorn hat
Men’s Leggings (possible Indian influence)
Men’s breechcloth (possible Indian influence)
Now we moved to treat Janice’s reenacted 17th and 18th century textiles
Here are some slides of things Janice has made:
Description: shawl; mid-late 1800’s style; dye-copper sulfate
Description: shawl; dye-cochineal; expensive to obtain in colonial times
Description: blanket; variety of natural dyes, all available in colonial times
Description: poncho with hood; modern style; black walnut dye, commonly used in colonial times
Description: same as above
Description: modern style shawl with pockets; indigo over osage orange
Description: shawl; Saxon blue-ancient dye method using raw fleece as a source of amonia
Description: shawl; indigo and black walnut dye; 18th c. style walking wheel
Description: lady’s colonial style (jacket)
Description: hand spun, hand woven blankets – 72″x 90″; style typically used by treckers and hunters
Description: Next four slides are same as above
Description: same as above
Description: same as above
Description: same as above
Description of these bands: tapes/straps; color patterns from the Shakers
Description: tapes/straps; color patterns from the Shakers
Janice had also had some of the items she has made in the room. Here they are:
Description of J1: indigo vat yardage of the size from which to cut a lady’s pocket
Detail of J1.
Description of J2: yardage of the size to cut a lady’s apron
Detail of J2.
Description of the three items in S3: woven straps; l-loom woven; m- finger woven; l- loom woven
Detail of the band on the right in S3.
Another woven band.
Details of J5. is a waist sash used by men over their outer shirt
Wendel Swan shows the length of this band.
Description of J6 mitts: used by muzzle loaders to have fingers ‘free’
Description of J7: men’s pouch used by treckers
Detail images of J7.
Description of J8: lady’s small pouch sometimes worn under the skirt
Description of J9: yardage sized to cut a lady’s bed gown (jacket)
Description of J10: yardage of the size for a lady’s apron
Detail of J10.
J11 description: finger weaving
Detail of J11.
Details of S12. : linen and wool lady’s skirt; hand woven; a “dressy” garment
Description of J13: hand-spun indigo yarns
Description of J14:a youth sized blanket; 72″ x 64″; natural gray with indigo over osage orange stripes
Details of J14.
(out of focus, but lets you see its length; details are clearer)
Description of J15: hand woven band; Shaker color pattern
Details of J15.
Description of J16: standard size trecker’s blanket; 72″ x 90″; black walnut dye; center seam
Details of J16.
Description of J17: same blanket, folded on center seam
Description of J18: standard size trecker’s blanket; center seam; natural white
Details of J18.
Front and Back
(Color difference due to light and camera)
Janice took questions.
Wendel Swan asked a couple.
Wendel asked about the fact that the apron (while tie strings), which is ready for use, does not have a selvedge or reinforced edges. (The edges of all kilims simply have a return of the patterning wefts.) He asked whether this finishing method was typical and Janice said yes. Wendel had this question because the apron is warp -faced and so the edges are kept intact only by the thinner and presumably weaker wefts.
Wendel said after that he couldn’t tell from these pictures whether the apron has reinforced edges. He said that the cloths Janice showed did not.
Janice ended her program with a cartoon indicating that, in some situations in frontier American, proper description of an item of clothing could be a serious business.
(This is worth clicking to see the larger version.)
There were things to see and feel: the textiles on the board,
but also some things on the table.
I want to thank Janice and her husband, Hunter,
both for coming to The Textile Museum to give this program, for being willing to have this virtual version made, and for their work in our editing of it afterward.
I hope you have enjoyed this program by a real doer.
R. John Howe
Janice provided a bibliography:
Alderson, Lawrence. The Chance to Survive. Pilkington Press: Northamptonshire. 1994.
American Minor Breeds Notebook, ed. Laurie Heise, and Carolyn Christman. The American Minor Breeds Conservancy: Pittsboro, NC. 1989.
Colored Sheep and Wool: Exploring Their Beauty and Function: The Proceedings of The World Congress on Coloured Sheep U.S.A. 1989, ed. Kent Erskine. Black Sheep Press: Ashland, OR. 1989.
Henson, Elizabeth. Rare Breeds in History. Elizabeth Henson: UK. 1982.
Rare Breeds, ed.: Photos, Robert Dowling, Text: Lawrence Alderson, Introduction: Roger A. Caras. Bulfinch Press: Boston. 1994.
The Art of American Livestock Breeding, ed. John Dawes. The American Minor Breeds Conservancy: Pittsboro, NC. 1991.
The Encyclopedia of Historic and Endangered Livestock and Poultry Breeds, ed. Janet Vorwald Dohner. Yale University Press: New Haven. 2001.
Adrosko, Rita J. Natural Dyes and Home Dyeing: A Practical Guide with Over 150 Recipes. Dover Publications, Inc.: New York. 1971.
Bemiss, Elijah. The Dyer’s Companion. Introduction: Rita J. Adrosko. Dover Publications, Inc.: New York. 1973.
Buchanan, Rita. A Dyer’s Garden: From Plant to Pot, Growing Dyes for Natural Fibers. Interweave Press: Loveland, CO. 1995.
Davidson, Mary Frances. The Dye-Pot. Mary Frances Davidson: Gatlinburg, Tenn. 1950.
Hill, Mary. “Dyeing”, in Spin-Off, September, 1989.
Liles, J. N. The Art and Craft of Natural Dyeing: Traditional Recipes for Modern Use. The University of Tennessee Press: Knoxville. 1990.
Wily, John. A Treatise on the Propagagion of Sheep, the Manufacture of Wool, and the Cultivation and Manufacture of Flax, with Directions for making several Utensils for the Business. 1766. Reprinted by The Printing Office: Williamsburg, VA.
Amos, Alden. Big Book of Handspinning: Being a compendium of information, advice, and opinions on the noble art & craft. ed. Deborah Robson. Interweave Press, Inc.: Loveland, CO. 2001.
Bress, Helene. Inkle Weaving. Flower Valley Press: Rockville, Maryland. 1990.
Bronson, J. and R. Early American Weaving and Dyeing: The Domestic Manufacturer’s Assistant and Family Directory in the Arts of Weaving and Dyeing. Introduction by Rita J. Adrosko. Dover Publications, Inc.: New York. 1977.
Chandler Deborah (Redding). Learning to Weave with Debbie Redding. Interweave Press, Inc.: Loveland, CO. 1984.
Cummer, Joan Whittaker. A Book of Spinning Wheels. Peter E. Randall Publisher: Portsmouth. 1993.
Hochberg, Bette. Handspinner’s Handbook. Bette Hochberg: Santa Cruz, CA. 1976.
Leadbeater, Eliza. Spinning and Spinning Wheels. Shire Library: UK.
Ross, Mabel. The Essentials of Handspinning. Brett’s Printing Services: Wellingborough, Northants. 1979; 14th ed. 2000.
Teal, Peter. Hand Woolcombing and Spinning: A Guide to Worsteds from the Spinning-Wheel. Robin and Russ Handweavers, Inc. McMinnville, OR. 1993.
Basic Garments: Dearest Friends – , from Beth Gilgun. Article from, Historic Mansker’s Station, Goodlettsville, TN.
Burnham, Dorothy K. Cut My Cote. Royal Ontario Museum: Canada. 1997.
Kannik, Kathleen. The Lady’s Guide to Plain Sewing. Kannik’s Korner: Springfield, Ohio. 1993.
Kannik, Kathleen. The Lady’s Guide to Plain Sewing. Book II. Kannik’s Korner: Springfield, Ohio. 1997.
Riley, Mara and Cathy Johnson. Whatever Shall I Wear? A Guide to Assembling a Woman’s Basic 18th Century Wardrobe. Graphics/Fine Arts Press: Excelsior Springs, MO. 2002.
West, Virginia. Weavers Wearables: 40 Original Designs for Stylishly Simple Handwoven Garments. Virginia West. 1979.
Women’s Clothing, ed. Bettye Freudenthal. Article from, Historic Mansker’s Station, Goodlettsville, TN.
Wright, Merideth and Nancy Rexford. Everyday Dress of Rural America, 1783-1800: With Instructions and Patterns. Dover Publications, Inc.: New York. 1990.