Broadcloth for Furs – Early Fabric Trading in North America

Pilgrim woman (reeanctment)In The Fabric of a Pilgrim’s Life, I shared some info about the wide variety of colors and fabric types that came to the New World with the European settlers. The greeting card image of settlers clothed in stark black is not an accurate portrayal. Deep shades of blues and reds were common in the wool broadcloth that was the staple for daily wear. Cream and yellow were also found, indeed true black was very uncommon.

When broadcloth was woven in the mills of the mid-1600’s, the selvedges were wide and had a different texture than the body of the cloth. As the yardage was dyed, it was folded in bundles, and strings were stitched and tied around the selvedge ends to make it easier to handle each bundle. These strings were removed after dying, leaving stripes of the natural wool color showing through. It was the custom then, as now, to cut away the selvedge before creating the garment.

Wool Twill Broadcloth with color selvedge

The contrast of the selvedge became a decorative feature in Native American clothing.

From the earliest days of European settlements in North America, trading with the First People was common. As school-children we all heard the stories of the purchase of Manhattan Island in trade for beads and small metal items. Wool broadcloth was soon a very popular trading item.

For the First People, fine-textured and woven wool cloth was a novelty that quickly revealed practical applications. Wool was warm, even when damp, and dried more quickly than hides or furs. It was lightweight and flexible, and often colorful as well. A layer of wool clothing under a leather outer garment was warm without bulk. The selvedges were carefully placed to highlight the design of the garment, often as a decorative edge or hem. Sometimes the stripes of the selvedges were adorned with beadwork.

Tradecloth Embellished Hem

Tradecloth of the 1800's had wider color stripes, which were often embellished.

During the early 1700’s some broadcloth was yarn-dyed before weaving. A contrasting color was used in the warp (lengthwise grain) selvedge. This eventually led to more intricate stripes at the edge. In some cases the selvedge color indicated the weight of the fabric. By the late 1700’s there was steady traffic in specially designed tradecloth that was widely used in dance and ceremonial clothing by Native People all across the continent. Yardage came in several colors, each with a series of stripes parallel to the selvedge. There were bands of two to five colors used. In museums across the United States and Canada you can see wonderful examples of this tradecloth dance wear and blankets from the 1800’s, usually highly decorated with beads or shells.

Yellowstone and Glacier Blankets

The colors of the stripes on these four point blankets from the early 1900's show that they came from Yellowstone (l) and Glacier (r) National Parks.

This custom held true in other wool textiles, such as the heavy wool blankets that fur traders used for barter. These tradecloth blankets had ‘points’ of color woven in one corner or side to indicate the size and weight of the blanket. In early Minnesota and Ontario winters, a four point blanket would be a welcome addition to any home, but a three point blanket might be found further south. After the establishment of the National Park system in the United States in the early 1900’s, wool blankets were commissioned for use in park lodges. Colors were unique to a particular park, and originals of these blankets are now highly collectible.

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4 Responses to Broadcloth for Furs – Early Fabric Trading in North America

  1. Pingback: The Fabrics of a Pilgrim’s Life | The Curious Quilter

  2. Donna says:

    Interesting! I knew about trade blankets, but never thought about what the earliest settlers traded with. I always enjoy your holiday posts, thanks for this.

  3. Allison says:

    thanks so much for sharing! I had never heard of the ‘points’ on the blacnkets before – such an interesting post 🙂

  4. Martin says:

    Nifty, difty! I, too, would prefer to wear wool over hides!

    As kids we visited Gramma’s cabin on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan . She had three point Hudson Bay Blankets on the bunk beds! I never knew why she called them “3 Points” but I do now!

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