Flax was considered one of the essential crops on the early farm. The many refining processes through which it had to go before the threads could be woven into table cloths and linens required the cooperation of both the male and the female members of the family. Several spinners were required to provide thread for one weaver, the entire family was involved, the children preparing bobbins and carding wool, the mother concerned with dyeing and weaving, and the father planting and harvesting the flax.
A great impetus was given to weaving in the lives of the German Dutch. Large flocks of sheep were raised and wool collected and spun. William Penn, who was always eager to maintain a sound economy, reported in England that the weaving industry was flourishing in his province, and that a good quality of cloth was being made.
Flax and linen thread made from flax in 1855 by Margaret Heim, grand mother of Samuel F. Heim, in Pennsylvania. They brought this to Nebraska and was a piece that was left after weaving the rest into cloth.
(donated to the Penn Colony Historical Society of Nebraska Museum)
A great deal of linen was also woven, and as late as the present day one frequently finds runners of old linen, as well as flax spinning wheels. After the locally grown flax had reached its maturity, it had to be retted, broken, and heckled before it could be used. The fibers were then combed straight and smooth and were spun into a thread on a flax wheel, operated by foot as the spinner sat near the wheel and manipulated the fiber with her hands.
Some color combinations occur in linen cloth, but blue squares or natural colored linen are most frequently found. Brown and yellow were sometimes used with blue, and a few rare pieces, included green. Most of the linen, in its natural color became softer and whiter after constant washing and ironing. This plain cloth was basic, and from it were made sheets and pillow cases, curtains, table covers, towels, samplers, men’s shirts and nightshirts, ladies dresses and of course, Conestoga wagon covers.
Most of the early samplers were made of linen (usually called homespun), and were of necessity narrow, for such was the capacity of early looms. Some items were decorated with religious mottos, others with peacocks and other colorful birds, while yet others featured conventionalized flower motifs. These special towels are thought to have been for guests, or else used to cover the much used family towel.
Of all the forms of colonial needlework, none is practiced more today in rural Penn German than the making of quilts. The social aspects prominent in the making of friendship quilts, for here friends of the bride prepare patches of a specified size of the area and include baskets of flowers and fruits, eagles, cherry wreaths, acorns and birds.
The star motif is among the most popular for the over-all pattern, the stars being made up of many small diamond-shaped designs. Other patch motifs are called the Star of the East.
A rare type of quilt is the one in which patches are skillfully sewn on to of a quilt in appliqué fashion. Conventionalized flower designs are very popular in this technique, while eagles and tulips are occasionally found.
The Nebraska Pennsylvania Colony of Nebraska has received some thread and articles spun and woven of these materials to be placed in its museum near Dawson, Nebraska. Below is a picture of that material and thread. Today it is a bit mind boggling to think of the work and time taken to produce thread and cloth of this quality. It is not known if any person now day would find the time and have the patience to spend on such a hobby.
The basis of this story were taken from a book purchased by Bob Williamson entitled, “Pennsylvania Dutch American Folk Art.” The book was published by American Studio Books of New York and London. Also portions of this story were first hand memories of my grandmother Sophia Heim Ulmer and her sisters who were taught the art of growing and caring for flax. The tools of the trade hopefully are still in the hands of descendents. The thoughtful gift of the pictured thread and cloth articles are acknowledged with great thanks.
Flax, thread and yarn
Thread was spun from flax by Margaret Steiger Heim (1843 - 1935) on her spinning wheel.
Yarn by Regina D. Heim (1865 - 1938).
This flax and thread was given to Regina D. Heim by her mother Margaret Steiger Heim, wife of Johnnie Heim. The flax, thread, and yarn were passed on to Lotta M. Heim Iliff and on to Roger C. Iliff who has donated it to the Pennsylvania Colony Historical Society Museum of Nebraska.