The Old Ways in Rappahannock
It is often difficult to find goods made in America, much less locally by hand. But in Rappahannock County, there are those who preserve techniques developed generations before industrialization. These individuals are not just helping the local economy and the environment; they are also preserving American art forms. This is the fifth in a series of articles about Rappahannock residents proud to carry on the work of artisans of bygone days by doing things “the old way.”
Thirty-one-year-old Amissville resident Rachel Summers was born in the 20th century, but one could say she grew up in the 18th.
“When I was 11, my family visited Claude Moore Colonial Farm and I immediately fell in love with that kind of life,” she said, recalling her first encounter with the 18th-century living history museum and working farm in McLean. “I had to be a part of it.
“The practicality and sense of community of colonial life really appealed to me,” she said. “I was amazed to learn that people in colonial times made everything by hand, from clothing to food to books and newspapers to shipping crates and barrels.”
Shortly after her initial visit, young Rachel enthusiastically volunteered at Claude Moore, where she helped with all seasonal tasks: gardening and fieldwork, tending to animals and working in the farmhouse. She worked at the museum through her adolescent years, both as a volunteer and as a part-time staffer.
Then, in 2001, after receiving a college degree in historic preservation, she joined the staff full time. A few years later, she married and moved to Rappahannock County, where she and her husband, Kevin, a teacher and writer, started their own heritage farm, Crowfoot Farm. Although she, Kevin, and their two young daughters, Morwen and Ingrid, ages 7 and 4, stay busy with tasks at Crowfoot, they find time to volunteer at the 18th-Century Market Fair three times a year.
“I can truly say that my specialty is in 18th-century farming and housewifery,” she mused. “My husband and children are becoming experts, too.”
Summers spends her days at Crowfoot doing such tasks as homeschooling her girls; caring for her infant son, Roland; cooking; tending to heritage chickens, turkeys, goats, pigs, geese and sheep; growing vegetables, raising animals for Claude Moore and managing a CSA. Like all farmers, of course, Summers needs occasional down time to re-energize. Many women today might relax with a novel, a favorite television show or a long bubble bath, but Summers winds down 18th-century style: She spins wool.
“Spinning wool, to me, is very relaxing and soothing . . . I never tire of it,” she said. “And spinning wool that I prepared utilizing 18th-century methods makes the experience even more meaningful.”
Summers’ favorite place to spin is on her front porch, where she gets a scenic view of her farm and the landscape. But before she sits down at the wheel, she must do a lot of preliminary work to get the wool ready for spinning.
“The first task is to shear the sheep,” she said. “Then I sort and wash the wool, dye it, card or comb it and spin it.” Preparing the dyes is the most time consuming of all the preparatory tasks, but to Summers, it’s the most interesting.
“I taught myself how to dye from reading 18th-century books,” she said. Among her favorite how-to books are the “Country Dyer’s Assistant” by Asa Ellis, published in Massachusetts in 1798, and “The Manufacture of Wool, and the Cultivation and Manufacture of Flax” by John Wily, published in Williamsburg in 1765.
“There are easier ways of preparing dyes, but I stick to 18th-century methods,” she said. “I think it is exciting to try a recipe written down over 200 years ago and resurrect the color described in the book. I feel it gives me a better understanding of the textiles of the period and the clothing that was worn.” She noted that she would feel like she was “cheating” if she took shortcuts using modern chemical dyes.
Many of the plants Summers uses for dyes can be found at Crowfoot farm or nearby.
“Pokeberries, black walnuts, goldenrod, marigolds, sumac, elderberries, onion skins, alkanet root, woad, blackberries and tree leaves are some local dyestuffs I regularly use,” she said. Each item gives a distinctive color, such as shades of yellow (onions, goldenrod), magenta (pokeberries), blues and purples (alkanet root, blackberries, woad, elderberries), dark gray (sumac) and brown (black walnut, marigold). Among imported items she utilizes are cochineal bugs, indigo, madder root, logwood, brazil wood, fustic wood, turmeric, weld and cutch.
“There are subtle nuances to using each individual dyestuff, but the basic process is the same to make and use dyes,” she said. “The color must be extracted from the dyestuff by either soaking or boiling. Then the wool is dipped, soaked or boiled in the dye to saturate the fibers.” There are several steps, including using a mordant such as potassium alum, iron or tannic acid to lock the colors. The type of pot used for boiling also makes a difference in the final dye colors. Iron pots help achieve dark and drab colors. Copper pots help to brighten colors.
“My daughters love to see the outcome, especially when they have helped gather the raw ingredients,” she said. “And they enjoy wearing the clothes I knit from the yarn they helped produce.”
Summers said her daughters not only take an interest in producing yarn, they also take an interest in farm life in general. They regularly help their parents with general farming and gardening tasks, and work their own flower and strawberry patches.
“I hope that my children will want to continue to work alongside us on the farm, and will continue to take an interest in dyeing and spinning.” she said. “I hope more people become interested in the textile craft, specifically. Decades ago there were numerous large-scale wool processing facilities in America, but they have almost all shut down. I hope that will change someday.”
Summers is trying to do her part in keeping dyeing and spinning alive in America. She demonstrates her craft for some 2,000 visitors during market weekends at Claude Moore Colonial Farm and she plans to offer workshops at Crowfoot Farm. To inquire about lessons or to learn more about Summers’ work and philosophy, visit crowfootfarm.com or call 540-937-4490.