” ..to sit spinning in her Shift of Tow.”

Hubs and I have been thoroughly enjoying watching/listening to History 116: American Revolution an online course given by Professor Joanne Freeman through Yale’s Open Courses.  (He watched on the computer, I listen.) Alan has always been the history buff in the family.  Since I started doing genealogy I’ve become more interested, it’s more personal.  Anyway, in one lecture she mentioned a non-importation movement by the colonists which resulted in the women having to wear “homespun”. They boycotted imported fabrics. In another lecture she mentioned the Stamp Act, which affected the publication of Ben Franklin’s newspaper.

This lead me to look up info about Poor Richard’s Almanack published 1733 by Ben Franklin using the alias Richard Saunders. In reading one of the paragraphs, this portion caught me eye: “…..and my wife, good woman, is, I tell her, excessive proud; she can not bear, she says, to sit spinning in her shift of tow, …” Now, as a kid people would stop me on the street calling me a “towhead”.  I asked mom if it look as if I had toes on my head. Mom explained that meant “flaxen-colored” hair, or yellow.  I later learned that flax was where linen comes from. So, I translated that “shift of tow” meant she was wearing a linen dress.

Now I had a few questions in my head: 1. What qualified as homespun? Was Franklin’s wive sitting in a homespun garment? 2. Exactly what is tow? Why call it tow and not linen? 3. Did the colonists produce flax/linen?

At the time, homespun had the same type of meaning as today: cloth woven or spun at home.  At the time “homespun” would have meant fabric produced in the colonies, using colonial goods not England. The boycott was against purchasing fabric normally imported from England; cotton, silks, linens, etc.    The colonies did grow/produce cotton, linen, wool, and hemp. Spinning and weaving became “patriotic”.

Research in linen manufacturing says tow is the result either scutching or hackling.  Scutching involves pounding the flax to separate the fibers from the woody part of the flax plant.  The products are long flax fibers, the shorter, coarse fibers called tow, and woody waste.  Spinners know what hackles are, they are sharp long-tined, fork like tools used to separate fibers. Tow was rough on the fingers to spin.  Spinning flax required a different wheel than cotton or wool. Tow is therefore short flax fibers.

My own personal conclusion is that since the colonists did grow and produce flax Franklin’s wife was being patriotic “spinning in her shift of tow”. 😎

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7 thoughts on “” ..to sit spinning in her Shift of Tow.”

  1. “Tow” is the short pieces that break off when spinning the long-staple fiber flax. Flax spinners usually used a distaff and wetting their thumb into a cup of water or on their lip, pulled down long (~1 meter) pieces of flax and spun. Another way was to tucked flax into their aprons and spin from their laps.

    The color of the broken pieces was a very pale yellow – nearly white – hence the descriptive term “tow head” for a very blonde – almost white haired – child.

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    • Yeah, that’s why I was called tow-head as a kid. My husband was too! All four of our kids had that color hair when young, two are still blond but not that light color anymore.

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      • So fair you can see the pink scalp! Scalp burn! Mom said growing up it was the Finnish kids that had the super fair hair, and were super smart! 😎 Grandpa’s side was the dark Norwegians, grandma’s the fair. There is Finnish on this side. 😎

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