What Did An Early American Textile Shop Look Like?
I picked up a new biography recently. It’s summer, after all, and a little dive into something both interesting and educational was in order. I settled on Betsy Ross and the Making of America, by Marla R. Miller. And while it doesn’t exactly describe America in the 1860’s, it is about the most preeminent seamstress in American history, so I figured it was well worth my time.
Betsy’s mother Rebecca James was the daughter of a Quaker shopkeeper named George James, who ran a very successful shop in Philadelphia in the 1740’s. I have always wondered how it would feel to walk into a shop from that era full of fabrics and laces and trimmings of all kinds. Knowing that the four basic fibers available to use in that day consisted of wool, linen, silk, and cotton, it seemed to me that it might be rather austere. But judging from the following quote from Ms. Miller’s book, I couldn’t have been more wrong:
“George’s Philadelphia shop was a success, its inventory a marvel of colors and textures. . ., and a geography lesson as well. Shelves groaned with fabrics from around the world: lawn and linen from Holland, India cottons, German serges and “foirrest cloth” and a panoply of kearseys, camblets, silks, paduasoys, taffetas, oznabrigs and damasks.”
Wow. The passage goes on to describe pewters, writing papers, teas, spices, chests, cupboards, hardware, and a host of other items that paint an exotic and intoxicating picture. But I was lost at paduasoys and oznabrigs.
So what, exactly, are all of these fabrics? A short glossary might be in order.
Lawn: a plain weave textile, originally of linen but now mostly of cotton. It is designed using fine, high count yarns which results in a silky, untextured feel. Lawn is still commonly available today and is often used in baby christening gowns and soft, light summer dresses. Think teatime in the garden at Downton Abby.
Linen: a fabric made from the fibers of the flax plant. The shorter flax fibers are woven into a coarse fabric and the longer fibers are woven into finer fabrics.
India cottons: cotton is a soft, fluffy staple fiber that grows in a boll, or protective case, around the seeds of cotton plants. Cotton needs a hot climate to grow well, and India has been a primary producer of cotton for centuries.
German serges: serge is a type of strong woolen cloth used to make clothes such as skirts, coats, and trousers. It can also describe a twill-weave cotton or silk. Apparently, Germany must have produced a lot of this fabric in the mid-1700s.
German “foirrest” cloth: I am still looking for the correct definition of this term. If I had to guess, I would say it is the felted wool cloth traditionally used in the beautiful boiled jackets which are commonly seen in Germany. The drape of boiled wool fabric is soft and lovely, and the wool fiber takes dye very well, resulting in a range of stunning colors.
Kearseys: the most common spelling is kersey. It is a kind of coarse woolen cloth that originated from the village of Kersey in Suffolk, England. It was spun in large gauges from inferior wool. The thickness of the yarn was what made the fabric so sturdy. The back of the fabric was napped, which produced a dense, warm fabric with a smooth back. It would have been popular for cloak making.
Camblets: This is a woven fabric that might have been made originally of camel or goat’s hair. Later it developed into a blend of goat’s hair and silk, or of wool and cotton. This was considered a very valuable cloth. The finest was made in Brussels, followed by Britain. Camblet fabric could be found with a variety of finishes, such as figured camblets where various designs were stamped on a background of a solid color, or water camblets where the fabric was dipped in water and then passes under a hot press which gave a smoothness and luster to the fabric.
Paduasoys: silk fabrics woven in a variation of the satin weave, with bindings arranged to create fine cross-ridges across the fabric. There are examples in literature of paduasoys being used in mens’ waistcoats and also upholstery.
Taffeta: crisp, smooth, expensive fabrics made of silk and used chiefly for ball gowns, wedding dresses, and curtains or wall-coverings.
Oznabrigs: a coarse linen cloth made at Osnabruck, Germany.
Damasks: reversible figured fabric made of silk, wool, linen or cotton, with a pattern formed by weaving. These fabrics were expensive and often featured patterns of flowers, fruit, and other designs. They were typically used for ball gowns and interior decorating.
Can you imagine yourself standing in such a store trying to decide what to buy? Can you smell that wonderful textile smell? Can you picture the colors, patterns, textures, and sheen of the fabrics? Clearly, a visit to George James’s shop would have been a feast for the eyes of any seamstress of any age. I’m sold. Now where’s my time machine?