Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Textiles as Cultural Expressions: Proceedings of the 11th Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, September 24–27, 2008, Honolulu, Hawaii


Copyright 2008 by the author.


Artifacts tell an important story. While researching this topic for my master’s thesis, I discovered twenty-two cloth-covered books in museum collections. Dirty, stained, and sometimes badly faded, the fabric had been overlooked, assumed to be sail cloth.

Cotton, most of it brightly-printed, plain weave fabric, had been sewn around the covers of books purchased on shore just as we see in this picture. Several other images of the cloth covering these books will be shown. These are the fabrics that went to sea, procured from slop chests and sewn by hand onto leather or cardboard-bound journals and account books. These examples are part of the evidence presented here proving that cloth sold or bartered during a whaling voyage played an important role in the social and economic structure of whaling during the peak of America’s participation in the industry.

This presentation gives a brief look at the use of trade cloth by the captain and crew members of American whaling ships and by Native populations of the Pacific, demonstrating how fabric was used in place of any kind of legal tender. There are so many wonderful stories that I’ve had to leave out! Research is focused on ships whaling in the Pacific Ocean between 1820-1870, a time when whales provided oil for machines and lamps, and whalebone, used as a stiffener in articles such as corsets and parasols. Ships studied sailed from the ports of New Bedford and Nantucket, Massachusetts and New London, Connecticut. Information taken from outfitting books, journals, account books and published material demonstrates how this cloth was used by the captain and crew, as well as by the Native populations with whom they traded.