The History of Fabric for Quilting – industry fabric

You probably remember the last time you bought fabric for a quilt. If you’re like me, it wasn’t that long ago. Think about your experience. Perhaps you located the shade of blue you were looking for, or maybe there was a really good sale, so you went ahead and picked up a few yards for future use. Or, as often happens when one is wandering through a quilt shop but doesn’t intend to buy anything, the most delightful print jumps out, and you just have to take some home. No matter what the situation, there are common threads to most of our shopping experiences. First, little is required of you, except to choose what you like, and pay for it. Second, you probably pay a reasonable price. And third, you are likely to have a wide range of colors and prints to choose from.It was after such a shopping experience and a couple of new additions to my fabric stash that I thought about something I had never paid much attention to before. Where, in a pre-industrial society, did cloth come from? Weavers, of course. But what about a young society, like early New England during the time before and just after the revolutionary war? The majority of America was agricultural with very few towns; people produced for themselves what they needed to survive, including their cloth. Home production of fabric is a time- and labor- intensive chore, and although I am fascinated with the process, I am all the more grateful for our modern conveniences.Linen and wool were the primary fabrics used by early Americans. They grew flax to make linen, and they raised sheep for wool, using methods that date back thousands of years. Linen can be traced as far back as 6000 B.C., to ancient Egypt’s mummy wrappings and togas from ancient Greece. Evidence of wool use can be found as early as the stone age, about 10,000 years ago.Production of linen fabricKnowledge of linen production came to America early in the 18th century with the immigration of Scotch-Irish colonists. The process required that flax seeds be planted, and the fields kept weeded. Harvesting was usually done after the plant’s pretty blue flowers bloomed, although sometimes the plants were harvested before they reached maturity. An immature plant yielded fewer fibers, but also made a softer, silkier linen. After harvesting, the flax was dried and the seeds from the mature plants were removed for next year’s crop.Next, the connection between the inside fibers and the outer stalk was destroyed by a process called retting. This was done by soaking the flax with dew, or pond or river water. When the bond holding fibers to the plant had decayed enough, a process that sometimes took several days, the outer stalks were broken. Then the stalks were pulled, scraped, or beaten off the inside fibers. Breaking the flax and scraping the fibers free was a physically tiring chore, but the work did not end there.Once free from the stalk, the fibers received a good brushing, using finer and finer brushes, until they were soft and “flaxen.” From this state the fibers were spun into thread, using a small flax spinning wheel, the type most commonly found in a 19th century parlor. If linen cloth was desired, the thread was then woven. Sixteen to eighteen months could pass between the time the seeds were planted and when the spinning began.Production of wool fabricWool came from a similar process, except that instead of planting, weeding, and harvesting, the sheep had to be fed, housed, and cared for. Sheep were so important to New Englanders that many new immigrants were advised to bring their sheep with them to the New World. When the time came to shear the sheeps’ fleece, they were first washed as well as possible by leading them through a river if available, or using some other source of water. Once cut, the fleece was washed again in a lye solution and then carded, which was somewhat like brushing hair, except that two cards (wooden paddles with wire teeth) were used, one in each hand. Spinning of the fleece into woolen thread or yarn was done with a large spinning wheel that did not have a foot treadle. Instead, the spinner fed the fleece by stepping forward, and drew out the yarn by stepping back, a routine that resembled walking in place.Wool found its way into all three layers of most quilts. Because families spent their time working hard just to survive, and because of a limited selection of fabrics, there was rarely time to piece the top of a quilt. Instead, most quilt tops consisted of a solid piece of wool. For the top fabric the best wool was used, with the most stunning dye (also done at home) or the fabric with the most detailed woven pattern. Wool of a plainer color and weave was used for the back of the quilt, and bits of fleece, too short to spin, were used as batting. Wool provided warmth and was relatively easy to work with. Linen thread, because of its strength, was used to stitch it all together, sometimes with beautiful medallion designs.Quilting has changed and evolved a lot since my ancestors quilted coverlets for the very functional purpose of keeping warm during cold New England winters. Now, many of the quilts we create are intended not just to keep us physically warm, but to play a role in warming our hearts as well. One of my favorite aspects of quilting is choosing my fabrics, deliberately picking my colors and prints. It never takes me months to accomplish this, and it is certainly not strenuous labor. I have often wondered whether not being able to purchase my fabrics, if I had lived 250 years ago, would take something away from my overall quilting experience. On the other hand, if I had always grown and woven my own fabric, I would probably wonder if I would reap as much pleasure from a quilt made from cloth that I had not labored over so lovingly.