Labor and Leisure in Dartmoor, England

Going Woolgathering?

I was recently in England, hiking and biking in Dartmoor National Park, and I spent a good deal of time woolgathering. This was not the kind of woolgathering you may be imagining, if you think of “woolgathering” as “daydreaming”. Not as common as it once was, you will still see this expression from time to time. You may be quite familiar with it if you are a fan of 19th century literature, as I am. In any case, picture a school child staring out of the window, thoughts floating on the clouds. She would be said to be “gathering wool”. Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable defined “gathering wool” as “to be absentminded, but to be so with no good purpose.”

My adventures on Dartmoor were of a much different kind. As I was riding along on my bike, I would notice a great clump of wool on a fence or bush. I would turn my bike around, dismount, bound into the bushes by the roadside, and gather as much wool as my hands could hold. I would stuff this into my pockets and repeat the activity when I saw more wool by the side of the road. My companions were terribly amused by this performance and wondered at the usefulness of my endeavors. But I do intend to use the fleece to go good effect. But it did make me wonder at the traditional use of the term woolgathering.

So I was gratified when I ran across an article by Oxford etymologist, Anatoly Liberman, whose interpretation of the idiom was much more in line with what I was actually doing. According to Liberman, the origins of the term are a bit fuzzy (you might say wooly?). He did find references to the occupation of actual woolgathering to be anything but idle, but indeed quite productive. In a 19th century magazine, one contributor told of farmers that he knew who used this gleaned wool for “stuffing horse-collars, cushions, mattresses, etc.” and that is was useful to “cottagers for spinning blankets”. This writer proposes that our metaphorical use of the term woolgathering is not apt, referring as it does to the idle drifting of the mind, when it more literally refers to “the wide and irregular range of such wanderings as the woolgatherer’s”. As I said, I can attest to the “the wide … range [of] the woolgatherer” and to the effort involved.

So, the next time you find yourself daydreaming, or “gathering wool”, turn your thoughts to the farmers who depended on getting every last useful bit of their sheep’s fleece by roaming their fields and pulling wool from the fences and the bushes, and even picking up off the ground. That should give you something meaningful to ponder on this Labor Day.

The Dog Days of Summer and Other Cool Word Origins

It’s hot. It’s the middle of summer, and it’s hot. These are the “dog days” of summer. Most likely you’ve heard the expression, and conjured up images of panting dogs in the sun. Actually, this nickname for the hottest part of the summer has nothing to do with dogs – at least not the panting dog in your backyard. The “dog days” are the time of the year when the Dog Star, or Sirius, rises in the night sky. As opposed to a “three dog night” – not the band, but a super cold winter night. This does refer to actual dogs, or at least the wish for actual dogs, to keep you warm on such a frosty night.

But back to summer: How to stay cool in the dog days? Remember that cotton t-shirt and jeans from July 4? Here’s another option: a linen or hemp shirt. Why is that better than cotton? Cotton absorbs, true. But then it just stays wet against your skin. Linen and hemp are part of the family of “bast” or stem fibers. That stem has a kind of layered tubular structure. This layering enables the inner core of the fiber to absorb moisture and to wick it away from your body, keeping you dry and cool. Yes, linen wrinkles, but who cares. It’s summer, and it’s hot.
Linen come from the flax plant. (It will make sense in a minute.) The Latin generic name for the flax plant is Linum usitatissimum (literally, “the most useful linum” – actual Latin – what the Romans called the flax plant). It is certainly a useful plant: It is also where we get many other products like linseed oil and linoleum.

Hemp is, as you have probably heard, from the cannabis (AKA marijuana) family, but has very low levels of the psychoactive chemical in pot, which is THC. “Very low levels” meaning that you’d be hard-pressed to get high off of industrial or textile-use hemp. Hemp used to be a mainstay of American agriculture. Indeed, it was another one of George Washington’s Mount Vernon ventures. More recently, hemp has been difficult to acquire in the US. This is largely thanks to Dow and other chemical companies. They realized that they could synthesize all kinds of chemical imitations of natural fibers for less money that it took to grow and harvest the natural fibers. You may imagine that their eyes lit up with dollar signs. They thought that hemp, being easy to grow in a range of soils with little water, threw a monkey wrench into their plans. It was the chemical companies that started the “Reefer Madness” scare campaign of the 1930s and 40s, demonizing all cannabis species in all applications. The campaign was very effective. All forms of cannabis have been categorized as a Schedule I drug by the USDEA, including our useful hemp even though it would be very disappointing if you tried to smoke it. Now, many advocates of sustainable agriculture and small farms are fighting to restore hemp to the mainstream of fiber and cloth production.

So, enjoy the dog days, and look for linen and hemp clothes to keep you cool and comfortable.

What is Patriotism

What is patriotism?

What does it mean to you to be an American Patriot?

Washington in homespun

To George Washington in 1789, it meant wearing “American” homespun, home-sewn brown broadcloth suit to take the oath of a newly created office as the head of a newly created country. The Mt. Vernon Estate website explains that, “American observers and foreign dignitaries who witnessed the ceremony at New York’s Federal Hall took note of the domestically-made fabric, which Washington proudly wore as a symbol of and hope for the development of American manufactures.”

To the first Harvard College graduating class, it also meant wearing homespun in solidarity with the new republic.

To Thomas Jefferson, it meant researching sheep breeds and cross-breeding his flocks so as to produce a new “American” stock that would produce good meat and superior wool. (Yes, the author of the Declaration of Independence and our third president was a shepherd! How great is that?)

Why all this emphasis on “homespun” and sheep-breeding by the leaders of our country? At that time, there was no such thing as “Made in America” Contrary to popular belief, the early settlers did not arrive with spinning wheels and looms, and set to providing their families with clothes and bed linens. Most of them were, in fact, well-to-do and did not know much about spinning and weaving. So, for much of the early republic, the colonists relied heavily on imported goods, mostly coming from Great Britain. When dissatisfaction began to arise in the colonies, some – Boston in particular – passed embargoes on imported goods. None of the fine cloth or fancy fashion that women and men were used to getting were coming into the shops. In retaliation, Britain imposed higher tariffs on exported goods. We are getting, as you can guess to the Boston Tea Party. At this point, “patriots” – in favor of a declaration of independence from Great Britain – started movements to be self-sufficient and not to be beholden to a “foreign” power for trade goods. Not everyone agreed. There were great political and social divisions internally – in towns, neighbor to neighbor; in families, brother to brother. Many people still had family and business ties to Great Britain and felt that it was still truly their country. It was not an easy time. The time and effort to make your own clothes was considerate. It also was a very specific “look”. Nothing imported from overseas would be so simple and unadorned. So, the people who went to the trouble of making their own or supporting local craftsmen were definitely making a statement. As we saw above, people understood that Washington was definitely making a statement.

So, a question for you to ponder wearing your t-shirt and jeans while eating you hot dogs and potato salad on this Independence Day: what does patriotism mean to you?

Who made your clothes?


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Fashion. Revolution.

No, this is not about Punk Safety Pins or Grunge Flannel. It’s about your t-shirt and your jeans. It’s about your silk blouse and your Nike running shoes. Who made your clothes? Do you know?

Increasingly we are advised to be more aware of where our food comes from – cage-free hens give us ethical eggs; grass-fed, pasture-raised cows give us tastier, healthier beef.

But what about your clothes? You many know from the label that your shirt was “Made in China … Bangladesh … Vietnam … India…” So far, so good. And maybe that it was made of 100% … 50% … 20% …cotton … wool … polyester … viscose… Wait. What? What the heck is “viscose”? See what I mean? In other words, it’s like knowing about where your food comes from. You know that your eggs come from chickens, but are they cage-free hens…? Do you care? If you do, then you should care about where your clothes come from as well. You know where India is, but you don’t know if the cotton used is organic or if it is full of pesticides. You may even know – or guess – that the reason your t-shirt in made in Laos or Bangladesh is because companies can pay their workers less than in the U.S., or even, increasingly, China.

But: did you know that the fashion industry is one of the most lucrative industries in the world? Did you know that a garment that is “Made in China” may have started with cotton grown on a Texas farm? Did you know that cotton can be one of the most environmentally unfriendly fabrics due to pesticide use and the huge amount of water used in processing it?

Yes, unfortunately, your choices in the apparel department of a store are at least as important as your choices at the grocery store. Not convinced? Consider what the organizaton, Fashion Revolution, says about the sociological impact of clothing:

Fashion is our chosen skin. On an individual level it represents how we feel about ourselves and what we want to tell the world about who we are. (So, in one sense we could be talking about the Punk safety pin or the Grunge flannel!) On a community level, it tells a story about our history, culture and social customs.

How could the “skin” on our bodies not be just as important as what we put inside them?

It will not take much to begin a revolution. All that is needed is this: tomorrow morning when you are getting dressed, give a thought to the factory worker in Bangladesh or Los Angeles who cut or sewed your t-shirt. OR consider the amount of water that was used to grow and process the cotton. That’s all. Be aware. Want to go further? Consider going to your local consignment store for your next pair of jeans. They will be already soft and broken in and will not shrink when you wash them! More? Find out about what you can do to promote the growing hemp for fiber in the U.S. We get all of our hemp fiber from other countries, yet hemp textile production is on the rise. You cannot get high from hemp – unless you are so excited to have a high-yield, eco-friendly fiber source that is easy to grow without pesticides.

Look! You’re a revolutionary! That wasn’t difficult, was it? And you’re in good company – we are all around, and we believe in a better, more just world.

Fashion Revolution

Why do we dress up in costumes on Halloween?


Why do we dress in costumes on Halloween? Why do we don mask and sheets to make us look skeletons and ghosts?
Halloween – Hallowe’en – All Hallow’s Eve – Evening before All Saints’ Day.
Halloween, like many of our celebrations, has much of its roots in Celtic and pagan tradition. During Samhain (or “Summer’s End”), the ancient Celts marked the transitions between light and dark, old and new, life and death. They believed that the “veil” between this world and the other world – the “real” world and the “spirit” world – is thin or even lifted, allowing for souls and spirits to pass from one side to the other. If you don’t want the spirits to take you across the veil to the other side, you may want to find a way to disguise yourself. What do you do? You put on a costume and a mask. This hides you from the spirits and you are safe. To further protect yourself, place a bowl of food on the doorstep to feed the ghosts and keep them from coming in the house. Sound like giving “treats” to avoid “tricks”?
When the Catholic Church appropriated the Samhain ideas, as it did so many ancient traditions, the holiday morphed into Halloween, or All Hallow’s Eve, the night before the commemoration of the all the saints, appropriately called “All Saints’ Day”. At this point, costumes shifted to angels and saints, to honor them, and devils to hold them at bay. The offering of food was to feed the poor who came begging at the door, a sort of real life version of feeding hungry ghosts.
As you plan your Halloween costumes and parties this year, forget the slasher costumes and politician masks. Stick to ghosts and skeletons, even zombies. Stay true to the origins of the holiday – the blurring of the lines between this world and the next. Also, spend a few moments to honor your ancestors and loved ones who have passed over, in preparation for All Souls’ Day on November 2. (Note: the Mexican counterpart of this holiday is the Day of the Dead, which has its own unique traditions. I leave a full discussion of the Day of the Dead to another writer who is more familiar with that culture.)
Happy Halloween to all!

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Twelfth Night or What you will


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Happy Twelfth Night! …Or Epiphany…Or St. Distaff’s Day!

Who?? St. Distaff??

Do you listen to Christmas Carols and decide you need to look up Wassail recipes? Do you love Morris Dancing at Winter Solstice Celebrations? Do you sing all the verses of Auld Lange Syne? Then I’ve got a great old tradition for you: Spin yarn on the day after Twelfth Night – that is St. Distaff’s day!


Factoid: The “12 days of Christmas” begin on Christmas. 12 days later is January 6: “Twelfth Night”. Yes, like the Shakespeare play. Another name that Twelfth Night goes by is Epiphany. If you are up on your Church history, you will know that this is when the Three Wise Men finally got to the manger in Bethlehem to see the Baby Jesus. I mention this mainly so that if you are looking for something good to eat on Twelfth Night, look for King Cakes, which usually have a little plastic baby (standing in for Jesus) or other trinket or, in some countries, a dry bean, hidden inside. The person who gets the trinket is the “king”. Wash your cake down a Wassail drink called “lambswool”! This is a strange sort of drink made with simmered ale, spices and apples. A perfect way to celebrate St. Distaff’s day.

And here’s another name for the Twelfth Night celebrations: Roc Day. “Roc” with no “k” refers to your spindle. Some sources give it as a Scandinavian word for distaff; some claim its origin goes back to using a “rock” as the whorl on your spindle. Either way, it is a great excuse to get with your buddies and spin – either on your wheel or your spindle. It is traditionally when folk returned to their labors after partying hard during the twelve days of Christmas.

But, those of you who have been lucky enough to take time off from your labors at during the Christmas holidays, and are just returning to your work can attest to the fact that motivation can be at a low ebb. Well, the same went for women who had suspended their spinning for 12 days during the holidays. So, St. Distaff’s Day was not usually very productive. According to tradition, the men scuttled spinning efforts by burning flax bundles (!) and the women retaliated by dumping cold water on the men. Sounds like a fun time! Every source talking about St. Distaff’s Day will quote a Robert Herrick poem. Some say he actually “invented” the celebration with this poem.

Partly work and partly play
You must on St. Distaffs Day:
From the plough soon free your team;
Then cane home and fother them:
If the maids a-spinning go,
Burn the flax and fire the tow.
Bring in pails of water then,
Let the maids bewash the men.
Give St. Distaff’ all the right:
Then bid Christmas sport good night,
And next morrow every one
To his own vocation.’

So relax, gather with your friends, have one last celebratory wassail draught, eat cake, and spin yarn. And welcome in the New Year! Cheers!

Black Friday Shopping Tip: It’s OK to be a Luddite


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Are you a Luddite? It’s OK. It’s a good thing. It doesn’t mean that you don’t or won’t shop online. Go for it: stay inside in your PJs on Thanksgiving weekend and cyber-shop. The good part of being a Luddite is that you may be more conscious and conscientious of where you shop. Try Fair Indigo, Heifer Project International, Ten Thousand Villages, or Serrv.

So, where does that leave us? What is a Luddite?

Most of us can relate to the term “spinster,” but most women would take it as a slight, even though its original meaning was simply, “one who spins.” Similarly, “luddite” has changed through the generations to mean someone who is opposed to technology. The history behind the movement is interesting and may change your mind about what a “luddite” really is – and whether it’s OK to be one.

We may have images of the original Luddites as bands of vandals destroying all the textile factories to save cottage weavers. But the movement was much more targeted than that.

They took their name from one “Ned Ludd” (also known variously as “King Ludd”, “General Ludd”, or “Captain Ludd”). Although a “signature” of Ludd appeared on a “workers manifesto” of the time, Ludd, himself, seems to have been drawn from a local folk tale. Whoever he was, he was believed to have been responsible for destroying two large stocking frames that produced inexpensive stockings, undercutting those produced by skilled knitters.

luddites smash

Luddites smashing a “wide” (factory) loom

The motives were linked not to a generalized resentment of the technology itself, but to frustration with a new economic system. . “Set” prices, akin to apartment rent control was being abolished in favor or what we might call “free market” pricing.

A contemporary broadside explains in “General Ludd’s Triumph:”

The guilty may fear, but no vengeance he aims

At the honest man’s life or Estate

His wrath is entirely confined to wide frames

And to those that old prices abate

Many historical accounts tell of Luddite raids on workshops where some frames were smashed while others (whose owners were holding to the old economic practices – not cutting prices) were left untouched. One might think of them as the 19th century version of activists who put bananas in the gas tanks of construction machinery on the site of a new Wal-Mart going up in town. They were fighting for a fair wage for workers; cutting prices on goods inevitably leads to cutting wages for workers.

Are you a Luddite? If so, I’m glad. If not, consider the benefits of “smashing” the machinery of businesses that support low wages and unhealthy working conditions. Celebrate the season with joy and prosperity for all.


What’s in a name?


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What’s in a Name?

How do you feel about your name? However you feel – love it or hate it – it’s your name. For most of us, our name is inextricably linked with our identity – even if we decide to change our name, or if we to decide not change our names when are married; if we hate our nicknames and want people to call us by our “proper” name. These are all decisions that we make about our names – about our identity – who we are.

Knowing your family name give clues to who you are, as well. And where did these “surnames” come from anyway. When the world was much “smaller” and we lived in close communities, it was usually simple enough to say that so-and-so’s name was John. Then there were more and more Johns, so we had to say that this John was the one who lived by the lake, and that John was the one the was the farmer, and that another John was the son of John, the farmer. So, this led to the differentiation between John Lake, John Farmer and John Johnson (“son of John”). As the world got larger and people started to go farther afield, you may have had to begin to identify yourself by where you came from, or were you were born. Does the name “Jesus of Nazareth” ring a bell? But professions were still helpful in identifying people: “John the Baptist”

My last name is Evans, which is a Welsh variation of names like “Johnson” (“son of John”) and “MacDonald” (“son of Donald”). So “Evans” means “son of Evan”. Names like “son of” are pretty straightforward and easily traceable.

Maybe more obscure (and lots of fun) are other surnames that can give you clues about your family heritage. Here are a few to consider. Are any of these names in your family tree?

Cooper – your ancestor was most likely a barrel-maker.

Smith – yes, very common and here’s why: it could mean a silversmith, a tinsmith, a goldsmith. Smiths of all kinds of metals were essential to the development of culture and community throughout history.

Many surnames derived from textile-related professions. Let’s start with some obvious ones:

Weaver: yeah – no explanation needed there. But Webster also comes from the same profession. The yarn on the loom is often referred to as the “web”.

Dyer: also exactly what you would think it would be. Back in the day, however, not a respected profession. It was pretty toxic and smelly – they often used urine as a mordant and to process the dyestuffs to begin with. Similar to a Tanner – the acids in urine helped to break down the fibers in the leather and release the hair coat on top.

Shepherd: this one is pretty obvious – yes, your forefathers likely herded sheep, hence “She(e)p –herd”. Whereas if your name is Herd or Hurd, your family tree probably also includes someone involved in animal husbandry, but he could have herded cattle, goats, or. other kind of domesticated animal.

Fuller or Walker may mean that your ancestor “fulled” or “wa(u)lked” cloth. Like “boiled wool” that you can still find today, a “fuller” worked cloth (usually by walking on it) until it was tight and dense. Those of you who knit bags and hats, etc, and put them in the washer and dryer to “felt” them. You are Fullers. (A side note on Walker is that there were other professions that use the labor of “walkers”, one of which was the vintners. So, if your name is Walker, you may have to do some research to see if they worked making textiles or wine!)fullerpic1

Shearer: Yup. Your folks sheared the sheep, but they may have also sheared the finished fabric. That is sheared the nap, or the fuzzy surface, to make a smooth, tailored looking cloth.


This brings us to: Taylor or Tailor: Your folks made clothes from the woven cloth.

Obviously, these are all derived from English language professions. Of course, textile worker were found in all countries:

French origins include Lane and Laine – generally any general wool worker.

In Italy, a “Tessaro” was a weaver and a “Mondadori” was a wool sorter.

Have I inspired your curiosity? What did you ancestors do? Who were they? How did they inform the development of the person you are – your identity?

Why we wear clothes

WHY WE WEAR CLOTHES. It sounds like a pretty basic question, but consider – except for your dog at Halloween, how many other animals wear clothes?

Why we wear clothes … and dogs don’t!

Why we wear clothes when other animals do not is one of the questions that occupy much of the study done by forensic psychologists and anthropologists who study the development of civilizations. In Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, food is at the top, then shelter and clothing come next. How that shelter and clothing developed is the beginning of the history of textiles.

Why we wear clothes is a basic explanation of why and how humans developed civilizations. We went from nomadic hunter/gatherers wearing the skins of the animals we killed and ate to settled colonies of raisers and harvesters. Domestication of fiber producing animals, such as sheep and goats, and domestication of dogs contributed to the explanation of why we wear clothes.

We figured out that we did not have to kill animals for their hides in order to be clothes; we could harvest their wool and fur to clothe ourselves, use their milk to nourish our bodies, and raise their young to continue to give us the fiber and milk. We could use the meat and hide after their young were producing the materials for our clothing and food.

Why we wear clothes is fundamental to the question of why we are human.

Interested in joining other textile junkies? Check out the Rocky Mountain Weavers Guild.