It has often been given as a reason for the discontinuance of home weaving, that no product of the hand loom can be as exact or as cheap as that of the power loom. The statement as to cost and quality is true, but so far from being a discouraging one, it gives actual reasons for the continuance of domestic weavings. The very fact that homespun textiles are not exact—in the sense of absolute sameness—and not cheap, in the sense of first cost, is apt to be a reason for buying them. Hand-weaving, like handwriting, is individual, and this is a virtue instead of a defect, since it gives the variety which satisfies some mystery of human liking, a preference for inequality rather than monotonous excellence.
Every hand-woven web differs from every other one in certain characteristics which are stamped upon it by the weaver, and we value these differences. In fact, this very trace of human individuality is the initial charm belonging to all art industries, and even if we discount this advantage, and reckon only money cost and money value, durability must certainly count for something. A thing which costs more and lasts longer is as cheap as one which costs less and goes to pieces before its proper time.
In a long and intimate acquaintance with what are called "art textiles"—that is, textiles which satisfy the eye and the imagination and fulfill more or less competently the function of use, I have learned that certain very desirable qualities are more often found in home-woven than in machine-woven goods. Something is wanting in each of the excellent and wonderful variety of commercial manufactures which would fit it for the various decorative and art processes which modern life demands. To perfectly satisfy this demand, we should have a weaving which is not only in itself an artistic manufacture, but which easily absorbs any additional application of art.
In my own mind I call the thing which might and does not exist, The Missing Textile. To make it entirely appropriate to our esthetic and practical needs, the missing textile must be strong enough for every-day wear and use; it must be capable of soft, round folds in hanging; and have the quality of elasticity which will prevent creasing; and above all, it must have beautiful and lasting colour. If it can add to these qualities an adaptability to various household uses, it will achieve success and deserve it. These different qualities, and especially the one of a natural affinity for such art-processes as colour and embroidery, exist in none of our domestic weavings, excepting only linsey woolsey. After much study of this virtuous product of the mountain regions of our Southern States I find it capable of great development. It has two qualities which are not often co-existent, and these are strength and flexibility; and this is owing not only to its being hand-woven, but also to its being a wool-filled textile—that is, it is woven upon a cotton warp, with a single twisted wool-filling. This peculiarity of texture makes it very suitable for embroidery, since it offers little resistance to the needle, and yet is firm enough to prevent stitches sinking into its substance—a frequent fault with soft or loosely woven textiles. The warp is generally made of what the weavers call mill yarns, cotton yarns spun and often dyed in cotton mills; and when the cloth is woven for women's wear it is apt to carry a striped warp of red and blue, with a mixed filling made from spinning the wool of black sheep with a small proportion of white.
In searching for art textiles, one would not find much encouragement in this particular variety of linsey woolsey, but the unbleached, uncoloured material which is woven for all kinds of household use, or piece-dyed for men's wear, is quite a different thing. In its undyed state it is of a warm ivory tint, which makes a beautiful ground for printing, and in my first acquaintance with it, which was made through the women commissioners from Kentucky, Tennessee and Georgia during the Columbian Exposition, I made some most interesting experiments in block printing upon this natural background.
One can hardly expect that linsey woolsey will come into frequent or common use as a printed textile, since the two processes of hand-weaving and block-printing are not natural neighbours, but this capacity for taking and holding stains is of great value in embroidery, since it enables an artistic embroiderer to produce excellent effects with comparatively little labour. A clever needlewoman, working upon a fabric which takes kindly to stains, can apply colour in many large spaces and inter-spaces in her design which would otherwise have to be covered with stitchery, and in this way—which is a perfectly accepted and legitimate one—she gains an effect which would otherwise be costly and laborious.
From the composite nature of this domestic fabric, its cross-weaving of animal and vegetable fibre, it takes colour irregularly. Every cross-thread of wool is deeper in tone than the cotton thread it crosses, and this gives the quality which artists call vivacity or vibration. Linsey woolsey even when "piece-dyed" has something of this effect, and judicious and artistic colour treatment would complete its claims to be considered an art textile.
It is not to be supposed that the weavers themselves can work out this problem. It will need the direction and encouragement of educated and artistic women. Taking the fabric just as it exists, it is ready for the finer domestic processes learned by the women of the South during the hard years of the Civil War. The clever expedients of stitchery, the ways in which they varied their simple home-manufactures, and above all the knowledge gained of domestic "colouring," will be of inestimable value in the direction of artistic industries. In truth, Southern women have ways of staining and dyeing and producing beautiful colour quite unknown to other American women. They know how to get different grays and purples and black from logwood, and golden and dark brown from walnut bark, and all the shades of blue possible to indigo; and yellow-reds from madder, and rose-red and crimson from pokeberry, and one yellow from pumpkin and another from goldenrod; and they are clever enough to find mordants for all these dyes and stains, and make them indelible. It needs exactly the conjunction which we find in the South, of facile home-weaving, knowledge and practice of experimental dyeing, and love of practical art, to develop true art fabrics.
To show what linsey woolsey is capable of, I will instance a material woven in India in thin woolen strips of about twelve inches in width. It is what we should call a sleazy material to begin with. The strips of different colours are sewn, and very badly sewn, together, and they are also badly woven. Too flimsy for actual wear, they are simply admirable vehicles for colour, and to this quality alone they owe their popularity and importance. After being sewn together, the strips are generally embroidered in a rough way, with a constantly repeating figure on each breadth. The colour is certainly beautiful, a contrast of soft blues, and a selection of unapproachable browns—yellow-browns, red-browns, green-browns and gold-browns, with yellows of all shades, and whites of all tints, and this colour-beauty gives them a place as portieres and curtains where they do not belong by intrinsic or constitutional worth.
If one was intent only upon producing an imitation of the Bagdad curtains in linsey woolsey, it would be easy to weave narrow lengths of various colours, and by choosing those which were good contrasts or harmonies, and embroidering them together with buttonhole-stitch, or cat-stitch, or any ornamental stitch, to get something very like them in effect and far better in quality. But it should be the aim of domestic manufacture to do something which is distinctive, and therefore it would be better to start with the intention of producing the effect in one's own way. This could be done by weaving the cloth in full width (which should, if possible, be four feet), depending entirely upon the warp threads for colour. This, it may be remembered, is already one of the means of variation applied to linsey woolsey in weaving homespun dress goods; but in this case it must be carefully chosen art-effort, using colours which are in themselves beautiful. In depending upon the warp alone for colour the fact must be kept in mind that it will be much obscured by the over-weaving of the wool filling. It will be necessary, therefore, to use far stronger colours than if they were to stand unmixed or unobscured. Vivid blue, strong orange, flaming red and gold-brown could be used in the warp in stripes of about ten inches in width, with two inches of dead black on the sides and between each colour. The filling must be of one pale tint, either an ivory white or lemon yellow, or a very pale spring green woven over all. This would modify the violence of colour, giving an effect like hoar frost over autumn leaves. As a simple weaving this would have a beautiful effect, but when a coarse orange-coloured silk embroidery, consisting of a waved stem and alternate leaves, is carried down the centre of each black stripe, the simple length of linsey woolsey is transformed into what would be called a very Eastern-looking and valuable embroidery.
This is just one of its possible and easily possible adaptations for portieres and hangings. Quite another and perhaps equally popular one would be cross-colour upon a tinted warp. In this case the warp might be ivory white, yellow, light green, or even for darker effects, claret red, dark blue, dark green, or black. If an ivory white or light warp colour should be chosen, the cross-colours must be selected with special reference to the warp tint. A beautiful effect for a light room would be made on an ivory-coloured warp by weaving at the top and also below the middle a series of narrow stripes like a Roman scarf. There should be a finger's depth of rose colour at the top, and this would be obtained by a filling of light red, woven upon the ivory white warp. Then should come an inch stripe of pale blue, an inch of gold, another inch of blue; three inches of orange, then the inch of blue, the gold, and the blue again, and after that the rose-red for two-thirds the length of the portiere, when the ribbon stripes should again occur, after which the remaining third should be woven with a deeper red or a pale green.
Such a portiere would not require embroidery to complete its effect, for if the tints were pure as well as delicate, it would be a lovely piece of colour in itself.
This variety or style of hanging would have the advantage of throwing the burden of colour upon the wool, and as the animal fibre is apt to be more tenacious in its hold upon colour than vegetable, the question of fading would not have to be considered.
These two varieties of artistic homespun can by experiment be made to cover a great deal that is beautiful and artistic in manufacture, and yet it leaves untouched the extensive field of plain piece-dyed or yarn-dyed weavings. Yarn-dyed material always has the advantage of the possible use of two colours, one in the warp and one in the filling, but in certain places, as in upholstery, a solid colour produced by piece-dyeing would be preferable. Linsey woolsey dyed in fast and attractive colour would undoubtedly be a good material for upholstery of simple furniture, because of its strength and durability, but it seems to me its chief mission and probable future is to supply an exceptional art textile; one which has the firmness and flexibility belonging to hand-woven stuffs, and can be at the same time beautiful in colour, capable of hard wear and reasonably inexpensive. I am tempted to modify the last qualification, because no hand-woven goods ought to be or can be inexpensive, in comparison with those manufactured under every condition of competitive economy. And in truth, domestic weavings are sure of their market at paying prices, simply because they are what they are, hand products.
I have shown in a limited way some of the possibilities of artistic hand-weaving without touching upon cotton or flax diapers and damasks, since these cannot readily compete with power-weavings, but I have not spoken of the difference it would make in the lives of the mountain weavers of the South if their horizon could be widened by the introduction of art industries. Only those who know the joy and compensation of producing things of beauty can realize the change it might work in lives which have been for generations narrowed to merely physical wants; but there are many gifted Southern women who do fully realize it, and we may safely leave to them the introduction and encouragement of art in domestic manufactures.
I am often asked by women who are interested in domestic manufactures, how one should go to work to build up a profitable neighbourhood industry. To do this one must know the place and people, for anxious as most country women are to earn something outside of farm profits, they are both timid and cautious, and will not follow advice from unpractical people or from strangers.
In every farming community there will be one or two ingenious or ambitious women who do something which is not general, and which they would gladly turn to account. One woman may be a skilled knitter of tidies, or laces, or rag mats; another may pull rags through burlap, and so construct a thick and rather luxurious-looking door-mat; another may have an old-fashioned loom and weave carpets for all the neighbourhood; and each one of these simple arts is a foundation upon which an industry may be built, important to the neighbourhood, and in the aggregate to the country.
The city woman or club woman who wishes to become a link between these things and a purchaser must begin by improving or adapting them. She must show the knitter of tidies an imported golf stocking with all of the latest stitches and stripes and fads, and if the yarn can be had, undoubtedly the tidy-knitter can make exactly such another. When a good pair has been produced, the city friend will not have to look far among her town acquaintances for a "golf fiend," even if she herself is not one, and to him or her she must show the stocking and expatiate upon its merits: That it is not machine-made, but hand-knit; that it is thicker, softer, made of better material than woven ones, and above all, not to be found in any shop, but must be ordered from a particular woman who is a phenomenal knitter. All of which will be true, and equally so when the demand has increased and it has become a neighbourhood industry.
A golf player hardly need be told how to create a demand for hand-knit stockings, or how to assist the knitter by advice, both in the improvement and disposal of her wares; but it should be a veritable golf player and not a philanthropic amateur.
It is the same with other industries. The adviser must study them, improve them, adapt them, and find the first market, after which they will sell upon their own merits.
As far as I know, nothing has been done in the way of improvement of knitted mats or rugs, although a very beautiful manufacture has been founded upon the method of pulling rags through burlap. Knitted rugs have much to recommend them. They can be made of all sorts of pieces, even the smallest; they wear well, and can easily be made beautiful.
The building up of a rag carpet or rag rug industry is a much simpler matter, because the demand exists everywhere for cheap, durable and well-coloured floor covering. In my own experience I have found that the thing chiefly necessary is to teach the weavers that the colour must be pleasing and permanent, and to put them in communication with sources of supply of rags and warp. The rugs sell themselves, and probably will continue to do so.
The thing to remember when one wishes to be of use to their own and other communities, is that they must be sure of a commercial basis for the products before they encourage more than one person to begin a manufacture, and that the demand must be in advance of a full supply. Kindly and cultivated women who wish to be of real use to their summer neighbours will find this a true mission. Their lives lie within the current of demand, while the country woman lives within that of supply, and it is much easier for the city woman to bridge the space between than for her working neighbour. All good and well-founded industries take care of themselves in time, but until the merchant finds them out, and interposes the wedge of personal profit between things and their market—inciting and encouraging both—it seems to be the business of women in every lot of life to help each other.