Spinning for God and Country

Imagine you are allowed to own one thing, only one thing. What would it mean to you? During the American Revolution, many women had a spinning wheel as their only legal possession. What it meant to them is a matter of discussion.

In the 1700s, women regularly gathered with their spinning wheels to spin, methodically twisting fibers into yarn that could then be woven into cloth. These gatherings became known as spinning bees and were a way for women to create homespun American goods that would help their families boycott heavily taxed British goods. 

Kate Johnson, UNC senior, became interested in spinning bees during her class on Revolutionary America. When encouraged to investigate an underrepresented group, Kate decided to explore the role women played during the American Revolution. Having previously encountered the proposition that spinning bees were a political cause, Kate was surprised to learn that the gatherings were frequently held in ministers’ homes. Kate discovered, “The spinning bees were a distinctly feminine expression.  Traditionally, these women’s actions have been interpreted as political expression and support for the Patriot cause. However, by examining colonial newspapers from the period, a pattern emerges of spinning bees taking place at a minister’s home and often including a sermon or scripture reading. Whereas men were expressing their patriotism in taverns and riots, women were doing so through service in ministers’ homes. Thus, it was from this identity of piety and domesticity that women were able to participate in the political scene, a sphere of society in which they were otherwise barred.”

Kate, whose advisor is Dr. T. J. Tomlin, has enjoyed the opportunity to ask new questions and look for unfound connections in an established topic. She likes to read experts’ historical interpretations but also enjoys searching through primary sources herself to get a better sense of what was happening for individuals during a particular time period. Her favorite part of research is the analysis, as she explains, “I’ve found I really enjoy the analytical side of research. Once I’ve gathered some information and data, I like the process of sitting down with it all and figuring out what it all means. I like trying to make connections in facts and interpret their greater significance.”

Kate hopes her research might lead others interested in early American History to re-evaluate the interpretation of spinning bees during the Revolution. She explains, “I think looking deeper into the circumstances and motivations behind [spinning bees] can lead to some interesting revelations about women and spirituality and give us a more nuanced understanding of how both fit into early American society.”

After graduating with a degree in History and German, Kate plans on working for a year at a museum or historical site to gain some experience in her field.  She then hopes to attend a graduate program in Public History and pursue a career in a museum that allows her to educate the public and interpret artifacts for visitors.