Originally published in The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, Volume 94, Number 1, 1996, pp. 33-58. Photographs used with permission of the Shaker Museum at South Union and the Kentucky Library and Museum, Western Kentucky University.


Textile production was one of the many routine tasks performed in the early American home. Those who joined communal groups, like the Shaker converts at South Union, Kentucky, brought to the colony knowledge of these activities. Shakers manufactured fabric – linen, silk, and woolens – in about the same manner as most of their contemporaries, only on a larger scale. Though few of their contemporaries left documentation regarding the tedious tasks involved in textile production, the South Union Shaker community, located in Logan County, kept intimate accounts of daily activities through journals, diaries, day books, and correspondence which included records of South Union’s carding, fulling and woolen mills and their linen and silk production.


Agricultural and Resource Economics | Cultural History | Entrepreneurial and Small Business Operations | Social History

flax hackles.jpg (35 kB)
Shakers combed by hand, or hackled, flax to loosen fibers adhering to each other and separate the tow (short fibers) from the more prized line (long fibers). Objects shown above (left to right) are a rectangular flax hackle, raw linen, spun linen, and a round flax hackle (Museum Collection, Shakertown at South Union)

spinning wheel.jpg (80 kB)
The markings “C H H 5” stamped on the table of this South Union flax wheel indicate it belonged to the Church family. Originally painted a mustard color, the wheel is missing a portion of its distaff and its footman, the strap which attached the treadle to the crank. (Museum Collection, Shakertown at South Union)

silkworm stages of growth.jpg (147 kB)
From <i>A Manual Containing Directions for Sowing, Transplanting and Raising the Mulberry Tree</i> (1935)

shaker kerchiefs.jpg (71 kB)
“Of plain or twilled weaves, Shaker kerchiefs exhibited exceptional craftsmanship. Sisters wove the striped borders by utilizing different weave structures or by inserting colored thread.” (Museum Collection, Shakertown at South Union)

shaker stock.jpg (79 kB)
A rose-colored silk stock worn by South Union Shaker William Booker (1841-1911). (Museum Collection, Shakertown at South Union)

wool comb.jpg (46 kB)
Shakers used wool combs to straighten and separate long wool fibers from the short staple ones. In 1835, South Union’s journalist mentions that Brother Samuel S. McClelland was making “worsted combs” for the Sisters. This beautifully crafted wool comb bears the markings “No. 3 CH SU August 1835 SMC.” (Museum Collection, The Kentucky Museum, WKU)