BEFORE COTTON

"Before the advent of cotton, flax and wool were the materials from which cloth was made, as it had been in the old country. In the early fall, flax stalks were gathered from the fields. The sterns were broken into fragments by "flax-breakers," which Vennie Mayer recalls as being "a board three feet long with nails to rake the stems." A few nights' exposure to damp and a few days' subjection to the heat of the sun, were enough to remove the woody pulp from the enduring fiber. Then the fiber was carded and placed upon the spinning wheel's distaff, which was "made of a three-pronged dogwood branch peeled of its bark so as to be as white and smooth as ivory. The prongs were about as large as goose-quills, and ten or twelve inches long, while the stems from which the prongs diverged, and which fitted into the spinning wheel's socket, was about six inches long and as thick as one's finger." The "bunch of flax" was put on the distaff, the thread was started and shaped by the spinner's fingers, and then brought down within reach of the twister, "which after twisting it sufficiently, wound it upon the spool." The wheels were much smaller than the usual ones we picture. Around 1800 and before, at least one of these little flax spinning wheels was "in every house" in the Fork.

While 0. B. Mayer watched his grandmother at work on one of these in the 1820s, he noted that they were already going out of use, and this date is corroborated in Scott. Mayer reports being "impressed, young as I was, with the quietude attached to the occupation. She was seated on a low bench, and with her foot she moved a treadle that communicated motion to the wheel similarly to what is now done with a sewing machine. A band formed of twisted thread passed over the wheel and around the spindle to which quite a rapid movement was given. With the thumb and fore-finger of one hand she pulled down a small quantity of flax from the distaff, and by the aid of the other hand gave it the form of a rough roll which caught by the twister, was quickly finished into a smooth thread and wound upon the spool or quill. The noise produced by the revolving twister, and the humming of the wheel made up a continuous, monotonous buzzing sound which, combined with the bending over of the body and downward gazing of the eyes, was highly favorable for meditating. Thus for hours the spinning would continue, with nothing to interrupt it."

Cotton nap "could not be fixed on the distaff and be drawn down by the fingers to the twisting flyers, as was done with the flax and wool; so it was first fashioned into rolls by cotton cards." All spinning soon came to an end, however, because with cotton, which did not last toughly for a long time like the linen made of flax, required replacement too frequently for the housewife to keep up with the demand. Thus inventions of greater speed were needed to replace the ways "known to our Dutch Fork ancestors, so averse to change and progress." "Moreover, as the days drew on when the desire for 'changeable suits of apparel' was to outstrip all handiwork, and the gentler sex to require oftentimes as much as eighteen yards of stuff for one dress, with a trailing 'superfluity of naughtiness' at least a yard long, the distaff and the little spinning-wheel were forced to retire and the fingers to call for the help of steam-power. Multiplicity must ever be at the expense of durability. Desire can be strained beyond gratification. Neither the strength of steam nor the rapidity of electricity shall ever be able to satisfy the imaginations of men's hearts, rushing on from 'vanity of vanities' to vexations of spirit.'" Thus, in 1891, with these words, Mayer was again strongly advocating the old ways and the old values. He then hopefully predicts that the time is coming when "mankind reeling under satiety" will seek the simplicity of former days. Then the little flax wheel will greet the "children of repentance with a louder and more melodious hum while spinning the thread for the white linen in which the millenial people are to be robed." For him, this fabric symbolized the Dutch Fork's virtues of endurance, simplicity, genuineness, and doing one's work honestly and well, traits that he felt were slipping away in the modern era." (Kibler 1988, 75-77)