When I volunteer at the museum, one of my favorite activities is spinning. I first learned to spin with a drop spindle a few years ago.
I asked one of the Civil War re-enactors to show me. Later, I took a one-day class in Williamsburg, Va. After I was comfortable with the drop spindle, I found a book to teach myself how to use the museum education department’s spinning wheel.
Spinning with a drop spindle was developed early in pre historic times. Man has always had the need for some kind of cord. Twisting fibers together makes them stronger and makes it possible to add length to the cord.
It is possible to twist fibers by hand, but much faster to twist them using a drop spindle. A spinning wheel speeds things up even more.
The great wheel or walking wheel was introduced to Europe in the medieval times. The wheel inside the Jackson House at the museum is a great wheel. The spinning wheel that I use is the treadle wheel, also called the Saxony or flax wheel. It was probably developed in the 16th century. Spinning is much faster on it than on the earlier types.
Spinning was one of the ways that a woman could support herself. Often it was the unmarried women of the family who did the spinning. That is why an unmarried woman is called a Spinster.
Production of fabric was so important to England that they discouraged the colonists from bothering with it. But on the frontier, where there were no stores nearby, women had to spin and weave to provide clothes for their families.
During the Revolutionary War women began to do more spinning and weaving as a way to become less dependent on England. After the revolution, New England developed its own textile industry.
In rural areas it was still a home industry. Spinning was still being done in this area after the Civil war. My grandfather’s aunt, who was born in 1860, had underwear that she spun and wove herself.
Most of the spinning and weaving done at home was either wool or linen. Cotton is more difficult to spin because the fibers are shorter and not as strong. The great wheel was used more often for wool. Flax was usually spun into linen on the smaller treadle wheel. They often had a distaff attached to hold the flax.
Before fibers can be spun they have to be prepared. The museum has a flax break that was used to break up the outer fibers of the flax plant. Then it had to be pulled through a hackle to get the trash out. Wool has to be washed and carded before it is spun.
When you visit the museum be sure to notice the flax break, spinning wheel, and cards as well as all of the other tools that people have used through the years to produce the things they needed.