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?