A few years ago, I came across a January 1864 list of indigent families who “drew factory yarn” in Rabun County. That list has been stuck in the back of my mind ever since as I ponder the idea of factory yarn.
Here lately, I’ve been spending some quality time with my knitting needles making Christmas gifts and finishing up a few projects. I discovered quite by chance that knitting for even half an hour before bedtime helps me sleep better than spending the entire evening on work. (Imagine that!)
After spending so much time from Halloween to Christmas knitting for others, I decided to do something nice for myself. My Christmas stocking this past year contained a skein of some beautiful sock yarn. Coincidentally, I’ve always wanted a pair of hand knit socks.
A while back, I read Sharon DeBartolo Carmack’s A Genealogist’s Guide to Discovering Your Female Ancestors : Special Strategies for Uncovering Hard-To-Find Information About Your Female Lineage, in which she discusses using social history to fill in the blanks of a woman’s life.1 One of her case studies, toward the back of the book, discussed the day-to-day responsibilities of a woman living in the 19th century, one of which was knitting stockings for all her household’s residents.
Now, I am one to let things ferment, and during the fermentation, many odd tidbits coalesce in my mind. Knitting is a useful occupation for such thinking, as the hands are busy and the mind is free to explore, or not as to the will of the knitter. And while knitting my sock, I pondered the duty of knitting stockings prior to the end of the 19th century, a dreadful chore in a large household, and one that must be performed in an era when mechanized industry had not quite caught up to the needs of the populace.
But why factory yarn? My own research indicates that many 19th century households produced their own clothing. Malinda Curtis, a maternal ancestress of mine, listed her property in 1889 as including “one loom & spinning wheel, 2 pair Cards, 100# Cotton.”2 In other words, the tools and material she would need to spin thread and yarn and make clothing for her family. And I have certainly seen enough mentions of households containing sheep (likely kept for their wool if not for food) in tax lists, censuses, and estate records to believe that many historic households strove for this sort of self-sufficiency, even up into the 20th century when machine-produced goods became more common and affordable.
In 1864, times were hard in this area, as they were throughout the South. Many families were missing husbands and sons who would normally carry much of the burden for the hard labor of farm work. One third of those missing men would never return from that cursed conflict, but women carried on nonetheless because they had the responsibility of rearing children, caring for aging parents, aiding neighbors…and clothing their families.
With many of the men gone, it must have been difficult for those remaining to keep up with the day-to-day business of tending to stock, including wool-clad sheep. What a blessing that factory yarn must have been to those who were unable to produce yarn themselves. What a relief for the time it saved in shearing sheep, washing and carding wool, or of growing and ginning cotton, or of beating flax into a usable fiber; and all that before a yarn could be spindled and spun. Instead, all that remained was for the yarn to be knitted or woven into cloth. A blessing indeed!
My needles clack much more gently than those used by our ancestors, and are slightly larger than the knitting pins of yore. Yet here I am, engaged in the business of turning factory yarn into a usable product, not because I must, but because I can, a luxury I’m certain many knitters from days past would envy.
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1. This is not a course I necessarily recommend. Without evidence of our ancestors’ actions, we should not assume that they did this, that, or the other simply because they were of a certain gender and living in a certain time or place.
2. Rabun County, Georgia, Homestead Book B (1879 – 1914): 118; Probate Court, Clayton.