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New England Woolen Industry

 The woolen industry in New England began with the first English settlers. Sheep imported from England provided both meat and wool to New England families. Shorn wool was scoured (cleaned), combed or carded by hand, spun into yarn, and woven into fabric in colonial households. Much of the work was done by women and children. In larger towns, specialized craftsmen often did the weaving and finishing of cloth. This homespun fabric was regarded as a lesser grade of material, and the better grades of cloth were imported from England, where the industrial revolution had begun by the mid-1700s.

In the 1790s, the new English industrial technology was introduced to America. English immigrant Samuel Slater introduced industrial cotton spinning at Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Brothers John and Arthur Schofield, also from England, built the first woolen carding machine in America in Montville, Connecticut in 1794.

 The woolen industry developed slowly at first. Carding mills were built first, replacing the slow task of carding wool with hand-held wire brushes. Short lengths of carded wool, rolags, were spun at home or on primitive spinning jennies. Spun yarn would then be woven into fabric.

 Gradually, more and more of the process began to move into the mill. Machinery replaced hand processing. Scouring trains were built that replaced the labor-intensive job of hand washing wool. Spinning mules, with moving carriages, replaced spinning wheels and spinning jennies. Power looms wove cloth in the mill.

 In 1802, merino sheep, a fine wool breed, were first introduced into New England. The rapid expansion of sheep raising in the region provided a native source of high-quality wool for the expanding factory system.

 John Goulding invented the tube condenser in Worchester, Massachusetts in 1824. This attachment to the carding machine produced continuous lengths of roving that could be spun directly into yarn. The condenser streamlined the production process and produced a higher quality yarn.

 Entire towns and villages sprang into existence around the mills. Mill owners constructed dams and headraces to power the mills. Nearby they laid out streets, constructed dwelling houses for rent to their workers, a company store, and other amenities. Mill villages were often given the owners name with the suffix ville added. Hallville in the town of Preston, Connecticut, for example, was named for the Hall family.

 As the woolen industry expanded, demand for wool exceeded domestic supply. Wool was imported from all over the world, primarily through the port of Boston, which dominated the wool brokers trade. Wool from the Western United States was also brought in, under the name of territory wool.

 Ingenious Yankees also turned their attention to improving the machinery used in woolen manufacture, and New England inventors registered numerous patents. Vast foundries and machine shops arose to supply the needs of the woolen industry, Davis & Furber in North Andover, Massachusetts, and the Whitin machine Co. in Whitinsville, Massachusetts.

 By the American Civil War, woolen manufacturers in New England turned out much of the blue uniform cloth worn by the Union army. In war and peace, the industry continued to thrive until the 20th century, when the widespread use of synthetic fabrics and increased foreign competition brought decline.

 Today, a handful of woolen mills remain in New England, proud reminders of a long tradition. We at New England Yarn & Pattern are proud to offer you the best of that tradition in our Quinebaug yarn and patterns for hand knitting. When you buy our yarn, you are helping to preserve our heritage and employ the dedicated workers who have spent their lives in this craft.