Now that the inevitable chill of winter is beginning to set in, it’s time to start getting out the fleece petticoats, wool bonnets, and knit hats, gloves, and shawls. Our museum guides offer several cold weather programs at the 1850 Pioneer Farm and cold weather means we need warm clothes! In 1850, Iowa pioneers would have been doing the same around this time of year! In fact, they likely would have started the process of making and repairing warm clothing months before the chill set in. In Iowa, you learn pretty quickly that unseasonably warm weather at the beginning of November is not going to last long – it’s going to get cold fast.
Unlike today, when a trip to a nearby department store to pick up a few more winter clothes is in the realm of possibility, pioneers would have had to make their wool clothing by hand. One way to ensure a large supply of wool for constructing the necessary cold weather clothing and accessories was to own a flock of sheep. Although not a large cash crop, over half of Iowa’s farmers did raise some sheep in 1850.
Sheep were easy enough to keep (if you didn’t mind their baa-ing). They required open pasture to graze, a water source, and protection from predators, but generally didn’t require a lot of other tending. The most maintenance a sheep would need was their spring shearing, usually occurring sometime between May and June.
Processing wool was often a bigger undertaking than raising the sheep themselves. The wool after shearing was fluffy, but coarse in spots, and often quite dirty. The first step after shearing this raw wool was carding. Carding is a term used to describe the process of brushing and cleaning the wool.
Using carding paddles made of wood with prickly metal wires as essentially two big hairbrushes, pioneers would pull the paddles in opposite directions with the wool stuck in between. Carding cleaned the wool by getting rid of little bits of grass, dirt, and grime, but also served another purpose. Carding got the fibers in the wool going in the same direction, so when the wool was peeled off the carding paddles it was ready to be used on the spinning wheel and made into yarn.
Carding can be a tiring job, and if you’ve ever visited the 1850 Farm while we are carding then we’ve probably asked you to help out and give our arms a break! This is a good job to do while waiting for bread dough to rise, or on a somewhat easy-going Sunday afternoon. The need to card larger amounts of wool gave rise to several water-powered carding mills in eastern Iowa as Iowa settlement progressed. Small amounts of raw wool could be hand-carded into bats for spinning, but large amounts would be sent to a carding mill to be machine-combed into a long, continuous piece of fleece called roving. Roving allowed a spinner to spin continuously, instead of stopping often to re-splice the smaller combed bunches that were made with hand-held wool cards. One early Iowa City carding mill accepted, “Cash, wheat, wool, dry hides, and beeswax,” as payment for carding roving. Another took bacon, flax seed, tallow, beans, and goose feathers.
Pioneers were not the first people to card and process wool into warm clothing, and wool carding as a trade dates back to the agricultural revolution of the early 11th century. Today, we take for granted the convenience of going to buy warm clothes when we outgrow them, lose them during a move, forget where we put them at the end of last winter, or just want a change of style. It’s important to remember that for centuries before us, our ancestors have had to make all of their own clothing, and many would have had to grow, in a way, the materials that they would have needed to make those clothes. If you’d like to give carding a shot, come give us a hand at the 1850 Pioneer Farm! This winter, there’s also a chance for you to learn the basics of transforming wool into yarn in a “Spinning with a Spinning Wheel for Beginners” class, held at Living History Farms. Find more info on this and other adult education opportunities at www.LHF.org/AdultEd.