In recounting the various influences which assisted the Americans to success in the War for Independence, such as the courage and integrity of the American generals, the generosity of the American people, the skill of Americans in marksmanship, their powers of endurance, their acclimatization, their confidence and faith, etc., we must never forget to add their independence in their own homes of any outside help to give them every necessity of life.
No farmer or his wife need fear any king when on every home farm was found food, drink, medicine, fuel, lighting, clothing, shelter. Home-made was an adjective that might be applied to nearly every article in the house. Such would not be the case under similar stress to-day. In the matter of clothing alone we could not now be independent. Few farmers raise flax to make linen; few women can spin either wool or flax, or weave cloth; many cannot knit. In early days every farmer and his sons raised wool and flax; his wife and daughters spun them into thread and yarn, knit these into stockings and mittens, or wove them into linen and cloth, and then made them into clothing. Even in large cities nearly all women spun yarn and thread, all could knit, and many had hand-looms to weave cloth at home. These home occupations in the production of clothing have been very happily termed the "homespun industries."
Nearly every one has seen one of the pretty foot-wheels for spinning flax thread for linen, which may yet be found in the attics of many of our farmhouses, as well as in some of our parlors, where, with a bunch of flax wound around and tied to the spindle, they have within a few years been placed as a relic of the olden times.
If one of these flax-wheels could speak to-day, it would sing a tale of the patient industry, of the tiring work of our grandmothers, even when they were little children, which ought never to be forgotten.
As soon as the colonists had cleared their farms from stones and stumps, they planted a field, or "patch" of flax, and usually one of hemp. The seed was sown broadcast like grass-seed in May. Flax is a graceful plant with pretty drooping blue flowers; hemp has but a sad-colored blossom.
Thomas Tusser says in his _Book of Housewifery_:--
"Good flax and good hemp to have of her own, In May a good huswife will see it be sown. And afterwards trim it to serve in a need; The fimble to spin, the card for her seed."
When the flax plants were three or four inches high, they were weeded by young women or children who had to work barefoot, as the stalks were very tender. If the land had a growth of thistles, the weeders could wear three or four pairs of woollen stockings. The children had to step facing the wind, so if any plants were trodden down the wind would help to blow them back into place. When the flax was ripe, in the last of June or in July, it was pulled up by the roots and laid out carefully to dry for a day or two, and turned several times in the sun; this work was called pulling and spreading, and was usually done by men and boys. It then was "rippled." A coarse wooden or heavy iron wire comb with great teeth, named a ripple-comb, was fastened on a plank; the stalks of flax were drawn through it with a quick stroke to break off the seed-bolles or "bobs," which fell on a sheet spread to catch them; these were saved for seed for the next crop, or for sale.
Rippling was done in the field. The stalks were then tied in bundles called beats or bates and stacked. They were tied only at the seed end, and the base of the stalks was spread out forming a tent-shaped stack, called a stook. When dry, the stalks were watered to rot the leaves and softer fibres. Hemp was watered without rippling. This was done preferably in running water, as the rotting flax poisoned fish. Stakes were set in the water in the form of a square, called a steep-pool, and the bates of flax or hemp were piled in solidly, each alternate layer at right angles with the one beneath it. A cover of boards and heavy stones was piled on top. In four or five days the bates were taken up and the rotted leaves removed. A slower process was termed dew-retting; an old author calls it "a vile and naughty way," but it was the way chiefly employed in America.
When the flax was cleaned, it was once more dried and tied in bundles. Then came work for strong men, to break it on the ponderous flax-brake, to separate the fibres and get out from the centre the hard woody "hexe" or "bun." Hemp was also broken.
A flax-brake is an implement which is almost impossible to describe. It was a heavy log of wood about five feet long, either large enough so the flat top was about three feet from the ground, or set on heavy logs to bring it to that height. A portion of the top was cut down leaving a block at each end, and several long slats were set in lengthwise and held firm at each end with edges up, by being set into the end blocks. Then a similar set of slats, put in a heavy frame, was made with the slats set far enough apart to go into the spaces of the lower slats. The flax was laid on the lower slats, the frame and upper slats placed on it, and then pounded down with a heavy wooden mallet weighing many pounds. Sometimes the upper frame of slats, or knives as they were called, were hinged to the big under log at one end, and heavily weighted at the other, and thus the blow was given by the fall of the weight, not by the force of the farmer's muscle. The tenacity of the flax can be seen when it would stand this violent beating; and the cruel blow can be imagined, which the farmer's fingers sometimes got when he carelessly thrust his hand with the flax too far under the descending jaw--a shark's maw was equally gentle.
Flax was usually broken twice, once with an "open-tooth brake," once with a "close or strait brake," that is, one where the long, sharp-edge strips of wood were set closely together. Then it was scutched or swingled with a swingling block and knife, to take out any small particles of bark that might adhere. A man could swingle forty pounds of flax a day, but it was hard work. All this had to be done in clear sunny weather when the flax was as dry as tinder.
The clean fibres were then made into bundles called strikes. The strikes were swingled again, and from the refuse called swingle-tree hurds, coarse bagging could be spun and woven. After being thoroughly cleaned the rolls or strikes were sometimes beetled, that is, pounded in a wooden trough with a great pestle-shaped beetle over and over again until soft.
Then came the hackling or hetcheling, and the fineness of the flax depended upon the number of hacklings, the fineness of the various hackles or hetchels or combs, and the dexterity of the operator. In the hands of a poor hackler the best of flax would be converted into tow. The flax was slightly wetted, taken hold of at one end of the bunch, and drawn through the hackle-teeth towards the hetcheller, and thus fibres were pulled and laid into continuous threads, while the short fibres were combed out. It was dusty, dirty work. The threefold process had to be all done at once; the fibres had to be divided to their fine filaments, the long threads laid in untangled line, and the tow separated and removed. After the first hackle, called a ruffler, six other finer hackles were often used. It was one of the surprises of flax preparation to see how little good fibre would be left after all this hackling, even from a large mass of raw material, but it was equally surprising to see how much linen thread could be made from this small amount of fine flax. The fibres were sorted according to fineness; this was called spreading and drawing. So then after over twenty dexterous manipulations the flax was ready for the wheel, for spinning,--the most dexterous process of all,--and was wrapped round the spindle.
Seated at the small flax-wheel, the spinner placed her foot on the treadle, and spun the fibre into a long, even thread. Hung on the wheel was a small bone, wood, or earthenware cup, or a gourd-shell, filled with water, in which the spinner moistened her fingers as she held the twisting flax, which by the movement of the wheel was wound on bobbins. When all were filled, the thread was wound off in knots and skeins on a reel. A machine called a clock-reel counted the exact number of strands in a knot, usually forty, and ticked when the requisite number had been wound. Then the spinner would stop and tie the knot. A quaint old ballad has the refrain:--
"And he kissed Mistress Polly when the clock-reel ticked."
That is, the lover seized the rare and propitious moments of Mistress Polly's comparative leisure to kiss her.
Usually the knots or lays were of forty threads, and twenty lays made a skein or slipping. The number varied, however, with locality. To spin two skeins of linen thread was a good day's work; for it a spinner was paid eight cents a day and "her keep."
These skeins of thread had to be bleached. They were laid in warm water for four days, the water being frequently changed, and the skeins constantly wrung out. Then they were washed in the brook till the water came from them clear and pure. Then they were "bucked," that is, bleached with ashes and hot water, in a bucking-tub, over and over again, then laid in clear water for a week, and afterwards came a grand seething, rinsing, beating, washing, drying, and winding on bobbins for the loom. Sometimes the bleaching was done with slaked lime or with buttermilk.
These were not the only bleaching operations the flax went through; others will be detailed in the chapter on hand-weaving.
One lucrative product of flax should be mentioned--flaxseed. Flax was pulled for spinning when the base of the stalk began to turn yellow, which was usually the first of July. An old saying was, "June brings the flax." For seed it stood till it was all yellow. The flaxseed was used for making oil. Usually the upper chambers of country stores were filled a foot deep with flaxseed in the autumn, waiting for good sleighing to convey the seed to town.
In New Hampshire in early days, a wheelwright was not a man who made wagon-wheels (as such he would have had scant occupation), but one who made spinning-wheels. Often he carried them around the country on horseback selling them, thus adding another to the many interesting itineracies of colonial days. Spinning-wheels would seem clumsy for horse-carriage, but they were not set up, and several could be compactly carried when taken apart; far more ticklish articles went on pack-horses,--large barrels, glazed window-sashes, etc. Nor would it seem very difficult for a man to carry spinning-wheels on horseback, when frequently a woman would jump on horseback in the early morning, and with a baby on one arm and a flax-wheel tied behind, would ride several miles to a neighbor's to spend the day spinning in cheerful companionship. A century ago one of these wheelwrights sold a fine spinning-wheel for a dollar, a clock-reel for two dollars, and a wool-wheel for two dollars.
Few persons are now living who have ever seen carried on in a country home in America any of these old-time processes which have been recounted. As an old antiquary wrote:--
"Few have ever seen a woman hatchel flax or card tow, or heard the buzzing of the foot-wheel, or seen bunches of flaxen yarn hanging in the kitchen, or linen cloth whitening on the grass. The flax-dresser with the shives, fibres, and dirt of flax covering his garments, and his face begrimed with flax-dirt has disappeared; the noise of his brake and swingling knife has ended, and the boys no longer make bonfires of his swingling tow. The sound of the spinning-wheel, the song of the spinster, and the snapping of the clock-reel all have ceased; the warping bars and quill wheel are gone, and the thwack of the loom is heard only in the factory. The spinning woman of King Lemuel cannot be found."
Frequent references are made to flax in the Bible, notably in the Book of Proverbs; and the methods of growing and preparing flax by the ancient Egyptians were precisely the same as those of the American colonist a hundred years ago, of the Finn, Lapp, Norwegian, and Belgian flax-growers to-day. This ancient skill was not confined to flax-working. Rosselini, the eminent hierologist, says that every modern craftsman may see on Egyptian monuments four thousand years old, representations of the process of his craft just as it is carried on to-day. The paintings in the Grotto of El Kab, shown in Hamilton's _Ægyptica_, show the pulling, stocking, tying, and rippling of flax going on just as it is done in Egypt now. The four-tooth ripple of the Egyptian is improved upon, but it is the same implement. Pliny gives an account of the mode of preparing flax: plucking it up by the roots, tying it in bundles, drying, watering, beating, and hackling it, or, as he says, "combing it with iron hooks." Until the Christian era linen was almost the only kind of clothing used in Egypt, and the teeming banks of the Nile furnished flax in abundance. The quality of the linen can be seen in the bands preserved on mummies. It was not, however, spun on a wheel, but on a hand-distaff, called sometimes a rock, on which the women in India still spin the very fine thread which is employed in making India muslins. The distaff was used in our colonies; it was ordered that children and others tending sheep or cattle in the fields should also "be set to some other employment withal, such as spinning upon the rock, knitting, weaving tape, etc." I heard recently a distinguished historian refer in a lecture to this colonial statute, and he spoke of the children _sitting upon a rock_ while knitting or spinning, etc., evidently knowing naught of the proper signification of the word.
The homespun industries have ever been held to have a beneficent and peace-bringing influence on women. Wordsworth voiced this sentiment when he wrote his series of sonnets beginning:--
"Grief! thou hast lost an ever-ready friend Now that the cottage spinning-wheel is mute."
Chaucer more cynically says, through the _Wife of Bath_:--
"Deceite, weepynge, spynnynge God hath give To wymmen kyndely that they may live."
Spinning doubtless was an ever-ready refuge in the monotonous life of the early colonist. She soon had plenty of material to work with. Everywhere, even in the earliest days, the culture of flax was encouraged. By 1640 the Court of Massachusetts passed two orders directing the growth of flax, ascertaining what colonists were skilful in breaking, spinning, weaving, ordering that boys and girls be taught to spin, and offering a bounty for linen grown, spun, and woven in the colony. Connecticut passed similar measures. Soon spinning-classes were formed, and every family ordered to spin so many pounds of flax a year, or to pay a fine. The industry received a fresh impulse through the immigration of about one hundred Irish families from Londonderry. They settled in New Hampshire on the Merrimac about 1719, and spun and wove with far more skill than prevailed among those English settlers who had already become Americans. They established a manufactory according to Irish methods, and attempts at a similar establishment were made in Boston.
There was much public excitement over spinning, and prizes were offered for quantity and quality. Women, rich as well as poor, appeared on Boston Common with their wheels, thus making spinning a popular holiday recreation. A brick building was erected as a spinning-school costing £15,000, and a tax was placed on carriages and coaches in 1757 to support it. At the fourth anniversary in 1749 of the "Boston Society for promoting Industry and Frugality," three hundred "young spinsters" spun on their wheels on Boston Common. And a pretty sight it must have been: the fair young girls in the quaint and pretty dress of the times, shown to us in Hogarth's prints, spinning on the green grass under the great trees. In 1754, on a like occasion, a minister preached to the "spinsters," and a collection of £453 was taken up. This was in currency of depreciated value. At the same time premiums were offered in Pennsylvania for weaving linen and spinning thread. Benjamin Franklin wrote in his _Poor Richard's Almanac_:--
"Many estates are spent in the getting, Since women for tea forsook spinning and knitting."
But the German colonists long before this had been famous flax-raisers. A Pennsylvania poet in 1692 descanted on the flax-workers of Germantown:--
"Where live High German people and Low Dutch Whose trade in weaving linen cloth is much, There grows the flax as also you may know, That from the same they do divide the tow."
Father Pastorius, their leader, forever commemorated his interest in his colony and in the textile arts by his choice for a device for a seal. Whittier thus describes it in his _Pennsylvania Pilgrim_:--
"Still on the town-seal his device is found, Grapes, flax, and thread-spool on a three-foil ground With _Vinum, Linum, et Textrinum_ wound."
Virginia was earlier even in awakening interest in manufacturing flax than Massachusetts, for wild flax grew there in profusion, ready for gathering. In 1646 two houses were ordered to be erected at Jamestown as spinning-schools. These were to be well built and well heated. Each county was to send to these schools two poor children, seven or eight years old, to be taught carding, spinning, and knitting. Each child was to be supplied by the county authorities on admission to the school with six barrels of Indian corn, a pig, two hens, clothing, shoes, a bed, rug, blanket, two coverlets, a wooden tray, and two pewter dishes or cups. This plan was not wholly carried out. Prizes in tobacco (which was the current money of Virginia in which everything was paid) were given, however, for every pound of flax, every skein of yarn, every yard of linen of Virginia production, and soon flax-wheels and spinners were plentiful.
Intelligent attempts were made to start these industries in the South. Governor Lucas wrote to his daughter, Mrs. Pinckney, in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1745:--
"I send by this Sloop two Irish servants, viz.: a Weaver and a Spinner. I am informed Mr. Cattle hath produced both Flax and Hemp. I pray you will purchase some, and order a loom and spinning-wheel to be made for them, and set them to work. I shall order Flax sent from Philadelphia with seed, that they may not be idle. I pray you will also purchase Wool and sett them to making Negroes clothing which may be sufficient for my own People.
"As I am afraid one Spinner can't keep a Loom at work, I pray you will order a Sensible Negroe woman or two to learn to spin, and wheels to be made for them; the man Servant will direct the Carpenter in making the loom and the woman will direct the Wheel."
The following year Madam Pinckney wrote to her father that the woman had spun all the material they could get, so was idle; that the loom had been made, but had no tackling; that she would make the harness for it, if two pounds of shoemaker's thread were sent her. The sensible negro woman and hundreds of others learned well to spin, and excellent cloth has been always woven in the low country of Carolina, as well as in the upper districts, till our own time.
In the revolt of feeling caused by the Stamp Act, there was a constant social pressure to encourage the manufacture and wearing of goods of American manufacture. As one evidence of this movement the president and first graduating class of Rhode Island College--now Brown University--were clothed in fabrics made in New England. From Massachusetts to South Carolina the women of the colonies banded together in patriotic societies called Daughters of Liberty, agreeing to wear only garments of homespun manufacture, and to drink no tea. In many New England towns they gathered together to spin, each bringing her own wheel. At one meeting seventy linen-wheels were employed. In Rowley, Massachusetts, the meeting of the Daughters is thus described:--
"A number of thirty-three respectable ladies of the town met at sunrise with their wheels to spend the day at the house of the Rev'd Jedediah Jewell, in the laudable design of a spinning match. At an hour before sunset, the ladies there appearing neatly dressed, principally in homespun, a polite and generous repast of American production was set for their entertainment. After which being present many spectators of both sexes, Mr. Jewell delivered a profitable discourse from Romans xii. 2: "Not slothful in business, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord."
Matters of church and patriotism were never far apart in New England; so whenever the spinners gathered at New London, Newbury, Ipswich, or Beverly, they always had an appropriate sermon. A favorite text was Exodus xxxv. 25: "And all the women that were wise-hearted did spin with their hands." When the Northboro women met, they presented the results of their day's work to their minister. There were forty-four women and they spun 2223 knots of linen and tow, and wove one linen sheet and two towels.
By Revolutionary times General Howe thought "Linen and Woollen Goods much wanted by the Rebels"; hence when he prepared to evacuate Boston he ordered all such goods carried away with him. But he little knew the domestic industrial resources of the Americans. Women were then most proficient in spinning. In 1777 Miss Eleanor Fry of East Greenwich, Rhode Island, spun seven skeins one knot linen yarn in one day, an extraordinary amount. This was enough to weave twelve linen handkerchiefs. At this time when there were about five or six skeins to a pound of flax, the pay for spinning was sixpence a skein. The Abbé Robin wondered at the deftness of New England spinners.
In 1789 an outcry was raised against the luxury said to be eating away the substance of the new country. The poor financial administration of the government seemed deranging everything; and again a social movement was instituted in New England to promote "Oeconomy and Household Industries." "The Rich and Great strive by example to convince the Populace of their error by Growing their own Flax and Wool, having some one in the Family to dress it, and all the Females spin, several weave and bleach the linen." The old spinning-matches were revived. Again the ministers preached to the faithful women "Oeconomists," who thus combined religion, patriotism, and industry. Truly it was, as a contemporary writer said, "a pleasing Sight: some spinning, some reeling, some carding cotton, some combing flax," as they were preached to.
Within a few years attempts have been made in England and Ireland to encourage flax-growing, as before it is spun it gives employment to twenty different classes of laborers, many parts of which work can be done by young and unskilled children. In Courtrai, where hand spinning and weaving of flax still flourish, the average earnings of a family are three pounds a week. In Finland homespun linen still is made in every household. The British Spinning and Weaving School in New Bond Street is an attempt to revive the vanished industry in England. In our own country it is pleasant to record that the National Association of Cotton Manufacturers is planning to start on a large scale the culture and manufacture of flax in our Eastern states; this is not, however, with any thought of reviving either the preparation, spinning, or weaving of flax by old-time hand processes.