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The Hands that Spun the Revolution

The following is a guest post by Danielle Herring, an intern with the Digital Resources Division of the Law Library of Congress. She is a graduate of the School of Information at Florida State University.

On a winter’s night in 1769 ladies assembled at a ball held in the future Virginia capitol of Richmond, an unremarkable event, yet their attendance, or specifically, what they were wearing, merited a mention in the colony’s newspaper. The Virginia Gazette reported that more than 100 of the women at the ball had worn homespun gowns, and the publication encouraged other American women to follow their example.

What was the significance of this wardrobe choice? The promotion of homespun clothing in the American colonies traces its origin to resistance on the part of colonists to several British laws that required the taxation of imported goods.

The Navigation Acts were a series of laws that limited trade in British colonies. Beginning in the late 17th century, English colonies were required to exclusively import goods from Britain. Colonists were also limited to shipping their own goods produced within the colonies to Britain. While these laws were originally lax in their enforcement, the tightening of these laws, and the introduction of the Sugar Act, led to increased tensions between American colonists and the British government.

The Stamp Act required a tax to be paid on any legal document, academic degree, appointment to office, newspapers, pamphlets, playing cards, and dice. A stamp from the treasury on the taxed item indicated the payment of this tax. Protests of the Stamp Act by colonists, as well as the refusal on the part of colonial government officials to collect taxes led to its repeal.

Postcard depicting the burning of the Stamp Act in 1765 Boston1903. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Link to photograph.

Burning of the Stamp Act, Boston. 1903. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b53085

The Townshend Duties were then introduced. This law required taxes on paper, paints, glass, tea, and any goods imported from Britain to the colonies. Protests and boycotts resumed, now involving an expanding network of families and communities across all of the colonies. Resistance on the part of the colonists to these new taxes on goods took on many forms, but one notable method of resistance was a boycott of imported fabrics in favor of American-made goods, also known as the homespun movement.

Women would play a significant role in boycotts of British products, especially in the homespun movement. Newspaper articles during this time praised women for avoiding imported goods, and encouraged other women to make similar decisions:

We hear that there was held two or three evenings ago, an assembly of Ladies of the first quality, in a very respectable alley in Town, who have not wore ribbons for many years past, and who thro’ a resolution to encourage to the most of their Power the manufactures of this country, have made spinning their only employment, and drink nothing at their meetings but New England Rum, the best part of their lives ; and the patriotism of the above Ladies is more illustrious and worthy of imitation[…]

Previously existing boycotts, known as non-consumption agreements, resumed in response to the Townshend Duties. Wearing homespun fabrics was viewed by the colonists as a show of patriotism. Spinning parties held by women were now politically charged social gatherings, this traditional form of woman’s work deemed an acceptable avenue for the expression of political opinions.

Black and white engraving of 18th century kitchen scene where a woman is spinning fiber into yarn, from the book A Brief History of the United States. 1885. Joel Dorman Steele.

A New England kitchen, engraving in A Brief History of the United States. 1885. Joel Dorman Steele. User Under Public Domain Mark 1.0

The non-importation agreements were also made by colonists in an effort to have the Townshend Duties repealed. These agreements were boycotts of the sale of imported goods on the part of colonial merchants. Women played a central role in the effectiveness of these agreements as both consumers and manufacturers of domestic products. The few single women who owned their own shops were able to act politically as part of the male-dominated mercantile class, also signing non-importation agreements.

Broadside titled The true sons of liberty and supporters of the non-importation agreement. Sons of Liberty. 1768. Boston. Library of Congress Broadsides, leaflets, and pamphlets from America and Europe. Link to digitized scan of broadside.

The true sons of liberty and supporters of the non-importation agreement. Sons of Liberty. 1768. Boston. Library of Congress Broadsides, leaflets, and pamphlets from America and Europe. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.rbc/rbpe.03700200

Like the merchants and other colonists who signed the non-importation agreements, George Washington also understood the importance of domestic fabric manufacture as part of the resistance to taxes. In 1769 he endorsed a letter from George Mason who was writing on behalf of the Virginia Merchants Association. A few years prior to the endorsement of this non-importation agreement, Washington had begun an enterprise of domestic manufacture of cloth to replace boycotted fabric imports. Large-scale manufacturing of fabric in the American colonies like Washington’s at Mount Vernon relied on the labor of free and enslaved women, especially the spinning of raw materials before they could be woven into cloth.

In 1774, women took a more public political stand with the Edenton Tea Party. Organized by Penelope Barker, women in Edenton, North Carolina exercised their economic power by collectively agreeing to a boycott. Fifty-one women gathered and signed a petition agreeing not to purchase imported English tea or cloth, the petition echoing the earlier non-consumption and non-importation agreements written by men. They formed an organization called the Edenton Ladies’ Patriotic Guild, stating in the Virginia Gazette:

As we cannot be indifferent on any occasion that appears nearly to affect the peace and happiness of our country, and as it has been thought necessary, for the public good, to enter into several particular resolves by a meeting of Members deputed from the whole Province it is a duty which we owe, not only to our near and dear connections who have concurred in them, but to ourselves who are essentially interested in their welfare, to do everything as far as lies in our power to testify our sincere adherence to the same; and we do therefore accordingly subscribe this paper, as a witness of our fixed intention and solemn determination to do so.

When tensions between American colonists and English rule boiled over into war, it was also women who made the uniforms for the Continental Army. Throughout the war, domestic fabric production continued after all imports from England, including cloth, were banned by the English government in 1775 with the passage of the Prohibitory Act.

Revolutionary-war era fashions were often simpler compared to their European counterparts due to prohibitions of imported goods and the influence of Quaker styles. Already possessing an ethos of simplicity in dress as part of their faith, Quakers were considered the leaders and originators of the homespun movement.

Fine fabrics were difficult to access during the American revolution, which also had an impact on fashion in the American colonies. In the World of the American Revolution, Merril Smith notes that old dresses were often mended and remade into newer, more fashionable styles. Reworking old fashions into new ones was undertaken by individual women, or by seamstresses, whose skills were in high demand during this time.

During and after the revolution, following European fashions was a subject of controversy, but ultimately French and English styles returned after the war. American women’s fashion after the revolution remained an avenue for political expression. Discouraged from speaking publicly about politics, fashion could be used by women to communicate their opinions about politics by more socially acceptable means. In post-revolution America, federalist women incorporated golden eagles or black cockades into their ensembles, and women who supported republicanism wore Phrygian caps. Boycotts ended on foreign goods and support for foreign policies or governments could be indicated by wearing clothing made of fabrics imported from different countries.

As the main consumers of fabrics, as well as playing a significant role in their manufacture, I think the homespun movement could be considered one of the earliest forms of political participation by women on a large scale in American history. Participation in the homespun movement and other boycotts was an awakening for many women about their own economic power. Women’s participation in early American politics did not end with the homespun movement. Other forms of collective action on the part of women would follow, such as textile mill worker strikes in 1824. When women participated in boycotts and other activism in early America, they were often met with the frustrations of limits placed on their participation within the public sphere. This frustration only spurred further activism on the part of women who were seeking the promise of 1776 to be fulfilled.

We acknowledge that this blog article focuses on women broadly and implicitly free women. Enslaved women would have been part of the domestic cloth manufacture, but neither this work nor the clothes they wore would have given them any sort of a political voice. If you would like to know more about the American revolution, the homespun movement, enslaved women, and the history of 18th-century fashion in politics, you can consult these additional selected sources:

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2 Comments

  1. Josh
    October 25, 2022 at 9:15 am

    Would the capital of Virginia, at that time, be Williamsburg? Richmond did not become the capital I believe until 1780 or so.

  2. Jennifer Gonzalez
    October 26, 2022 at 9:44 am

    Thank you for the correction! We have updated the first sentence to reflect that the capital was not moved to Richmond until 1780 (https://www.williamsburgva.gov/488/History).

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