Intern Reflections: The Material Culture of Textile Production

This essay was written by intern Lin Baummeister. During her internship, Lin catalogued artifacts in the Calvin Jones House. While researching a spinning wheel, she unraveled a history of enslaved women’s resistance in Wake Forest.

In 1951, workers at the Royall Cotton Mill striked for wage increases. The strike and the workers’ union affiliations were recently discussed as part of a series on the mill in the Wake Forest Gazette. While the 1951 strike was ultimately unsuccessful—the workers failed to negotiate wages that would match those given to Northern mill workers—it is indicative of a broader trend of labor conflict in North Carolina in the first half of the 20th century and is part of a long history of textile workers’ resistance in Wake Forest. Over a hundred years earlier in Wake Forest, enslaved women challenged the authority of their ensavers by refusing the back-breaking work of spinning cotton and linen. 

Large, great wheel-style oak spinning wheel from Chatham County, NC, early-mid 19th century.

The spinning wheel that currently sits in the Calvin Jones House has long stopped producing thread, but while I studied it I was inspired me to think about conflicts around spinning and textile production and consider how this history is as political as it is material. The spinning wheel, though not original to the home, would have been the style of wheel used by enslaved women like Judy, Becky, and Comfort who lived and labored on Calvin Jones’s plantation in the 1820s. With great skill and patience, these women would have been able to produce large quantities of yarn in a relatively short time using this wheel. Several letters between Calvin and Temperance Jones suggest that Judy, Becky, and Comfort frequently refused to spin, despite being ordered to do so. This kind of resistance from enslaved workers refusing to spin is documented in other sources as well.

When they refused to spin, enslaved women seized some control over the products of their labor and challenged their enslaver’s authority. In one undated letter between Calvin and Temperance, likely written in 1823, Calvin discussed his plans to move his family from Wake Forest to Tennessee. He hoped to relocate several enslaved women to Tennessee in advance of his family’s move, a move that would have inevitably separated the women from loved ones in Wake Forest and nearby Warren County. Calvin wrote to Temperance, “I should be glad to have the women and children here [in Tennessee], as they would live cheaper than in Wake, provided they would spin, which probably they would not.” The women’s refusal to spin clearly had a notable impact on the Joneses’ decision making. Calvin decided against sending the women to Tennessee, and, ultimately, the Joneses’ postponed their move to Tennessee until 1832, a decision based on a number of factors.

Even as their labor took place in very different contexts, the mill workers in 1951 and enslaved women in 1823 understood how their work and productivity fit into a larger system of production and commodification and used this knowledge to assert some amount of power or autonomy. The tools and products of textile production, like this spinning wheel, help us unravel stories to help us better understand individuals’ relationships to their labor.