Currently Reading – The Age of Homespun by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

Today’s book review features a book that, quite honestly, will not be to everyone’s taste.  In fact I almost did not buy it after spotting it at an estate sale months ago.  I wasn’t sure it would fit in with my current interests, and I already had a huge stack of books waiting to be read.  It was written by a Harvard professor and had hundreds of footnotes, and my fear was it would be a bit too academic (meaning dry…)

But the subject matter drew me in.  A quick look through The Age of Homespun revealed that this was a book about colonial textiles and the stories behind the objects.  I’d not done any real reading of American colonial history since my college days, but it was my first historical love and my university degree.  So I thought this book might be a nice change of pace.

Ulrich examines twelve homemade objects, all from New England and all having to do with textiles.   There is a chapter for each object and the stories the objects reveal.  Each one was so engrossing that I have only read a chapter a day to give myself time to properly digest all the information.

What could have been a dry examination of physical objects was instead a carefully woven account of how objects reflect the history of the time of their manufacture, how people related to these objects, and how these stories can be revealed to us today.  Ulrich used many sources to gather the information for the book, but what really struck me was just how much information still exists from hundreds of years ago.  Those New Englanders were real record keepers.

I was also impressed at how many diaries from the period were kept and handed down through generations of a family.  I don’t even have my own teenage diary, so to see that many diaries were kept and treasured is interesting.  Even better, Ulrich actually had access to diaries from some of the families who made the objects she featured in the book.  The diaries along with family histories and public records helped to paint a vivid picture of these people’s lives through the objects that survive.

Quite a bit of the book is concerned with the production of cloth.  For many families, producing yarn and fabric was a way to obtain other necessities and small luxuries.  The system of trade was complicated, but it worked for a society in which money was scarce.

To best enjoy and appreciate this book, one does need to have at least some knowledge of the history of New England.  A lot happened in that region between the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock and the Shot Heard Round the World at Lexington in 1775.  Ulrich pulls from this extensive history in interpreting the objects.

I learned from 28 years of teaching history to pre-adolescents that the best way to study and learn it was not through the memorization of facts and dates.  The best history students were the ones who looked at the past and could draw conclusions about cause and effect and overlapping influences and see that historical events did not happen in isolation.  This book is a masterful example of that kind of history.

All this go me to thinking about weaving and how treasured a textile would be if one had to either grow or trade for the raw materials, then process the fiber into yarn, and then do the weaving in order just to have the cloth.

In the midst of all this textile pondering, I happened upon a little tabletop loom at an antique store.  I don’t know how I did it, but I managed to leave the store without the loom.  But I was not quite out of the woods.

Now this little flea market find was more my speed!  At least it didn’t take up six square feet of table space.

So yes, I am now trying my hand a some very simple weaving.  I figured that anything suitable for a ten-year-old couldn’t be too complicated.  And it makes a nifty bit of fabric.

Okay, it is a bit loose, but this is my first try.  Do you think all my family members should get handwoven belts for Christmas?


Filed under Currently Reading

16 responses to “Currently Reading – The Age of Homespun by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

  1. I read this book years ago and still go back to it on occasion. Another one of Ulrich’s books is among my top 5 favorite of all time – The Midwife’s Tale. I could not put it down!
    Good luck with your weaving! Yes, belts for Christmas for young and old!


  2. I’ve requested Age of Homespun from my library. Kudos to you for getting started on the loom — learning by doing is always a good plan. Think of those wonderful African textiles woven in narrow strips and stitched into pieces of fabric! You could even make some scarves…. My friend WeaverKate recommends listening to recorded books while weaving.


  3. Wool felted coasters are better! Everyone needs coasters!


  4. facinating subject-as you always point out – fashion/fabric-all very regional – New England (early) with Pilgrim era must have been very strange-they were…a bit..rigid re: anything to do with colour…now i must read some of this as the “weaving” of actual people of the period is involved..THANK YOU ! GREAT beach /mountain reading!!!


  5. Gina Cox

    Thanks for writing well and for sharing! What a book, eh? I want it and even more so The Midwife’s Tale .


  6. What a perfect little size for a loom! Belts and or some simple scarves for Christmas for sure! (I know someone who is using a colorful narrow woven scarf as a sling for her arm while it’s in a cast).

    Sounds like an interesting book – I’ll keep it in mind once I get my reading stack reduced a little. So many books, so little time…



    I am enamored by all fabric and cloth and this is no exception. I have a hand woven Turkish Tapestry that I adore. I am so impressed that you tried it and chose the lovely blue. Please do show us the final piece!


  8. Well, I’m still enough of an academic to think footnotes are exciting–little paths to other worlds! Looms are addictive–I think my sister has about four. I suggest pot holders for Christmas.


    • I do like footnotes, actually, but I have seen some good information that that was heavily bogged down by the continuous references and then a footnote. In some serious studies of fashion, the references seem to be more important than the content!

      Pot holders is funny, but actually a good idea. I one had a student whose mother was a weaver and she gave me two pot holders that she made. I’m still using them 15 years later.


  9. Just discovered your blog via Nicky@vintagelabels love it.


  10. I had that Spears loom when I was in about grade 6. I’d forgotten all about it! I made a little purse with a button closure out of the only piece of fabric I wove. Wonder whatever happened to it?


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