Wool-stuffed bags bring up spinning era


During one of several trips into Amish territory in Holmes County, a buck board driven by a Amish man was seen loaded quite full with black kitchen bags stuffed with shorn wool.

This reminded me of the 1930s around North Benton. Several, if not all, homesteads possessed numerous sheep. Early in the year the Hartzell and Bedell farms were busy with sheep shearing.

Legal title. The art of spinning was an honorable pursuit for ladies as early as the 800s, it was so universal that it created a legal title by which unattached ladies were termed years ago, spinster. This title remained longer than previous terms used decades before – shepster, webster, litster, brewster and baxter.

Shepster and baxter remained for some time – each have occupations, the first is cutting out of cloth and last is baking of bread – and how these applied to wool culture is questionable.

Wool industry dates far back in mankind’s history. The skill, care and perserverance required in the production of cloth have almost always reflected on civil advancement.

One of the first industries entered into by our first colonists was housing then clothing wool culture. By mid 1600 a fulling mill was in operation in New England, probably due to the fact many immigrants had been clothiers in the Old World and carried their expertise to this New World.

Also possibly this industry aided in the success of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. These folks were mainly from the British Isles. The shires in England abounded in sheep and wool culture.

Also by mid 1600, dimities, fustians and linens were produced in New England.

New England sheep. Over 3000 sheep were pastured by the colonists in Massachusetts in 1644. Soon the several devices required to produce clothing were whirring and clattering in almost every home.

Sheep herding was encouraged by strict laws and need. Sheep under two years of age were not allowed to be slaughtered, and dogs that killed sheep were hung and their owners fined twice the worth of the animal.

Any person not employed was required to spin. Spinners were divided in “squadrons” under the supervision of a leader. In the colony, laziness and idle persons were not tolerated. Position in the community excused no one from labor.

The folks in the communities also agreed to consume no mutton or lamb and not to use any imported wool. The local assembly also estimated that five youngsters over 13 years old could make enough woolen material to clothe 30 persons.

Dye colors. Tobacco was a medium of exchange, six pounds for one yard of homespun woolen yarn, 12 pounds for a dozen pair of woolen hose made in the home.

By the first quarter of 1700, stockings and knit goods were made in Pennsylvania, long known as Germantown goods. Colors were mostly obtained from natural sources. The bark of sassafras was used for yellow or orange, balsam blossoms and leaves the same color.

By first boiling wool and sorrel together and secondly with oak bark, a deep black was obtained. Other plants were employed to make yellow dye, including mountain laurel. The root of barberry also made yellow, as did Jerusalem artichoke and St. John’s wort.

Oak, walnut and maple bark made brown. Often the wool cloth was dyed, not the wool. Often the woolen yarn was spun twice for a close, hard twisted thread, which produced a stiff, wiry cloth. This was called “roving.”

A single spinning was sufficient to furnish yarn suited for knitting, resulting in softness and warmth desired. Wool was not the only natural product employed to produce cloth articles. Linden bark (Basswood), nettle fibers, deer and cow hair were successful to a degree.

Coarse thread was obtained from nettle fiber. Deer and cow hair spun with wool resulted in a type of felted material usually to make blankets.


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