Making Textiles in Colonial Connecticut

Jamie Eves and Peggy Church

     Before the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, thread and cloth were made by hand. Until the invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney, Catharine Littlefield Greene, and others in 1793, cotton — like silk — was an expensive luxury fabric. Far less expensive, and hence more commonplace, were linen (made from flax), wool, and hemp. The two charts below illustrate the processes of making cloth from linen and wool. (Sometimes linen and wool threads were combined to make cloth that was a mixture of the two, known as linsey-woolsey.) Making thread, yarn, and cloth by hand was a laborious and complex process, in which skilled spinners and weavers utilized a large number of small, mostly wooden, preindustrial devices and machines — many of which are illustrated in photographs below.

     Perhaps the most famous single preindustrial textile made in the United States was the Star-Spangled Banner, the flag that flew over Baltimore’s Fort McHenry during the War of 1812, and which inspired the poem and song by Francis Scott Key that later came the national anthem — and which was made entirely by hand. Today, the flag is carefully preserved at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. The story of the Star-Spangled Banner can be found here.

Making Linen

Above: Making linen from flax.

Above: Flax break. Linen is made from a plant called flax. The fibers in flax are in the stems of the plant. After the flax has been harvested, retted (soaked), and then dried, the stems are put in a flax break, to break open the stems and begin the process of separating the fibers from the rest of the stems. After breaking the flax, the next step would be to scrape off the fibers from the stems’ woody cores by scraping with a scutching board and wooden knife.

Above: Hetchel, or hackle. Once the fibers were separated from the rest of the stems, they would be pulled through the tines (iron or steel spikes) of hetchels. Depending on the fineness desired, the fibers could be pulled through a succession of hetchels, with ever smaller, finer tines.

Above: Flax wheel. Wheels for spinning flax were smaller and more intricate than the great wheels used to spin wool. Spinners sat on stools and used their feet to operate the treadles and made the wheels spin. The Mill Museum has several flax wheels in its collection.

Above: Flyer on flax wheel.


Above: How to make wool from fleece.

Above: Cards. Cards were used to brush or comb the wool, to align the fibers in preparation for spinning.

Above: Great wheel, or wool wheel — also called a walking wheel.

Above: Niddy noddy, used for winding spun thread in order to measure how much had been made.

Above: Quill winder, used for winding skeins of yarn.

Above: Click reel, also used for winding yarn or thread.

Above: Mechanism on click reel.

Above: Swift.