Early American Textiles

Instructor: Cirrelia Thaxton

Cirrelia is an educator who has taught K-12 and has a doctorate in education.

Find out about early American textiles from their early origins to the Industrial Revolution. Learn how colonists employed cloth production methods that are still used today.

Early Origins

Native Americans had the earliest experiences with textile-making in North America. Dating back to the 1600's, they showed the English settlers how to make fishing nets using a process of cord wrapping. The resultant cordage consisted of threads from plant fibers, tree roots, and animal sinew. Yet, over time, the Native Americans grew to depend on European trade materials or imports.

Modes of Early American Dress

Until about 1750, settlers in the New World relied on British imports of fine materials for both utilitarian and decorative means. For instance, in 1607, the settlers of Jamestown, Virginia brought clothing and bedding from England. By 1640, people in the New England area who could no longer afford expensive imported materials, began a heritage of producing handmade textiles, such as woven, knitted, and embroidered materials.

Colonial Textiles

Colonial Woman with Spinning Wheel

Although many colonial Americans had relied heavily on Britain for quality fabrics over the years, a majority still spun thread and yarn at home. One in every three families owned at least one spinning wheel, the device used to turn fiber into yarn. In addition to spinning, colonists perfected textile dyeing practices. Similar to weavers who learned their craft through apprenticeship, dyers studied from masters who instructed them on dye recipes and yarn processing techniques. Sources of prominent dyes included: indigo, madder, barks, roots, leave, flowers, and berries.

Skeins of Naturally Dyed Yarn

Colonial Americans traditionally practiced weaving, the process of forming densely packed fabric on a loom. Moreover, one in five colonial families owned a loom, especially on the Virginia frontier. By the Revolutionary War period, Americans were ready for textile production on the home front. Made in colonial houses, these early American textiles were called homespuns. Cotton, linen, and wool were the most popular clothing materials in the colonies. Because of seaways blocked by England during the war, the colonies depended on their own resources. Due to patriotism, these men and women took pride in homespuns for the manufacture of predominantly woven cloth for soldiers' uniforms.

Early American Weaving Loom

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