Textiles and Independence in Colonial America


Imports supplied most of America's textile needs, both for utilitarian and decorative purposes, until about 1750, when the movement toward self-sufficiency in fabric production became serious. It is that movement that ought to interest Americans, because it can be correlated to the events leading to independence. A "homespun heritage" developed when imports became unavailable or too expensive. Fabrics made in America between 1640 and 1780 were plain and functional and matched the colonial way of living.


Colonial America included the area of North America that eventually became the original thirteen states. There had been Spanish settlements in the New World for some time, but the landing at Jamestown in 1607 was the beginning of permanent colonies.

In general, the colonies north of Maryland were to be the commercial ones, ­highly dependent on trade in timber, molasses, and slaves. By 1700 the American merchant fleet, operating mainly in the northern colonies, numbered about fifteen hundred vessels, and its trade routes covered half the world. The colonies to the south were agricultural-dependent on the rice, tobacco, and cotton that was traded with England. South Carolinians grew indigo and Georgians silk.

To the middle colonies came the Dutch, spinners and weavers in those colonies from an early date in spite of a prohibition against textile manufacture made by the Dutch West Indian Company, owners of "New Netherland. " Pennsylvania was a haven for many English, Welch, Scots, Irish, Dutch, and Germans, as well as for Quakers. The colony was to enjoy rapid economic growth with Philadelphia and Germantown becoming early centers for textile manufacturing. The professional weaver was most welcome and was often given land as inducement to settle in a community.

At first the colonists brought their clothing and bedding with them and received additional supplies from England whenever a ship brought new settlers. There was little thought of making fabics until supplies became short.

For each man at Jamestown the company supplied suits of canvas, frieze, and broadcloth, but the Pilgrims in 1620 had a more difficult time because they did not have clothing suitable to the severe climate. Later, more knowledgeable, the Massachusetts Bay Company stocked extra suits of Hampshire kersey, green cotton waistcoats, and blankets of Welch cotton, and soon, their store was selling all kinds of fabrics. Ships crossed the Atlantic frequently, and by the late 1630s the Massachusetts General Court, the colonial legislative body, found it necessary to pass sumptuary laws against the use of elaborate textiles-including lace-because Puritans were becoming much too interested in worldly goods. Wills and inventories listed numerous fabrics, which formed a relatively large portion of an estate at that time.

By 1640 the story was different. Because of improved political conditions in England, there was a marked decline in new colonists as well as fewer ships bringing goods. The decrease in settlers also depressed prices for the farm commodities that colonists had been selling to new arrivals. New Englanders no longer had the means to buy as many imported textiles. The Massachusetts General Court began to study the colony's potential for textile production by counting weavers (who were offered subsidies), spinners, and amounts of available seed. (Flax and hemp seed were considered valuable enough to be used for legal tender.) In Connecticut the General Court ordered that hemp and flax be sown by each family and cotton be imported.

In 1656 the Massachusetts General Court decided that all idle hands should be put to spinning, and local selectmen assessed families for a quarter, a half, or a whole spinner and imposed fines of twelve shillings for every pound short that a family might be. The equivalent of a whole spinner was three pounds of cotton, wool, or flax spun every week for thirty weeks.

In theory, manufacturing was not allowed in the colonies, because, under the English mercantile policy, they were to serve as suppliers of raw materials and consumers of British manufactured goods. In addition to shortages, yet another condition contributed to the movement toward home production of textiles. Increasing competition from Dutch traders resulted in the enactment of the British Navigation Act of 1651. Intended to confine English commerce to English ships, it stipulated that goods brought to England from Europe could be carried in English or country of origin ships, but goods brought from Asia, Africa, or America must go to England, Ireland, or an English colony only in British or colonial ships. In 1660 a restrictive addition stated that no merchandise could be imported into the colonies except in English ships navigated by Englishmen. For example, cotton fabrics coming from India to America had to be landed in England first. Certain American exports including cotton, indigo, and dyewoods could be shipped only to England, and so markets for some colonial products were curtailed. In 1663 another provision added duties to colonial imports and made cloth even more expensive. Colonists were forced to buy only English goods. But there was considerable smuggling, and in spite of English restrictions against textile manufacture, there were reports from New York of "everyone" making his own linen and a large part of his woolens.

By 1690 the British had become aware of the potential for textile manufacture possessed in the colonies, which exported some wool to France in exchange for silk textiles in 1698. In 1699 the English passed the Wool Act in order to protect their wool industry. It was illegal to transport woolens between colonies or out of the king's dominions under penalty of forfeiture and fine of £500.

Lord Cornbury, governor of New York, reported the following to the British Board of Trade in 1705.

Besides, the want of wherewithal to make returns to England sets men's wits to work, and that has put them upon a trade which, I am sure, will hurt England in a little time; for I am well informed that upon Long Island and Connecticut they are setting upon a woolen manufacture, and I myself have seen serge, made upon Long island, that any man may wear. Now, if they begin to make serge, they will, in time, make coarse cloth and then fine. How far this will be for the service of England, I submit to better judgments; but, however, I hope l maybe pardoned if I declare my opinion to be that all these Colloneys, which are but twigs belonging to the main tree-England-ought to be kept entirely dependent upon and subservient to England, and that can never be if they are suffered to go on in the notions they have that, as they are Englishmen, soe they may set up their same manufactures here as people may do in England; for the consequence will be, if once they can see they can cloathe themselves, not only comfortably but handsomely too, without the help of England, they, who are not very fond of submitting to government, would soon think of putting in execution designs they had long harboured in their breasts. This will not seem strange, when you consider what sort of people this country is inhabited by.3


The colonists found it prudent to produce their own essential clothing, but for luxuries-the brocades and damasks-Americans still had to rely on Europe.

By the middle of the eighteenth century public funds were being used in Boston and Philadelphia to promote textile manufacturing. Many small factories, employing the poor, were established, and this small manufacturing capability was highly valued when trade was restricted during the French and Indian Wars.  Housewives also rallied to make clothing for the soldiers.

            The restrictive legislation passed by England to help pay for the wars was, no doubt, a major reason for the American movement towards independence. The 1764 Sugar Act, which levied duties on molasses primarily, also included silk, Bengals and stuffs mixed with the silk of Persia, China, or East India, as well as callicoes, cambric, and French lawns. In answer to this, the men of Philadelphia resolved to wear only American made woolens. Home production increased, and so did smuggling from Holland and France.

Another boycott ensued when the stamp Act was passed. On 4 March 1766 at Providence, Rhode Island, a group of prominent young ladies formed "The Daughters of Liberty" and spent the whole day spinning. Other such groups were formed with the resolve not to purchase any British manufactures until the stamp Act was repealed. In 1768 the senior class at Harvard voted to take their degrees dressed only in American made garments, and Yale followed the next year with a vote to wear homespun at commencement so that every one would be in fashion. Much of the woolen cloth came from a manufactory in East Hartford, a company that made seventeen thousand yards of excellent woolen cloth in 1767.

The ten years of agitation that preceded the American Revolution did much to prepare people for home manufacture, and the colonies went into the war with some capacity for textile production. There had also been a westward movement after the French and Indian Wars, and as people went farther from the seaports (often to regions away from rivers and roads), there was an increase in household manufacture and self-sufficiency.

During the revolution many at home deprived themselves in order to send supplies to the army, but fiber, equipment, and workers were inadequate, and the soldiers seldom had sufficient clothing and blankets. Not all imports were cut off by the war; at times New York, the Carolinas, and Georgia received almost a normal supply of English cloth. The colonists also traded with other countries, and privateering supplied many goods, although they were expensive.

After the war there was a sudden decline of interest in household manufacture, and floods of foreign finery were landed even before the Treaty of Paris was signed. This brief respite for the ladies ended when Americans realized that they would have to maintain their industrial as well as political independence. specie was in very short supply, and it was recognized that home production of textiles was needed to keep money from flowing out of the country.



Among textiles available in Colonial America there were bays and says, lustrings and perpetuanas, tammies and druggets, fearnaughts and cherryderries-all of them names we don't hear anymore. There were serges and calicoes, chintzes and Osnaburgs, lawns and flannels-fabrics we still use. And there were some fabrics-dimity, broadcloth, frize-with names that are still familiar, but which were much different in colonial times.

Still, the number of different textiles available to the colonists was large. Inventories, order letters, advertisements, and account books indicate this. There is no doubt that most of the fabrics came from Great Britain; they were imported by merchants in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia and then transferred to other centers throughout the colonies.

The common colonial textiles could have been imported or made in America after about 1640. Although fabrics of complex weave can most surely be identified as being imports, others, including the vast array of simple fabrics-bedding, table linens, everyday clothing fabrics-could have been made on either side of the Atlantic, since the materials and equipment were the same. In fact, homespun made today in the United states can be identical to homespun made in England in the seventeenth century. Then too, many of the basic fabrics could, at times, be imported more cheaply than they could be made at home, and immigrants brought large supplies of household linens-a practice that continued into the nineteenth century. Without having some documentation it would be difficult to identify a fabric as positively being made in colonial America.

Not many colonial fabrics have survived the wear, moths, and sunlight-and being made over several times-to end up as pieces in a treasured quilt. Large amounts of colonial rags went into paper, which was always in short supply in those days. some garments and furnishing fabrics, carefully stored in museums, and some old swatch books give an idea of what was used. However, most information comes in written records that are sometimes difficult to interpret.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, fabrics formed a much greater portion of the total value of a family's goods than they do today, and a higher portion of income was spent on clothing relative to the amount spent on housing. Fabrics were also used more then as status symbols; bed furniture (curtains, valances, and covers), which consumed many yards of cloth, may serve as an example.



The dominant fibers used during the colonial period were hemp, flax, wool, some cotton, and some silk. In addition, there were some reports of nettle (a bast fiber used in a fabric called Scotch cloth) and hair (dog, buffalo, rabbit, and goat) being used. This was more likely on the frontier where the common fibers might be scarce.

               Hemp has always grown wild in many parts of the world, and when New Englanders first arrived they found the indians using it for cordage and nets. A somewhat better quality was found in Virginia, and some hempen fabrics were fine enough to be used for apparel as well as for bed and table linens.

               Flax was the principal fiber used in America from the time of the earliest settlements. Almost every farmer grew some, and the whole family took part in the processing. It took almost a year from the time the flax was planted until the yarn was ready for weaving. Home production persisted into the nineteenth century but as a fiber, flax became less and less important as methods for cotton production improved and factory-made textiles superseded homespun.

Wool was the other major fiber, but its production got off to a much slower start than did flax growing. Wolves, indians, and colonists liked to eat sheep, and winters were hard in New England. But by 1664 there were some 100,000 sheep in Massachusetts, and it has already been noted that the British were alarmed by the possibility of competition with their own growing industry, an alarm that culminated in the Wool Act.

American woolens could not compete with British fabrics when quality was important. sheep raised in America before the revolution were coarse wool types and neither weaving nor finishing techniques were well advanced

Cotton was a minor fiber in early colonial America; it was hard to get and difficult to spin. Most cotton fabrics were imports from England that originated in India. Cotton was to become more important as a raw material for the mills of England. Early in the eighteenth century most of the cotton imported by England came from the Near East or the West Indies, but in 1764 about 800 pounds were sent from the Carolinas. From then on, American exports to England gradually increased. The market for the south's cotton was relatively small, however, until Eli Whitney invented his cotton gin in 1793. Then, as the machinery for spinning cotton was improved and as yarn could be purchased for home weaving, its use was greatly increased.

Typical American fabrics were not made of silk. Numerous attempts were made to establish the silk industry in various colonies (especially in Virginia and Georgia), but in most places the aim was to supply raw material for England's luxury fabric industry. By the  1660s tobacco proved to be a much more profitable crop. some silk was grown in the Carolinas and Georgia in the early eighteenth century, and the peak in Georgia was reached in 1759 when 10,000 pounds were exported.4

Imported silks were expensive. Records of their use as bed furniture are scanty-wool and cotton were the furnishing fibers. The peak for imports of dress fabrics, elegant figured silks from Spitalfields (Plate 71), came in the 1760s. Later, a change in fashion as well as the revolution caused a sharp decline in the demand for luxury textiles.



As we have noted, fabrics made of flax and wool requiring a minimum of finishing were apt to have been made in the colonies, with amounts and types increasing as the skilled population increased. Others were imported. silks and cottons, with only a few exceptions, were imported. sometimes the same fabric type was made in both Europe and America. Cloth and stuff both became general terms for a piece of fabric.


Linens were both coarse and finely woven. Tow cloth, made from the short flax fibers, was the coarsest plain weave (most linens were plain weave), and it was used for men's clothing, sacks, and wrapping cloths. Another coarse linen was called duffel. Duffel was also recorded as a woolen, and it may have been a combination fabric. It had a thick nap and was used for dressing gowns and bags.

From England George Washington ordered buckram, a linen stiffened with a gum or paste. In the 1770s cambric, a lightweight linen slightly narrower than lawn, was in heavy demand. Made first in Cambrai, France, it was later a specialty of Scotland and Ireland. Many kinds of lawn were imported during the eighteenth century: long, spotted, broad, clear, fine, and superfine. Some were listed as having flowers, and so were probably printed. Both cambric and lawn were later to be made of cotton. Holland, a closely woven cloth for sheets and shirts, was frequently mentioned in inventories. Brown Holland was unbleached. Huswife's cloth was a middle-grade, all-purpose linen.

Linen checks (Plate 80) were popular, because they didn't show the dirt and were easy to weave. Also made in the colonies were the figured weaves, or fancies, with patterns called "double diamonds," "honeycomb," "rings and chains," "Ms and Os.

Mentioned often in the literature, perhaps because of its rhythmic name, is linsey-woolsey. It was made with a linen warp (flax could be spun into good strong yarn) and a wool weft (a more scant supply of wool could be extended this way). The wool gave warmth and flame retardancy to many colonial petticoats, which often had weft stripes of home dyed colors.

Lots of linsey-woolsey was made in America and the records of George Washington's 1767 weaving establishment list "Lindsay Woolsey" with "Lindsay­plaided, Linsey, and Linnen. "9 So it is likely that there was at least one other fabric, "Linsey," or some version of the name, that was all linen. It may have been made originally in the English village of Linsey in Suffolk, or the name may have been a corruption of the French linsel, meaning linen cloth. Linsey-woolsey was made for a long time. Soldiers went to the Civil War in it, but by then it had a cotton warp.10


Wool Textiles

The variety of wool fabrics used in colonial America was very great. One of the first to be brought to the New World (it was traded to the indians by the first fishermen and explorers) was shag. Shag was a coarse, long napped woolen; it was also known as duffel. It may have been like baise, or bay, a plain weave, napped flannel, which was eventually used in Navajo blankets. Flannel was very common and easily made at home, then taken to a fulling mill to be finished.

Serge, a worsted twill, was very popular for bed curtains in the seventeenth century; say, or saye, resembled it. When serge de Nimes, black or blue in 1770, was made of cotton, it became denim. Broadcloth, a wide imported wool fabric, was made by two weavers at first and later with the fly (or flying) shuttle. Kersey was a coarse, napped, narrow wool cloth made at an early date in America.

Cotton Textiles

Coarse cotton textiles were made in America, or they were imported from England, but the fine ones came from India. Fustian, made with linen warp and cotton weft, was popular in America. But for lovely soft clothing and hanging textiles, India was the source. Here the nomenclature becomes fantastic-allejars, brawls, allibanies, coffies, gurras, guzzies, and cherryderry (American for charadaries, or carridaries, meaning a striped or checked cloth). Hum-hum started out as the Arabic humman, meaning "a Turkish bath."

In the eighteenth century calico meant a plain weave cotton fabric resembling the linens of the time. It came from Calicut, on the Malabar Coast of India. Now calico is printed with small, brightly colored flowers, but in the seventeenth century it was often plain colored or even white, although it could be printed or painted. Muslin was another variant. Calico lived on into the nineteenth century to become a cheap cotton turned out in the mills of New England and a cloth indispensable to the ladies of covered wagon trains.

Chintz in the eighteenth century meant the dress and furnishing fabrics that were made in India by the mordant and resist-dyeing technique (see chapter 4). To the English it was a variety of calico. The brilliant and fast colors were highly valued in both Europe and America.  George Washington and many other gentlemen wore breeches of nankeen, a yellow cotton twill. In his day it was probably made in Manchester, England, but it was originally woven in the orient of a particular type of yellow cotton grown in China.



The silk textiles found in colonial America were usually heavy, but became lighter when they needed to meet competition from cottons. They came from all over the world. Bengal, a stripe for woman's apparel, was imported from India. Sarsanet, a firm but thin lining for cloaks and hoods, came from Syria and Mantua from Italy (mantua was also a general term meaning a silk fabric)). Padusoy  (padaway), a strong ribbed silk used for waistcoats, also came from Italy. France sent gorgeous examples of brocatelle, lampas, damask(originally associated with Damascus in Syria), and brocade-all drawloom figured fabrics.

Many of the silks were ribbed and related to taffety (taffeta), a very old fabric from the Islamic east. There was also a wide variety of satins from various places. It should be noted that many satins were made of wool. Today, the satin weave is not widely used for wool fabrics.

Needlework and Rugs

Although they became more important in the nineteenth century, needlework and rugs are also part of the textiles of colonial America. As leisure increased, and there were more servants to do their chores, ladies turned to lace making and embroidery.

Wealthy colonials indulged in lace wearing, but the poor could not. In 1634 an edict was passed prohibiting both the making and the wearing of lace in the colonies.12 The Huguenots were especially famed for their pillow lace, but there was no industry in America like the one in Europe.

The term wrought meant needlework. Embroidery had been a common pastime in England, and so, even the earliest colonists were making samplers. Very small girls were taught to work little verses on linen. Chair and table covers, and especially bed furniture, were frequently wrought. Colonial crewel work, usually lighter in scale and feeling than Jacobean work, its English counterpart, is well known and fine examples remain. Crewel was used on petticoats (the fashions of the period displayed the petticoat), on pockets that were tied around the waist under a skirt, and for pictures.

Early colonial rugs went on the table instead of the floor-floors might be sanded or covered with a painted canvas floor cloth. Oriental carpets, called "Turkey carpets," were imported by the very rich and imitated by those less well­to-do. Colonial women did Turkey-work by sewing yarns into a coarse cloth and knotting them into loops that were cut to form a fairly dense pile.

Another kind of rug belongs to the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and was pretty much confined to New England. Bed ruggs were made by sewing wool yarns into a background fabric leaving loops (which were sometimes cut) to make a heavy warm bedcover. There is a definite difference between the running stitch sewing techniques used for bed ruggs and the method used to hook rugs.13  


Early American textiles  until the 1840s

By 1840 a typical American family would be living farther west, perhaps in Indiana, still on a farm where some weaving and spinning was going on, but the majority of the staple fabrics would have been purchased, unless the family was very poor. Most textiles came from New England mills, a few from local producers, and a few from abroad.

      American coverlets were at a peak of popularity in the 1840s. Great numbers were made by the thousands of handweavers who came to the United States in the early decades of the nineteenth century. In England, Ireland, Scotland, and Germany they had been trained for an occupation that was rapidly becoming extinct, so they bought small acreages in New York, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Ohio, or Indiana where they could farm and weave. Rarely is coverlet weaving associated with New England, although many of the immigrant weavers spent some time working in the mills before they headed west. Some became itinerant weavers, often using their clients' looms. Coverlets were much in vogue in country areas, and the fad went west with the population; women needed warm and attractive bed covers, and coverlets could be made relatively inexpensively from homegrown wool. Weaving costs ranged from two or three dollars for a single weave to ten or twelve dollars for a double-woven jacquard.

The overshot is the oldest type of coverlet. Made in America during the last quarter of the eighteenth century, overshot coverlets could be woven by nonprofessionals on four-harness looms, but they were more frequently made by immigrant Scotch weavers. These coverlets show a foundation of plain weave with warp and two sets of filling that switch from one face of the cloth to the other at the supplementary pattern weft of wool (see chapter 3). Drafts were passed down from one generation to the next and carried traditional names: chariot wheels, blazing star, trailing vine, Whig Rose-patterns based mostly on circles and squares. More coverlets were made in overshot construction than in any other, and more overshot coverlets were made in the mid-Atlantic states than anywhere else.

Much less common are the summer and winter coverlets. Their construction is similar to overshot in that summer and winter designs are small geometric figures also in dark and light. The coverlets are reversible, with one side predominately dark (winter) and the other predominately light (summer). They have a somewhat flecked appearance because of the weave structure used. They should not be confused with double cloth construction, which is also reversible.

The double woven coverlet is a third type. It is characterized by two sets of warp and two sets of wefts that switch from one face of the cloth to the other at the edges of the pattern figures, making reversible patterns. Sometimes they were made on multiharness looms, but after 1825 the handloom with a jacquard attachment was generally used.

Coverlets made with the jacquard became popular rapidly, because complex and varied designs could be woven. Most weavers had a selection of patterns to choose from, woven with sets of prepunched cards. The end borders could be individualized with the owner's name and the date of weaving, or the weaver's name and identifying motif. and it is the kind of coverlet that is especially valuable to historians.  A family may own one that has been passed down with the erroneous tale that a great, great grandmother or aunt wove it. It is very unlikely that a jacquard loom was ever operated by anyone but a professional weaver. It is also unlikely that the jacquard weavers were itinerants. The loom was just too bulky, and delicately balanced, to be moved easily, although weavers did travel to take orders. It is probable, however, that an ancestor raised the wool and spun it at home (and maybe dyed it indigo blue or madder red), then sent it to be woven.

             Handweaving of coverlets ended with the Civil War. Many weavers joined the army or were quite old by that time. Attention was given to more necessary weaving, and the demand died. There was a brief revival for the American centennial in 1876, but the machine loomed coverlets with their commemorative designs were of poor quality, lightweight, and the colors were not fast.




1. William R. Bagnall, The Textile Industries of the United States, Volume I, 1639-1810

(1893; reprint ed., New York: A. M. Kelley, 1971), pp. 6-7.

2. William B. Weeden, Economic and Social History of New England: 1620-1789, 2 vols.

(1890; reprint ed., New York: Hillary House Publishers, 1963), p. 388. (Note: Woolfells were skins from which the wool had not been sheared or pulled; flock, inferior fibers added to low-grade fabrics to make them heavier. According to Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language, 2 vols. (London, 1755), chortling meant the felt or skin of a sheep shorn, and morling (or mortling) meant wool plucked from a dead sheep. Bay yarn was "a denomination sometimes used promiscuously with woolen yarn.")

3. Bagnall, Textile Industries, p. 12.

4. Little gives an interesting account of this period in Georgia. Frances Little, Early American Textiles (New York: The Century Co., 1931), pp. 132-139.

5. George Francis Dow, Every Day Life in the Massachusetts Bay Colony (Boston: The Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, 1935), pp. 128-129.

6. John R. Commons, ed., A Documentary History of American Industrial Society, 10 vols. (Cleveland: The Arthur H. Clark, Co., 1910) 2:326-327.

7. Rita J. Adrosko, Natural Dyes in the United States (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1968), p. 8.

8. Florence H. Pettit, America's Indigo Blues: Resist-printed and Dyed Textiles of the Eighteenth Century (New York: Hastings House, 1974). 9. Commons, Documentary, 2:324.

10. Johnson, Dictionary s.v. "linsey-woolsey." Linsey-woolsey is defined as "vile, mean, of different and unsuitable parts; a lawless linsey woolsie brother." (Note: Harold and Dorothy Burnham, `Keep me warm one night' Early handweaving in eastern Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1972), p. 62, suggests that linsey-woolsey was a derogatory name for drugget, because it was not "all wool and a yard wide.")

11. Johnson, Dictionary, s.v. serge.

12. Francis Morris, Notes on Laces of the American Colonists (New York: Needle and Bobbin Club, 1926), p. 1-4.

13. William L. Warren, Bed Ruggs/1722-1833 (Hartford: Wadsworth Atheneum, 1972), p. 23.