Monday, August 27, 2007

Phoebe Spun Flax

by Donna Gloff

Information on our "distaff," our mothers' lines is usually hard to come by than information on our fathers' lines. Phoebe (Conrad) Skinner (1816-1886) is no exception. ( See the Mar '06 entry Grandma Phoebe Conrad for more.) We know her grandparents and parents had been early pioneer settlers, so she certainly knew the ways of frontier life, of self-sufficiency. We know her parents were estranged. We don't know when or where she was married to Alexander Skinner, but the two of them set to housekeeping in the late 1820s. She was perhaps very young. (The birth date we have for her would make her 14 when her first son, Calvin, was born.)

We also know that. . .
Phoebe Skinner spun flax and wove linen.

Beyond the general knowledge that frontier women made their own fabric, we have the following three clues that indicate that our pioneer grandmother made linen cloth from flax.

1. In a corner of the hall upstairs at my grandmother's (Edith (Skinner) Stutler, Phoebe's great-grand daughter) was a little spinning wheel. "Really", my mother told me. It was a real spinning wheel that my ancestors actually used, but it was so small I wondered if it might not be a downsized replica of a spinning wheel. In researching the heckel that was part of Alexander's estate, I discovered that the small spinning wheel is used to spin flax into linen yarn and thread.

2. In Alexander Skinner's estate (See Aug '07 Alexander Skinner's Estate) there was a loom which daughter Ann purchased for 25 cents. The fact that it belonged to the widower Alexander seems to indicate that it had belonged to his wife Phoebe, who had died just five years earlier. It is unlikely it would not been used by a man and if it had belonged to a daughter or other family member, it would not have been sold with Alex's estate.

3. There was also a hackle for preparing the flax in Alex's estate, a tool for processing flax, which Ann purchased for 36 cents.


From comments writtten by Union soldiers who were stationed in the area during the Civil War, we know that clothing was generally made from homesmade linsey-woolsey, a particularly sturdy and practical fabric made by weaving linen yarn into wool yarn. Those observant Yankees were not impressed with the quality of fabric our women produced. A Captain Charles Leib spoke of the Sessionist locals wearing "a garb of the coarsest texture of home-spun . . . 'linsey woolsey' "

~ At the top of the page is a field of flax.
~ Grandma Phoebe Skinner is pictured just below it.
~ Below her to the left is an illustration of how a flax wheel differs from a cotton or wool wheel.
~ To the right is a sheet of antique homespun linen, for sale on the internet for $450.00.
~ several samples of linsey-woolsey are below the linen.
~ Immediately below is a flax heckel.


For more information on producing linen, see
www.traditionalfabrics.com/ and
http://www.rootsweb.com/~belghist/Flanders/Pages/flaxLinen.htm

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