The Fabric of America


Linen was the fabric of the young American nation. Flax--homegrown, harvested, and laboriously divested of the linen fibers contained in the stalk that were then woven into utilitarian linen was the leading fabric of the young American nation. In 1791, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton gathered information for his famous "Report on Manufactures," he found that farmers mostly clothed themselves by the produce of their own farms woven by the labor of their families. The census of 1810 shows that 21,211,262 yards of linen, 16,581,299 of cotton, and 9,528,266 of woolen goods were made in families, which amounted to nearly two-thirds of a total production of about 75,000,000 yards. Linen was the shirt on American backs and the fabric of most ship sails.

English protectionism of their home wool industry discouraged the growth of anything other than subsistence wool production and manufacture in the colonies. The American Revolution lifted these restrictions. The first American factory using water power to weave wool was established in 1788 at Hartford, Conn., and was tax exempt and paid a bounty on each yard woven to encourage American production of woolen cloth. In spite of this effort by the new American government, most woolen cloth purchased in America was of British manufacture through the mid 19th century. Spanish merino sheep were imported in the early nineteenth century. These sheep provide a high quality fine wool. By the mid-nineteenth century, breeding programs had produced a larger and less delicate American merino sheep that had a heavier fleece. Wool production moved ever westward with American settlers. The Star Spangled Banner made famous in the War of 1812 is made of wool.

The production of yarn and cloth were changed forever by three major industrial innovations in England --Hargreaves’ Spinning-Jenny, Arkwright’s Water Frame, and Crompton’s Mule. These laid the foundation for the replacement of skilled hand spinning and weaving by the cheap labor of the factory system. In 1764, Hargreaves built the Spinning-Jenny, a machine that allowed an operator to turn a single wheel that caused eight threads to be spun at once. However, the coarse and weak thread produced by the machine was suitable only for use as weft threads to be woven across stronger warp threads. The water frame, which came into use in 1771, utilized a water wheel to power a spinning frame. However, unlike the spinning jenny, the water frame could only spin one thread at a time. Samuel Crompton combined the Spinning-Jenny and Water Frame into his spinning mule that spun high quality thread by reproducing the movements of a spinner's hands with machinery. These developments led to cheap and plentiful mass produced cloth.

The American Revolution ended British restrictions on cotton production in America that had been meant to protect the British wool industry. Samuel Slater, an English mill superintendent, secretly emigrated to America where he built the first cotton mill in Pawtucket, Rhode Island in 1790. The mill employed water-powered cotton spinning and carding machines based on machines used by Richard Arkwight, which Slater had memorized while working at a mill in England. The capital was provided by Moses Brown, a Rhode Island manufacturer. By 1810 there were 54 mills in Massachusetts, 26 in Rhode Island, 14 in Connecticut.

In 1791, America only produced two million pounds of cotton. Factories offered a ready market, but the difficulty of removing the cotton seeds from the cotton fiber created a bottle neck in cotton production. The invention in 1793 of the cotton gin, a machine for separating cotton seeds from the cotton fibers, allowed a single worker to remove seeds from 50 pounds of cotton per day compared to one pound of cotton a day by the hand method opened the way for increased cotton production. The bottleneck in cotton production was removed. The invention of the cotton gin and mechanization of textile production during the Industrial Revolution enabled cotton to supersede flax and wool textile production. The cotton crop in the American south increased twenty times over the 8 years between the invention of the cotton gin and 1801 with cotton production reaching 156,000 four to five hundred pound bales by 1800 and further expansion to more than 4,000,000 bales by 1860 . However, cotton picking continued to be backbreaking and painful work. The low height of the cotton plant meant leaning or crawling to pick the cotton and the sharp three-leafed bowls cut the hands of pickers. For a graphic depiction of picking cotton by hand rent the Sally Field movie Places in the Heart. Slave labor in the fields and low paid unskilled labor, often by women and children, in the factories kept cotton cloth cheap. Placing plantations along waterways allowed raw cotton fiber to be moved efficiently to Northern or English cotton mills by ship. The low price of cotton fiber and low production costs of woven cotton brought the price of cotton cloth down to a price that made it affordable to a vast number of people. Demand was created and could only increase as world population soared. Cotton came to account for over one half of all American exports during the first half of the 19th century.

The War of 1812 cut America temporarily off from cotton woven in English factories and made shipping a more risky enterprise, which encouraged investment in the building of more textile mills in New England. Factories were built beside rivers because they could be powered by waterwheels and raw materials and finished products were most easily transported on waterways. The machinery in factories enabled minimally trained workers to produce thread, yarn, and cloth more efficiently and at a lower cost than skilled spinners and weavers had previously been able to do. Women made up a large segment of the new factory labor force, especially for the textile industry. The loss of family income as cottage industry was replaced by factory manufacture forced hundreds of young women to industrial towns like Lowell and Lawrence, Massachusetts, they moved away from their hometowns to live in factory boarding houses and work long hours under unsafe conditions. However factory work paid about half again as much as work as a servant.

We often hear of the cotton clothes known as muslin and calico used in clothing production, but the sails of many ships came to be made of cotton. Inexpensive, strong, and lightweight--cotton made larger ship sails possible. The cotton sails held their shape better, were stronger, were lighter and required less wetting down than the linen sails used on most ships. Wetting down caused the fabric to swell, closing the weave, and thereby holding the wind better. However, wet sails weighed more. Cotton fibers could be more tightly woven and swelled readily with only a minimal dousing. Cotton was readily available in America because of the Southern cotton production. It was cotton sails that powered the Yankee Privateers with their sleek trading ships to over 40 million dollars in prizes of ships and cargo from Great Britain during the War of 1812.

A simply woven rough and inexpensive fabric called canvas woven from hemp fibers was used where a heavy durable cloth was needed that could stand up to heavy wear and tear. Made into painted floor cloths canvas faced the rigors of entry halls and dining room floors while more expensive carpets were kept for showy areas like the drawing room. Canvas covered Conestoga Wagons, protecting goods from wet weather, as the carriers plied the Philadelphia wagon road. During the War of 1812, all land owners were required to cultivate hemp because hemp fiber was needed for naval cordage.

We often dismiss fabric as mere costume, more the subject for seamstresses and washer women and at best only a footnote to the the great sweep of history, but in truth fabric is an integral part of history. Fabric sails carried ships on journeys of exploration, trade voyages, and to war. Fabric protected trade goods on wagon roads and housed men during war. Flags made of cloth signaled armies. Many machines and innovations during the Industrial Revolution were created for the production of cloth. In truth, woven fibers are the fabric of time telling off eras much as copper, iron and steel date the ages of humankind.

Lady with Tiara, logo
Top of page
Georgian Index Home
Front Door

Machinists and Lathes
history ring logo
History Ring
Graphic letter A, link to alphabetic site map
Site Map

© This site last updated by webmaster