|THE LOOM HOUSE
Making Textiles and Clothing for the
Before the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th-
early 19th Century, all fabric was made by hand. It was
hand-processed, hand-spun, hand-woven, and
hand-sewn. Clothing made this way was very precious,
because it took so long to make.
The Industrial Revolution & Fashion
In the first part of the 19th Century, even cotton fabrics
like calico were relatively expensive.
The Industrial Revolution introduced machines that spun
and wove fabric much faster than any human. This
made the price of commercially-made fabric go down. By
the late 19th Century, calico was so cheap that it was
often used to wrap packages.
Although thrifty housewives still made some of their own
cloth, the light, machine-made fabrics made the
enormous hoop-skirts and elaborate costumes of the
19th century possible.
Like some discount stores today, the fabric mills were
both a blessing and a curse. They produced
inexpensive goods that more people could afford, but
they also did not always treat their employees (often
women and children) well.
One of the most famous fabric mills in the U.S. was at
Lowell, Massachusetts. The Lowell factory tried to
maintain a humane environment, but the days were still
Few and Precious
By our standards, working and middle-class people in
the 19th century often had few garments. A farm woman
might have one best dress, and a few "wash" work
dresses made of cotton or homespun linsey-woolsey.
Linsey-woolsey has a linen warp and a woolen weft.
Repair, Recycle & Reuse Was the Norm
Fabrics were carefully cut and scraps were saved to
make quilts or rugs.
Clothing was usually treated carefully. Many fabrics
could not be washed, but they were brushed and aired
before being worn again.
Dresses were covered with aprons or pinafores to
protect the fabric. Detachable sleeves and collars both
protected the dress fabric and freshed up dresses.
Long skirts were sometimes protected with braid sewn
onto the bottom of the skirt to protect the hem from
Girls were taught how to skillfully mend clothing and
darn stockings. Torn clothings was not simply thrown
away. Some stockings were with removable parts, so
that worn-out areas could be replaced. If a person felt
that her darned stockings were too ragged for gentility,
she might give them to the poor.
Clothing was taken apart, turned inside out, possibly
dyed another color, and then resewn and retrimmed to
make a "new" dress. Bonnets and hats were also
recovered and retrimmed.
A mother or old sister's dress might be cut down to fit a
A dress with worn sleeves might become an apron.
Trims and buttons were almost always taken off a
completely worn-out garment, saved, and reused.
In cities, rags could be sold to a rag-man. These bits of
fabric were shredded and used to make paper.
The most basic clothing could be made from
animal skins, especially deer skins.
Cloth had to either be purchased or made. Even
after machine-made cloth because widely available,
the thrifty farm housewife often still made some of
her cloth or at least spun thread and knit the family's
Making cloth required some type of fiber crop
(wool, cotton, flax), carders to brush the fiber, a
spinning wheel to make it into thread, and a loom to
weave it. The simple walking wheel probably could
be made by a local wheel-wright. The more
complex flax wheel certainly had to be made by a
Looms could be made by a skilled wood-worker, but they
were very large and required a huge amount of space.
Not all families had looms, however, sometimes a
portion of the spun thread was traded for weaving.
Dyed clothing required some type of natural dye (such
as indigo or oak bark), a mordant to set the color, and
a large pot in which to soak the yarn or fabric.
Sewing required needles and scissors, although
thorns were sometimes used for pins in a pinch.
For socks and knitted garments, the woman
required sets of knitting needles. Large knitting
needles could be carved from wood, but the smaller
needles used for socks and stockings were usually
Note: In some older and books from England,
knitting needles are called "pins."
For Shoes: The most basic shoes were
moccasins, made in the Native American style and
stuffed with leaves or fiber for warmth. If more than
this was wanted, the person had to buy shoes from
a shoemaker, or tan leather and make the shoes
Detachable collars and cuffs helped
protect dresses and gave them a fresh
look. Photo of a lady c. 1860s
A "Big Wheel"- also called a wool wheel or walking
wheel. These spinning wheels were relatively easy
to make, and were found in many Texas households.
The smaller flax wheel was more complicated to
build, but the spinner could sit to use it, and she had
use of both hands. This is actually a modern wheel
(below) made by the Kromski company of Poland.
After the spinner has spun a bobbin full of thread,
she may wind the thread onto a reel (in above
picture) or niddy-noddy. This makes a large loop
of thread called a hank, which is convenient for
PREPARING FIBERS FOR SPINNING
Flax plants were pulled to be harvested,
dried, retted (rotted), dried again, then stalks
broken with a flax brake and scutching
block, fibers were removed and a
hatchel/hatchel was used to comb the long
fibers (stricks) from short fibers (tow). Then
the stricks could be dressed on a distaff (a
plain or carved stick used to hold the fibers
until they were spun) and spun into linen
Tow could be spun and made into coarse
fabric "tow sacks" or ropes, etc.
had to be ginned (seeds removed) and
carded before being spun. Most cotton in
the south was grown as a cash crop and sold
to make money, although the family might
retain some for personal use. Carders or
cards were wooden paddles studded with
wire teeth (rather like a dog brush) that were
used to brush the fibers so that they lay in
WOOL was sometimes washed (scoured)
before being carded and spun. Sometimes it
was spun "in the grease" with the natural
lanolin still in the wool.
Looms really have not changed a lot. This little
counterbalance loom is very similar to its ancestors
made 100 years ago.
Before weaving, the weaver has to dress the loom. This
means he or she has to put on the warp threads. The
warp threads are those that run length-wise through
the fabric. These all have to be the same length and
equally tight. To help do this, the weaver may use a
The weft threads are those that are wound on the
shuttle and woven through the warp. They go across
the short-way of the fabric.
The warp threads run through little metal or string
heddles. (In this picture they are the little
silver-colored vertical bars.)
The heddles are in the harnesses. The harnesses
lift the heddles and certain warp threads while leaving
other threads down. This creates an opening called
the shed, through which the weaver can easily
As the weaver weaves more fabric, the newly-made
fabric is rolled onto a roller called the cloth beam at
the front of the loom, and she releases more thread
from the beam at the back of the loom.
Weaving the cloth was just the beginning. It still had to be cut and sewn.
Whether using homespun or purchased fabric, most middle-class and lower women were expected to be
competent seamstresses. This involved not only sewing the garment, but also drafting patterns for complex,
tightly fitted, and very detailed clothing. Women shared patterns, and lady's magazines published diagrams
for garments, but these diagrams had to be drawn to fit, and there were often only the most basic
From Empire styles to hoopskirts to extreme bustles,
19th Century fashions varied dramatically. To learn
more about 19th Century Fashion, click the links
Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, infants wore
extremely long dresses. Not only did these long dresses
show that the family could afford to waste fabric, some
people believed that the long dresses kept the baby warm.
When the baby got a little older, they started wearing
Little boys often wore dresses or kilts until they were about
four years old.
Below: A late 19th Century little boy with ringlets in a "Little
Lord Fauntleroy" suit, and his baby sibling.
|Original 19th Century Patterns
from Godey's Lady's Book
In 1863, Godey's contrasted hand-sewing (with the image of the
impoverished seamstress a la "Song of the Shirt") with the new sewing
machine. The sewing machine did not really become widespread until
after the Civil War, however.
Women in the middle and upper classes of society often hired
seamstresses to do some of the family sewing. Some domestic
literature urged women to pay their seamstresses a fair wage.
|Mary Harris & Baby early 1900s
|Godey's Embroidery Patterns