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Reflections: When spinning wheels weren’t just decorations

Roger Matile
Roger Matile

During the recently concluded holiday shopping season, clothing again proved popular as gifts for young and old alike.

In this day and age, clothes can be bought at many grocery “super” stores, hardware stores, sporting goods stores, the diminishing number of department stores still in business, and, of course, at clothing stores.

But back in the 1820s and 1830s when settlers were just arriving here on the northern Illinois prairies, there weren't any stores, and in any case, most pioneers didn't have the money to buy "store-bought" clothing. And while some may have had the money, the cultural traditions at the time militated against spending any of it on consumables like clothing, especially when it could be made at home.

In fact, many of the earliest settlers chose not even to buy cloth, much less the clothing that could be made out of it. Unlike today's clothing bought off the rack at the local shopping center, most of the pioneers' dresses, work pants, shirts, and shoes were homemade.

Most early pioneer families made sure they brought along extra clothing when they made the trek west from their Eastern homes. And along with extra clothes, they also brought the tools they would need to replace worn-out clothing, realizing frontier life would be hard on clothes.

Some of the frontier-type hunter-settlers, such as Frederick Countryman who lived in the AuSable timber south of Oswego with his Potawatomi wife En-do-ga, may have worn some deerskin clothing. But while fringed buckskin hunting shirts, leggings, and moccasins are popular costumes for actors in movies about the frontier, the facts are that everyone—Indians and frontiersmen alike—replaced buckskin clothing with cloth as soon as possible. Ask a historical reenactor how it feels to wear a wet buckskin shirt or leggings and you’ll find out why–buckskin becomes slimy when wet, and positively agonizing when both wet and cold.

When the settlers arrived, one of the first crops they planted (sometimes even before their first crop of corn) was flax for making linen. Raising sheep was also a frontier necessity since wool was a cold weather clothing necessity in the days before Thinsulate.

Flax was a pioneer mainstay that, with much labor, was turned into linen thread, which could be used to weave linen cloth and a variety of other basic materials. In the fall, flax plants were pulled out of the soil and the woody stalks were left on the ground for a while to rot (sometimes this was called "retting"). Then during the winter months, the stalks were smashed with special tools with odd names such as the flax brake and the swingling knife (which was use for scutching).

The brittle plant debris was then cleared away and the remaining rough fibers were soaked in a water trough and then pounded with wooden mallets until they were soft and pliable. Sometimes the fibers were boiled in a strong lye or lime solution with wood ashes and then chilled with cold water. Then the fibers were drawn across the strong, sharp iron teeth of a tool called a hackle or hatchel to shred them. The shorter fibers—called tow (which were fluffy and white, and thus the term “towhead” referring to a child with white curly hair)—were removed and put aside. The long fibers, after being combed several times through the hackle, were then taken to the small spinning wheel where they were spun into strong linen thread.

The tow fibers could be spun into a coarser thread of larger diameter, and could also be used for gun wadding and as the pioneer equivalent of grease rags and padding.

Linen thread could be woven into linen cloth, but could also be used as the warp for mixed-fiber cloth. A rough but hardy cloth called tow linen, used for towels, mattress ticking, men's shirts and summer pants, and children's and women's dresses, could be made using a linen warp and a tow weft. On the other hand, a wool warp and a linen weft produced sturdy "jean" material (sometimes called linsey-woolsey), from which today's denim cloth evolved.

And speaking of wool, it was even more popular than linen since it was much easier to make. Various breeds of sheep were brought west by settlers to provide both meat and wool for yarn.

Spinning wheels and looms were both vital pioneer possessions. Many early households brought their small linen wheels and large wool spinning wheels with them from the East, but any competent wheelwright could build a good spinning wheel for $2 to $5.

When it came to looms, most pioneers decided to bring only the metal parts and make the frame when they got to their new homes on the prairie. My great-great-grandparents did exactly that when they came in the early 1860s, and we still have the heavy oak loom (with its metal parts probably forged in eastern Pennsylvania) in my son’s basement. Those early looms were big, heavy affairs—the main uprights on my family's loom measure about 4" thick by 14" wide by about 6' high. They were put together just like the barns and houses of the era, with pegged mortise and tennon joints. Sometimes, after building a better frame house, the family would move the loom to their old log cabin, which became the "loom house."

The work of making fabric and clothing was extremely labor-intensive, especially the chore of processing flax into linen, although pioneer women performed prodigious feats of labor—one woman, while doing all the other things a Michigan pioneer did in 1835, also managed to weave 700 yards of woolen cloth for herself and her neighbors. As soon as possible, water-powered mills were built to automate many of those tasks. And as soon a railroads stretched west shipping goods to what had been the frontier, it became far more cost effective to buy, rather than make, ready-made clothing.

Sometimes, we're accused of not realizing how good we have it these days. When it comes to the contents of our closets, that’s definitely a fair criticism.

Interested in more local history?


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