Tools, Textiles, and Water Mills

During the summer between the first and second years of the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture graduate program, fellows disperse to research their various thesis topics. For me, this meant traveling from Virginia to Vermont, to explore the world of American woolen cloth production in the final years of the eighteenth century and the first decades of the nineteenth century.

A small, engraved billhead, made for Joshua and Thomas Gilpin’s Brandywine Woollen Mill. This image depicts several stages in early nineteenth-century woolen cloth making. Etching: Brandywine Woollen Mill by Joseph Cone, James John Barralet, 1814-1815, Philadelphia, PA. Bequest of Henry Francis du Pont, 1959.2089. Courtesy, Winterthur Museum.

As I formulated my thesis proposal over the winter, I knew I wanted to find a topic which would allow me to explore themes of craft, making, and invention. My longstanding interest in textiles and a newfound love of water-powered mills, meant that I decided to undertake a study of fulling and woolen finishing: the final steps in cloth production, which happen after the cloth leaves the loom. For woolen textiles, these last few steps are transformational, often defining what the cloth will eventually be suitable for. While English clothiers were some of the finest in the world, the United States lagged far behind. In the decades after the Revolutionary War, many of these steps were mechanized. Therefore, this trade presented an opportunity to study both a traditional craft and themes of technological innovation.  

To understand the work of both cloth finishers and the machines that were invented to assist them, I first had to understand what their work was accomplishing. This meant looking at the cloth itself. To do this, I first looked at textile samples in the Winterthur Library and later visited the collections of Colonial Williamsburg, Mount Vernon, and Fort Ticonderoga, where I was able to examine a variety of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century garments in person— including three coats worn by George Washington! This helped me to develop an understanding of how finishing affects the final look and function of a piece of cloth. This up-close examination has helped me to train my eye, allowing me to see the range of qualities in cloth finishing that were present during my period of research.   

This coat belonged to George Washington and was probably worn by him in the 1790s. It has a provenance that connects the textile it is made of to the Hartford Woolen Manufactory, which operated in Hartford, Connecticut, at the end of the eighteenth century. Accession number: W-1514. Courtesy, Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.

Close-up view of blue woolen textile, showing the weave structure.

Another portion of my research involved studying written primary sources. At the end of July, I presented some of this research at the 2018 Textile History Forum, in Marshfield, Vermont. My talk focused on the records on one Pennsylvania fulling mill, which survives in the Chester County Historical Society library. Presenting at the forum was an opportunity to get my preliminary research in order but also to get feedback from a wide range of textile historians and practitioners. Since the Marshfield School of Weaving, which hosted the event, recently acquired several pieces from the now-closed American Textile History Museum, the forum   gave me an opportunity to examine some of the textile tools that I had been reading about.I left feeling invigorated and buoyed up by the support my talk had received from fellow scholars. 

This early nineteenth-century napping machine and pair of massive hand-operated cropping shears, are both tools that were used to finish the surface of woolen cloth. 

After studying texts, textiles, and tools, there was still one element of woolen finishing I felt I needed to understand to do my topic justice—the water mills that were the power source for textile finishing machines well into the nineteenth century. I decided to contact Old Sturbridge Village and ask if I could volunteer in their mill sites for a day. While Old Sturbridge Village does not have a fulling mill, it does have three operable water-powered mills: a grist mill, which is currently being repaired, a saw mill, and a carding mill. In August, I spent a day working with Historian and Curator of Mechanical Arts Tom Kelleher in the saw mill and carding mill to learn how water, miller, and machine worked together in this ancient power source.

Historian and Curator of Mechanical Arts Tom Kelleher repairs a leather bent, which makes Old Sturbridge Village’s carding mill run. The carding machine is original to the 1820s and still runs almost daily at the museum.

This opportunity let me feel (literally, since water mills often vibrate with power) what it might have been like to work inside one of these early industrial sites. Exploring how the rotary motion of a waterwheel can be transformed to do many different mechanical jobs also helped me to comprehend the potential that the inventors of the Industrial Revolution saw for developing powered machines to do traditionally hand-operated tasks.

After a summer of research, I’m excited to create a narrative that tells the story of cloth finishing through not only words but also objects, sites, and landscapes and discusses a specific trade and the people who performed it as well as the economy and environment in which it operated.

Post by Eliza West, WPAMC Class of 2019

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