I was asked a couple of weeks ago to give a short talk at the Cotton Club Museum as part of a demo the Gainesville Handweavers Guild did on Florida Emancipation Day (May 20th). I donated a copy of the Mary Madison book Plantation Weavers Remember: An Oral History, which was the basis of most of my lecture.

It was a little strange to be a white-ish person (Dad’s Romany) giving a speech about enslaved African-Americans at a mostly-Black event. But the staff asked for it, and helped me figure out how to present the material. I owe them a huge debt.

I thought I’d post my notes for the talk here.

  • People have been spinning for 40,000 years; weaving followed soon after
  • Almost all cultures have/had weaving
  • We have proof of looms from the Stone Age
  • Spinning and weaving have always been done by enslaved people, often women, as well as free people
    • Everyone from the Greeks to the Vikings to the Egyptians enslaved people
  • Spinning machines invented in the 1770s. Cotton gin invented 1790s.
  • In the early 1800s North, weavers would use machine-spun thread to weave, until automated weaving looms became available in the 1850s.
  • In the South, it was harder to get machine-made thread, so thread was usually produced by enslaved children and by Black nursing mothers who couldn’t work the fields.
    • A lot of the carding, especially, was done by children.
  • Most textiles were made of wool (for winter wear) and cotton (for summer). Flax and hemp were also used.
  • Large plantations produced all fabric and thread in-house. Most clothes for enslaved people were made from textiles made on-site.
    • Often had enslaved women who specialized in weaving or spinning, and that was their entire job.
    • Had a dedicated building or rooms for weaving.
  • Made rope as well as blankets, linens, and clothing.
  • Smaller homes would expect their enslaved women to do the housekeeping and other chores as well as weaving. One woman said she was expected to produce 6-7 yards of fabric a day on top of taking care of the home. That’s a lot of weaving to do, especially since they used fine threads. Looms were often placed in the kitchen.
  • Poorer whites would produce their own thread, and an enslaved weaver would be hired to make the fabric.
  • Knitting was also done by the enslaved, especially socks, which were always needed.
  • Weavers were often responsible for dyeing the thread and fabric too. Plants were used to get different colors.
  • Most enslaved people wore undyed clothes, because it was extra work to dye it. Some got Sunday clothes, though, which were usually dyed.
  • If slaves didn’t spin or weave enough, they were often beaten for it. The book of oral histories has a lot of stories of weavers not meeting their quota and being punished. This was a typical punishment. It occurred in all areas of work for enslaved punishment, not just weaving.

I highly recommend Madison’s book. It’s a quick read, but very moving. She collected relevant interviews from the 1930’s WPA Writers’ Project, which recorded the stories of many former enslaved people. It’s important to realize that what is a hobby and an art now was backbreaking work for women in the past.

1 Comment

Terry Lee · May 30, 2023 at 2:38 pm

Thanks for posting the notes from your talk, Grayson. Interesting. I’m glad I got to visit the museum that day.

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