I once asked a group of women if they could tell me how many clothes i.e. blouses, skirts, slacks, etc. were in their closet. None could do that and there is good reason. What once was done by the women of the household is now done by manufacturers that mass produce textiles with great speed but with little thought to our environment. Because of the lower costs due to mass production, most of us have more clothes than we actually need.

Compare that to the households of our great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents who not only made their own clothing but also grew or produced the raw materials, transformed that raw product to a fiber and either wove or spun their clothing. They only had a few outfits and one can understand why.

If dad's suit got worn in the seat or around the collar it was painstakingly taken apart and cut down to fit junior. No waste, no cost, but time and effort. If something was worn beyond repair it was cut into strips and woven into rugs for the hearth. Again, no waste. Or, it was bundled into balls and bartered to a vendor in trade for pots, pans or other sundries.

There is a movement called the Slow Movement that talks about Slow Food, Slow Textiles, Slow Life, etc. Apparently it started in Italy and has seen converts since the 90s because of its philosophy of not doing things at a fast speed or a snail's pace, but at a more appropriate level. According to its promoter, Carl Honore, it means to savior moments instead of counting them.

Slow Textiles then is simply enjoying making quality things, not necessarily slowly, but for the enjoyment of the process. Elaine Lipson, a proponent of Slow Textiles puts it this way, "It's the journey, not the destination."

The use of sustainable materials is in the forefront as well as drawing from the diversity of the many cultures that have contributed to the remarkable history of textiles. It also pinpoints the need to be more sustainable in all areas, protecting our environment and at the same time, allowing us to "smell the roses."

That movement became apparent recently as a group of ladies who share the same interest in making their own fabrics and fiber from raw materials gathered to dye them using natural materials from field and forest. Slow definitely could be used to describe the process of gathering flowering plants, barks, nuts, roots or leaves to make natural dyes. Then they must be soaked, usually overnight or for several days, (hold your nose!) boiled and strained to be used in dying natural fiber, from wool to cotton.

Mordants are used to make the dyes colorfast and to give different results with different dye colors. Mordants can be alum, tin, copper, vinegar and many other metals, some not so environmentally friendly.

Our gatherings included green walnuts, marjoram leaves and stems, knotweed, onion skins, logwood (bark and shavings from the tree), cochineal (an insect used for centuries in the dying process), indigo and goldenrod. Colors garnered by these dyes included browns, yellows, greens, purples, reds and pinks and gold, depending upon the mordant used with the dye and the length of the dye bath which could reach up to one hour.

We may have done it for the process and for fun, but knowing that our ancestors did this on a regular basis to have some vibrant color in their lives made us all sit back and think about the time-consuming process of making a family's clothes. You can appreciate the term "slow textiles" when you think of all the work involved in gathering raw materials then making those materials become fiber, then yarn, then fabric.

Perhaps even more interesting is wondering how all that knowledge came about. What experimentation was done to know what colors came from what plant, what plant actually produced fast colors and how to get that color from plant to fabric; how did the use of mordants come about? There was and is a lot of knowledge and skills that go into making textiles the old fashioned way.

We know that linen has been used for thousands of years, but the tedious process of making it, even enough of it to clothe your family or for other purposes, is pretty mind-boggling. Not only was it grown, but then had to be rotted to allow the outer coating to come off the fibers inside the stem. Then it was combed or hackled to make those fibers finer. It was spun into a thread and then made into cloth, often combined with wool for linsey-woolsey, a long lasting, strong fabric made with a linen warp and woolen weft. Many of the surviving coverlets of the 1800s were made from this combination of fibers

We all know that the Mayflower was a sailing ship with yards and yards of sails that brought that small ship to America. Perhaps we never thought about the process that was needed to make all that strong material to handle winds over the ocean. They were not made by machines, but painstakingly by hand.

Many Americans still live a slower life, growing their own vegetables and fruits, sewing, quilting or making garments and hand-crafted items, trying to enjoy life without the faster pace that many attempt and, in the process, making use of sustainable processes to keep our environment clean and green. We have our ancestors to thank for their example.


Jeannine Roediger has lived on a family farm all her life, first as a farmer's daughter and now as a farmer's wife. She writes weekly for the Times-Bulletin and enjoys gardening, quilting, cooking, bird watching and writing.