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Antique Homespun

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Antiques must be the sexiest form of recycling. “Patina” is the richness of age; we all love the warm glow of old silver, the depth of antique woods, and the soft hand of old fabric. As “eco-chic” design grows in popularity, many people long for softer, simpler, “greener” options in decorating, and recognize the elegant role antiques play in that mix. “It’s about mixing natural materials in a sleek and sophisticated way,” says Sylvain Pitre in an online article about eco-chic style.

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Pat Stanton Cooley of Stanton Design Associates, Downingtown, Pa., recognizes a trend toward natural fabrics, saying, “In today’s world people are craving a certain comfort and a nesting feeling. Now people really gravitate towards natural fibers, which feel richer.” Stanton Cooley has used antique homespun in interior decorating. “It comes across as very warm because of its texture but it’s also very authentic. It gives you that sense of historical tradition, and has a beautiful hand and a softer texture.”

Homespun is simply a fabric spun or made at home, most commonly associated with linen. Linen, the world’s oldest vegetable fabric to be woven, is notoriously difficult to create. In Tasha Tudor’s Heirloom Crafts, Tovah Martin writes, “The silky contents of each stalk must be tortured out of their husk … Then something called a swingle knife is applied rather brutally to beat the fibers free. Finally, after much violence, the fibers are liberated, but you must comb them clean and straight by flinging them through a nasty-looking bed of tines ….” Once you finally have the fibers, Martin writes, linen is very challenging to weave.

No wonder most colonists bought their linen. In Plain and Fancy, Susan Burrows Swan writes, “Because silk and cotton were scarce during the colonial period, most clothing and household items of fabric were made from English and European linen or wool. Small amounts of these fabrics, generally lower grades, were domestically produced. Many people could afford to buy such cloth, and newspaper listings of fabrics for sale … made up perhaps the greatest single category of newspaper advertisements. Other people, however, particularly those living in rural areas, had to rely on home-produced yarn, which meant starting from scratch by raising flax for linen or sheep for wool.”

While wool is easier to prepare for spinning than flax, a woman (a “spinster,” a job often relegated to an unmarried family member) could sit down while spinning flax, while the wheel for wool was large and required walking back and forth. Swan writes that girls learned “plain sewing” early. “Plain sewing included the essential forms of household needlework—the cutting out and stitching of underwear, ordinary clothing, sheets, towels, bed-coverings. This work required simple stitches, among them the back, whip, cross, and running stitches.”

Unlike in our wardrobe-egalitarian age, you could read an 18th-century person’s social status by their clothing. Homespun meant “poor” because fabric was expensive. “Estate inventories indicated that bedding and bed curtains were among the most highly valued possessions, exceeded in value only by land, buildings, and, in rare instances, wrought silver,” according to Florence Montgomery in Textiles in America 1650 – 1870.

Due to the expense of fabric, even the wealthy had limited wardrobes. Swan writes, “For a common woman, it might consist of a shift or two, a number of petticoats, a waistcoat, an apron, one or two caps, stockings, and a pair of shoes.” Worn clothing was cut down and made into garments for smaller members of the family, so few clothing items made of homespun survive.

Did Quakers wear the simplest of homespun? Except for some rural poor, no. In 1749 Swedish naturalist Peter Kalm wrote, “Although [the Quakers] pretend not to have their clothes made after the latest fashion, or wear cuffs or be dressed as gaily as others, they strangely enough have their garments made of the finest and costliest material that can be produced.”

In an online article, Georgia Lund writes, “Homespun fabric is in demand and hard to locate … usually little more than a checkered remnant piece that has survived from a larger table-cloth or bed sheet.”

While condition is a factor in the price of homespun antiques, collectors understand that natural fibers will show wear, and rarity is a larger consideration.

Stripes were the earliest patterns created, followed by checks, which required a more sophisticated loom, so pattern is used in dating a piece of homespun. For example, in her Web site, “The Cat Lady Antiques,” Anne Bedic of Bangor, Pa., writes, “Since most early Pennsylvania tablecloths (woven specifically for that purpose) were made of white linen yarn and were either plain or pattern woven, any checked or plaid tablecloths are surmised to have been cut down from bed cases in the second half of the 19th century.”

Novice collectors are advised to see many varieties of homespun and talk to an expert. Beware: “homespun” is used to describe a country style of fabric, even if machine made. While factory-produced fabric has a tell-tale straight edge or selvedge, experience is required to recognize the age and area of origin of real homespun.

Lund recommends decorating with homespun, saying, “Use a homespun pillowcase as the back cover for an antique straight-back woven wood chair.” Cooley reminds collectors, “Natural fibers can’t resist sun as well, but there are fabric treatments [available] that should be applied by a professional.”

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