Originally published in The Kentucky Review, Volume XIII, Number 3, 1997, pp. 58-74. Photographs used with permission of the Kentucky Library and Museum, Western Kentucky University.


Wool, next to cotton, is perhaps the most important of all textile fibers. Like most of their contemporaries, the Shakers of South Union, Kentucky, recognized the ease with which wool fibers were spun into yarn and the advantages of sturdy wool clothing. South Union’s textile industry grew from a simple carding mill to a full-fledged woolen factory with a 240-spindle spinning jack and 4 power looms. From its genesis in 1815 to its abrupt demised in 1868, the sect’s woolen industry provides a paradigm for the study of the United States’ textile industrialization.


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wool comb.jpg (46 kB)
Figure 1: Wool comb made in 1835 by Shaker Samuel S. McClelland. The piece is stamped “No. 3 C.H. [Church] S.U. [South Union] August 1835 S.M.C. [Samuel McClelland]. (The Kentucky Museum, Western Kentucky University)

spinning jenny.jpg (107 kB)
Figure 2: The hand-operated spinning jenny increased yarn production by several thousand per cent.