Saturday, January 16, 2010

Fiber-y Farmer Boy


When I was a little girl, I wanted to be a pioneer when I grew up.  I was obsessed with the works of Laura Ingalls Wilder and read them many, many times.  My family even went to Wilder sites on family vacations, like a reproduction log cabin near Independence, KS, where Little House on the Prairie might have been located, the house in DeSmet, South Dakota, from Little Town on the Prairie, and of course, the Wilder Home and Museum in Mansfield, MO, where the books were written.  My whole family was on board with this obsession; most of my books contain an inscription like this one:IMG_5362Fast forward to 2009.  Thanks in no small part to Boy 1’s 2nd grade teacher, who read Little House to the class, Boy 1 and I have been reading through the series.  (Left to his own devices,  he’s all about superheroes and science nonfiction.)  We started with Big Woods and then re-read Little House.  These books are just as wonderful as they ever were.  They contain only a few references to wool, though, which surprised me.  The Ingalls lived in places with cold winters – where is the wool culture?  Illustrator Garth Williams includes a spinning wheel in one of those books, but never once is spinning mentioned.  Laura’s and Mary’s 9-patch quilts, in contrast, are referred to frequently.

Farmer Boy, the retelling of Almanzo Wilder’s childhood, is another story altogether.  There is hardly a chapter without a reference to the world of wool!  The Wilder family’s prosperous farm is located in upstate New York, and Father raises all sorts of crops and animals that make the family self-sufficient.  They are so productive that they sell extra commodities (horses, butter, potatoes) for cash.  Father has a herd of Merino sheep (which he washes in special pens constructed in the river and then shears himself), and their wool clothes the entire family.  The first reference to wool clothing is on page 2 – all of Almanzo’s winter clothes are made of wool, from his underwear to his coat.  The fleeces were sent to a carding mill in nearby Malone, NY, but the fiber was spun, dyed, and knitted or woven at home by Mother (and, presumably, Almanzo’s two sisters).

Here is one of many passages that invites the reader into this world:

Then Almanzo … went in to see Mother.

Her hands were flying and her right foot was tapping on the treadle of the loom.  Back and forth the shuttle flew from her right hand to her left and back again, between the even threads of warp, and swiftly the threads of warp criss-crossed each other, catching fast the thread that the shuttle left behind it.

Thud! said the treadle.  Clackety-clack! said the shuttle.  Thump! said the hand-bar, and back flew the shuttle.

Mother’s workroom was large and bright, and warm from the heating-stove’s chimney.  Mother’s little rocking-chair was by one window, and beside it a basket of carpet-rags, torn for sewing.  In a corner stood the idle spinning-wheel.  All along one wall were shelves full of hanks of red and brown and blue and yellow yarn, which Mother had dyed last summer.

But the cloth on the loom was sheep’s gray.  Mother was weaving undyed wool from a white sheep and wool from a black sheep, twisted together.

“What’s that for?” said Almanzo.

“Don’t point, Almanzo,” Mother said.  “That’s not good manners.”  She spoke loudly, above the noise of the loom.

“Who is it for?” asked Almanzo, not pointing this time.

“Royal.  It’s his Academy suit,” said Mother.

Royal was going to the Academy in Malone next winter, and Mother was weaving the cloth for his new suit.


Don’t you long to see this room?  It sounds so inviting.

Here is a knitting passage:

In the evenings Mother’s knitting-needles flashed and clicked, making new stockings for them all.  She knitted so fast that the needles got hot from rubbing together.

p. 286

I love this book for so many reasons.  My friend Sharon says that we can surely use it as a manual when the apocalypse comes and we have to figure out how to live off the land again.  There is an astounding amount of detail in it about how things were done.  The story is engaging and it is an excellent read-aloud.  If it’s been a while since you’ve read Farmer Boy (or if, gasp!, you have not yet had the pleasure), I encourage you to find a copy and sink in.

Happy reading!


  1. Mother sounds pretty no-nonsense! My friend Joel grew up in nearby Massena, NY. And from what he tells me about the winters, an all-wool wardrobe would be welcome indeed!

  2. Love that note about using FB as a way to figure out how to live off the land. I think your friend may be right.


  3. So I was addicted to the whole series when I was a kid too. I read them multiple times :) Farmer Boy I liked a lot because of the vivid depictions of butchering--which was a family tradition on the farm. However I always felt it was out of place in the series...