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Chapter 7:

  • Weaving heavy cloth.
  • -- Expensive prints. -- “blood will tell”

As no muslin could be bought for summer wear, and our home-made cloth was very heavy and warm for hot weather, we women of southern Alabama devised a plan for making muslin out of our own homespun thread; and the fact that it was made of this thread added not a little to its excellence in our estimation.

In the weaving of all heavy, thick cloth, whether plain or twilled, two threads, sometimes three, were always passed through the reeds of the sley, when the warp was put in the loom for weaving the web of cloth. The experiment for muslin, and it proved quite a success, was to draw the threads of warp singly through the reeds of the sley. In the process of making muslin, both warp and woof were sized with sizing made of flour, to make the threads more smooth and unbending; whereas plain cloth had only the warp sized, and that with sizing made of Indian-meal [90] When thread for the muslin was beamed, and one single thread passed through the reeds of the sley, and only a slight tap of the batten given as the shuttle passed through the opening with its quill of sized thread, the texture was thin and gauze-like, and stood out like any real muslin stiffened with starch.

The thread for our muslins was dyed a deep plum color. In the case of each of our four dresses, the warp was the same: twelve or fourteen threads of the plum color and three threads of white alternating with the plum color and white thread the width and length of the cloth. The older daughter and I had ours filled in solid with plum color, which, with the narrow white stripes in the warp, made a very neat dress. The two other girls had theirs checked with white, so as to form a square with the white stripe in the warp; then small bits of crimson merino were placed in the centre of the square. Our muslins reminded me of “Swiss muslins,” with their raised flowers of silk or fine wool thread. When we first appeared in them, they were mistaken for the genuine imported muslins.

Soon after completing and wearing our [91] home-made muslins, news came into our settlement that a steamer had run the blockade, and that the city of Eufaula had secured some bolts of prints and other notions. The Saturday following the report, Mr. G-- ordered Ben to harness up the horses, and we were driven to Eufaula, not to buy, but simply to have a look at these imports. Sure enough, on the shelves in the store that had long lain empty, there were tastefully disposed a few bolts of English prints, some ladies' straw hats, a bolt or two of fine bleached stuff, some calico, and a few pairs of ladies' shoes. These were the magnets which had drawn us eleven miles! We had fondly imagined ourselves satisfied with our home-made cloth, and had said of it, as David of the sword of Goliath, “There is none like that; give it me.” When we had held aloft our knit and cloth-made shoes and slippers, with the words, “What do we care for the blockade when we can make such as these?” we had little dreamed that our firmness would so suddenly collapse before about three bolts of calico and a few pairs of black morocco shoes, lined with red and deep blue leather, laced high and scalloped around [92] the top edge. Yet so it was, for when the merchant unfolded to our view his brandnew prints, looking so fresh and novel, we four had nine yards apiece cut off, paying twelve dollars per yard for it. It was something over a yard wide, and as we knew nothing of the ruffling, puffing, plaiting, tucking, or shirring of overskirts or polonaises outside the blockade, nine yards were amply sufficient for a dress.

The design of that print is yet vivid to my memory. The background was a pale blending of violet with white; the foreground was dotted with violets of a deep purple color. I bought the same day a plain brown straw hat, paying one hundred dollars for it, and a half quire of small white note-paper for forty dollars. A pair of morocco gaiters cost one of the daughters three hundred and seventy-five dollars. We surely will be pardoned, if we felt some pride in wearing muslins that we had manufactured with our own hands, and fresh new calicoes which had cost each of us one hundred and eight dollars.

Our neighbors, as soon as it was noised about in that quiet settlement (where it seemed almost impossible for tidings of [93] the outside world to come) that we had new store-bought calicoes, all paid us a visit in order that they might see how a new print looked amidst so much home-woven cloth; and a bit of the scraps left was given each visitor. I sent a small scrap of my new calico-our war-time calicoes, as we then and afterward called them — in a letter to my relatives in Georgia. Whenever an) one was so fortunate as to secure a new print, small scraps of it were sent in letters to friends and relatives, so rare were new calicoes.

Indeed, it was not at all uncommon for friends or relatives to send small samples of new homespun cloth to one another in letters whenever what was thought to be a particularly good pattern had been devised, or the colors were exceptionally brilliant.

A woman who was a neighbor of ours made herself what really was an elegant dress for the times. The material was an old and well-worn black silk dress, altogether past renovating, and fine white lint cotton. The silk was all ripped up, and cut into narrow strips, which were all raveled and then mixed with the lint cotton and passed through the cotton cards [94] two or three times, so as to have the mixture homogeneous. It was then carded and spun very fine, great pains being taken in the spinning to have no unevenness in the threads. Our neighbor managed to get for the warp of her mixed silk and cotton dress a bunch of number twelve thread, from cotton mills in Columbus, Georgia, fifty miles from our settlement, and generally a three days trip. She dyed the thread, which was very fine and smooth, with the barks of the sweet-gum and maple trees, which made a beautiful gray. Woven into cloth, it was soft and silky to the touch, and of a beautiful color. It was corded with the best pieces of the worn silk, and trimmed with pasteboard buttons covered with some of the same silk.

Some very rich-appearing and serviceable winter woolen dresses were made of the wool of white and brown sheep mixed, carded, spun and woven just so; then long chains of coarser spun wool thread dyed black and red were crocheted and braided in neat designs on the skirt, sleeves, and waist of these brown and white mixed dresses of wool. [95]

Of course braid and tape could not be bought, nor could we weave that sufficiently narrow to make a neat appearance on dress goods; but we soon found that long chains of crochet-thread would answer nicely for braiding. Balls of it were crocheted of various colors; black, white, red, blue, and dark brown were the colors most used. It was braided on in various ways; sometimes singly, at times we would sew three or four chains together of colors to blend, making the tape an inch or more wide. And thus it was placed upon our dresses.

The extent and variety of our cloth manufacture, our fertility in making designs, our different ways of weaving, were really remarkable. We made cloth in stripes broad and narrow, and in checks wide and small. We made plain cloth, twilled cloth, jeans, and salt-and-pepper cloth, the latter by alternating one thread of white and one thread of black the width and length of the warp, and the same in the woof. This was a slow process, as the shuttles, with the quills of black and white thread, were changed at every tap of the batten. Plaids were woven both of wool and cotton thread. They required three [96] and four shuttles and as many varieties of color. We had “dice” --woven homespun, or “basket plait,” as some would call it, which required three or four treadles and as many different ways of tramping them to form the plait. When the warp was dyed a solid red or deep garnet and filled in with blue, or perhaps purple, slate, or black, as one wished, or when the warp was dyed blue and filled in with whatever other color pleased the eye, such cloth we called our “chambrey.”

Sometimes lint cotton was dyed a deep and a pale blue, and then carded and spun as dyed. If the warp was of deep blue the woof would be pale blue; or the woof would be deep blue thread and the warp pale blue. It was woven solid and tipped with bright bits of silk, cassimere, merino, or other fine woolen scraps, which, cut in small pieces, were woven in the meshes of thread.

Cloth was woven with two, three, four, and five treadles. An ingenious way the weaver had of tramping the treadles would throw up on the right or upper side of the cloth whatever design was placed in front of the weaver's eye. Some beautiful carpets [97] of wool, dyed a variety of bright colors, were woven on our common house-loom; and large woolen coverlets as well as woolen and cotton flannels were made in the same manner.

I often wonder how we were able so quickly to adapt ourselves to the great changes rendered necessary in our modes of life by the blockade. But be it remembered that the Southerners who were so reduced and so compelled to rely entirely upon their own resources belonged to the Anglo-Saxon race, a race which, despite all prating about “race equality,” has civilized America. The reflection to which memory gives rise when I recall war times in the South is this, that “blood will tell.”

As to our cotton flannel, while it was rather heavy for every-day wear, it was just the thing for capes and cloaks, and was often made into blankets. The filling was spun rather coarse and very softly twisted. If it was to be used for capes or cloaks the raw cotton was dyed whatever color was made choice of before carding and spinning; if the flannel was to be used for blankets the lint cotton was carded and [98] spun white. When placed in the loom for weaving the treadles were tramped in a manner which threw up the coarse, soft spun woof very nearly all on the upper side of the cloth. Two or three heavy beats of the batten were given to pack the filling close and dense. When so much had been woven and was still smoothly and tightly drawn over the breast-beam, one of a pair of cotton-cards was used by the hand to raise the lint of the coarse, softtwisted, tightly-packed filling, till it was perfectly smooth and downy. It would then be passed over the cloth-beam, and again so much would be woven; then it left the loom-bench, and with the card the lint was raised again in the same manner. And so the process of weaving and stopping to raise the lint with the cards would go on to the end of the warp. It was a slow and tedious way of making cotton flannel, but a large quantity was made. That which was dyed a very dark brown, and with which great pains had been taken in raising the lint, was, at some little distance, sometimes mistaken for sealskin. So much for the ingenuity of the women of southern Alabama. [99]

Soon after we had finished our selfim-posed task of carding and spinning the warp and woof for our four dresses, and it had been noised far and wide in our neighborhood that we had had patience to hold out until the task was completed, one of our acquaintances, a young lady, set to to excel us, in that she was not only going to card and spin the warp and woof for a new homespun, but was herself going to weave the thread she had spun into cloth for her dress. She finally arrived at the loom with her warp and woof and commenced with great joy the weaving. Her homespun warp proved to be quite defective. There were more or less broken threads to mend in the run of any warp, even that spun at the cotton mills, which was always stronger than hand-spun warp. At first, when the threads of warp would break on either the cloth-beam or thread-beam side, she would leave the loom-bench and mend the broken threads; but she became impatient and wearied at the oft-breaking threads (sometimes three or four would snap asunder at once), and by the time she had woven three or four yards she had tired altogether of mending and piecing, [100] so she began to leave the threads hanging wherever they happened to snap apart, and soon a thick fringe of thread was hanging from the sides and middle of the cloth on both sides the harness and sley. She kept on weaving, however, saying she had enough for the plain skirt, and, as it narrowed, that would cut the waist, and if it narrowed yet more, why that would make the sleeves; but the more threads that broke the fewer were there to sustain the remaining ones, so that the cloth, from being a good yard wide at the beginning, narrowed to less than half a foot, and after the first two or three yards was useless for any purpose, and there ended that homespun that was to be the wonder of the settlement. We felt nowise inclined to exult over our friend's failure, for we no doubt would have suffered defeat had we attempted to weave our spun warp. It required no little patience to work with warp the threads of which were every now and then breaking, for every thread had to be mended as soon as it broke, or if not, thin, flimsy places would occur all through the web, and the cloth would not wear long enough to pay for the trouble of carding, spinning, and weaving.

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