Women, Hemp, the "Spinning Bee" and the American Revolution

Image from p. 33 of Highlights: An Illustrated History of Cannabis by Carol Sherman and Andrew Smith, with Erik Tanner (1999), with caption Thomas Jefferson, president and hemp farmer, shown here as Minister to France (1784 to 1789) in a woodcut by Charles Turzak.

During pre-revolutionary times, hemp fabric was one of the most common materials in the colonial homestead. Hempen cloth covered the backs of farmers and their entire families, hempen towels wiped their hands, hempen napkins and handkerchiefs mopped their brows and faces, and hempen tablecloths graced their fine furniture. There was virtually no household that did not contain an item made from hemp.
The popularity of hemp and the consequent dearth of hemp fiber to leave the American colonies for England was in no small measure due to the enterprising and dedicated pioneer women of the colonies, who transformed the raw fibers from the fields into cloth and fine linen. It was not an easy task...
As long as spinning and weaving were primarily household activities, they were encouraged by [British] Parliament. But when they developed to the point that colonial imports began declining due to homemade goods, England tried to restrict these activities.
The mercantile system which England adopted as an integral part of her policy toward her American colonies was basically one which required the colonists to be suppliers of raw materials to and consumers for finished goods from the mother country. By the eighteenth century, spinning and weaving had increased to such a degree that British merchants began complaining to Parliament that the colonists were not buying enough British-made goods given their alleged dependency on English manufacturing.
In response to this pressure from the business sector, Parliament passed the Wool Act in 1699 which essentially deprived the colonists of the right to import wool. To circumvent this restriction, the colonists made more and more use of hemp and flax fibers. In 1708, Calib Heathcote, a New York colonist seeking a contract from the British Board of Trade to supply naval stores to England, wrote that his neighbors "were already so far advanced that three fourths of the linen and woolen used, was made amongst them.. and if some speedy and effectual ways are not found to put a stop to it, they will carry it on a great deal further..."
Parliament demanded an explanation from Governor Dudley of Massachusetts concerning the reluctance of the colonists to buy British goods. Dudley replied that Americans would be more than happy to buy and wear goods made in England if they could pay for them. But since they could not earn enough money from chopping wood and sawing lumber, they were forced to make and sell their own goods, leaving those that were made in Britain to more affluent New Englanders.
The event which ultimately transformed the colonies from part-time household producers of clothing to full-time manufacturers, and caused more than one ulcer in the British business community, was the arrival in Boston in 1718 of an umber of professional spinners and weavers from Ireland. Although colonial women had been spinning their own thread for some time, their expertise was nowhere near that of professional European craftsmen. When these newcomers landed in Boston, the women of the town asked for advice on how to make better cloth. The immigrants were more than obliging, and soon Boston's women, young and old, rich and poor, were flocking to the Common where a makeshift spinning school had been set up to teach the colonists how to spin thread professionally. The whirr of spinning wheels soon filled the air from morning to night as each woman competed with her neighbor to produce more and better thread. Boston's womenfolk, it was said, had been bitten by the "spinning craze."
It was the passage of the Stamp Act in 1765, however, that really sent he women of New England to their spinning wheels in earnest. The new law promulgated by Parliament did more to crystalize opposition to the import and consumption of British goods in the colonies than did any other single measure. Businessmen refused to purchase any products made in England and colonists agreed not to wear any clothing except that manufactured domestically. In New England, the campaign not to buy British goods was led by a group of women who called themselves the Daughters of Liberty. To meet the expected demand that a boycott against English goods would create in the colonies, the Daughters turned to "spinning bees," as the "spinning crazes" were now called.
Between 1766 and 1771, women across New England met in churches, meeting halls, private homes, and anywhere else that was available, to spin in groups. Speaking of one such gathering held in Providence, Rhode Island, the Boston Chronicle on April 7, 1766, wrote that the women gathered there "exhibited a fine example of industry, by spinning from sunrise until dark, and displayed a spirit for saving their sinking country, rarely to be found among persons of more age and experience."
The spinning bees were not without results. Production of cloth materials increased in every town and village, and it was not long before there was more than enough homemade cloth to clothe anyone who wanted American- made garments.
The spinning bee soon spread to the colonies as well. In Philadelphia, a market was opened especially for the sale of domestic fabrics. In Virginia, George Washington erected a spinning house on his plantation. Even as far as South Carolina, domestic production of fabrics increased markedly as the spirit of resistance filtered down from New England to the southern colonies.
As a result of these spontaneous gatherings, the colonists became self-sufficient in clothes. When the Revolution came and textile materials from England were completely cut off, the colonists were not faced with the kind of predicament they might have been in had they not learned to manufacture their own household goods. Until trade relations could be started with other countries, the colonists were able to care for their own needs and were generally able to supply uniforms and basic clothing for their army.

- pp. 84-87, from the chapter Cannabis Comes to the New World in The First Twelve Thousand Years: Marijuana by Ernest L. Abell (1980)

Thomas Jefferson, Hemp, Minister to France, Charles Turzak
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