The Commercial-News, Danville, IL

April 28, 2013

Weaving cloth an important task on frontier


Sam Seall was impressed with the amount of cloth the Smith family wove in 1833. Tucked in a page of his 1833 daybook next to Nancy Smith’s name was a note reporting 60 yards were produced that year.

Most of the cloth would have been woven in the late autumn and winter months in the Wabash Valley home. In the evening the light for the spinners would likely have been produced by candles and a fireplace. Light from a kerosene lamp was still a generation away.

Many families on the frontier raised flax to weave into cloth for linens, and kept a flock of sheep to provide wool. The fine cloth produced from the flax was used for bed sheets, curtains, table cloths and clothing. The wool was carded and spun and had many uses. It provided material for blankets, coats, and linsey, among other things. It was a time-consuming process for the women of the frontier to produce the cloth needed to provide for their families. If they were fortunate enough to have a surplus, it could be readily traded at the nearest store.

The importance frontier women placed on home manufacture is reflected by the goods a widow selected from her husband’s estate following his death. An executor’s note from the Chenoweth papers from the 1830s records among the items a widow selected were a wool wheel, “dual” wheel, reel, sheep shears, and 10 sheep. The name dual wheel may have indicated the spinning wheel could be used for flax or cotton. The wheels were priced at $3.50, the reel at $1, shears at 50 cents and 10 sheep at $15.

Martha Williams was accomplished in the various ways of making cloth in the early 1800s. She was the wife of Amos Williams, the man many credit with being the founder of Danville. Prior to her marriage to Amos, Martha had lived with her family for a time in Crawford County, Illinois. When she was 16 years old, she grew cotton, carded it, then spun and wove it into cloth. From the cloth she made a beautiful bedspread with an eagle in the center. To complete the artistic design on the piece, she used pewter plates, tracing the outline of the plate with chalk. The heirloom was passed down through her family and was a cherished possession.

At the Edward M. Wilson estate sale in the autumn of 1840, near what is now Kickapoo State Park, pioneer salt maker John W. Vance purchased gingham and muslin. The material was selling for 25 cents a yard, and John’s wife, Deziah, was probably at his elbow, pointing out what to purchase. The Vance family was among Abraham Lincoln’s Vermilion County clients.

While the pioneers were settling in the Wabash Valley, and along the Vermilion River and its tributaries in Vermilion County, Illinois, the manufacture of cloth was already well under way in the East. But home manufacture was an important source of clothing material on the frontier, and Sam Seall made a note when one household’s annual production was 60 yards of cloth, 180 years ago.

Donald Richter’s column appears every other week in the Commercial-News. He is a member of the Vermilion County Museum Board.