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.

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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 oerder to learn more about processed described in early nineteenth-century woolen finishing manuals.

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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. Stay tuned for updates on what we find!

(For updates on the weaving process, and to see Justin’s other work, follow @theburroughsgarret on instagram. To see the project through to completion, and for dog pictures, follow me @whipstitch802.)

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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.

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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.

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. 

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