This week the TJDG welcomed Pat Brodowski, Monticello Vegetable Gardener and textile expert. For the benefit of students, instructors and guests alike, Pat led a hands-on workshop that introduced everyone to the joys and challenges of spinning plant fibers.
Pat started the workshop with a brief lesson on the four types of fiber that we would be focusing on: wool, flax, cotton, and yucca. While wool is obtained from an animal (most often the sheep) rather than a plant, it was important to show the differences between animal and plant fibers. Compared to many plant fibers, wool is relatively easy to gather and process. Also, wool’s longer fibers make learning to spin a bit simpler for first-timers.
In order to create a strong thread or yarn, the plant or animal fibers must be twisted together. One of the oldest tools to aid in this process is the drop spindle, which is weighted on one end and spun by hand while feeding the fiber downwards as it twists together.
Luckily, around the 16th century, the spinning wheel came into common usage, speeding up the spinning process. Pat demonstrated how the bobbin on the spinning wheel mimics the action of the drop spindle, while the large wheel is powered by the spinner’s two feet.
Flax (Linum usitatissimum) has been grown for the production of linen fabric for thousands of years. The Egyptians were especially adept at spinning and weaving flax into linen, and exported the fabric around the Mediterranean. Similar to wool, flax has fairly long fibers, but processing flax is quite a time-consuming chore that involves many steps over the course of weeks: drying, retting, breaking, scutching, and hackling. [Learn more in Rita Buchanan’s A Weaver’s Garden: Growing Plants for Natural Dyes and Fibers.]
Although we did not take the time to process our own TJDG flax for the workshop (maybe next year??), we did grow and harvest our own ‘Nankeen’ cotton and were able to try our hand at spinning it. At least some of us were brave enough to try… Cotton (Gossypium hirsutum) has relatively short fibers, and so proved to be particularly difficult to work with. However, we were quite proud to be spinning our own TJDG-grown cotton!
Jefferson also grew ‘Nankeen’ cotton, noting in his Farm Book that it yielded nearly double “the common kind…but it comes later & with more risk from frost.” This year, we were able to harvest a fair amount of bolls; the soft fibers of ‘Nankeen’ cotton are naturally a beautiful rusty brown. Fortunately, ‘Nankeen’ seed has been saved for many generations and can be purchased from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.
Yucca, or Beargrass, as Jefferson called it in 1794, is also a fiber source. The leaves and fibers of Yucca filamentosa, a Southeast native, were used to make baskets, sandals, and rope by Native Americans. The fiber is obtained by removing the pulp through scraping, rubbing, and maceration.
Of course, all of these natural fibers were of extreme importance in TJ’s day. Writing to John Adams in 1812, Jefferson stated, “Every family in the country is a manufactory within itself…We consider a sheep for every person in the family as sufficient to clothe it, in addition to the cotton, hemp and flax which we raise ourselves.” [See Jefferson’s Farm Book and Garden Book for more on how TJ grew and processed plant and animal fibers.]
Thanks again to Pat for introducing us all to the exciting world of spinning with natural plant and animal fibers! Next up, the weaving loom! (Well, maybe we’re not quite ready for that yet…)