Making Textiles in Colonial Connecticut … and Elsewhere

Researched and Written by Jamie Eves and Peggy Church, Windham Textile and History Museum

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 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. The story of the Star-Spangled Banner can be found here.

Linen

Above: How to make linen from flax.

Above: Flax break.

Above: Hetchel.

Above: Flax wheel.

Above: Flyer on flax wheel.

Wool

Above: How to make wool from fleece.

Above: Cards.

Above: Great wheel.

Above: Niddy noddy.

Above: Quill winder.

Above: Click reel.

Above: Mechanism on click reel.

Above: Swift.

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