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The Age of Homespun
The Age of Homespun


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AAK: Why did you write this book?

LTU: There were lots of reasons, but the biggest one I think is that I wanted to see if I could use a different kind of source. In A Midwife's Tale, I had the joy of being able to penetrate a seemingly opaque diary, and I thought it would be challenging to see if I could learn to "read" something even more difficult--eighteenth-century cloth.

AAK: Its easy enough to see how one might read a diary, but how would you go about reading cloth?

LTU: Any material object is filled with stories if you look hard enough at the thing itself and then at its history. Look at the blue jeans in your closet. There are stories there about the use of indigo as a colorfast dye, about a certain kind of twill made in Genoa in the sixteenth century, about Levi Strauss and the economy of mining, about the myth of the American West, your own expanding or shrinking hip size and much more. Fabric is still worth reading today--but it was even more important in earlier times in part because it was so amazingly expensive. As I say in the introduction, cloth was so valuable that rugs covered tables rather than floors, table-cloths were more valuable than tables, and an argument over the measurement of yarn could lead to arson. Cloth literally transformed the landscape of North America, as Algonkian beaver passed into the hands of English feltmakers and English sheep began to graze on American meadows. Cloth built ships, wharves, and mansions, facilitated rituals of birth, courtship, and death, and animated the political debates that led to the American Revolution.

AAK: How did you first become interested in textiles and their historical and social significance?

LTU: My mother was an excellent seamstress and could knit and crochet and do almost anything with her hands, so I grew up around textiles and have always loved them, though I didn't inherit her talent. Intellectually, I became interested in textiles when I was working on A Midwife's Tale and realized that in the period of Martha Ballard's diary (1785-1812) spinning and weaving were the foundation of a female economy of barter and exchange. I wanted to know how that happened and why.

AAK: How did you go about doing your research?

LTU: I started by accepting a fellowship to spend a few months at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto which had a world-class textile collection and a very supportive curator, Adrienne Hood. I learned how to count threads, differentiate cotton from wool and flax, and distinguish some of the major weave structures. I came home carrying a magnifying glass, like Sherlock Holmes, ready to begin my own investigations. Over the ten years I worked on the book I spent hundreds of hours in the back rooms and storage areas of museums looking for surviving textiles. As people learned about my project they alerted me to things in other collections--and in flea markets and antique stores. I ended up purchasing one or two items mostly to rescue them from insensitive dealers. I always amazed me to see early American fabrics thumbtacked to a wall or draped over an old barrel to create a picturesque display. At the time they were made, of course, they were more valuable than the chests and chairs that take pride of place in many American collections.

AAK: Was it difficult to weave the information into a narrative? How did you decide to structure the book?

LTU: I loved working with objects, but it was awfully hard to know how to convey what I was learning. A lot of the knowledge was discovered through looking--and sometimes touching. One day I just sat down and began writing about the problem. I discovered that I could fit the major objects I wanted to write about in one room. So the first paragraph of the book imagines a room that the rest of the book disassembles.

AAK: Please define the word homespun and the importance of its use in the 17th and 18th centuries.

LTU: The Oxford English Dictionary defines homespun as "cloth made of yarn spun at home." Homespun contrasted with the specialized fabrics that were made in England and the European continent in the seventeenth century. Over time, the word got attached to the kind of people that might wear homespun--unsophisticated rural folk. Homespun could be a negative term, like "bumpkin" or "hick," but during and after the American Revolution it acquired positive connotations and came to symbolize the simple virtues of a yeoman republic.

AAK: Why did you choose The Age of Homespun as your title?

LTU: I took the term from a speech a Hartford, Connecticut reformer named Horace Bushnell gave at the Litchfield County Centennial in 1851. He thought the real source of America's strength lay in its rural origins. An economy of homespun developed strong women and dutiful men, encouraged cooperation among neighbors, and nurtured democratic values. But this image wasn't limited to Bushnell. Its still the dominant idea most people have of early America--that it was a place where families made almost everything they needed and relied on themselves and God rather than the government and shopping malls. If you want to get a good idea of that ideal look at Donald Hall's wonderful little children book "The Oxcart Man" with those idealized pictures by Barbara Cooney. It describes a New Hampshire farmer who comes down from the hills once a year to sell his family's surplus, then goes home to make everything all over again. It is a wonderful, romantic image of the early American past. Well, some of the things Horace Bushnell wrote about really did happen. There were lots of informal exchanges among neighbors--what early New Englanders called "changing works" -- and women and men did cooperate to produce food and clothing for their families and property was more widely shared than it had been in England. But this story leaves out a lot of important things that my account of "the age of homespun" tries to put back in--like Indians, an expanding market economy, and a desire among supposedly simple folk for the trappings of gentility. So my book is about Indian baskets as well as homemade bed blankets, and it considers fancy embroidery as well as spinning wheels. It tries to show that you can't understand any of these things without seeing them side by side.

AAK: What does fancy embroidery have to do with homespun?

LTU: Pastoral embroidery idealized homespun! Girls wealthy enough to afford an education usually embroidered country scenes filled with cows, sheep, milkmaids, and winsome maidens spinning with a drop spindle. During the American Revolution this highly artificial imagery took on new political force as well-to-do women rallied behind the Patriot cause by learning to spin. Americans imagined themselves as inhabiting a middle ground between the ostentation of Europe and the supposed savagery of American Indians. Little girls absorbed these values as they stitched their samplers and chimney pieces.

AAK: What can we learn from Indian baskets?

LTU: Twined textiles like the Rhode Island basket I write about in Chapter One or the pocketbook made by an Abenaki woman known as Molly Ocket help us understand why early English colonists admired Algonquian craft, even comparing it to the needlework of high status English women. The persistence of basketmaking among New England Indians helps us see the darker side of the age of homespun as well. Expanding settlement displaced native families and pushed those who resisted into a picturesque marginality. Ironically, in the 1820s many New England women were engaged in outwork weaving of straw and palm- leaf hats--a kind of work not far from the basketry long practiced by native people.

AAK: You say there was a shift in the gender division of labor in early New England. What was that about?

LTU: In commercial clothmaking areas of England and the Eurpoean continent, weaving was a highly specialized occupation dominated by men. In New England it became a household occupation. On the one hand you could say that the job became downgraded as it became women's work. On the other, you could say that ordinary women had the ability to work for themselves instead of somebody else. Men were often highly involved in market production, but women's work developed in a less formal economy of barter and exchange that encouraged some really interesting innovations in clothmaking and embroidery. Untrained weavers compensated for their lack of training by using their needles in unexpected ways.

AAK: What happened to this female economy when clothmaking moved into factories?

LTU: In some respects, women took their values with them into the mills. They considered themselves independent workers and the "daughters of free men" and in the first textile strikes in the 1820s, they were highly visible and articulate. What surprised me was how many women continued to spin and weave at home long after factory cloth became available. Some of it was pride in being independent but for many women it was the only way of getting the things they needed in a world where men still controlled most of the cash. Of course lots of New Englanders moved west, prolonging the "age of homespun" into the 1850s.

AAK: As in your last book, A Midwife's Tale, The Age of Homespun focuses on the stories of women who might otherwise be completely overlooked. What draws you to these women's lives?

LTU: Maybe it has something to do with my own upbringing in a small town in Idaho. I saw strong women all around me even though by any external standard they were "just housewives." I also grew up hearing stories about the Mormon pioneers who settled our area and about the Shoshone women, often wives of fur traders, who often helped them. One summer during college I had a job with the local newspaper interviewing the "old timers" in our county. That--and my grandfathers wonderful stories from family history--helped to nourish my interest in the history of "invisible" people.

AAK: We hear you're responsible for a t-shirt that says "well behaved women seldom make history." Did anything in particular inspire you to come up with this?

LTU: That phrase comes from the first paragraph of the first article I ever published, a piece about seventeenth-century funeral sermons! An anthologist picked up the quote, then a young woman in Oregon who had started a company making T-shirts asked if she could use it. It just took on a life of its own. Now its all over the web. Its probably the best known thing I ever wrote. The uses of the quote are a bit ironic since the whole purpose of the essay was to give well-behaved women a history. I suppose my form of misbehavior is choosing topics most people think are unimportant.