Spinning and weaving, weaving and spinning
It is amazing that there are even a handful of folk who can still do old-fashioned Acadian spinning and weaving, considering that it was apparently a dying craft well before the 1900s.
The cloth made in those long-gone days was called cottonade and the best of it was pretty fine stuff, but the spinning wheel and the loom were quickly becoming obsolete in the face of mechanized mills.
In March 1893 the Abbeville Meridional, reported, “In [past] days …, the [cloth] was not considered the height of fashion as it is today. It was then plain “cottonade jeune et bleue” with no variety. ‘Goblin Blue and Shrimp Pink’ were unknown.” The newspaper boasted that cottonade had gained in prestige since the early days, so that “in some of the most fashionable of New York and New Orleans’ mansions, you will find all the draperies, portieres, lambrequins and table scarfs made of the products of the looms of the Attakapas Acadians.”
The newspaper also claimed that the yacht owned by wealthy New Orleans businessman and sportsman John A. Morris was “upholstered with cottonade made by a lady living on the Vermilion river about four miles above Abbeville,” and that former president Grover Cleveland had “a suit of cottonade made by an aged widow whose home is near Long Point, in this parish.”
According to the Meridional, the unnamed widow “planted the cotton, worked the growing crop, often picking the fleecy staple herself, and converted it into cloth. … Her hands alone performed and accomplished the same end which the manufacturers of ordinary clothing require thousands.”
But, alas, she was one of the last of the women who could, or would, do all of that work. “The great draw back to this industry is that there is not a sufficient demand for the [cloth] … and the women find that they can do much better working at some other pursuits,” according to the Meridional.
But all was not yet lost. The reason for the report was that in the spring of 1893 Louisiana and the rest of the nation were making plans for the upcoming Chicago World’s Fair, and Mrs. Paul Leeds, “of Avery Island,” was working to create as part of the Louisiana exhibit a room where “Mrs. Hypolite Bernard, of this parish, is to preside at the loom while two fair Acadian girls from Vermilion will spin the cotton and put it on the spool.”
It was understatement to say that Mrs. Leeds was “of Avery Island.” She was born Sarah Marsh Avery, daughter of Daniel Dudley Avery, the Avery for whom the island is named. Her husband was a part owner of the substantial Leeds Foundry in New Orleans and her brother-in-law had been mayor of the Crescent City. She was a person of influence and means, described by the New Orleans Picayune as a “noble woman” who was working “to reestablish Acadian industries, such as weaving, chair making etc.”
Her influence and work paid off.
August 10, 1893, was Louisiana Day at the Chicago Fair, when “more than a thousand sons and daughters of the State by the Gulf fixed the date of their attendance at the great Exposition … that they might swell the audience assembled to do honor to Louisiana,” according to a report from Chicago.
On that day, hundreds of dignitaries and common folk found their way to the second floor of the Louisiana building, where “can be seen an Acadian woman weaving in a room fitted up just as in the days of old Acadia settlements in Louisiana. … It is as the story of ‘Evangeline,’” the Chicago report continued, “and visitors never fail to be much impressed and highly pleased by the picture presented.”
Catherine Cole of the Picayune visited the fair in October, and found the weaving exhibit “the most sensational feature of the state building.”
“Nothing American in the entire exhibition is so truly charming and quaint as the Acadian room,” Cole wrote, describing it as “a dainty page” out of George Washington Cable’s pastoral story, “Bonaventure,” in which “Mme. Theriot and her dark-eyed ‘Evangeline’ sit spinning and weaving, weaving and spinning, as if this were the prairie tremblent and if the house were beside the black bayou, as if all about were the Spanish mosses, the long limbed live oaks, the fragrant cassias, the quaint people, the sweet, severe life that goes on pellucid and undisturbed is the Arcady of our state, the Attakapas country.”
You can contact Jim Bradshaw at email@example.com or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.