As the end of the year draws near, our horses are getting a stylish 18th-century look, courtesy of our Weavers. At the behest of Paul Bennett, head of the Coach and Livestock Department, the shop is making 26 new blankets to keep the horses cozy on those cold winter nights.
Classic black, of course. It goes with everything.
Horses can get cold, especially out in the pastures. Presently we have modern blankets that keep them warm, so Paul wanted to give them a more appropriate period look. Not to mention a more breathable fabric that will likely be better for the horses.
The new blankets will go from right behind the saddle to the tail, keeping the length of their backsides warm. It probably sounds simple, but there’s a lot of work going into it. Karen Clancy, Master of the Weaving and Dyeing Shop, explained what’s going into the project.
While our shop is doing all the weaving and fulling, the yarn prep is being done by two family firms in Pennsylvania.
There’s a straightforward reason for sending some of the work out. Karen estimates that even if they spent their entire workday doing nothing else (including speaking with our guests), it would take our weavers 18 months to complete the entire project if they did it all themselves.
Practicality aside, there’s also a historical rationale for sending some parts of the work process out to other shops. “They did that in the 18th century,” said Karen. “Everybody had a job. The dyer dyed, the spinner spun. It’s the same process. It’s just not as local as it would have been.”
In colonial Virginia, most textiles were imported, but if you had a diversified labor force, you might dedicate some time to making fabric for practical needs. While you would typically purchase fashionable fabric, functional materials such as cloaks, grain sacks, bedding for the enslaved people—and, of course, horse blankets—could often be made on the plantation.
After measuring our largest horses, the Weavers decided they would aim to make blankets at least 38 inches long (draping over the side) and 28-30 inches wide. The blankets would be spun woolen to create fuzziness. “You want air pockets with wool so it traps more heat. It’s like a sweater versus a suit,” explained Karen.
The wool came from the last year of shearings of our Leicester Longwool sheep, some 320 pounds in all. First, the wool was washed and picked (that is, separating it out because it tends to get matted.
G.J. Littlewood, a family firm in Philadelphia that also does work for the U.S. equestrian team, dyed the wool using ingredients that pose no risk to the animals. 18th-century dyes may or may not have caused some irritation to the horses.
The dyed wool was sent on to another family business, Kraemer Textiles in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. Armed with specs and a couple of samples sent by our Weavers, Kraemer spun the yarn in about two weeks. “It would have taken us eight months,” said Karen.
When the yarn was delivered back to Williamsburg, the Weavers put it up on the warp part of the loom and made a couple of test pieces. The blankets have a twill weave, which features a diagonal pattern that makes the fabric more flexible, and able to fit the contours of a horse’s body.
The shop has been able to weave it on the countermarch loom at a pace of about a yard-and-a-quarter per hour, which is probably not as fast as the time-lapse below might suggest.
When they’re done, they will have about 90 yards of fabric. They have to cut the pieces at the right place to ensure that it comes out at the right size even after fulling.
The fulling process, during which the fabric is washed, pulled, and stretched, helps work the blankets up to the desired fluffiness. Some hot water and a little bit of soap is used to break the surface tension. Karen explained that the hot water opens up the microscopic scales, allowing the fibers to be stretched as they are agitated. One way they agitate it is by stomping.
So if you happen upon the Weavers outside their shop whaling away on some fabric, it’s not an outburst, it’s just the execution of a time-tested technique.
The fulling process ends with a dose of cold water, which settles the fabric down, setting the size and shape. It all depends on how long you work the fabric. The blankets have a felt-like quality. “But you could get this down to billiard cloth if you wanted to,” said Karen.
She hopes to have all 26 blankets delivered to Coach and Livestock before the cold weather sets in. They’ll take care of the final touches, which includes adding weighted leather corner pieces, which will ensure that the blankets stay in place.
And who am I to say that a fashionable accessory won’t give our horses a little more swagger as they pull a coach down Duke of Gloucester Street?
Thanks to Fred Blystone for sharing some of his photographs!