Spinning & Dyeing Day
How do you go from sheep to clothing? Come help the farm family as they card, spin, and dye wool for knitting. Compare wool processing with flax, and note the differences in how they are prepared.
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Information about Fiber Processing
Processing Flax on a Small, 18th Century Virginia Farm
3. Rippling or threshing: Next the seeds were taken off the plant. Rippling involved combing the seeds off with a coarse comb. Alternatively, the seeds were threshed off or simply whipped off against a small barrel or cask. The farmer saved the seeds to plant the next year’s crop. If there was extra seed accumulated he might take it to a mill where it was pressed to make linseed oil, used as a base for paints or alone as a finish for wood. Farm wives also used the seeds medicinally in the home.
4. Retting, rotting or watering: This process dissolved the pectin which glued the flax fiber to the hard, woody, inner core of the plant. Some farmers sank their flax in streams, ponds or pools, while others lay their flax out in fields to be rotted by the dew.
5. Drying: The flax was spread out thinly in a field and allowed to dry completely.
6. Breaking: The farmer passed handfuls of flax through a tool called a flax brake to break up the hard inner core. The resulting little pieces of hard stalk were known as the boon or the hards.
7. Skutching, scuchening or swingling: The farm wife and her children draped the flax over a skutching board and hit it with a wooden skutching knife to scrape off the hards.
8. Hackling, heckling: The farm wife and children next combed handfuls of fiber through one or more combs, known as hackles or heckles, to grade the fibers. The short, coarse fibers, called tow, were used for coarse linen, while the longer fibers made finer linen. The tow was bundled together and carded before spinning. The long fibers were made up into twists, ready for spinning.
9. The flax was now ready to be spun into thread and woven into linen cloth. The farm family may or may not have had a flax spinning wheel. Our farm family would not have woven cloth, but would have purchased imported cloth from merchants in town.
Excerpts from A TREATISE ON THE PROPAGATION OF SHEEP, THE MANUFACTURE OF WOOL AND THE CULTIVATION AND MANUFACTURE OF FLAX by John Wily. Printed in Williamsburg in 1765.
“When you have a Brake thus fixed, untie one of your Sheaves and take out as much as you can grasp in your left Hand; then raise the upper Jaw of the Brake with your right Hand, and lay one End of the Handful of Flax you have in your Hand on the lower Slats or under Jaw of the Brake, and strike on it with the upper Ones, or Fall; these strokes should be repeated very quick, and at every stroke turn or move the Flax a little; and when you have well broke one End of the Handful about two Thirds of the Length of the Flax, turn the other Ends and use them in the like Manner, by which Means great Part of the woody Part of the Stalk will separate and fall from the Bark through the lower Jaws or Slats of the Brake. When you think it is sufficiently broke, make it up into Twists, about the size of a large Twist of Tobacco, to be scuchened, or swingled.”
“When you are thus fixed with a Swingling Board and Knife, take one of the Twists before mentioned…in your left Hand, and give it a Stroke or two, to open and loosen it; then lodge it on the Top of the Swingling Board, and let about two Thirds of the Length of the Flax hang down the planed side of it; then take the Knife in your right Hand, and strike the Flax just where it hangs over the Board with the Edge of the Knife, letting the Side of the Knife slide down the Flax with quick Motion, and the Edge a little inclining towards the Flax; you should grasp it hard, to prevent its beating out among the Hards. As soon as you have one End cleansed of the Hards, turn the other, and use it in the like Manner. You will still find some Hards remaining in the Middle of the Twist or Handful; then hold it up by one Hand, and draw out that which seems the longest with the other Hand, and put it together again; repeat this, and the swingling it, until you have well cleansed it of the Hards and made it soft and pliable, which is the Intent of the swingling; then make it up into Twists again, about the size of a large Twist of Tobacco, and lay it by for heckling.”
“…take one of the Twists which has been scuchened and untwist it; then hold it up by one End, and give it a Shake or two, to loosen or open it; then wrap one End of it round the fourth and middle Finger of your right Hand, and fling the other Ends of the Flax on the Points of the Heckle Teeth, and bear your Hand a little downwards and draw the Flax through the Teeth; these Strokes should be repeated very quick, and observe to hold the Back of your left Hand against the Side of the Heckle Teeth, as a Guide to prevent your striking your Hand that holds the Flax against the Points of the Heckle Teeth; and when you have one End of the Twist cleansed of the Hards and short, tangled Flax, which is called Tow, turn the other End, and use it in like Manner.”
“The Intent of the Heckles is to cleanse the Flax of the Hards and the Tow, and to split and separate the Bark, and make it as fine as possible; and as soon as you have it in that Order, lay by that Handful and heckle another in the same Manner, until you have sufficient to make a Twist, as before mentioned; then twist it up, and lay it by for spinning, or Sale.”
|1. Raising the sheep: Not every farm in 1771 Virginia had sheep. If they did not own one themselves, they could trade with their neighbors for the wool. Like all other farm animals, sheep were allowed to wander free– those high fences were to keep animals such as sheep out of the crops and gardens!|
2. Washing the wool: Sheep are dirty. Before the wool can be carded or spun, it must be washed free of as much dirt as possible. In the 18th century, fleeces were usually washed before the sheep were shorn! A pen was built along the edge of a shallow river and the sheep were driven into the water and washed. When they were clean, they were herded into a pen with plenty of grass and allowed to dry for two or three days before they were sheared. If necessary, the wool was washed again after it was sheared and sorted into fine and coarse before it was spun.
3. Shearing the sheep: This was done with a pair of blades or “shears” shaped from one piece of metal similar to, but much larger than, a pair of sewing snips. As far as we know, no universal method was employed. Shearers probably just handled sheep the best way they knew how while they cut the wool off. The fleece was cut in such a way as to remove it all in one piece, to make sorting the wool easier. The finer wool of the neck and sides was often separated from the coarser wool of the shoulders and thighs. Shearing does not hurt the sheep; it is simply a haircut.
4. Carding: With a pair of wool cards, or long flat brushes, you must card the wool in order to do two things: to remove more of the dirt and grass, and to straighten the fibers so that they are easier to spin. The wool is taken off the cards in a tube called a rolag.
5. Spinning: This can be done with either a drop spindle or a spinning wheel. They both do the same job, but a drop spindle takes a little longer since you have to keep stopping to wind the yarn around the shaft. But, it is smaller and cheaper than a spinning wheel. Spinning is simply twisting: the fibers are twisted in a long strand, and become yarn. Two or more strands can be plyed (twisted) together, or it can be left as a single strand.
6. Knitting or Weaving: The yarn can now be made into a garment of some kind. The farm family knits their yarn. They do not own a loom–in fact, neither did a lot of people in the colonies (“homespun” cloth became popular during and after the American Revolution); most cloth was imported.
All dyes in the 18th century were natural dyes, as the first synthetic dye was not invented until the 1850s. While dyers were able to produce some wash-fast, fade-resistant colors comparable to modern dyes today, some dyes washed out or faded easily. Care was taken in laundering colored clothing; it was not boiled or scrubbed directly with soap, so as not to take out the dye.
Our farm family would purchase their linen and wool cloth at stores in Alexandria. It would have come from Europe and most likely would have been dyed there as well. The only dyeing the farm family would have done would be to over-dye faded or stained clothes, or perhaps to dye homespun woolen yarn for knitting. They could take garments to a commercial dyer, who would have access to imported dyes and chemicals, or they could dye using plants they found growing on the farm. Different types of tree barks and black walnut hulls would have been used for shades of brown. The non-poisonous variety of sumac was used for shades of gray and black. Many plants such as tansy, goldenrod, marigolds and freshly fallen leaves, gathered in autumn, gave shades of yellow. Shades of red were more difficult for the home dyer to obtain. Contrary to popular belief, berries were not usually used for dye as most berries only produce a stain, not a good dye that penetrates the fibers.
|“Mordants,” or different types of acids or metals used along with the dye, helped fix the color to the fiber and produced a variety of shades from one dyestuff. For example, alum, an acidic salt that was often used, helped produce bright, wash-fast colors. Iron darkened colors; if a yellow dye was used in an iron pot, the result would be a shade of drab yellow to green. Tree barks and nut hulls contained tannic acid, which served as a natural mordant when those were used for dye.Animals fibers, such as wool and silk, took dyes more readily than plant fibers such as linen. Therefore, wool and silk fabrics were available in a wider variety of colors than linen. Many dyes used by commercial dyers were imported from South America, the West Indies and Europe. Indigo dye (made from the indigo plant) was manufactured in France, the West Indies and the Carolinas, and was one of the most common dyestuffs used, as it produced a strong wash-fast color on linen and cotton. American commercial dyers used native tree barks in addition to imported dyes, and indigo and sumac were even exported from the colonies.||
Farm families would not have extensive knowledge of dyeing. In fact, even most commercial dyers had very little understanding of the chemistry behind the dyeing process. They simply followed receipts that they knew worked.