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|Penny Hassett was born to work on this exhibit. After all, her name is Penelope, just like the great weaver in Homer's legend, who wove and wove while waiting for Odysseus to come home.
Now this modern-day Penelope stands amid looms and spinning wheels at the Museum of American Heritage, pulling a line of linen. The fibers twist into fine string in her practiced hands. She's a spinner, a weaver, a dyer, a quilter. She knows how to create intricate cross-stitching, card fibers, spin thread with a drop spindle.
"I'm a follower of threads," she says.
Many of the items in the new Palo Alto exhibit "From Fiber to Fabric: A History of American Textile Production" come from Hassett's La Honda home. She loaned a small table loom and a large floor loom, an enormous spinning wheel. She started a rag rug going on her big loom so that visitors can trace the warp and woof.
A longtime local whose sons own Palo Alto Hardware, Hassett is one of many museum volunteers who worked on the exhibit. Beryl Self of Menlo Park curated the show, spending hours going through the museum's collection to find the right sewing machine or historic apron. An avid quilter with experience working at the San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles, she made several of the quilts in the exhibit.
The show is full of art: the quilts, modern and vintage; colorful weavings and tapestries; red-on-white embroidery. But the exhibit pays its main tribute to the everyday function as well as form. It honors the Americans of the past -- mostly women, but many children -- who spent their days with textiles: spinning, weaving, sewing and laboring in factories to make the products that now zip forth from machines.
"People don't think about where it all came from and how it got put together," Self says.
She and her team decided that the heart of the exhibit should be the three primary fibers of American settlers: wool, cotton and linen.
In the museum's front room, the wool area contains photos of sheep and wool, and information on the 17th-century wool industry. Self contributed a sheepskin rug that people can smooth down to see the crimp, a factor that helps determine quality when buying fleece.
Nearby, there's a basket of raw cotton, still packed with seeds; an indigo-dyed apron from the 1930s; and an image of slaves picking cotton. Visitors can handle the cotton to get an idea of the huge amount of work required to clean it before the cotton gin was invented. An exhibit card states that a 1,500-pound load of cotton produced 1,000 pounds of seed and only 500 of cotton lint.
In the linen area, the exhibit explains how linen fibers are drawn from flax-plant stalks, then bundled, dried and used. One illustration provides a cross-section of a flax stem. On a mannequin, a crisp-looking man's linen shirt from the 19th century stands watch.
Once viewers have been introduced to the basics of this fiber troika, a display of photos and drawings by museum volunteer Dick Clark pulls it all together by diagramming how fiber is made into fabric. He walks viewers through the picking, carding, spinning, warping and weaving.
And then, all around the museum, are the various inventions that have made these material miracles happen for centuries. There are drop spindles, which people used to spin thread by hand. Not very efficient, but portable. They were succeeded by spinning wheels, three of which stand elegantly in the main exhibit area.
Nearby are Hassett's looms. She looks at them fondly, working the bit of linen in her hands.
"I think the very first book I read was a children's version of 'The Odyssey,'" she says, thinking back to the ancient weaver Penelope. "When I graduated from high school, I went to stay at a friend's house, and she had a loom. I walked in and put my arms around it and said, 'I want to do this.'"
As looms got more advanced in the 19th century, the mechanical jacquard loom emerged. It kept track of complicated patterns with a system of cards. As such, it's part of the history of the personal computer. In fact, the jacquard loom on display at MOAH is on loan from the Computer History Museum in Mountain View.
Other inventions on display include sewing machines from MOAH's collection, some painted with sphinxes or other designs. "Part of the selling thing was how elegant it would look in your living room," Self says.
Several shelves are full of vintage irons. One burned kerosene, with the scorch marks to prove it, while another needed to be loaded with coals. One weighs 18 pounds.
While the hard-working women of the past needed to be strong, it also helped to have an eye for color. One section on dyeing is bright with fibers dyed by onion skins, turmeric, mustard and the madder plant. People used urine, too; hence the chamber pot on display.
"The smell of these things was awful, and indigo was the worst of all," Self says. And costly. A price card from 1831 lists madder at 19 cents a pound and indigo at $2.25 a pound.
The images of slaves working are a sad side to the exhibit, as is the section on child labor. It includes black-and-white photos of little workers in the Northern factories of the 19th and early 20th centuries. They labored in frightening proximity to the huge machines' moving parts, often having to crawl under them to tie threads back together, Self says.
"One thing that you don't get from the pictures is the incredible amount of dust everywhere," Self says.
"And the noise," adds Lindsey Munzel, visitor-services specialist at the museum.
More cheerful are the exhibit's quilts. They include "Crown of Thorns," a 19th-century quilt hand-pieced from tiny pink cotton patterns, which were popular when other dyes were harder to come by. "Jacob's Ladder," from about 1890, includes a print of penny-farthing bicycles.
Munzel has added a "community quilt" section to the exhibit, where kids and adults can piece together fabric shapes and glue them to paper squares. All squares are being displayed on the wall.
Self harks back to the Depression with a reconstruction quilt she made with pieces of old feed sacks. The sacks were "a free source of fabric, often used for children's clothes, aprons and pillowcases," an exhibit card reads. A photo from 1940 shows an American family dressed in garb made from brightly printed sacks.
In those days, the manufacturers would sell sacks with different patterns, and wives would go with their husbands to pick out their favorites when it was time to buy feed, Self says. The photo is a perfect example of the exhibit paying tribute to the everyday fabric worker. The family doesn't look particularly well-fed, and the house is humble at best, but someone has clearly taken great care in sewing these feed-sack dresses, with every collar and hem and buttonhole crafted lovingly by hand.
What: "From Fiber to Fabric: A History of American Textile Production," an exhibit at the Museum of American Heritage
Where: 351 Homer Ave., Palo Alto
When: Through Aug. 18. The museum is open Friday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Info: Go to moah.org or call 650-321-1004.
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