In my last post on Swedish knitting I suggested that my next read would be on knitting in New Zealand. But another book caught my eye recently, one about the life of American pioneers, and I haven’t been able to shake it.  I intended for this blog to be mostly about foreign things – posts in other languages or knitting traditions from around the world – but I’m also a girl from a small, Midwestern town, and I think about it constantly: about what kind of place it is, about how culture and community grow there, about how it compares to other places here and abroad.   

So it was fitting that I found this book at a used book store in what I consider the capital of Midwest America – Chicago, were I was visiting last January to help my sister-in-law with her research on Midwestern food and cooking. By “help” I mean that we had to eat at several of the loveliest (relevant) restaurants within a matter of a long weekend. By the time we got to Avec, I couldn’t bear the thought of even one bite of the pièce de résistance – chicken with pomegranate sauce – much less my usual love, dessert. It was a kind of torture. In between eating, we walked. I was happy to be kid-free for a few rare days and I relished the selfish, decadent time. A book store was the perfect destination for us: we could get lost in our own thoughts, in our own books, killing time until our next meal reservation. With that kind of open, luxurious time, I was desperate to sink my teeth into something fulfilling, something about my great loves of knitting or languages ideally, when I happened upon this grand title bound in mustard-yellow cloth: “The Golden Age of Homespun” by Jared Van Wagenen, Jr. (Cornell University Press: Ithaca, New York. 1953.). 

Reading “The Golden Age of Homespun” is like having a guided tour through an antique shop or a farming history museum. Our guide – who wrote the book at age 82 – fondly relays the stories told to him by his parents, grandparents, and other old-timers about what life was like during the earliest colonial period, through the pioneering days, and up to the Civil War and the beginning of the machine age. He defines this era in terms of home-processed textile because the art of processing one’s own yarn and fabric became essentially lost at the end of this period. While other farming tools and practices of the time were recorded in farm journals and while kitchen and cooking arts continued into subsequent generations, the art of making fabric at home died with the advent of machines. He writes (and you can see how pleasantly he writes):

“I have not found it possible to gather much information relative to the precise technique of the domestic manufacture of wool. Those elect women who were with us when the homespun age drew to a close and who could have been given such ample and illuminating testimony have since gone the way of all the earth. In the great libraries are shelves of books dealing with modern woolen manufacture, but only here and there can be found a phrase that has any reference to the homespun art. While our earliest periodical agricultural literature has a great deal to say concerning the care and breeding of sheep, it has hardly a word concerning the manufacture of their fleeces. It is a melancholy reflection that a great amount of skill and knowledge concerning one of the most fundamental of household arts has left behind no written word or even tradition.” (page 261; my italics)

His references to census statistics show the extent of the work that women were doing at this time. The 1845 census shows that more than seven million and ninety thousand yards of cloth had been woven at home in the previous year (p.266). (Throughout the book he generally talks about New York state, where he and his family farmed). Also according to the 1845 census, pioneers in New York State grew 46,000 acres of flax; by 1855 it dropped to 13,000 acres and after the Civil War it was not a significant crop in the census any more (p.251). Cotton of course replaced linen around the time of the Civil War; cotton was cheaper and easier to grow and to process on machines.

I think what strikes me here is the same theme I ended with in my last post on knitting history, that is, the failure of historians to capture the everyday work of women in history.  The author of “The Golden Age of Homespun” defines an entire age by what was largely women’s work. The transition to purchased cloth from homespun was dramatic and completely life changing for women, and consequently the whole family: whereas families once grew their own flax and raised their own sheep in order to spin the fibers into yarn to be woven or knitted into their family’s clothing, there came a point where it was more economical to make money for purchasing cotton cloth already made. How much activity and daily life changed within a matter of decades! And how little we know about it today!

By the way, speaking of purchased, machine-made cloth, that was the other thing that my sister-in-law and I did in our beloved Midwestern mecca: browsed vintage clothing stores. I was happy to find, in all of my luxurious, non-spinning, non-weaving, non-child-rearing time, a fun little inexpensive top made out of rayon, the natural but laboratory-made fabric that the pioneers certainly would have marvelled at. They, like me, would have also marvelled at the chicken with pomegranates, the memorable Wild Boar Sloppy Joe at Longman & Eagle, and the “fried naked cowboy” egg salad (with oysters) at The Girl and the Goat.