I stood in my workroom recently surveying my fabulous, amazing, and overflowing inventory of fabrics and thought to myself that I really did need to find a better system of organization.
Never mind that I knew where everything was and could lay my hand on each and every piece at a moment’s notice. I guess it was just one of those mornings when I felt Martha Stewart looking over my shoulder, placing her hand on her hip, and lifting her eyebrow in proverbial judgment. So I looked around to see if I could find anything I could bear to part with.
My eye fell on an obvious choice: 4 yards of purple polyester double knit. Now purple is one of those colors that can run the gamut from tasteful (think eggplant) to garish (think purple). This fabric was not only purple, it was just short of neon. Like I said, it was an obvious choice. But as I picked it up and began to finger it, I was caught up short thinking about what an amazing piece of technical engineering I held in my hands.
That piece of indestructible, fade-proof polyester double knit would have seemed miraculous to my nineteenth century ancestors. My husband is from New England. He has ancestors from Haverhill, Methuen, and Lowell, Massachusetts. Those were mill towns that were started during the Industrial Revolution of the early nineteenth century. In fact, the town of Lowell was named after Frances Cabot Lowell, considered by many to be the father of the American Industrial Revolution.
Lowell visited Manchester, England in 1810 and was fascinated by the machinery in the mills there. Blessed with a keen mechanical mind, it is considered highly probable that he used a photographic memory to record the workings of the machines he watched and then later sketched them out and reproduced them in Massachusetts when he came home. Skilled dyers and calico printers were brought over from England.
Textile printing was originally done with wooden blocks. The mechanization in the mills allowed it to advance to copper plates and then to engraved rollers, all powered by water. By 1834, those mills were churning out millions of yards of cotton cloth annually, supplied from the cotton plantations in the South. The bright and colorful calico fabrics became popular throughout America.
Southerners tried to compete with the North by building their own factories close to where the cotton was produced, but they were never really successful and the seeds of their later defeat in the Civil War were sown as the North continued to industrialize and produce cheap goods. Fabrics in those days were limited to the natural fibers of cotton, wool, linen, and silk. They might consist of blended fibers, such as linsey-woolsey, a linen/wool fabric which was stiff and durable. Work clothes were frequently made from it. It would most definitely not have been a good choice for a ball gown.
While we think of clothing today as highly disposable, that was not the case in the early to mid-nineteenth century. Clothes were often mentioned in wills and handed down through the generations. Styles changed, but women were resourceful and made over gowns to measure up to whatever look was currently seen on the pages of Godey’s Lady’s Book.
Solid colors were the most popular choice, perhaps because as the skirt circumference expanded through the 1860’s, it was easier to add extra gores of the same color to a skirt to make an older dressfashionable for a minimum expense. In Farmer Boy, the story Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about the childhood of her husband Almonzo Wilder as he was growing up in western New York near the Canadian border, Almonzo’s brother and sister were sent off to school one year. When they came home for a break, their mother took their clothes and picked them apart at the seams, turned them inside out, and sewed them back together so they would “wear evenly.” Think about the amount of work that involved the next time you are browsing the five dollar sale rack of t-shirts at Walmart.
The first synthetic fibers were developed in the early 1880’s by Sir Joseph Swan. These early fibers were created from cellulose derived from plant materials and were referred to as viscose. Rayon and acetate are examples of types of viscose and are made from wood. Nylon was the first truly synthetic fiber and was introduced in the 1930’s. While its most popular use was in women’s stockings, it was quickly identified as an excellent replacement for silk in parachutes during World War II. Nylon and the polyester fabrics that were first developed in the 1940’s are created from petrochemicals and represent decades of research and investment. They hold colors more permanently, are more durable, and are not attractive to insects like moths and beetles. In addition, the creation of a synthetic fiber typically involves a smaller environmental footprint than the production of a natural fiber.
In the end, I couldn’t part with my neon purple polyester double knit. Yes, I know it will never end up in a beautiful Civil War gown. But somehow, it has a character all its own and it deserves a chance to shine. Never mind that every time I look at it I am reminded of a truly awful leisure suit from 1973. There is a lid for every pot, as my mother used to say. She was, of course, talking about people in general and couples in particular. But at some point I will find the perfect use for this fabric. I will remember the amazing textile history and evolution it represents and be happy I have it. So I am not going to organize my stockroom. I can’t bear to part with anything. Please don’t tellMartha.