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All hands are enjoined to spin: Textile production in seventeenth-century Massachusetts

Susan Ouellette, University of Massachusetts Amherst


For the last three decades, social historians who studied early America expanded older interpretations of colonial economy and society to include family, social position and gender as legitimate topical themes. During that same period, economic scholars have used social historians' community and household studies to explore rural self-sufficiency, the development of commercial agriculture and the Atlantic sea trade. Despite the recent use of family household economies to explore and explain colonial economy and society, most have entirely neglected one of the most fundamental early American industries: domestic textile production. Colonial historians have previously used information about wool, flax and hemp in broadbased arguments about the productive side of the colonial economy, yet few have considered textile production a significant colonial economic activity. As a result, textile-producing networks, construed as either economic or social phenomenon, have largely gone unnoticed. This study draws evidence from a broad array of sources including the probate inventories of Essex and Suffolk County, Massachusetts, extant account books, trial transcripts, court records and material culture. Combined with a working knowledge of cloth-making, those records reveal that domestic textile production was a major form of social organization, especially in early Massachusetts. Textile-producing networks clearly served to draw households, neighborhoods and regions together in particular ways. From the processing of fibers to the finishing of cloth, intense cooperation and an extensive system of corporate labor were key elements of textile production. Simply put, no one gender or age group was responsible, rather a confluence of female and male as well as young and old laborers was necessary to the success of the industry. Ultimately, because cloth was so important to the daily lives of colonists, their labors made an important contribution to the available domestic supply and to the success of their colony. At the same time, the system of cooperative networks necessary to the industry profoundly influenced the development of both the society and economy of early Massachusetts Bay.

Subject Area

American history|American studies|Families & family life|Personal relationships|Sociology

Recommended Citation

Ouellette, Susan, "All hands are enjoined to spin: Textile production in seventeenth-century Massachusetts" (1996). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9619422.