In the afternoon, as the rain tapered off, my friend and I browsed some of the trade shops. I continued my visit the next day when it was too cold and windy to stay outside for too long.
I was especially interested in the spinning, weaving and dyeing house as I do spinning and weaving at the museum where I work. I teach elementary school groups about textile production including showing them how to card and spin a piece of wool on a drop spindle and do simple weaving on a small upright loom. In colonial New England people made their clothes at home out of necessity. In Virginia the situation was quite different as they were a much wealthier colony.
Until just before the Revolutionary War most people imported textiles from Britain. Because of non-importation agreements and war, British textiles became scare. A clothing factory opened outside of Williamsburg in 1776. They mostly made cloth for the military.
Spinning was a domestic chore not much practiced in colonial Virginia, as it was very time-consuming, and most cloth was imported. It would take 12 spinners of wool to keep the weaver busy at the loom, and 100 spinners of cotton to keep him busy.
Dyes came from the natural world. Cochineal, an insect from South America,makes the color red. 70,000 cochineal are needed to make a pound of red dye. Brown comes from walnuts, blue from indigo from South Carolina, Spain, or South America. Purple comes from the Spanish log wood tree, and turmeric from India gives yellow its hue. Orange comes from the root of the madder plant.
Weavers were men who served a 7-year apprenticeship to learn their trade.
Weavers can create plain or intricate patterns depending on how they set up the loom and the order in which they push the pedals that move the harnesses of the loom in the correct sequences.
He insists it isn’t hard to learn. Weaving is MUCH easier to do when you have a long arm span and long legs to reach the pedals. It’s easy enough to make a simple stripe but to create more complicate patterns requires more knowledge and artistry.
Colonial Williamsburg’s weavers weave on two types of looms that represent the types available to eighteenth-century Virginians. The smaller is a cantilever loom, developed during the eleventh century in Spain. The larger is a four-post box loom, created in England in the sixteenth century.
To learn how to weave, Colonial Williamsburg offers weaving workshops.
For more information on the historic trade, visit the Weaver page of Colonial Williamsburg’s website.