Pilgrim Fabrics

Mrs. William Bradford, hemming an apron

I’ve been traveling to Plymouth, MA from Texas for work over the last few months. As is typical of most business trips, I wasn’t seeing anything in the town other than the car, the hotel, and the conference room at the office. Finally, I just couldn’t bear it! Plymouth, of all places! I had to see at least something Pilgrim-ish, or never eat Thanksgiving dinner again. So, on my final trip, I went a day early to hang out at Plimouth Plantation,  a “living” museum of the village that operates perpetually in the year 1627. I was particularly interested in….of course…fabrics.

Mrs. William Bradford, enjoying the lovely weather while hemming an apron, was kind enough to let me get up close to see the weave on her clothing.

Notice the stitching on the hem

I asked her if anyone in the village had a spinning wheel (yes, they talk only in character!) and she said, “Oh, no! We buy our clothes ready made when the ship comes once a year.”

These actors were very knowledgeable, actually, about the characters they were portraying, and also lots of details about the village–Mrs. Alden was even cooking a tansy (spinach, bread, & eggs), taking coals from her open hearth and sticking them under an iron skillet on little legs to cook it. Fascinating!  My taxi driver said the actors come from all over the country and stay 6 months at a time in houses near the village. They study up on the history of the period, read the journals and diaries left behind, and love to chat about 1627! (The Pilgrims arrived in 1620.)

Sturdy cloth to withstand wear and tear

I also learned that back in Holland, where they lived as a community for some years before coming to Plymouth, this group of women did not do much spinning of their own to make fabrics.  Living in the large city of Leyden, they purchased their clothing ready made, or bolts of cloth if they wanted to sew something on their own. But it bears repeating that although they themselves weren’t the ones spinning the threads that were ultimately woven into the fabrics they were wearing or purchasing….someone’s pair of hands were, since every thread woven into a cloth in 1627 was handspun and handwoven!

Bed curtains for warmth and privacy in the one-room cottages


Time at the Wheel

“Good,” Arabella told me, “you understand the basics.  Now what you need is time at the wheel. Nothing else can teach you what you need.”

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As I come to the end of the marvelous green bump that MonChere brought me on Mother’s Day, I have tangible evidence of the truth of Arabella’s statement.  The green bump (that’s what a large roll of roving is called) spun into about 9 skeins. Oh, the difference between the first skein and the last!

As beginning spinners, we are inconsistent in the size of yarn we are spinning, and also in the amount of twist we are adding to the yarn in the spinning process. The result is a finished yarn that is really too curly and twirly to be usefully knitted. (Which is one reason why you shouldn’t spend a lot of money on the wool you are learning upon!)

Notice the "skinny" strands and the "fat" strands

In this first skein, notice the uneven strands–some are “skinny” and some are “fat.”  This occurs when the spinning of the singles is uneven–of course, the hallmark of a beginner!  This is one of the skills that can only be gained by “time at the wheel.” Spinning such a large bump of wool gave me enough time at the wheel to really improve on my consistency.

Another issue for beginners is “overspinning,” which is also a consistency issue. It happens when too much twist is added to the single during spinning. When plying two singles, spinning in the opposite direction from which the singles were originally spun “balances” the finished yarn as they are twined together–except when both singles are inconsistently overspun. Then you just get what’s pictured here–evidence that this spinner needs more time at the wheel!

It does happen, though.  The improvement does happen. Compare this last skein (hooray!) with the first above. Notice the evenness of the strands compared to each other, and the evenness of the whole skein compared to the first. This last skein even felt completely different in my hands as I wound it–lighter, fluffier, balanced.

The yarn is more consistent

As for the improvement, I can’t tell you what to do specifically, except keep spinning. It’s very strange, really. A spinner begins as an uncoordinated, goofy, stumbling upon oneself, uncertain being, but sticking with it, somehow she manages to bring it all together by not thinking about it, but simply doing it. Time at the wheel, says wise Arabella.

Views Top 1,005!

Thank you, thank you! Today my statistical charts tell me that this blog has been viewed 1,005 times since I started it a mere 10 weeks ago. It is very gratifying to know that you all find these random thoughts interesting enough to keep coming back. Who knows what we’ll uncover!

My daughter Ginny took this photo at Young Life Camp in Colorado

Spinning for Hours

Oh, beautiful wool!

Arabella has also invited me to her spinning group, The Texas Twisters, which is a fabulous group of fiber-spinning, artistic, and lovely women who get together once a week and spin for hours and hours. It’s heavenly. Today we were a fairly small group (about 9), and we spent several hours together laughing, sharing, and sometimes just quietly spinning.

It occurred to me again today that although I am glad spinning is my hobby and not a requirement of my daily life, we have definitely traded something valuable for our freedom. Community, intimacy, slow hours together instead of a full-bore constant pace….these are the gems we have traded for our modernity. On any given day, we might shrug and move on, happy in our freedoms. But sometimes, just sometimes, I get a glimpse of the beauty of a slower-paced, less materialistic, more careful life, and I think I miss it.

From beautiful wool to beautiful yarn

Naalebinding, or Knotless Netting

We are definitely making progress, backward though it is, to find out more about the first fabric techniques. We’ve already found woven flax to be exceedingly ancient, and new finds keep pushing the date back (I’ve seen the date now at 6500 BC, and 32,000 BC!).

So where does that leave knitting?  The oldest techniques using needle and yarn are not what we know as knitting today on two needles; however, the variety, beauty, and usefulness of the objects made with the ancient technique of Naalebinding, make it no less a stunning hand craft. Watch this:

The Naalebinding stitches are quite simple, as the knit and purl stitch are in the knitting you might have just put down. And with the same astounding flexibility, the Naalebinding stitches can be endlessly turned into hundreds and hundreds of different patterns, edgings, and embellishments, due to our bottomless capacity for creative expression.

This picture is of a commonly used stitch. The top photo shows the stitches in white cotton, so that the shape stands out:

A basic naalebinding stitch, shown in cotton above, and bulky wool below

The bottom photo shows the beginning of an actual garment in bulky weight wool. Garments made from Naalebinding can be extremely dense and warm. When made from wool, the garments can then be felted for additional warmth.  Compare the above stitch to this more “complicated” stitch:

More complicated naalebinding stitch

You can begin to see that the variety in looping, crossing, and otherwise stitching with the flat needle and yarn can produce beautiful work in the hands of a skilled naalebinder! (Look here on Flickr at the Naalebinder Group! I knew the first garments probably included a purse!)

Also, there is a naalebinder group on Ravelry.


Stitch photos © 2001 Carolyn Priest-Dorman, used with copyright permission. http://www.cs.vassar.edu/~capriest/nalebind.html

Warp, Weft…What?

Wall painting in a tomb at Beni Hasan

Discovery has progressed through the last few centuries here on planet earth at an astounding gallop. Discovery within all of the various sciences, how motion impacts mass (a little something called gravity), telescopes and microscopes, antibiotics and surgical improvements, train, planes and automobiles, all the way up to the ever-improving and amazing iPhone. Somehow, we automatically think of progression as improvement. And often, it is.  The iPhone is a definite improvement over the telegram. Antibiotics are a definite improvement over dying.

But on rare occasions, some things start out great and don’t need much improvement, even after 10,000 years. The weaving of threads into a continuous fabric from which clothing is cut is one process that has not changed since the first time someone needed a shirt (or maybe it was a purse).  This illustration was found on a wall in an Egyptian tomb, depicting two weavers and a hand spinner, among other workers. Though we now process flax, spin it into threads, and weave it into linen cloth on machines, the individual steps in the process are remarkably the same.

I think I can now finally understand the difference between warp and weft. The warp threads hang vertically from the top of the piece to the bottom of the piece, each as an individual strand.

The weft are made by the continuous “threading” of a long fiber under and over each of the hanging warp threads. In other words, the weft threads must be “set up” to hang vertically like a sort of stringed curtain. Then, a continuous thread is “woven” over and under, over and under, over and under each of the hanging weft threads, and a strong, continuous fabric is made.  Remember making construction paper place mats in grade school with this method?  Then you have practiced the ancient craft of weaving.

Turns out that weaving is waaaaaaayyyyy older a method of making clothing than knitting.  In fact, amazingly enough, knitting (as we know it today) is a fairly recent development.  (More on that another time, but you can get a jump from this great site learning about Naalebinding.)  The point here is that the first spun yarns and threads were not knitted, they were woven. And remember that every shred of thread woven into cloth up until the 12-14th centuries had been spun with a pair of human hands and a spindle.

The parts of the flax plant

I am getting closer to answering the question who made the first shirt? and it is beginning to look something like a linen garment, hand-woven from hand-spun flax using a hand spindle. Wool, it seems, joined in the fun much later, by several thousand years. Interestingly, linen has some of the same amazing properties as wool:  it absorbs water without feeling “wet” and can keep the wearer both warm and cool.

*Image used under GNU Free Documentation License from Wikipedia

“Material” Culture Tells the Story

I’m beginning to believe that history, like art, may be “in the eye of beholder.” And the further back in time we want to go, the more this is true.

Face of Ptolemy II Philadelphos, 285-246 BC

I’m not talking about 100 years ago, or even 400 years ago, and maybe not even 2000 years ago, because we humans have a marvelous proclivity for recording ourselves. We’ve chiseled our likeness on every surface imaginable from a cave wall to a coin; written down our deepest thoughts, ideas, and dictums on animal skin parchment with the ink of berries; even encoded laws on stone and clay tablets. Something very deep inside all of us wants to be remembered.

As a result, the “material” objects left by past cultures really tell us a lot about what they believed about themselves and the world, and what they appreciated and valued. The problem is that the further back in time we go, the fewer of these objects we find, and putting together the “story” behind the material objects becomes something my sister calls MSU. That’s when the lack of facts surrounding an object or idea causes us to Make Stuff Up.  Right?

For example, I can “google” enough subjects surrounding 100 B.C. (About 24,600,000 results in 0.25 seconds) to construct a pretty good idea of  the state of life for the average Roman citizen, or even a barbarian or two wandering around outside the Empire. The basic stuff–the “material” goods of that time: fabrics, jewelry, pottery, tools, art–combined with all of the written works we have from this period

Woven Mummy Wrappings, Ptolemaic Eygypt 323-30 BC

gives us a clear picture….well, we don’t have to resort much to MSU.

But the farther back we want to go to know what we as ancient people ate, drank, worked at, created, wore, cursed over, prayed over, made for decoration or traded for goods, the fuzzier the picture gets. For me, it all sort of runs together with old World History lessons. Since I started spinning, however, I find myself driven to create a better picture of the first fabrics and who wore them, how they were made, and what choices were available. Or at least understand how much of the story we do know, and how much is someone else’s version of MSU–Making Stuff Up.

I am going to start with the timeline I found at The New World Encyclopedia because it specifically marks the find in Israel of the oldest textiles anyone has uncovered. TIME magazine’s description^ of the textiles says, “Perhaps most remarkable are the fabrics, which are woven in eleven intricate designs, some resembling knotted macrame, others fine mesh.” Stay Tuned…

^Read more: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,965493,00.html#ixzz0rMf9uGDt

*Images from www.AncientResource.com. Click on image to go to website.

Textile Timeline for Ancient History

Very interesting timeline found at The New World Encyclopedia site:

c. 8000 B.C.E. – Evidence of flax cultivation in the Near East.[3]

c. 6500 B.C.E. – Approximate date of Naalebinding examples found in Nehal Hemar cave, Israel. This technique, which uses short separate lengths of thread, predated the invention of spinning (with its continuous lengths of thread) and requires that all of the as-yet unused thread be pulled through the loop in the sewn material.[4] This requires much greater skill than knitting in order to create a fine product.[5]

c. 6000 B.C.E. – Evidence of woven textiles used to wrap the dead at Çatalhöyük in Anatolia.[3]

c. 5000 B.C.E. – Production of linen cloth in Ancient Egypt, along with other bast fibers including rush, reed, palm, and papyrus.[6]

4200 B.C.E. – Date of Mesolithic examples of Naalebinding found in Denmark, marking spread of technology to Northern Europe.[7]

c. 3000 B.C.E. – Breeding of domesticated sheep with a wooly fleece rather than hair in the Near East.[3]

200 B.C.E. to 200 C.E. – Approximate date of earliest evidence of “Needle Knitting” in Peru, a form of Naalebinding that preceded local contact with the Spanish.[8]


On the Wheel: Heathered Silk (via SpaceCadet Creations)

WordPress.com has a new fun tool!!  It’s called the ReBlog–and this allows me to repost on my blog something I love on someone else’s blog….like this……ooooohhhhh, lovely, lovely silk, handspun by SpaceCadet…..I am still a beginner, a spinner-in-training-using-simple-wool, but one day I hope to graduate to this sort of beautiful silk! This post is from her blog, SPACECADET CREATIONS:

On the Wheel: Heathered Silk Beautiful sunshine and a lovely warm day, I sat in the dappled shade of the trees and spun silk into heathered shades of blue, green, and purple. Just before I finished and came in, the wind picked up and the skies transformed from blazing and blue to an angry dark grey.  A summer thunderstorm rolled in, and then ended as quickly as it started, leaving everything drenched but fresh again.  Perfect! … Read More

via SpaceCadet Creations