Wrapping It Up, or, French Ladies Do It In Their Sleep

Knotting was indispensable to the happiness of womankind in Barbara’s days, as well as to the reputation of a modish woman…and kept her fair self out of mischief….

“Heyday! cousin, ” was Lord Castlemaine’s ejaculation; “at that work, too? They tell me the French ladies do it in their sleep.”

I don’t know what Lord Castlemaine thought about French ladies, but he obviously had issues with knotting – and so do I! All right, he was talking about a different kind of knotting, but I do think thread should behave with propriety, always willing and able to oblige. However, in my search for how thread was “packaged” in the early 19th century, it was behaving knottily.

A few years ago I was trying to assemble a collection of sewing supplies c.1820 for an exhibit, and it occurred to me that the ordinary wooden spools (reels) in my basket were an anachronism. Would a lady of that era have popped into a haberdashery shop for a spool of thread to hem a gown? Or would she have bought a skein? A ball? A length wrapped in paper or wound around a card?

Messrs Harding Howell & Co., 89 Pall Mall © The Trustees of the British Museum CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

How should I store my thread? It ought to be simple to settle, just ask around or try Google to learn how sewing thread was packaged, sold, and stored in the early 1800s. Nope. It was a knotty problem and I was baffled.

Period merchant accounts mentioned skeins, weights, and quantities of sewing thread, but that didn’t tell me what I wanted to know. What would the thread actually look like when Some Lady brought it home from shopping or stuffed it in her workbag at the end of the day? (No, don’t say tangled!) After years of drooling over images of antique sewing boxes, you’d think I’d have spotted quite a few that still had the undoubtedly original working thread stashed inside. But I didn’t. A little more fruitless searching, and I decided to shelve the question.

wrapping thread p1

Thread papers made from old copy-book pages.

Until recently. I once saw some lovely antique painted “thread papers” for sale which I always regretted not buying (although I’d have had to sell a body part to do it). These long strips of paper with delicate watercolor floral designs were obviously homemade, perhaps meant for a gift. They contained embroidery silks, not plain sewing thread, but I never forgot their charm. So when I came across some very old, although homelier, thread papers for sale, I couldn’t resist – and that revitalized my quest for thread packaging!

wrapping thread p2

wrapping thread p3

Here you can see the date “August 15th 1803” at the bottom of the page.

The first mention I came across (in my admittedly limited resources) was in connection with the tragic and mysterious poet Thomas Chatterton (1752-1770). Not only was he a literary prodigy, but apparently quite a clever forger as well. He invented a 15th century monk and wrote poetry in his name, then claimed to have discovered these writings on his mother’s parchment thread papers.

…one day his eye was caught by one of these thread papers; that he found not only the writing to be very old and the character very different from common characters; but the subject therein treated was different from common subjects; – that he began to question his mother what these thread papers were; how she got them; and from whence they came; and upon further enquiry was led to a full discovery of all the parchments which remained. [The rest, according to him, unfortunately having been used by his father to cover students’ books.]

There were other references to thread papers as well.

A witty bit from 1769:

A waggish correspondant informs us, that the Mile-End P—n is to be cut into slips to make thread-papers for the maids-of-honor.

Some self-deprecation from 1775:

…a small number of young ladies do me the inexpressible honour to smooth their tuckers and their ribbands in my book; to make thread papers of it; or to tear it into pieces, or papillots [curl papers], or to make their thimbles fit.

In 1795, a scathing rejection for Miss Sparkes from the Monthly Mirror:

“A Tale of Times past,” would never be read in times present. Would not Letitia Sparkes (who says she works for the shops) have been much better employed in making a dozen shirts, and getting the money for them, than in groping her way through “long galleries and dismal vaults;” and listening to “tales prophetic, from shadowy forms.” However, Letitia, you may send for your “forty leaves:” they’ll make excellent thread-papers.

Court testimony from 1804:

What was in the drawer in which he appeared to expect to find it? There were Five or Six Hens Eggs, Thread Papers, and Things of that Sort Belonging to his Wife.

From Sir Walter Scott in 1815:

…my uncle, the alderman, proposed to me the only daughter of old Sloethorn, the great wine-merchant, rich enough to play at spancounter [old English game] with moidores [Portugese coins], and make threadpapers of bank notes.

A bit of satire in 1815:

Woe unto literature in these days of degeneracy! woe unto the Nine Muses and their suitors! how many epics have stood between the candle and candlestick? how many histories have been employed in twist tobacco? and how many philosophers have been made into thread papers, their arguments into paper kites, and their conclusions into three-penny crackers on a birthday?

A lament from 1838:

Cooks and sedentary ladies addicted to needlework have been Thalabas in this kind of destroying. Your thread-papers have been the very devil! If our old friend Mr. Brunel had invented his pretty little process of putting sewing-thread up in reels and balls a hundred years ago, many a family manuscript, many an interesting scrap, might have escaped the pitiless shears. But it is vain to regret the past! [Ain’t it though?]

Humorous fiction in 1844:

Lady Betty was mightily pleased to see Lord Castlemaine so soon back again, and glanced at Barbara, who was knotting fringe, a species of work about as useless as the tatting, tapetrimming, herring-boning, and, with respect be it hinted, lambs-wooling, which from time to time have employed civilised society with almost as much regularity as the spinning jennies do the poorer classes. (And when we talk of the labours of factory girls, how we overlook those of modern ladies under the banners of Miss Lambert¹!) And knotting was indispensible to the happiness of womankind in Barbara’s days, as well as to the reputation of a modish woman, who, when not tambouring, knotting, or embroidering, amused her leisure, and kept her fair self out of mischief, by drawing a bandalore [yo-yo] up and down.

“Heyday! cousin,” was Lord Castlemaine’s ejaculation; “at that work, too? They tell me the French ladies do it in their sleep.”

“‘Tis the ton, surely, or Bab would not do it,” said Lady Betty, wishing to set off the dowdy Barbara; “and see the thread papers she paints,” added the old lady, showing up a volume of those useful, discarded, ever to be lamented article, with a bird with a scarlet beak and a blue breast at one end, and a flower, orange, red and purple, at the other, all varnished with a glaze of gum arabic.

Lord Castlemaine praised the  as very neat, and saw some sense in those – the knotting he condemned as an extravagant waste of time. But he was so complimentary to the thread papers, that Barbara, with a little persuasion, was induced to show her cousin her collection of…” [of…? If you’re curious, you can always look it up!]

More specifics on these papers from fiction, 1868:

She is able to divert herself most days with her thread-papers, as Madam, her mother, will be mighty glad to hear, for the head and the heart ain’t none of them over-bad when a miss can settle to make thread-papers…. Milly was in the act of making her thread-papers – cutting down strips of gaudy card-board, painted with staring flowers, birds, butterflies, and pasting them together in the requisite shape.

Well, enough of thread papers. They were around before, during, and after my period of interest; whether artsy or functional, they were probably used most often for embroidery threads, although I could certainly add some to my workbox display. What about sewing thread for plain work or dressmaking?

An Encyclopædia of Domestic Econcomy, 1815, states, “Cotton sewing thread, usually called sewing cotton, has of late been made so beautiful by machinery, and its utility and cheapness are so well known, that it has, in a measure, superseded the use of linen thread formerly used. It is used in every house, and in the making of almost every kind of clothing.”

That was helpful in affirming what textile historians tell us, that the change from linen to cotton for sewing thread happened in the late 18th-early 19th century. But how would you find it in a shop?

Now let’s see whether you were just skimming the quotes to be a polite blog reader, or were paying attention. Did you catch the reference to Brunel²?

Can you see the little cotton ball? It’s there, really! Science Museum Group. Model of Brunel’s cotton winding machine.. 1858-20. Science Museum Group Collection CC BY-NC-SA Online.https://collection.sciencemuseum.org.uk/objects/co44937.

His biography informs us that, “A machine for twisting cotton-thread and forming it into balls was also amongst the earliest of Brunel’s inventions in this country. The impulse given by this machine to the employment of cotton can now scarcely be credited. The little balls were very elegant in form; and from the manner in which the thread was wound, they presented the appearance of net-work, or ribbons of lace. The Machine measured the length of the thread which it wound, and proportioned the size of the ball to its weight and fineness.”

They must have been awfully pretty, those little balls of thread, to merit so much acclaim. Rees’s 1819 Cyclopædia agreed, “cotton thread for sewing, mending, and domestic use, is wound into balls of a figure resembling a cask, and the many intersection of the thread are so managed as to produce a very beautiful appearance.”

If the illustration below is an example, I do think they’re lovely! Illustrated ads for sewing cotton wound in a fancier lattice design appeared in periodicals from 1819 to 1827. Here’s one from La Belle Assemblée, 1819. The inventor was Edmund Naish, Quaker, who patented his method in 1818.

I didn’t hold out much hope of ever seeing one of these lacy little balls, so maybe you can understand my delight when I saw these!

Are they the same “Diamond Sewing Cotton”? I guess I’ll never know. But there is certainly a resemblance!

naish 1819 a

You can see there is no paper or cardboard center for these. And it does look like this style of wrapping hasn’t survived the years quite as well as an ordinary ball would have. But they were pretty!

So it appears that sewing thread, long sold in skeins (or hand-wound balls), was available for purchase as machine-wound balls sometime after 1802, and the fancy patterns in the next decade. But what about wooden spools?

In The Paisley Thread Industry (1907), the author says, “The year 1812 may be taken as the earliest date upon which Clark’s sewing thread was placed upon the market.” He goes on to state

The James Clark of Messrs. J. & J. Clark was the first to introduce spool cotton sewing thread. We are indebted to his son, Mr. James Clark, of Chapel House, for an explanation of the circumstances of this very important and interesting development. Mr. Clark says: – “Originally the cotton thread was sold in hanks or skeins, and then ladies had to wind it into little balls, as they generally wind a cut of wool yarn at the present day. Wishing to convenience his fair customers, James would, on selling a skein of cotton thread, sit down at a weaver’s pirn wheel, and wind the thread upon a spool, for which he charged a half-penny, but that half-penny he refunded when the empty spool was returned to him.

“The spools cost sixpence a dozen, and were ordered by James, to the extent of half a gross at a time, from a wood turner name Robert Paul, which he carried home in his coat pocket, to wind thread thereon by his own hand, if desired, after the sale of a skein had been effected by him.”

So I suppose you could have retail-wound wooden spools shortly after 1812 – if you lived in Paisley, Scotland! However, writing in 1861, William Weild gives a slightly different history.

Previous to the present century, sewing thread was made up for sale in hanks, and it was not till about 1814, that the plan of winding thread on spools or reels, technically called “spooling” was introduced by Mr. James Carlile, of Paisley….The spools commonly used are made of wood, more or less ornamented, and some also of metal, bone, ivory, and other materials. Wood spools were first turned by hand; but the immense demand for them called attention to the necessity for self-acting machinery for producing them in a rapid manner, and this was invented in 1846 by Mr. John Clark of Glasgow.

wrapping hand spools

Here is another (mind-boggling) account of how was thread was made into balls and spools, the greatest problem being constantly breaking thread. From an 1846 SPCK publication:

The writer visited a sewing thread factory at Manchester…. The process of forming the thread into balls or reels is, performed by young women with an almost magical celerity. Each young woman is seated at a kind of turning-lathe; she seizes the end of the thread, and attaches it to a rod of steel, sets this spinning, and in an instant a ball of cotton appears at the end of the rod; the rotation is stopped, a blue ticket is inserted at the end, a further quantity of thread wound to secure the ticket, and the ball is finished. The size of the ball is regulated with extreme accuracy by the eye. The number of balls to the pound varies from 16 to 600; and the young woman being told to produce a certain number to the pound, makes a few, weighs them until she has got the exact size by weight; after this she relies entirely upon her eye, and so accurate is her judgement, that the variation of the balls in weight is very trifling. The cotton is wound on reels with the same surprising celerity…. Reeling is not such rapid work as balling.

Who knew? I certainly didn’t. Can you imagine what that must have been like, eye-balling 600 balls of thread? All. Day. Long. Perhaps they could also do it in their sleep. God bless them.

And now, if you’ve made it this far into an excruciatingly arcane subject, I will share my last two discoveries. If I had found them earlier, I probably wouldn’t have bothered with all the rest.

The first is an excerpt from Our Village, by Mary Russell Mitford.

Everything in the one store which it boasts, kept by Martha Deane, linen-draper and haberdasher, is dear and good, as things were wont to be. You may actually get there thread made of flax, from the gouty, uneven, clumsy, shiny fabric, yclept whited-brown, to the delicate commodity of Lisle, used for darning muslin. I think I was never more astonished than when, on asking, from the mere force of habit, for thread, I was presented, instead of the pretty lattice-wound balls or snowy reels of cotton, with which that demand is usually answered, with a whole drawerful of skeins, peeping from their blue papers – such skeins  as in my youth a thrifty maiden would draw into the nicely-stitched compartments of that silken repository, a housewife, or fold into a congeries of graduated thread-papers, “fine by degrees, and beautifully less.”

Well, well. She covered it all: paper-wrapped skeins, balls, reels, thread papers, and one I didn’t explore (since they are so well-known already), the silken repository, or housewife (hussif). See Sarah’s charming “repository” of blue and cream below, with matching blue threads all ready for use!

sarah thread3

sarah thread1

And the accompanying little bag with her name embroidered on the front:

What exquisite work, and how beautifully preserved! Special thanks to “diggerlee” on eBay for use of the photos!

But the last is an image, c.1810-1815. From the V&A, it’s the picture I’d always hoped to find: a thread-stocked workbox. The little “tickets” are pink, with the thread size stamped on them.

Where have you been all my life? A workbox tray filled with balls of thread that look like they’ve been there since they were purchased 200 years ago. Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

To wrap it all up, I now have a better idea of how to keep thread in my workbox or basket if I want to stay true (sort of) to the times. It’s a relief to untangle the knotty problem – and know that I can sleep peacefully at night.


¹ Miss Lambert was a prolific and popular author of needlework books such as this one.

² For some stranger-than-fiction history, read about Isambard Kingdom Brunel and the gold sovereign magic trick – and how it could have killed him!

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