Forty-hour trousers

March 1, 2015

A link to an interesting post on how much work went into making a linen shirt before the Industrial Revolution reminded me of a similar piece in Robert Merry’s Museum in 1844.  “A Story of the Revolution” was intended to honor the strength and determination of the generation that fought the American Revolution; what’s interesting is that the individuals being so honored are the young people, not their parents, who presumably would be leading them.  It’s a fourteen-year-old who overcomes her mother’s despondency and accomplishes a feat impressive to several generations.  In this excerpt, the “good old lady” tells her story to her children:

“Late in the afternoon of one of the last days in May, ’76, when I was a few months short of fifteen years old, notice came to Townsend, Massachusetts, where my father used to live, that fifteen soldiers were wanted.

“The training band was instantly called out, and my brother, next older than I, was one that was selected. He did not return till late at night, when all were in bed. When I rose in the morning I found my mother in tears, who informed me that my brother John was to march the day after to-morrow morning at sunrise. My father was at Boston, in the Massachusetts Assembly. Mother said that though John was supplied with summer clothes, he must be away seven or eight months, and would suffer for want of winter garments. There were at this time no stores and no articles to be had except such as each family would make itself. The sight of mother’s tears always brought all the hidden strength of the body and mind to action. I immediately asked what garment was needful. She replied, ‘pantaloons.’

“ ‘O! if that is all,’ said I, ‘we will spin and weave him a pair before he goes.’

“ ‘Tut,’ said my mother, ‘the wool is on the sheep’s back, and the sheep are in the pasture.’

“I immediately turned to a younger brother, and bade him take a salt dish and call them to the yard.

“Mother replied, ‘Poor child, there are no sheep shears within three miles and a half.’

“ ‘I have some small shears at the loom,’ said I.

“ ‘But we can’t spin and weave it in so short a time.’

“ ‘I am certain we can, mother.’

“ ‘How can you weave it?—there is a long web of linen in the loom.’

“ ‘No matter; I can find an empty loom.’ By this time the sound of the sheep made me quicken my steps towards the yard. I requested my sister to bring me the wheel and cards, while I went for the wool. I went into the yard with my brother, and secured a white sheep, from which I sheared, with my loom shears, half enough for a web; we then let her go with the rest of the fleece. I sent the wool in with my sister. Luther ran for a black sheep, and held her while I cut off wool for my filling and half the warp, and then we allowed her to go with the remaining part of her fleece.

“The wool thus obtained was duly carded and spun, washed, sized, and dried; a loom was found a few doors off, the web got in, woven, and prepared, cut and made two or three hours before my brother’s departure—that is to say, in forty hours from the commencement, without help from any modern improvement.”

The good old lady closed by saying, “I felt no weariness, I wept not, I was serving my country. I was assisting poor mother, I was preparing a garment for my darling brother.

“The garment being finished, I retired and wept, till my overcharged and bursting heart was relieved.”

 There’s a lot of interest here:  the process, the specialized equipment (sheep shears and loom shears), the amount of wool necessary (two sheep have only part of their fleece sheared), the fact that the brother would need to be sent off with appropriate clothing for a season several months away.

The anecdote also seems to reinforce what spinners on have pointed out:  that practiced spinners are faster than those cited in the original blog post.  It was, however, an incredible amount of work to clothe a family; and it’s easy to see why the development of the sewing machine in 1857 was celebrated as a literal life-saver for American women.