Friday, September 16, 2022

The Thread of a Story - by Jo-Ann Roberts

When I began blogging for Sweethearts of the West, I chose a topic that had been close to my heart for more years than I'm willing to divulge...quilting.

It is easy to sit at my machine, find a color of thread that coordinates with the fabric (however, I usually use a light grey thread when constructing the squares as it is easy to rip out when I make a mistake!) then begin sewing. And when I run out, a quick trip to my local quilt shop, Jo-Ann's or Michaels solves my dilemma.

My current historical WIP is part of a series with quilting as its theme (shh, it's still a secret!) so it got me thinking. How did women get thread, where did they get it, and when was it available to the average housewife, seamstress, or milliner?

And thus, the research began...

Forms of very early sewing thread were made of thin strips of animal hide. This was used to sew together larger pieces of hide and fur for clothing, blankets and shelter. There is proof throughout history of some form of threading used even when cavemen were in charge of the planet. As civilizations moved forward, thread did also and eventually it evolved to including the spinning and dyeing of thread.

There are three basic types of thread, and they are based on their origin, Thread is animal, plant, or synthetic depending on its make up. Silk thread is touted as the best because it is strong, very elastic, and fine in diameter. Silk is interwoven into a lot of regular threads for added strength. Pure silk thread use is done in finer clothing.

However, since the heroine in my story resides in a small Kansas town in 1871, I imagined she'd only use cotton thread, the least expensive in her quilting.
                                                                                                                                                      Thread is made of a series of plies--or cords, twisted together. The plying and twisting creates a stronger unit than the original strands alone. A ply is two or more strands of cotton twisted together. A cord is two or more plies twisted together. The earliest form of cotton thread was three-ply thread--three single strands of fiber twisted together.

Manufactured cotton thread was available to the hand sewers in the U.S. and Europe in 1800. At first, they were sold in hanks as some yarns still are. Thread came on wooden spools beginning in 1820. Like the soda bottles of today., the spools could be returned for a deposit, to be refilled. Mass production put an end to the deposits since the spools could be produced so cheaply.

Historians credit James and Patrick Clark, mill owners in Paisley, Scotland with developing the first cotton thread. When silk and flax became scarce during the Napoleonic wars, they were forced to find a suitable replacement with which to create their famous (and profitable) Paisley shawls.

Eventually, some Clark family members moved to the U.S. and began their own thread companies, including George Clark and William Clark, grandsons of James who opened a cotton thread mill in New Jersey.


George Clark perfected six-cord thread for use on sewing machines. He called it "O.N.T." for "Our New Thread," combining fineness with strength as well as being inexpensive.

In 1815, another prominent Scottish manufacturer, James Coats, began making thread. His sons, James and Peter formed J&P Coats, Co., introducing thread to the U.S. around 1820. By 1869, they began manufacturing sewing thread in Pawtucket Rhode Island. It was here where they developed a unique spool shape with smooth curves.

The emergence of the sewing machine in the 1840s further escalated the need for a better-quality thread. Three-ply was too uneven, and six-ply was too thick. Silk and linen threads were either too thick or too weak for use with the machine. Three-ply silk was too expensive. 

Improved cotton seemed the only option.

At the beginning of the 20th century, mercerization was developed to make a stronger, smoother cotton thread. It is a process of immersing cotton thread in a solution of caustic soda, resulting in a stronger, more lustrous that also accepted dye more readily.

Polyester thread became available in 1942, and cotton-wrapped polyester in the late 1960s.

Other Thread Manufacturers

Belding & Corticelli, a silk thread manufacturing enterprise was started by the Belding brothers in Michigan. From their home the produced spools of silk thread which traveling salesmen marketed door to door.  Sales of silk thread dwindled during the Great Depression, forcing the company to close its door the next year.

Max Pollack & Co. operated a silk mill in Mansfield, CT from 1900 - 1904. Textile companies of all kinds located in this area of Connecticut.


Rice's Silk Mill

Built in 1876 to house a woolen mill, this multi-section brick building was purchased in 1887 by William Bainbridge Rice, who established his silk-processing operation here. The premises were expanded in 1895 after Rice acquired a New Jersey silkworks and moved its equipment here. The Rice Company was one of Pittsfield's largest businesses at the turn of the 20th century. It produced a number of highly specialized materials, including silk cords for parachutes which they later also made out of nylon. The company was particularly known for its braided silk cord.

This has a local connection for me as I was born and raised in Pittsfield!

Lucky for us quilters, sewers, seamstresses, and those whose talent with needle and thread, thread--cotton thread, in particular--has evolved over the last 250 years and has been supplanted by other fibers.

So, whenever Noelle Prentiss (my heroine) threads a needle and joins fabrics together to make a quilt, she'll be continuing the tradition of those who came before and after her by carrying on the thread of the story.

A Welcome to Autumn Party from the Authors of the Love Train Series

You are cordially invited to welcome in Autumn from the authors of the Love Train Series on Thursday, September 22nd, from 8:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m. Pacific Time.  Join us for fun, games, and giveaways! One winner will be chosen to receive a $100 Amazon gift card!


1 comment:

  1. Very interesting post. I'm not talented enough to do handwork but I admire those who do.


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