Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Guestpost: Author Jodi Lew-Smith (The Clever Mill Horse)

I am thrilled to have Jodi Lew-Smith, author of The Clever Mill Horse, visit today.  Be sure to check out more stops on this tour for a chance to win a copy.

Why did Americans cease growing flax for linen?

First off a warm thank you to Margaret for inviting this guest post on her excellent blog!

If you’re like me and you began reading historical novels as a teen or otherwise young person, you were familiar with something called “homespun” but you had no idea what it actually meant. I assumed it referred to any kind of clothes made on a farm—and maybe I wasn’t far off.  But as an adult and avid history researcher, I learned that it most commonly referred to garments made from flax and sometimes wool. Also the word had all kinds of nuances as an indicator of social status—and these changed depending on where you lived. In cities “homespun” was often a term of derision, suggesting a degree of “country bumpkin.” In remote rural spots, however—where the hard work of producing the fabric was well understood—a finely-wrought piece of homespun clothing or household cloth could have enormous value. In fact people often left specific items as individual bequests in their wills, for these items comprised a good portion of a farm family’s wealth. This was especially true of linen, produced from flax, which required the greatest labor to produce but yielded a fabric of superior strength and endurance that routinely served families for several generations.

In Colonial America of New England and the Middle Colonies, every farm grew at least a small annual flax crop from which to make table cloths and bed sheets along with the ubiquitous summer clothing that replaced aromatic layers of wool once spring warmed the air. Farm families typically spent many hours in the coldest part of winter “dressing” the previous summer’s flax crop. Dressing involved softening and stripping the outer stems of the flax straw and then combing the fibers over course tines to leave nothing but the soft inner pith. Once dressed, the long fibers were spun into thread—which wasn’t so easy in itself—and then the tricky business of weaving the spun fiber into linen cloth began. The whole process was painfully slow. The only good thing you could say of it was the spinning wheel used for flax fiber allowed you to sit down, whilst the wheel for wool (which was much less tricky to spin) was larger and typically required much walking back and forth to operate.

Somewhere in the years before the Civil War this entire system changed. Cotton became so cheap and available that even the most tight-fisted northern farm families couldn’t justify growing flax any longer and began to buy cotton cloth. But was this change inevitable? What if the industrial revolution had caused linen cloth to become as cheap as cotton? What if growing flax across the North had become as lucrative as cotton in the South? The farm fields of the North might have sprouted vast acreage of blue flax flowers that gave way to pale honey straw. All that flax fiber might have been pumped into factories spinning and weaving it into fabric, until every blouse and cheap pair of knickers was made of linen. Until many years later when our t-shirts and jeans and beach towels would all be linen blends instead of cotton blends.

So why not?
I think the answer lies deep within the two plants: the cotton plant versus the flax plant. Flax is one of oldest fiber crops on earth and was widely cultivated in ancient China and Egypt. It thrives in all the cooler regions of the world, including Canada and the northern United States, and was the primary plant-based fiber for cloth until the early nineteenth century, when cotton abruptly took over. Taken from inside the stem of the plant, flax fibers are two to three times stronger than cotton fibers, which is the reason that linen fabric is much sturdier and longer-lasting than cotton. So why did cotton overtake and nearly replace linen?

With the invention of the cotton gin, patented in 1794, it became easy and fast to remove the seeds from the cotton boll to make useable fiber. In contrast, flax fiber requires four separate time-consuming steps to first soften the outer stem of the plant and then strip the stem from the inner core to produce dressed fiber. In the early nineteenth century there were several inventions for dressing flax that received U.S. patents. Unfortunately none of them ever worked anywhere nearly as well as the cotton gin, which many people credit with the rise of cotton production that led to a concomitant rise in slavery and, eventually, the Civil War. To this day dressing flax fiber remains a long and relatively labor-intensive process, such that linen fabric remains an expensive luxury item and comparatively rare.

The question of what might have happened if a gifted designer had managed to invent a machine to process flax quickly and cheaply—at a time when cotton had yet to overtake the world market—is the crux of my adventure story The Clever Mill Horse. Ella Kenyon, who would have preferred to be left alone in the woods, became the improbable inventor of a well-working flax engine at a time when the contest between southern cotton and northern linen was still anyone’s game.

Reference:  Plain and Fancy: American Women and their Needlework, 1700-1850. Susan Burrows Swan, 1977. Rutledge Books. 

Jodi Lew-Smith lives on a farm in northern Vermont with her patient husband, three wonderfully impatient children, a bevy of pets and farm animals, and 250 exceedingly patient apple trees which, if they could talk, would suggest that she stop writing and start pruning. Luckily they’re pretty quiet.

With a doctorate in plant genetics, she also lives a double life as a vegetable breeder at High Mowing Seeds. She is grateful for the chance to do so many things in one lifetime, and only wishes she could do them all better. Maybe in the next life she’ll be able to make up her mind.

For more about Jodi and about the lives and world of the characters in the novel, visit her website or blog. You can also connect with her on Facebook and Goodreads.

 A young woman’s gift could weave together the fabric of a nation…

1810, upstate New York. 21-year-old Ella Kenyon is happiest gliding through the thick woods around her small frontier town, knife in hand, her sharp eyes tracking game. A gift for engineering is in her blood, but she would gladly trade it for more time in the forest. If only her grandfather’s dying wish hadn’t trapped her into a fight she never wanted.

Six years ago, Ella’s grandfather made her vow to finish his life’s work: a flax-milling machine that has the potential to rescue her mother, brother, and sister from the brutality of life with her drunkard father. The copious linen it yields could save her struggling town, subjugate the growing grip of southern cotton. Or it could be Ella’s downfall. If she’s not quick enough, not clever enough to succeed, more than her own life rests in the balance…

The Clever Mill Horse Blog Tour Schedule

Wednesday, November 12
Spotlight at Flashlight Commentary
Thursday, November 13
Guest Post & Giveaway at Passages to the Past
Friday, November 14
Spotlight & Giveaway at Teddy Rose Book Reviews and More
Monday, November 17
Review at 100 Pages a Day – Stephanie’s Book Reviews
Tuesday, November 18
Guest Post at Just One More Chapter
Friday, November 21
Spotlight at CelticLady’s Reviews
Monday, November 24
Interview at Boom Baby Reviews
Tuesday, November 25
Spotlight at Book Nerd
Friday, November 28
Review at Readers’ Oasis
Monday, December 1
Review at Book Babe
Spotlight & Giveaway at Peeking Between the Pages
Wednesday, December 3
Review at Svetlana’s Reads and Views
Review at With Her Nose Stuck in a Book
Spotlight at Layered Pages

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