“Your prose is, if I may say so, extremely readable”

Thesis pages amidst a flurry of editing, a few weeks before the date it was due.

I finished my masters thesis last month and over the last few weeks I’ve been sharing it with friends and colleagues who are interested in my research, or at least polite enough to show an interest in my most recent pursuits. My pal Ethan, with whom I have carried on a delightfully intellectual friendship for many years now, asked for a copy. A few pages in he sent me this note:

“Your prose is, if I may say so, extremely readable for an academic piece, which is no small feat.”

“Ha!” I was delighted by this feedback from a friend I respect, but I also thought: “of course it is!” I’ve spent years figuring out the best ways to explain dry and technical stuff (how fabric and clothes are made, and why anybody should care) to reenactors (I love them, but…) and tourists (who, as we used to say, leave their brains at home when they go on vacation). I love nothing more than explaining how something is made in a way that makes the most sense to the largest number of people. Clear and readable writing is kind of my thing.

And that got me thinking. Five years ago, when I graduated from undergrad, what were my literary ambitions? Did I dream of putting down elegant and flowery prose, or pounding the page with impenetrable terminology designed to show how much I knew? What kind of writer did I want to be? What about ten years ago, when I graduated from high school? What about in sixth grade, when I was back in the classroom for the first time after three years of homeschooling, in which time I painstakingly learned to read with the help of a tutor who specialized in helping dyslexic kids?

The answer, of course, was that I never dreamed I would enjoy writing. I was dyslexic. I was flat out bad at the mechanics of it all. Writing was slow and painful. My dream was that it would be less of those things.

It was in seventh grade, in a writing class for homeschooled teens, when I first became aware that being bad at physically putting words on the page was different from not having anything to say. It was a fiery ninth-grade humanities teacher (thank you. Really, thank you, Mr. Blynt) who first sparked in me the desire to impress someone with my words. It was the Foundation Year at King’s, where there was a 1500 word essay due every other Monday morning, that refined my work. It was sewing instructions and costume guidelines that taught me that there was a place for short sentences and easy descriptive language. And it was this blog that gave me a chance to let fly with words when inspiration or injustice meant that I had Something To Say.

Over the past two years, the crucible that is grad school melted all this down. The self doubt of the dyslexic kid, the late reader, the crappy speller, burned off the top in thin wisps of smoke. With it went the perfectionist’s need for third, forth, and fifth drafts, and at least some of the craving to impress people. That which was left, distilled and recombined, was a dense soup of self-confidence and ability that tapped out 30,000 words this winter — good words, that are easy to read and have something to say.

Let me say that writing this post first occurred to me a couple of days ago, a few minutes after Ethan’s comment appeared in my inbox. It was then that I asked myself what kind of writer I had wanted to be at 23, 18, 12. It made me cry, and my eyes are watering now too, because of all my plans for how my life would go, it never occurred to me that I would love spilling words onto a page. It is a sweet, sweet victory to go from being the one girl in second grade who cannot ever seem to copy down the letters fast enough, to turning in your masters thesis.

Perhaps most rewarding of all is the fact that I’m not craving a break from my keyboard. Rather, I’m craving the time for new projects — time to let the bright thoughts and clear language in my mind manifest itself on paper. This is the bigger victory: the looking-forward towards new projects with anticipation and glee; the knowledge that now is the moment when I can ask myself what kind of writer I want to be, not as a pipe dream but as a clear ambition; and the awareness that, having come this far, I can surely make it happen.




The Flannel Project: Fulling the Cloth

IMG_3491If you’ve been following the Flannel Project, you know I’ve been working to produce a few lengths of cloth which closely mimic early-19th-century finishing techniques. You can read all about why I’m doing this here, and about my first few experiments here. This post, however, is about the process I went through to finish the two large lengths of cloth that are at the heart of this project.

The Objective: 1) To shrink two, 12.5-yard, lengths of cloth down to 9.5 and 11 yards, respectively. That’s 76% and 88% of the original lengths. 2) To work through the complications which early American fullers faced, in order to better understand their work.

A Note on Measurements: When Justin first began weaving the cloth for this project, he informed me that he normally measured the cloth on the loom, to keep track of how many yards he had woven. He usually marks not 36″ but 41″ yards. He does this because when the cloth comes off the loom it is no longer under tension, and tends to shrink, and also because he washes most of the cloth he weaves before he delivers it to the customers. That extra 5″ a yard is designed to compensate for the finishing. I didn’t really need Justin to compensate for shrinkage (since keeping track of shrinkage was the whole point of my project) and we weren’t exactly sure how much the cloth was going to spring back when it came off the loom, so I told him to just mark 36″ yards. When the cloth eventually came off the loom, each “yard” lost a little over an inch.

A measuring tape pinned to the cloth while it was still on the loom.

When I fulled the cloth, I used Justin’s thread yard markers to count out 12.5 yards. I did this because it was much easier to track the shrinkage of the cloth using the yard markers, than to have to stretch out the cloth and measure the full length each time I wanted to check the shrinkage. This meant that, strictly speaking, my pieces were slightly shorter than 12.5 yards.

In reality, I suspect that the fuller who processed William Guthrie’s cloth in 1822 probably measured it himself when it arrived at the mill, rather than relying on measurements made by the weaver. In that case, I should really have measured out 12.5 yards using a yard stick and disregarded Justin’s thread markers. As it is, I was still able to accurately measure the degree of shrinkage of the cloth from the length it was when it “arrived at the fulling mill” (i.e. after it was woven but before it was washed) to when it was “fully finished.” I simply calculated my numbers using a 34.8″ yard.

The Technique:

Washing or scouring the cloth in the bathtub.

Washing: I first washed the cloth to get rid of the grease still in the yarn. I followed the directions from the yarn manufacture, using fairly warm water and dawn dish detergent, and tromping on the cloth in the bathtub until the water ran clean.

Hemming the edges: I finished each end of the piece using a serger sewing machine. Alternatively I could have hand hemmed each end, or sewn the cloth into a loop, as is done when waulking cloth.

The washing machine: I used a front-loading washing machine to full the cloth. While it feels strange to use a piece of modern machinery to replicate a historical process, in reality, this allowed me to control several important factors, such as water, temperature, and how long and fast the cloth was agitated. In the end, I believe the washing machine was a good choice because it allowed me to replicate many of the qualities of a set of early fulling stocks on a small scale.

Every few loads, I removed the cloth from the washer, untangled it, and folded it accordion style, before returning it to the washer. 

The cycle: The machine was set on a warm wash and cold rinse. If I had been able to, I would have used warm water for both the wash and rinse, but that was not possible on the machine used. I was also unable to test the temperature of the water mid-cycle. Though this was frustrating from a scientific standpoint, I realize that most country fullers worked almost exclusively in the winter, and that water temperatures must have fluctuated wildly, as hot water was introduced into the fulling stocks only to cool to air temperature.

Soap: As with washing, I used Dawn dish soap as the fulling agent or lubricant. It is my understanding that soap, urine, or fullers earth in this context both continues to clean grease from the wool, and helps to lubricate the fibers, so that they can slide over each other, and become ever-more tangled and felted. As the process went along, I found that the addition of a single generous squirt of soap before each washer load began meant that the cloth was continuously slightly sudsy. According to period sources, this was what I was looking for.

“Thumpers” made of four lacrosse balls sewn into pyramidal muslin bags. 

Agitation/compression of the cloth: To agitate the cloth, I relied both on the action of the washing machine, and on “thumpers,” or groups of hard rubber lacrosse balls sewed into small bags. Though the first fulling tests had used individual balls, with many more yards of cloth in the washer, these proved insufficient. Balls grouped together were more successful. In total, I used four small lacrosse-ball pyramids, each made of four balls sewn into a cloth bag. In future experiments, I think it would be worthwhile to attempt to increase both the number and size of these “thumpers.”

Time: My “flannel for men’s wear” required a total of 30 loads in the washing machine. It took several loads for me to realize that additional thumping agents, beyond my original handful of dog toys, were needed, so only at that point did I make and add the thumper-pyramids. Every three or four loads I pulled the cloth out of the machine, checked it over, and untangled it. This allowed me to observe the texture of the cloth, and get a sense of how well the yarns were “coming together” or felting to each other. At this times I also measured between the yard marks, to gauge how much the cloth had shrunk. On average, it took three loads in the washer for the cloth to shrink one inch per yard.

It took four days to complete the first piece of cloth.Twice, I left the cloth out to dry overnight. In drying, the cloth lost about a yard per inch off of the length wet. This allowed me to stop the fulling process one inch shy of my desired final length. I then let the cloth dry to length. This piece shrank from 436″ to 330″ which is 75.7% of the original length, less than half a percent away from my goal of 76%.

The fulled and very fuzzy men’s wear flannel, drying on a clothes rack.

My “flannel for women’s wear” required only 11 loads in the washer. This piece involved significantly less trial and error, since I had largely worked out the kinds in the system when finishing the men’s wear flannel.  That said, I was clearly somewhat overconfident at this point. This piece shrank from 434″ to 368.5″ which is 84% of the original length. In Here I overshot the mark by 4%, since my original objective was to shrink the cloth to 88% of it’s original length.

Expertise and Troubleshooting: Both pieces of cloth developed a slightly dimpled texture in the fulling process. Though it was hard to see under the fuzzy surface, this texture felt almost like seersucker to the hand. I’m sure that this effect could have been controlled for, and the fact that I was unable to determine what caused it was a good reminder that, despite my hours of experimentation, I am truly an amateur playing a professional artisan’s game.

IMG_3457Tentering: Textiles are typically dried stretched on a frame after finishing. Known as tentering, this process causes the cloth to dry to a regular size, and helps to stretch out any deformations that might have occurred during finishing. For this project, I did not have a tentering frame. Instead, I used a method shown me by Kate Smith and Norman Kennedy at Eaton Hill Textiles. I smoothed the cloth around a tube (they typically use a wooden board) and let it rest rolled up, so that the fibers can settle into place. For my cloth, I also stretched the cloth in width by hand prior to rolling it, to tug it into shape.

Ideally, I would have left the cloth on the roll for a day or two, but I ran short on time, and so was only able to leave it rolled for half a day. From there I air-dried the cloth.

In a historical context, the cloth would likely have been napped, and possibly also sheared at this stage. For the purposes of this experiment, I didn’t do either of those things. This would also be the ideal moment to dye the cloth. For the present, however, I have chosen to leave the cloth white. 


Men’s wear flannel prior to pressing (still quite fluffy and fuzzy).

Pressing: The final step of the project was to press the cloth. Though ironing with a domestic steam iron certainly improved the texture of the cloth, to smooth the surface and flatten out the bumps which developed during fulling required more pressure. I was able to use Eaton Hill Textile’s cloth press to do this. Their equipment mimics the effects of a period cloth press, which relied on both heat and prolonged pressure to create cloth with a smooth finish.


Men’s wear flannel after pressing (much thinner and smoother).

The Final Result:  The transformation the cloth underwent through this process was truly remarkable. Unfortunately it is almost impossible to portray that through images alone. However, I will say that the fulling process made the cloth significantly softer – before washing, the material was stiff and scratchy to the point where it would have been almost impossible to wear it next to your skin. After fulling, the material is so soft that it could be made into baby blankets. The material is also much denser. This is much more true of the men’s wear flannel than the women’s wear flannel, but both fabrics are thicker and stiffer. Finally, the pressing transformed the cloth from slightly textured to firm, smooth and crisp under the hand.

This project has been generously supported by funds from the Center for Craft, Creativity, and Design’s Craft Research Fund; the University of Delaware’s Center for Material Culture Studies; funds provided by the Society of Winterthur Fellows, and by thesis research funds provided by the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture. 

The Flannel Experiment: Instagram Photo Diary

As I’ve been working on the Flannel Experiment for the past month, I’ve been reflected on each stage of the project over on Instagram, where I find it easy to share findings and ideas as they occur to me. In order to make it easier to keep track of that “photo diary,” I’ve chosen to share all of those posts here in chronological order. My hope is that this will make it easy to follow along with my thought process and learning throughout this project.

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#Repost @theburroughsgarret’s post on the very beginnings of my wild woolen finishing adventure! ・・・ First up this year is a 38 yard warp for my friend @whipstitch802. Eliza is studying early American fulling mills at @materialculturewinterthur, and thanks to generous grant funding I’ll be weaving a piece of flannel that Eliza will full in order to shed light on what the cloth described in 19th-century sources was really like. This beautiful woolen singles yarn is from @knollyarns, still redolent of spinning oil, a hallmark of the trade. . . #weave #weaving #handweaving #handwoven #handcrafted #handmade #loom #barnloom #handloom #flyshuttle #textiles #textileterroir #rootedinplace #ruralindustry #craft #interiordesign #fashiondesign #custommade #bespoke #madesmall #madeinvermont #madeinamerica #vermont #newengland #theburroughsgarret

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One of the things I appreciate about having Justin weave the cloth for this fulling project is his own professional curiosity about how to make the antique looms he works on more efficient. It’s like getting to watch the industrial revolution play out in real time. For instance, the fly shuttle mechanism on this loom was an add-on he built himself last year to speed up the weaving process, but it was originally invented in the mid-18th century. #Repost @theburroughsgarret with @get_repost ・・・ Slowing it down. While I took this for the novelty, it’s instructive to see the timing of the components that make each pick. Opening the shed, throwing the shuttle, and beating up are all critically linked in time in a way that’s sometimes hard to appreciate, unless it goes wrong. . . #weave #weaving #handweaving #handwoven #handcrafted #handmade #loom #barnloom #handloom #flyshuttle #textiles #textileterroir #rootedinplace #ruralindustry #craft #interiordesign #fashiondesign #custommade #bespoke #madesmall #madeinvermont #madeinamerica #vermont #newengland #theburroughsgarret

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It’s fulling test day!

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Today I was at Eaton Hill Textiles in Marshfield to do some preparatory fulling experiments on a few one-yard pieces of the beautiful cloth which @theburroughsgarret is weaving for me. First the cloth was scoured and you can see just how much grease we washed out by how brown the water was! We experimented with pounding the cloth with mallets (an unconventional way of reproducing the impact of a fulling mill, but ultimately not all that successful), and with stomping the cloth in warm soapy water. The most successful technique was the least exciting – dawn dish soap and a very long agitate cycle in a hot water wash in a top-loading washing machine. Thanks to Kate Smith and Norman Kennedy for their help and advice, and to the @centerforcraft for their generous grant funding for this project!

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When I started this fulling project, I really only had one piece of hard historical data – the fulling mill account book’s listing of how long the cloth was when it entered the mill, versus when it left the mill. From that, I extrapolated a percentage of shrinkage in length. I knew the cloth was going to shrink in width too, but since I didn’t have any data on how much it was going to shrink, I didn’t think too much about it. But now that I have a fulled sample in front of me, it’s pretty hard to ignore! This sample shrank by 25% in length, but the surface area shrank by 47%! Having lost only a quarter of its length, this cloth is almost TWICE as thick as it was prior to fulling. (It’s very possible that the original cloth shrank less in width than this one. Despite that, it’s an interesting point to consider.) The weaver would have known going into making that original piece of cloth that every square inch he wove was going to halve in size, but he would also have been able to visualize the beautiful thick cloth he was going to receive back from the fulling mill at the end of the whole process!

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A gal and her cloth.

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Scouring: and so it begins!

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This project has been generously supported by funds from the Center for Craft, Creativity, and Design’s Craft Research Fund; the University of Delaware’s Center for Material Culture Studies; funds provided by the Society of Winterthur Fellows, and by thesis research funds provided by the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture. 










The Flannel Experiment: the Test Samples

How exactly does one go about reproducing the effects of a several hundred pound, 8 foot high, water powered machine using only things you can find in your house? This was my challenge on Monday as I headed off to Eaton Hill Textiles in Marshfield Vermont, to meet with Kate Smith and Norman Kennedy and to do some experimental fulling.

The same cloth, subjected to three different degrees of fulling.

This was the next step in a project which I introduced in my last post. Head on over there to learn more about why and how I’m doing this project. To see images of the entire process, check out my photo diary of the project, as documented through Instagram. To read about the fulling process for the two large pieces of cloth, go here

The biggest motivator for this piece of experimental archaeology, or “making as learning” research was to connect the knowledge I have gathered from a wide range of text sources and from examining a variety of extant textiles, to the actual physical act of finishing a piece of woolen cloth. My goal was to force myself to think through every step in the process not in a theoretical way, but in a practical way. Hopefully, I will be able to transform this new knowledge for others in a meaningful way as part of my thesis.

Plate of a “Friction and Fulling Mill” from Rees’s Cyclopaedia. This image shoes the large wooden hammers of the stocks, as well as the rounded trough designed to hold the fabric. The stepped faces of the hammers were designed to push the cloth up, causing it to constantly shift position, and guaranteeing even fulling.

Fulling Factors

My project is to reproduce a finishing process on a piece of woolen cloth that was traditionally produced using water-powered fulling stocks, composed of a pair of massive wooden hammers which, when illustrated seem designed to repeatedly pound the cloth. At the moment I don’t have the resources, time, or space to reconstruct such a machine at full (or even half) scale, and so I talked through my options with my favorite problem solver: my father.

As he and I read and looked at the primary sources closely, we realized that there was more to fulling stocks than just pounding on cloth, which, at first glance, appears to be what the machine was made to do. The stocks were designed to hold a specific volume of cloth, and the hammers were stopped before dropping their full force on the cloth, so that they compressed the cloth as much as they pounded it. Several descriptions state that fulling stocks, when well-built, turned the cloth in the machine, so that it would be processed evenly. From this we gathered that the cloth needed to be on the move, and that while pounding force was probably a factor in fulling, compression might also work just as well.

In my research, I have also gathered a lot of information on other factors in fulling, such as how wet the cloth should be, what temperature is ideal for fulling, and what sort of fulling agents (such as soap or urine) should be used, and in what quantities. I had a pretty good idea what most of these variable might effect, but it was all theory. I needed to get my hands dirty (well, clean is more like it, since there was a LOT of soap involved) if I really wanted to understand how all of this worked.




Some Like it Hot.. or Maybe Not?

None of my, Kate, and Norman’s initial tests were successful. We tried pounding the cloth with mallets to simulate the force of the fulling stocks, but couldn’t sustain that for long enough to see results. Running it through a washer cycle with cold water, and stomping on it in a tub of warm soapy water both had a small effect, but nothing really significant. For a while there it seemed like this cloth just didn’t want to full. Luckily Justin and I had been careful to select a type of wool for this project that was conducive to felting. I was pretty sure we had a problem with the technique, not with the material.

Our final test was to wash one of our sample pieces in the washer on hot. After a triple-long cycle, this seemed to be showing results, and so we repeated that process again. Once dry, this sample had shrunk down to 3/4 of its original size, just as I’d been hoping, but it wasn’t exactly what I’d expected. It was fluffy. At first glance it looked more like polar fleece than wool. And despite the fluff, you could still easily make out the cloth’s weave structure, something which is not true of the heavily fulled historical woolens I’ve examined. When I laid it flat I realized this sample had also shrunk irregularly: the middle had shrunk more than the edges, leaving what looked like a three inch ruffle around the entire piece. The good news was that this cloth was, in fact, capable of shrinking up to the degree I was looking for. The bad news was that getting the cloth to shrink wasn’t the same as a good finish. (This aligned with my expectations and advice I had received from a variety of people. Despite this, it was a valuable experiment, especially as a comparison to the final test I did.)

hot wash size comparison
Two pieces of cloth which began the same size. The larger was left un-fulled. The smaller is the hot wash sample. Notice the irregular shape and almost ruffled edges of this piece.

I took all four test samples back home with me and began my own round of experiments. First off, I tried a few other finishing techniques, to see what would happen to the hot wash sample if I napped it and pressed it. Attacking the surface of the cloth with a dog brush helped to bring order to the ridiculously fluffy surface, but still didn’t make it look like the historical textile I’d been assuming we’d achieve at the end of this process. Pressing with a hot steam iron and as much force as I could muster helped a lot though. This entirely knocked back the fluff, improving the look of the cloth. Still, the cloth wasn’t as dense or stiff as I’d anticipated, and the fact that it had warped in the felting remained.

Slow and Steady Wins the Race.

At this point, a well-timed message from Justin reminded me of an important fact. He was reading through another early-19th-century textile manual with a section on fulling and brought up a reference to exactly how long cloth used to spend in the fulling stocks. This wasn’t a matter of half an hour’s pounding with mallets. We’re talking hours on end of continuous compression and agitation. This made me suspect that my first few fulling tests had failed not because there was something wrong with the technique, but because we hadn’t kept at it long enough.

Wet soapy cloth, plus dog toys! Ready to go into the washer.

I put a sample piece in my parent’s front-loading washer and this time I set it on warm, rather than hot. I also added half a dozen hard rubber dog toys which I hoped would fall on the cloth as it tumbled. I told myself not to even worry about whether or not it was shrinking until after half a dozen cycles. Finally, after 20 cycles (that’s 16.5 hours in the washing machine!), this  warm wash sample had shrunk as much as a the hot wash sample had. This piece, however, was much more like what I had been hoping for. It hadn’t warped as it felted, and though the surface was still soft, it was no where near as fluffy as the hot wash sample had been. This cloth was also denser; the weave structure was harder to discern, and less light shone through it when held up to a window.

It’s challenging to visually display differences in the denseness of this textile, but in this image, the softer hot wash sample (left) drapes with ever-so-slightly more fluidity than the stiffer warm wash sample (right.) Cloth with less drape will be better for the structural men’s garments this particular finish is meant for.


So far, this project has been invaluable for thinking through the clothing finishing theory I have encountered in my research. Without attempting reproduce the results of a water powered fulling mill, I likely would not have taken the time to understand the nuances of how the machine actually works. Though several sets of directions for building fulling mills were published in America during my period of study, none that I have found appear to go into sufficient detail to build a really good machine – that information certainly belonged to the millwrights, but it never made it into the books. Thinking through the process of using the machine forced me to work through the missing information.

I’ve also had a chance to see that there’s more to fulling cloth than shrinking it. Because my inspiration for this cloth (Hannah Wilson’s fulling mill day book) lists only the length of the cloth before an after fulling, it was on me, and my experience of handling historical textiles, to know that the shrinkage produced from a hot water wash could be improved upon.

Patience was another important lesson to be had from these tests. There’s a reason that fulling was mechanized all the way back in the middle ages – getting good results is tedious, physically demanding (if you don’t have mechanical assistance!), and very time consuming!

I’ve still got two much bigger pieces to full. (UPDATE: read about how I did that part of the project here.) One will be fulled the same amount as the hot wash and warm wash trials, and the other piece about half as much. The final test (which probably wont happen till spring) will be to turn that cloth into garments, and see how they perform! My motto for this project? – It’s Not Finished ‘Till It’s Finished!

This project has been generously supported by funds from the Center for Craft, Creativity, and Design’s Craft Research Fund; the University of Delaware’s Center for Material Culture Studies; funds provided by the Society of Winterthur Fellows, and by thesis research funds provided by the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture. 

The Flannel Experiment: Introduction

As those of you who I know personally or virtually may have heard recently, I’m currently in the middle of an exciting textile experiment. I’ve received a lot of question about it, and so I thought I would write a quick introduction to the project.

A beautiful snowy morning at Eaton Hill Textiles in Marshfield, Vermont. I was visiting to discuss some project details with owner and master weaver, Kate Smith.

The Project: As part of my masters thesis in the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture Studies at the University of Delaware, I am having a piece of woolen cloth reproduced, and will soon be attempting to full (felt and shrink) it, in order to learn more about processed described in early nineteenth-century woolen finishing manuals.

dsc_3776 (3)
I visited Justin at his beautiful early-nineteenth-century house in rural Vermont to see the weaving in progress.

Currently, Justin Squizzero of The Burroughs Garret is weaving thirty yards of a woolen textile which we are tentatively referring to as flannel.* Soon I, and Kate Smith of Eaton Hill Textiles, will use the first five yards to experiment with finishing techniques. With some practice under our belts, we will move on to fulling the remaining twenty-five yards in two, 12.5 yard pieces.

We won’t have an actual fulling mill to use for fulling this cloth, so we’ll experiment with a range of different methods to see what is most effective for producing the results we’re looking for. We will do four fulling tests:

  • One will use a traditional method of fulling by hand, known as waulking.
  • One will involve pounding the wet soapy cloth with mallets, to reproduce the percussive force of a water-powered fulling mill.
  • The last two will be done with the aid of a top-loading washing machine, using both hot and cold water, so that we can compare the effects of different water temperatures on the cloth.

The results of these tests will influence how we choose to finish the larger pieces of cloth.

UPDATE: See my next post to read about the test results, and see this post about fulling the two large lengths of cloth for the project, or visit my photo diary of the project to read my reflections on each step of the process. 


With it still on the loom, it is hard to visualize what this cloth will look like after its been fulled. I admit that I am full of anticipation for the transformation. Photo by Justin Squizzero.

The Goal: Is to shrink each 12.5 yard piece by a specific amount, in order to recreate an order described in the records of an early 19th-century West Bradford, PA, fulling mill account book.

h wilson day book - nov 26th, 1822- detail
See entries 93 and 94, under the name of William Gu[thrie]. Hannah Wilson, Fulling Mill Day Book, 1821-1823. West Bradford Township Business Houses, Township Files, Chester County Historical Society Library, West Chester, PA. 
That entry was for two, 12.5 yard lengths of cloth (presumably two halves of a 25 yard piece – a common length for a piece of domestically woven cloth at this time). The written portion of the entry specified that one piece of the textile was to be fulled “for men’s wear” and the other “for women wear.” The account book also records the finished length of each of these pieces of cloth after the fulling was complete: The men’s wear was 9 1/2 yards after finishing while the women’s wear ended at 11 yards in length.

These different degrees of shrinkage must have produced noticeably different textiles, one of which would have been thicker and stiffer, for men’s more structured clothing, while the other would have been thinner and had a better drape, more suited to women’s garments of the 1820’s

The Hypothesis: That two pieces of cloth, which have been woven identically, can be given unique and specific properties through the finishing process. This will reinforce the assertions made in my thesis that cloth finishing is an essential (and, dare I say it,  under-appreciated) aspect of woolen cloth production. It will also help to enhance my own understanding of the process I am writing about. As a person with a background as a maker, I often find it disconcerting to study a subject I am not familiar with in in a hands-on context. This project will hopefully help me to remedy that disconnect in my thesis. I’m excited to be able to share some of that practical knowledge with my readers as well!

*Why “Flannel”? The account book entry I am reproducing describes the textile as flannel, and other records from this same mill frequently refer to men’s and women’s flannel. However, in a modern context, flannel refers to a textile which hasn’t been fulled at all, but only brushed to create a soft nap. (Think of your favorite flannel shirt when it was new. So soft!**) However, the flannel for men’s wear described in this account book was fulled down to only three quarters of it’s original length. That’s pretty different from our modern idea of this textile. To add to the mix, some period textile manuals seem to use the term “flannel” to refer to any cloth before it’s been fulled.

Another complication is that we have very little indication of what the woolen cloth we are reproducing was like either before or after it was fulled. We’ve striven to make a cloth that we feel is a reasonable equivalent of a cloth that could have been made in the Brandywine Valley in the 1820’s, but only time, and fulling, will tell if we’ve managed to reproduce textiles like those used in men’s an women’s clothes of that time.

**For a great read about making cotton flannel in America today (and for an excellent piece of textile-related journalism) see The Annals of Flannel from the New York Times a few months ago.

UPDATE: See my next post to read about the test results, and see this post about fulling the two large lengths of cloth for the project, or visit my photo diary of the project to read my reflections on each step of the process. 

This project has been generously supported by funds from the Center for Craft, Creativity, and Design’s Craft Research Fund; the University of Delaware’s Center for Material Culture Studies; funds provided by the Society of Winterthur Fellows, and by thesis research funds provided by the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture. 

SUITS: George Washington and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

When you study 18th-century textiles, it’s hard to find instances of cloth that were not only worn in America, but also made here. My summer research took me to Mount Vernon, which houses three coats worn by George Washington, two of which are believed to have been made of cloth produced on American soil. Recently, a blog post I wrote about my summer travel went live on Winterthur’s blog. Because of that, George’s coats instantly came to mind the other day when this news story started going around about congresswoman-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s wardrobe.

If like me, you’re studying woolen cloth in early America, one of the stories that comes up a lot is that of George Washington’s inauguration suit. Washington was inaugurated wearing a suit made of an all-american textile, produced in Hartford Connecticut, but it didn’t look that way to a lot of people. Henry Knox, who procured the brown woolen suiting for the president-elect, described it as equal in quality to the second-best textiles of British manufacture, but despite this it was much finer than most American-made textiles at that time.

As one of two brown woolen coats of George Washington’s in Mount Vernon’s collection, this may be the suit in which the president was inaugurated. (This researcher believes the other coat is more likely, but alas that one is not online!)

The public saw the suit and interpreted the fine brown wool as an import from Britain. In the brand-new republic, this didn’t read well at all. Washington and Knox had attempted to find a material that would do justice to the office of president, while also acknowledging American independence through to use of domestically-produced cloth. The public, unable to read the metaphorical “made it America” label, judged Washington because of their own misinterpretation.

If this story sounds familiar to you, then congratulations! You’ve been reading the news. Or maybe you just scrolled through your facebook/twitter/insta feed and saw this exchange between reporter Eddy Scarry and congresswoman-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez:


Criticizing people for their fashion choices is as American as apple pie (though honestly this trend is species-wide, not just nation-wide). Ocasio-Cortez is in DC to make laws, not set trends, and she should not have to justify her fashion choices to reporters. But if we’re going to sit around picking apart her outfit, lets at least put it in some goddamned perspective and realize that the individuals we describe as “founding fathers” had to put up with this bullshit too.

Fashion and politics are intimately entwined. When Ocasio-Cortez was photographed in a suit, Scarry didn’t see the millennial who was worried about paying her rent and so he called her out on her perceived hypocrisy. The same thing happened in 1789 when Washington got flack for wearing a suit made of what looked like British wool so soon after independence.  Image, and therefore fashion, is important for politicians, because it is important to us, their constituents. We desire to relate to our representatives, and clothing helps to make that happen. But Ocasio-Cortez also needs to be respected by her colleagues. Like Washington, she’s trying to follow two dress codes simultaneously.

Unlike Washington, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a young woman of color in a world dominated by rich, old, white men. Because of this she faces a whole range of struggles that Washington never encountered. Fundamentally, however, both were elected by the people of the United States to govern this country.

Though the story of George Washington’s inauguration outfit survives in many works on American fashion history, it does not define the man. Let us follow that example and judge Ocasio-Cortez on her merits, and not her suits.




“It’s pretty, but what is it for?”

This semester I’m doing in independent study with one of my fellow classmates, Katie, and Winterthur’s furniture curator Josh Lane. To me, this is an opportunity to think about one material in a more complex way that I’ve been able to before; a chance to look at a magnificent mid-eighteenth-century chair and ask not only “who made this and where were they trained?” but also “who sat in this chair? Was it comfortable? What did it allow them to do, or not do?” (You might recognize a theme there with another blog post of mine from a few years ago.)

As it turns out, while there is a ton of literature on individual furniture makers who worked in early America, there’s not a whole lot of scholarship on this type of object after it leaves the workshop. “Why not?” you ask. Well, in part because the study of old things is driven by the market for old things. Antique dealers can add zeros to auction estimates for pieces attributed to certain well-known craftspeople. The signs of use (scratches, dents, stains) which mark an object as the favorite seat of a long-dead stranger are a harder sell for most customers, even though they embody unique stories about our past.

Similarly, the functionality of many furniture forms has little meaning to most modern people. The drawers of a high chest in a museum collection are almost certainly empty. In a private home, those drawers hold twenty-first century belongings. Articles documenting their contents in the first decades of their use are, for some reason, shockingly rare.

For me, however, it is the questions of function, rather than form, which hold my interest. Luckily, at Wintherthur I’m not alone in this. At a recent meeting of my independent study, Katie, Josh, and I spent half an hour debating the functionality of an early eighteenth-century dressing table. This form consists of a small table, with a few drawers in the front. It is designed to hold a looking glass on top, so that an individual might sit at it while completing their toilette.

We tried out one like this – yes, there is room for one knee under there, but neither Katie nor I thought we could reliably get our legs under this table while wearing a dress and not run the risk of breaking off one of the turned acorn drops.  Dressing Table, 1730-1750. Winterthur Museum. 1955.0096.002. 

This is all well and good except that it’s almost impossible to actually sit at most dressing tables of this era. The drawers beneath the table top take up the room where your knees might have gone. We confirmed this by positioning a modern stool in front of one such dressing table and taking turns sitting down in front of it, experimenting with where our legs could and could not go. So how does one use one’s expensive dressing table? Seated sideways? Perched on a stool? Or is it less a table and more of vessel for cosmetics and ribbons, not meant to be sat at at all? Surely not every owner of a dressing table was posing for Francois Boucher!

Francois Boucher,  La Marchande de modes, 1746.  

This post is a call-out, or a suggestion, or maybe a call-to-arms: lets think more about what goes into the drawers, and less about how those drawers we assembled. Let the comfort of a chair be part of the conversation, and the utility of a table be part of its interpretation. Sure, these things are pretty, but lets also talk about what they are for!



The Artisans of Instagram

Re-posted from the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture’s Material Matters blog:

As a student at Winterthur, I have access to some truly amazing resources. First, there’s the library, with its mind-blowing collections which always manage to have just what you need (and don’t get me started on the librarians, whose knowledge of the collection means that casual chit chat often turns into research gold.) Then, of course, there is the house. 175 rooms chock full of amazing objects which I get to touch if I want to. Handling privileges is one of the core tenets of WPAMC, and every time I pick up a silver sugar bowl to see how the feet were soldered on, or pop the seat out of a 1730’s chair, to examine how the seat frame is constructed, I feel lucky. I admit, however, that I spend less time in the collections at Winterthur than I do exploring craftsmanship on another platform – Instagram.

A montage of my most recent Instagram adventuring, including a class photo, objects in Winterthur’s collection, a research trip to DC, and a handful of other beautiful or humorous moments in the life of a Winterthur masters fellow.

When I joined Instagram, peer pressured by my undergrad classmates back in 2013, I never dreamt that I would use it to follow a contemporary Australian Windsor chair maker, a British historical knitter, and a museum curator who takes his followers on epic journeys to understand garments. And this is just the tip of the iceberg – Instagram lets me follow crafts people in every media, and in every part of the world. It also helps me stay connected to museums, and see the behind-the-scenes work of curators and conservators.

All of this helps me contextualize the objects in Winterthur’s collection by comparing them to contemporary makers, whose process is often on display on their Instagram accounts. Studying the work of modern artisans – especially those whose work is directly informed by the material culture of the past – is a perpetual reminder of the value of my education at Winterthur. Below is a select list of Instagram accounts that I propose as “supplemental study” for the discerning material culturalist in the age of social media.



 1. Rundell and Rundell This Australia-based account is all about Windsor chairs. Not only does it give you a look into Glen Rundell’s chair making workshop, you also get to follow Rundell’s adventures as he studies chairs in museum collections, and confabs with other craftspeople at events like the Lost Trades Fair.




2. Sally Pointer I know Sally Pointer’s name as the preeminent knitter of historical reproduction stockings, but her Instagram also lets you tag along as she explores the natural world for its resources: be they unsung plant fibers, natural dyes, or unusual things to eat for dinner.





3. Peter Follansbee Well-known Seventeenth-century reproduction woodworker, Peter Follansbee, can be found on Instagram these days. His account includes many short videos of him at work turning, carving, and joining green wood. (He also recently acquired a pair of kittens who make appearances from time to time.)





4. The Burroughs Garret  Justin Squizzero’s weaving business is run out of his beautiful 1810’s farmhouse in rural Vermont. His Instagram tells the story of his work with a rich emphasis on tradition and meaning. Scroll down to watch him develop a fly shuttle for the eighteenth-century barn loom he weaves on.





5. Brooklyn Lace Guild The Brooklyn Lace Guild is hip, contemporary, and all about bobbin lace. Check out their account for a refreshing combination of modern making and museum objects. This guild really succeeds in making this old craft cool.





6. Timothy Lang Fashion Curator The Museum of London’s fashion curator has a unique style of videography, and a playful sense of humor, which he uses to highlight some of the more fascinating aspects of garments as he prepares them for display. This is one of my all-time favorite museum accounts.





7. Marsh’s Library one of many rare books libraries I follow, Marsh’s Library posts fun and playful images from exquisite books. Get your early modern marginalia fix here.






8. Material Culture Winterthur I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention WPAMC’s own Instagram. Follow to get a look at what the fellows are working on!

Things I’ve Learned in Grad School

Dear Humans, I’ve just finished the first year of my masters in material culture.* You will be unsurprised to hear that I’ve learned a whole lot of things. You may also (especially if you’re slightly older and wiser that I was last July) be unsurprised to hear that a lot of them were things I wasn’t anticipating.  

Below is, I hope, a slightly humorous and somewhat edifying list (at least if you’re younger and/or less wise than I am at this current moment in time) of some of those things. 

On Going to Grad School: You can choose to go to grad school because you crave more education, or because you need some more letters after your name to get the job you think you want. Or you can go because you don’t like what you’re doing now, and a masters degree gives you two whole years to think about what you might rather do without having to apply for a new job. Don’t worry. Lots of other people did it for that reason too.

On Grad School Being Hard: If you’re wondering if you’re smart enough for grad school, don’t worry. Or rather, don’t worry about that. If you’re like me, when people told you that grad school was hard, you thought: “oh gosh. I’m going to have to think big hard thinky-thoughts that will make my head hurt.” Because that’s what it means for school to be hard. Sadly, this is not the case. Certainly grad school is full of challenging (or at least rather interesting) ideas, but so far it has yet to prove a serious intellectual strain most of the time. But of course there are still ways for school to be hard. For example, being assigned between one and five hundred pages of reading a week, per class.


On Reading: Here’s a lesson I didn’t figure out till most of the way through my first semester: don’t read everything. You can’t anyway, and its not really the point, apparently. The point is to only read the important bits. And if that sounds like a bit of a mind fuck to you (how, one might ask, is one supposed to know the important bits without reading all of them?) you would not be alone. All I can say is: don’t worry too much about it, and practice saying “fuck it!” and skipping a reading or two from the beginning, just to see what it feels like. Otherwise you may not survive.


Also (and this is a bit of advice I was given that really really helped): you can read everything later. The books will still be there once you graduate, but you won’t have access to your professors, or everything on JSTOR for free, or (in my case) the museum collection, or (in your case, perhaps) all the cool equipment in the lab. Take advantage of that stuff while you have it and don’t worry about the fucking reading so much.

And ALSO: you will learn how to not read – it turns out this is a skill. (Possibly you learned this in undergrad or middle school or something – I did not.) You will start defining a well-written book as one where you can read only read the first sentence of every paragraph and still get the point. An even better-written book is one where just the first an last paragraph of every chapter will do.

On Your Grades: No one cares how you do. I mean, you almost certainly do, but probably not a lot of other people. No one is going to clap you on the back if you work yourself to the bone getting an A. Later, when you don’t work quite as hard and still get an A, you’re going to hate past you a little bit. There will be a point when you’re proud of yourself for getting a B because it was the result of you acting like a semi-rational and calm human being, instead of an insane research robot.

On Research: Just because you’re really excited about your thesis topic doesn’t mean everyone else is. Despite that, it’s worth having an elevator speech about why your thesis topic is cool. Mostly just try to sound enthusiastic. People will smile and nod, and get off on the third floor.

*On “Material Culture Studies”: If you thought doing a masters in Material Culture would make defining “material culture” for people easier, you were wrong. When you’re talking to an engineer, and they think you said “material science” just nod and go along with it until you can excuse yourself.

While saying “I study old stuff” is technically accurate, it generally does not do a whole lot to clarify the situation.

If you think you might need to actually explain yourself to someone, or they’re cute and you’d rather they not think you’re a total nut, try a concrete example: “We all wear clothes/sit in chairs/use tools. People in the past did all those things too! We can learn a lot about them by looking at the stuff they made and used!” Or try: “I’m a historian, but instead of reading books, I read things!” (Note: enthusiasm and conviction are both necessary here. This can, ultimately, be a bit of a hard sell for some people.)

On Telling People You’re in Grad School: Just because you think it’s really cool that you’re in this awesome program with all these amazing opportunities, it does not mean that everyone else is going to be impressed when you tell then you’re a grad student. Especially when you then can’t explain what you’re studying. Whatever you were doing before probably sounded more interesting, or less elitist. Or both.

On Working Hard: It is possible to spend approximately four straight days alone in your house doing school work, and then  you should probably a) go outside and get some sun and b) talk to some other humans. Knowing all of this stuff won’t do you any good if you go crazy in the mean time.

And Finally: Crying to your mom about how everything is horrible is just as relevant in grad school as it was in preschool. It has a very decent chance of fixing everything too, so call your mother.



One last thought…

On Not Sounding Totally Bleak: Just to clarify, I am having a really wonderful time in this program. I’m having an even better time now that I’ve stopped pretending I’m going to read every word of everything I’m assigned. I’m even almost ready to start thinking about what to do with my life afterwards!

A Story of Girls, Education, and Design

Dear Readers, I’ve been busy! I’m hurtling through my second semester of graduate school. It doesn’t leave me much time for blog writing, but occasionally I write something for school and think “that belongs up on Our Girl History!” This is one such essay, reflecting on a recent class trip to London and a lovely little book in the Winterthur Library collection. It’s a bit longer than my typical posts, but it comes with end-notes! Enjoy…

Baldwin’s Gardens, London, as it appears in 2018.

On a gray January morning I walked north, from the intersection of Gray’s Inn Road and a short street called Baldwin’s Gardens, in Holborn, London. I was headed towards my second stop of the day. In front of me a park blocked my path. A sign just inside the gate read “Coram’s Fields” and below that “no adults permitted, unless accompanied by a child.”

I turned to walk around this dedicated children’s space. As I circled the park, my destination came into view: the brick Georgian-style structure of the Foundling Museum. In front of it was a sculpture of Thomas Coram, creator of the Foundling Hospital, which opened on this site in 1741.[i] I was here to learn about the life of poor children in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century London, and to view some of the museum’s collection of tokens: small objects, often scraps of cloth, left by mothers to identify their offspring when they were given up to the hospital in hopes of a better life. Unlike the things my classmates and I had been viewing for the past few days, the objects on display at this museum would not be chased silver, inlayed mahogany, or brocaded silks. This was a place to explore material culture not from the top down, but from the bottom up. This seemed appropriate because although my reason for being in London was to study British design history, the object through which my study was focused was a small book made to teach poor early-nineteenth-century girls to sew and knit.

The Foundling Museum, London.

The textile tokens in the Foundling Museum’s collection, written about by John Styles in Threads of Feeling, were the perfect resource for learning about the needlework proficiency of Britain’s female poor. Styles notes that some tokens also display a distinct lack of aptitude.[ii] He cautions us not to take needlework skills for granted. I would like to echo Styles’ sentiment. As I have explored the 26 pages of Instructions on Needle-Work and Knitting: as derived from the practice of the Central School, Baldwin’s Gardens, Gray’s Inn Lane, London, I have gained an appreciation for the many ways in which needlework is not to be underestimated. As Styles points out, we cannot assume that stitching is a universal skill. Rather it is one which was taught, and taught to girls both rich and poor, on both sides of the Atlantic. In general, these girls learned similar practical skills, but they might put them to work is very different ways as they went through life. Finally, the skills which were learned through needlework could be much richer and more expansive than simply putting needle to fabric.

In the early 1800’s, Baldwin’s Gardens, Gray’s Inn Lane, London, was the address of the National Society’s Central School. Here both boys and girls studied reading, writing, and at least some arithmetic; other lessons were divided by gender. [iii] Needlework was one of these. In 1829, the school published a book designed to help its teachers give instruction in this field. To supplement the sparse text, the book contained nine samples of sewing, embroidery, and knitting. Though the book is short, the samples both literally and figuratively flesh out its contents. When one picks up this volume in the Winterthur Library rare books room today, it has the strange three-dimensionality of a book stuffed with more than words. Flipping through the leaves, it becomes clear that its true lessons lie in the little girl’s miniature pinafore, the man’s shirt which when spread out is barely bigger than my hand, and the tiny knitted stocking, which might fit colonial Barbie, and must have been knit on needles almost too small to see.

The book is precious – the scale of its contents makes it quaint, but those contents also store an  invaluable body of information. Instructions on Needle-Work and Knitting contains not only a curriculum, but also a hint at the sewn objects relevant to the lives of its students, and, in all likelihood, the products of their own hands, since it must almost certainly have been the students of the Central School who populated the copies of this book with its samples. John Styles reminds us that we cannot assume that every woman knew how to sew, but with this book, we can explore what many of them did know.  This curriculum is a chance to understand the potential needlework skills of a whole class of girls. However, it is even more broadly applicable than that. Many of the book’s lessons were also learned by wealthier girls, girls from other parts of England and in America, and girls of previous generations, and later ones – up to and including the present day.

There are other universals to be found in needlework as well. For example, in William Hogarth’s portrait of Captain Thomas Coram which hangs inside the Foundling Museum, the captain wears a voluminous red coat, shirt sleeves peeking out beneath its cuffs.[iv] Though painted almost a hundred years before the publication of Instructions on Needlework and Knitting, the visible collar and sleeves on Coram’s shirt resemble those of the quarter-scale sample garment. Shirts like this were worn by virtually every man, from philanthropist to pauper school boy, throughout the early modern era. Each shirt was sewn by someone, almost certainly a woman. Male students of the Baldwin’s Gardens school may well have had shirts provided by the school, where they were made by female students as part of their instruction.[v] These children’s mothers may have made shirts for the men of their families, or may have worked for wages sewing for others. More well-to-do women may too have sewn for their families, or they may have hired domestic help who were skilled with a needle, and then supervised their work. This type of needlework, known as plain sewing, and its products, such as men’s shirts, women’s shifts, baby clothes, and household linens, was omnipresent in this era. Though Instructions on Needle-Work and Knitting contains directions for many of these, their form was also generally understood, and changed slowly over time. These textiles demonstrate a base level of design knowledge that was suffused throughout a culture. Though shirts were an essential part of the fashionable man’s wardrobe, they were just as essential to the humbly dressed. The sample shirt illustrates that an understanding of the design and manufacture of such a garment was not restricted to the trend-setters, but belonged collectively to society.

Quarter-scale sample shirt on page 12 of Instructions on Needle-Work and Knitting.

Though the shirt sample appears at first glance to be almost perfect, it is hard not to take it with a grain of salt. Designed as a didactic rather than a true garment, does it really represent an accurate copy of an 1820’s shirt? As both a skilled needle worker and a lover of doll clothes myself, I was at first suspicious. However, when I flipped through Instructions on Needle-Work and Knitting and unfolded this particular sample, I immediately thought of another shirt – this one full sized – that my class had seen the month before. This shirt was a new addition to Winterthur’s textile collection.[vi]  I was fairly confident that the two garments resembled each other closely. When I had a chance to compare them, I was glad to find that my memory had not failed me. With the book’s shirt-making directions for reference, I noticed the same seam techniques used on both.[vii] Both too shared a gathered front placket, buttonhole placement, and cuff style. Even the small triangular side-seam reinforcement appeared on the sample as a tiny sliver of linen. The only significant difference was the type of sleeve reinforcement applied to the two garments. The shirt in Winterthur’s collection has minimal provenance. While it seems unlikely that it was made by a poor London school girl, this book suggests that such a girl certainly could have made such a shirt.

The girls at the Central School did produce shirts, along with a wide range of other sewn goods. The final page of Instructions on Needle-Work and Knitting lists the prices at which such goods should be sold. Earlier, the text explains:

In order to provide suitable work for the lower classes, the Ladies’ Committee have countenanced a Penny Club, to which those children willing, subscribe weekly, and are allowed to purchase for themselves and parents cloathing at the prime cost of materials, without any chare for making.

It goes on:

In schools where the children are clothed, the lowest classes may easily be supplied with work, if the Mistress be allowed to have the materials for the clothing long enough before it is wanted, so that time may be afforded for the little girls to do the easy parts.[viii]

This quote demonstrates that the needlework education being provided to girls at the National Society’s schools fulfilled two objectives; it created a structure in which girls could sew garments for sale, modeling the wage-earning activities many of these girls would explore later in life. It also taught the skills needed to clothe a family, as modeled by the girls’ classes which worked to provide clothing for the schoolchildren themselves. Writing about nineteenth-century Philadelphia schools, Nina Lerman explains that girls in this American city both learned and performed the tasked needed to run a house at their schools. Part of this was production, as female students regularly made all of the garments and textile goods needed for the running of such a school and “as in any ordinary household, the quantity of sewing accomplished by the girls varied more closely with the number of people wearing clothes than with the number of people sewing them.”[ix] Both in Britain and America, schools were a space for girls to practice housewifery. They were also, however, a space in which girls learned vocational skills which might later be used not to run a house, but to earn wages.

While female students at any school of this era typically learned needlework, they also studied other subjects. The schedule for the Central School, for example, taught reading, writing, and cyphering to both boys and girls before lunch. After lunch, the boys continued these subjects, while the girls did needlework. From four-thirty to five, all the children studied arithmetic tables.[x] In other instances, the boys learned their own gender-specific skills. After the American Revolution, “Academies” for both boys and girls sprung up all over the new republic. As we might anticipate, the girls learned needlework. Boys might study surveying and navigation instead.[xi] Unlike the school which published, Instructions on Needle-Work and Knitting, these academies were not for the destitute. Both types of institutions, however, found value in teaching similar subjects. As a line from a school sewing manual published in 1821 highlights, education was deemed valuable for all:

It is extremely desirable that those nations which have adopted the System of Mutual Instruction for the Boys, should be put in possession of that part of the plan which is calculated for Girls; as they have at least equal claims upon the benevolent exertions of the friends of morality and virtue.[xii]

Marking sample, page 20, Instructions on Needle-Work and Knitting. Photo courtesy of Winterthur Museum, Library, and Garden.

Though boys’ and girls’ education shared a certain degree of the curriculum, I would argue that girls’ lessons – even those concerned with words and numbers – were reinforced in a uniquely sensory way. For many girls all of their lessons came together in the tactile textile activity of embroidery. Instructions on Needle-Work and Knitting’s second to last sample demonstrates the skill of marking, where colored thread is used to stitch identifying marks – generally initials or numbers – into household linens. As part of learning these skills girls could create a basic reference sheet of embroidery stitches such as the sample in the book, or a needlework picture, complete with elaborate motifs and moralizing text. In either case, more academic lessons were applied along with needlework skills in order to shape letters and numbers.[xiii]  Through this process, girls used not a pen, piece of chalk, or even a finger in a sand table to shape their letters, but a needle and thread. Meaning, process, and technique came together as each letter was formed on the cloth. In an age when women were understood to have a predisposition towards design skills, this practice can be seen as both symptom and cause. Presumably transforming other schoolwork into artwork was “natural” for females. At the same time, the emphasis on this type of quasi-artistic skill in female education almost certainly fostered those same design tendencies in girls, regardless of their inherent ability. The fundamentals of girls’ education taught them to think about design.

Sampler by Catharine Cook, 1812. In the collection of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

The works that these young amateur designers embroidered help to support this idea. Though I have yet to find an example from the Central School, other girls at British charity institutions created samplers with elaborate scenes, and long moralizing texts.[xiv] Girls from both charity schools and wealthy family in America and Britain have left their mark on the historical record in the form of embroidery samplers. These objects are united not by location or by class, but by eighteenth and early nineteenth century girlness, embodied in a designated gender role and a shared skill. Along with their collective power, samplers also represent individual young women in a way no other part of the historical record can; on samplers, girls recorded their names and ages in their own hands and in the uniquely feminine script of embroidery.

As John Styles pointed out, not every woman grew up with a proficiency in sewing, but as Instructions on Needle-Work and Knitting highlights, the skill was valued enough to be taught to the poor. Though that education was relatively rudimentary, understanding its role as a unique and uniting element of girl’s education makes its other applications more meaningful. Many wealthier girls and women imbued their textiles with the more diverse lessons of their own educations. Philadelphian Ann Flower, for example, created a sketchbook full of pen and ink and watercolor images. They vary from stylized illustrations, to close copies from printed sources, to her own original embroidery designs.[xv] Ann drew these pictures in part to help develop her own artistic ability, a skill which manifested in her needlework. Her skills in both design and embroidery shine through in a needlework picture she created in 1763.[xvi]

A page of embroidery design’s from Ann Flower’s sketchbook. Ann Flower, Sketchbook, ca.1753-1760?, Doc. 1244, Downs Collections, Winterthur Museum, Library, and Garden.

Both Ann Flower’s sketchbook and needlework picture reside in the collection at Winterthur, a fitting home considering both the museum’s collecting policy, and its proximity to Philadelphia. Around the time of Ann’s birth in 1743, another woman was drawing flowers and contemplating colored silk threads across the Atlantic in Spitalfields, outside of London. Many of Anna Maria Gathwaite’s designs for luscious silk brocades are now on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Just a few days before I explored the site of the Central School and of Thomas Coram’s Foundling Hospital, our class stopped into the gallery of Spitalfields silks at the Victoria and Albert Museum. There Dr. Zara Anishanslin explained that wealthy British women of the mid-eighteenth century might have chosen another way to unite knowledge with textiles by purchasing silks designed by Garthwaite, who regularly included detailed botanical representations in her designs for Spitalfields’ weavers. These motifs reflect Garthwaite’s own interest in botany.[xvii]

A century after Garthwaite drew flowers into her silk designs, Sarah Peters founded the Philadelphia School of Design for Women. There women were trained to use what was perceived as their innate design sense to create patterns for the American textile industry. In doing so, they learned a respectable vocational skill.[xviii] That skill reflected generations of women and girls before them whose education had focused on practical textile-related crafts in order to help them earn a living and run a home, but which also unwittingly developed their “feminine” design sense. A similar communal understanding of design was at work in the girls of the Philadelphia House of Refuge and London’s Central School, as they stitched shirts, caps, and pinafores for their classmates.[xix]

Sitting in the rare books room at Winterthur, flipping through the pages of Instructions on Needle-Work and Knitting, I realized that the lessons found in this book were ones I had learned as well. The two-hundred year old assumptions about femininity, design, and textiles crafts embodied in this book, though lessened by time, still exist in the twenty-first century. Growing up female, I understood that I was supposed to care about line, shape, and color, and that if I expressed an interest in sewing, I would not be discouraged. In a much more literal way though, I learned the lessons of the needlework manual: among the folders full of notes from my undergrad is a fat three ring binder. Like Instructions on Needle-Work and Knitting, its covers are bowed around its irregular contents, which consist of plastic sleeves, each holding typed directions for a style of seam, hem, or collar. Each is accompanied by a sewn sample. One plastic sleeve even contains a miniature shirt. This was the coursework of my college clothing construction course, and the foundation of my study of historic dress, which provides the rudiments of this paper. Like the girls at the Central School, I learned to sew by copying examples. Like generations of women before me, learning that skill meant has also meant absorbing ideas about design which benefit me even now, as I reflect on the connections between what our class saw in England in January and the objects we see every day in the collections at Winterthur.

My sample book from my first-year college costuming class.

My first reaction to Instructions on Needle-Work and Knitting was a personal one: I related to the lessons between the book’s pages because I had learned similar lessons myself. But after contemplating it in relation to brocaded silks and linen shirts, and having kept it, and those who learned from it, in mind as I walked the length of Baldwin’s Gardens in the January rain, I would argue that it deserves a place at the center of a broad web of connections. Those connections bring together girls from past and present; the lower, middle, and upper classes; Britain and America. As a whole, that web illustrates how design permeates the world around us, and allows us to see the designed world from the perspective of a girl with a needle in her hand.



[i] John Styles, Threads of Feeling: The London Foundling Hospital’s Textile Tokens, 1740-1770 (London: Foundling Museum, 2010), 11.

[ii] Styles, Threads of Feeling, 58-61.

[iii] Instructions on Needle-Work and Knitting: as derived from the practice of the Central School, Baldwin’s Gardens, Gray’s Inn Lane, London (London: Printed for Roake and Varty, F. Rivington, and Hatchard and Son, 1829), 3. John Britton, The Original Picture of London, enlarged and improved… Twenty-fourth edition, etc (London: Longmans & Co., 1826), 271-3.

[iv] William Hogarth, Portrait of Thomas Coram, 1740, on display at the Foundling Museum.

[v] Britton, The Original Picture of London, 274.

[vi] Linen Shirt, Winterthur Museum, Library, and Garden, 2000.021.001.

[vii] Instructions on Needle-Work and Knitting, 9, 13-14.

[viii] Instructions on Needle-Work and Knitting, 4.

[ix] Nina E. Lerman, “”Preparing for the Duties and Practical Business of Life”: Technological Knowledge and Social Structure in Mid-19th-Century Philadelphia,” Technology and Culture 38, no. 1 (1997): 38-9.

[x] Britton, The Original Picture of London,  272-3

[xi] Margaret A. Nash, “”Cultivating the Powers of Human Beings”: Gendered Perspectives on Curricula and Pedagogy in Academies of the New Republic,” History of Education Quarterly 41, no. 2 (2001): 247.

[xii] A Manual of the System of Teaching Needlework in the Elementary Schools of the British and Foreign School Society. 2nd ed., rev. and improved, (London : British and Foreign School Society, 1821), 8.

[xiii] Leena A. Rana, “Stories behind the Stitches: Schoolgirl Samplers of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries.” TEXTILE, 12, no. 2 (2014): 159, 164.

[xiv] See Rana, “Stories behind the Stitches” for further discussion of British schoolgirl samplers.

[xv] Ann Flower, Sketchbook, ca.1753-1760?, Doc. 1244,  Downs Collections, Winterthur Museum, Library, and Garden.

[xvi] Ann Flower, Needlework coat of arms (Embroidered hatchment), 1763, Winterthur Museum, Library, and Garden, 1958.2226.

[xvii] Zara Anishanslin, Portrait of a Woman in Silk: hidden histories of the British Atlantic world, (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2016), 62. Visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum, and lecture by Dr. Zara Anishanslin, January 19th, 2018.

[xviii] Lerman, “”Preparing for the Duties and Practical Business of Life,”” 50-51.

[xix] Lerman, “”Preparing for the Duties and Practical Business of Life,”” 38.