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From Thread to Fabric to Art

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African American woman spinning flax on a spinning wheel.
An unidentified African American woman spinning flax on a spinning wheel. Photo by Paul Gunter, ca. 1907.

Before the industrial era, much of the work of the creation of clothing was done at home or at small shops. Spinning was a daily activity. Depending on one’s culture, the production of thread and yarn might be entirely women’s work, or work done by the whole family.  In northern Europe, spinning was so closely defined as women’s work that words like “distaff” not only were used to refer to a tool for holding fiber, but to women as a group. Distaff Day, in January when women returned to their spinning after the Christmas holidays, was a celebration of women’s work and also became a playful contest as men tried to stop them and prolong the holidays by setting fire to the flax.

The production of yarn for knitted necessities like stockings, gloves, and hats was common among many European cultures and it was usually women who knitted. Spinning and knitting were considered among the more pleasant types of “women’s work.” These traditions came to North America along with tools such as spinning wheel styles and songs sung while doing the work. This is “Iruten Ari Nuzu” (I am making wool), a song in the Basque language for spinning wool to make stockings sung by Mrs. Francisco Etcheverry, Matias Etcheverry, and Antoinette Erro; recorded by Sidney Robertson Cowell in California in 1940.

“O thalu thrad,” is an Icelandic song for spinning thread sung by Oddrun Sigurasson and also recorded by Cowell in California in 1938. [The lyrics have been identified as from the poem, ”Rokkvísa,” by poet Jón Thoroddsen (1818 or 1819 – 1868) thanks to& a reader, Einar V. Bj. Maack. See the comments below.]

Women seated at three looms weaving.
African American women in a weaving class, Tuskegee Institute, Tuskegee, Alabama. Keystone View Company, ca. 1927. Detail from a stereocard. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Thread and yarn might be sent to  a weaver to be turned into cloth or woven at home. In many parts of Europe it was common for a man to be a community weaver. In colonial North America, it became common for households to have a loom that was used by women of the house. These were sometimes adapted to small houses by suspending them from the ceiling or making them so that they could fold against a wall.

Wool cloth was often scoured to remove the lanolin and beaten in water or other liquids, to soften and felt it to some degree, depending on the final use of the fabric.  The Scottish tradition was called “waulking” the cloth, which included both scouring and fulling. A group of women would meet at the house of the owner of the cloth or the weaver’s house, sit around a rough table, and beat the wet cloth while singing to coordinate the work. The liquid used to scour the cloth was horse urine, so this could be a smelly task.  The songs sung reflected the concerns of women of the 17th to 19th centuries, of love, ill-fated matches, and fears of being widowed, for example. This is Mary MacPhee, originally from South Uist, singing a waulking song: “‘Ille dhuinn’s tu gam dhith” (Brown haired lad, you are missing from me) for Sidney Robertson Cowell in California in 1939.[1]

Many high-quality recordings of waulking songs were made by Alan Lomax in the Hebrides in 1951.  He recorded them in varying contexts, including actual waulkings at which cloth was processed, as well as ceilidhs and other social gatherings where women who were used to waulking cloth sang the songs socially.  Lomax’s waulking songs can be found online at the following links to the Association for Cultural Equity website, in sessions recorded at Balivanich in BenbeculaGarrygall in the Isle of Barra, Daliburgh in South Uist, and Garrynamonie in South Uist.  Lomax recorded the songs in the context of other work songs, including songs sung while milking cows, as well as other textile-related songs such as spinning and weaving songs.  He even recorded a few waulking songs from children in South Uist, among their playground games.

In Nova Scotia, the waulking of cloth came to be called “milling,” and the occasions on which milling was done to the accompaniment of traditional Gaelic songs were called “milling frolics.” Milling ceased to be done by hand in Canada earlier than waulking declined in Scotland, so there are few if any sound recordings of milling songs being used to process cloth.  However, long after milling was no longer being done as a means of preparing cloth, milling frolics continued to occur, at which Gaelic-speakers mimed the actions of milling cloth in order to socialize and sing milling songs. The milling frolic became a cultural event at which people gathered to speak and sing in Gaelic. Milling frolics still occur today, as social events, occasions for the teaching of Gaelic, and spectator events at museums and folk festivals.  AFC has several collections with recordings of milling frolics, including by such collectors as Helen Creighton.  In 1949, folklorist MacEdward Leach visited Cape Breton Island with reels of tape provided by the Library of Congress.  The resulting collection, the MacEdward Leach Collection of Gaelic Songs and Tales from Cape Breton (AFC 1951/008) was deposited here and at Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN).  MUN has placed texts and audio clips from a portion of the collection online, including 25 milling songs, which can be found at this link.

Three women seated at two upright looms, weaving. Sheep can be seen on a ledge behind the loom.
Navajo weavers. Pennington and Roland, 1914. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

As European textile arts came to the Americas, they influenced other ethnic groups such as Native Americans and African Americans, who often incorporated the new ideas and materials into their own traditional arts.  In the Southwest, Indian peoples acquired sheep and wool through the early Spanish settlers and developed their own styles of rugs, blankets, and clothing. Many of these are collected today as works of art.  From the Southwest, the use of wool in textiles spread to other Indian peoples. Navajo and other Southwestern tribes preserved older breeds of sheep that later vanished from Europe and are very much valued today.

Textile arts could be both utilitarian and artistic, and this seems so as far back as we can trace them. Embroidery and lace could be made to enhance woven or knitted items. Quilts made to keep the family warm could be pieced in patterns, embroidered, or appliqued. Hooked rugs might be made in highly creative patterns to please the individuals who used them. The abilities of girls to show their artistic talents in the production of needed household items and clothing was encouraged and, for middle and upper class girls, part of her formal education. Among rich and poor alike, these skills were expected to help her to find a desirable husband.


A quilt with multi-colored circles within squares as a motif.
“Quilt no. 1” made by Carrie Severt. Photo by Lyntha Scott Eiler. Alleghany County, Virginia,1978. Blue Ridge Parkway Folklife Project Collection (AFC 1982/009). More quilts can be found in the online presentation Quilts and Quiltmaking in America, 1978 to 1996.

Early settlers in North America had additional problems to overcome with more limited access to fibers such as linen and silk.  A silk industry emerged briefly in Pennsylvania but proved not to be sustainable. During the American Revolutionary War, linen was no longer available and so farms grew hemp instead and hemp “homespun” cloth became a patriotic fabric. Cotton, which is softer than hemp, rose to become the most common vegetable fiber after the invention of the cotton gin, which removed the seeds more efficiently than doing it by hand. The cotton gin gave rise to large rich plantations in the south. It solved dependence on imported linen but had the negative effect of spreading and prolonging slave labor in the production of cotton. After emancipation, growing cotton became one of the common ways that former slaves made their livings, either as sharecroppers or as farmers.

The textile mills that came with the industrial revolution took skills that women were often not paid for, but that benefited their families, and turned them into skills that they were paid little for and took them away from their families. Poor women in urban areas often became trapped in a cycle of poverty that was passed on to their children, especially daughters. The factories sought children to work in the production of thread. Boys would often be taken out of the factories and sent to school at a certain age. But girls would more often lose their opportunity to get an education as families struggled to earn enough to survive. Sweat shops producing clothing also exploited women’s talents.  A consequence of this was the involvement of women in the textile industries in unionization, the fight for the eight hour work day, and the fight for weekends.  The fight was not only for themselves but for their families, and for their children’s futures.  The fight was a long one. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York, New York on March 25, 1911, in which 123 women and 23 men died, was a galvanizing moment for women workers. The following year women textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts struck for better working traditions, famously setting to song the poem “Bread and Roses,” by James Oppenheim for their cause.

Marianna Costa (1915-2004), a retired worker in the textile industry who became a union official, was interviewed by folklorist David Taylor as part of the American Folklife Center’s Working in Paterson (New Jersey) project in 1994.  She explained how she became active in a textile union shortly after she went to work in a dye house at 18 in 1932. Her first experience with union activism came the next year, with a large textile strike in 1933, as other women in the office told her,  “Come on out. Join us. We’re going to strike.”  She recalls that she had to ask what a union was, but shortly after, she was elected to a union position, which was unusual for a woman at the time.

Changes began to be enacted in some states and for some occupations during the early twentieth century, but the overall work changes were in response to the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1937.[2]

Soldiers in uniform gather around a nurse and another soldier who is learning to knit.
Knitting class Lafayette House, knitting class of wounded. This demonstrates a use of knitting as therapy. Bain News Service, between 1918 and 1920.

Home textile arts and crafts never completely stopped during the twentieth century, though they were no longer so universally practiced. Knitting and crochet continued to be common activities for women even as other arts declined, but were usually made with factory-produced yarns rather than hand-spun.  It seems strange that in the 1920s knitting was considered a “fad.” Its popularity rises and falls at times, but it has never vanished. The calming and therapeutic aspects of textile arts were part of the 1920s revival, so some wounded veterans of the first world war were taught to knit as therapy. Quilting and rug-making persisted among certain ethnic groups and in certain regions and so were poised to come back again. While these arts in the past had been done out of necessity, but always had an artistic component, in the 19th and 20th centuries they became more clearly artistic efforts for many who continued to practice them as store-bought options became available. In the mid- to late 20th century various arts were revitalized, including some that had nearly disappeared.  People began learning lace-making out of books, rather than from their grandmothers, and women and some men began organizing groups to bring back spinning and dying yarn where it had fallen out of practice.

A hooked rug depicting a sailboat on the water.
Day’s End on the Sinepuxent Bay Richard Dale. Tell Me ‘Bout Series of hooked rugs by Mary Shepherd Burton, 2001. Mary Shepherd Burton Collection.

For myself, the continuation of my own family textile traditions and the revitalization of some additional arts was so much around me as I grew up that I hardly realized that some arts, such as my mother’s tatted lace, had nearly vanished in the wider world.  While growing up I learned to sew, knit, weave, embroider, piece comforters, hook rugs, and make lace.  My mother did not spin, but encouraged me when I bought a drop spindle and bought me a spinning wheel.  The part of Maryland where I grew up has such a wealth of unusual breeds of sheep and goats bred for their wool on small family farms that wonderful fibers are easy to come by.  I did not know until recently that the gray Lincoln longwool sheep that are common on Maryland hillsides are considered an endangered breed.  Since I began spinning in the 1970s, colored angora goats and sheep that had become rare as a result of the demands for white fleece by textile industries have become part of the landscape as well. New breeds of sheep and goats have been developed with hand spinners in mind. Alpaca are no longer an uncommon sight on Maryland farms — or on farms in many other states. The textile arts have surprising reach and power. Artists’ desire for exotic fibers has even helped to save endangered wild animals, such as the South American guanaco and the arctic muskox, as well as spurred efforts to save many endangered domestic breeds of sheep and goats. Today engaging in the textile arts is a choice, for women and men, and while there are often predictions of their demise, new generations keep finding ways to maintain and renew them.




  1. Folklorist John Lorne Campbell collected many waulking songs and published them in three volumes,  Hebridean Folksongs,  Clarendon Press, 1969-1981.
  2. For more examples of labor song see: Stephanie Hall. “In Celebration of American Labor,” Folklife Today,  September 2, 2016. and Stephen Winick. “Work Songs and Other Laborlore for Labor Day,” Folklife Today, August 28, 2014.


Association for Cultural Equity (includes presentations from the Alan Lomax collections)

Leyden, Maurice. “Rediscover Northern Ireland 2008: I Am a Wee Weaver: Weaving and Singing in Northern Ireland.” Handloom weaving was dominated by men in 19th century Ireland. This lecture presents the traditions associated with weaving, including examples of songs sung by Mr. Leyden.

Mary Shepherd Burton Collection, artistic rugs created around family stories, with both the rugs and the stories displayed. Library of Congress.

MacEdward Leach an the Songs of Atlantic Canada: Cape Breton Milling Songs, Memorial University of Newfoundland

Quilts and Quiltmaking in America, 1978 to 1996. Library of Congress.

South-Central Georgia Folklife Collection. This collection has images and interviews related to quilting. [Added 4/23/2017]

Working in Paterson, New Jersey. Library of Congress.

Comments (7)

  1. A wonderful overview, which offers a glimpse of the rich and varied holdings that the American Folklife Center has on this vital area of work and creative expression. Thank you!

  2. Thank you so much for this wonderful overview! As a 21st century “fiber artist”, I never cease feeling a close connection to millions of mothers and grandmother’s who, over the centuries, taught us to love working with our hands to make beautiful things.

  3. Wonderful article! So full of interesting information and with striking audio and photo examples. Thank you!

  4. Outstanding post Stephanie. It’s great to be reminded that the thread of textiles and work using textiles weaves throughout our history and hopefully will continue long into the future.

  5. Thank you for a wonderful article highlighting the “fiber arts”. I continue to knit, sew, and weave and look forward to passing on the skills to the next generation.

  6. The song you refer to “O thalu thrad” is actually called “Rokkvísa” (a poem of the spinning wheel/distaff) and is by Jón Thoroddsen:

    Úr þeli þráð að spinna

    mér þykir næsta indæl vinna;

    eg enga iðn kann finna,

    sem öllu betur skemmti mér.

    Eg sit í hægu sæti

    og sveifla rokk með kvikum fæti,

    eg iða öll af kæti,

    er ullarlopinn teygjast fer,

    og kvæða kver

    á skauti skikkju minnar

    æ opið er,

    því verð eg þrátt að sinna

    rokkurinn meðan suðar sér –

    rokkurinn suðar sér.

    Jón Thoroddsen.

    • Thank you! This poem is wonderful to have. The information we have about the songs is mainly from the notes of Sidney Robertson Cowell, who often did not know the languages of the people she recorded.

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