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Linsey-woolsey is a coarse fabric, most common in the United States during the Colonial era, but also among the lower classes in England for the past few hundred years.
Linsey-woolsey, in its English incarnation, is a hand-woven twill with a linen warp thread and a woolen weft. Linsey-woolsey is a combination of the words linen and woolen. It is also referred to in the English vernacular as “wincey” or “stuff.” Charlotte Bronte refers to a traveling dress made of “black stuff” in her novel Jane Eyre.
In the Colonies, linsey-woolsey was often made with a linen warp and a woolen weft, and later with a cotton warp, which resulted in a sturdy fabric that didn’t use as much precious wool. It was an important fabric, and was used for clothing, blankets and even needlework fabric! Although a warm and sturdy fabric, linsey-woolsey was not an attractive fabric. However, in Colonial America, warm and sturdy were the desirable characteristics, not looks.
For such a fabric, making linsey-woolsey was a labor-intensive process. The flax had to be hand-stripped and carded, and both the wool and flax had to be spun into yarn. The fabric was then woven by hand, as well. The linen warp thread was usually strong and consistent, which made a good framework for the more variable wool weft threads.
By the 1830s, cotton had become more common, both as a whole garment fabric, and in linsey-woolsey. However, although cotton felt better, linsey-woolsey was still a preferred fabric because of its warmth and durability, particularly in pants and jackets.
As wool became more common and people began buying ready-woven fabric, linsey-woolsey faded from the scene. It is now generally produced in small quantities for people who participate in Colonial re-enactment days or for decoration in the Colonial style. It is a custom fabric that would cost quite a bit to produce in bulk these days and so is not readily available in stores. It usually must be special–ordered from people who manufacture it themselves.