On the corner of...

Turkey red rug
Sat, 03/18/2017 - 7:15am

Ed. note: The Block Island Historical Society was founded in 1942. To help celebrate its 75th year. the Society’s Diamond Anniversary, The Block Island Times will be publishing sketches and photographs of items in its collection. For those interested in joining or donating to The Block Island Historical Society, please visit blockislandhistorical.org.

Block Island of yesteryear was like any isolated town; boughten (or shipwreck-scavenged) yard goods, from fancy silks to simple calicos, were treasured, handed down over generations. A small braided mat, one of the more seemingly everyday items in our collection, was made with the “last of the 'turkey red' tablecloth.” It sounds like a reference to a cherished piece of colored linen, used up as it was wearing out. The term proves a key to an unexpected labyrinth. 

“Turkey red” was not just a color, it was a hue made to adhere to fiber by a highly guarded dying process perfected in Asia Minor. The results were so prized — and desired by British royalty — that obtaining the specifics of the technique was the subject of intrigue across Europe. Espionage expeditions were funded and financial incentives offered by the Society of Arts in London. The secrets were brought at last to the burgeoning textile industry of Great Britain in the latter part of the 18th century and then to the United States.

Someone on Block Island came to be in possession of a turkey red tablecloth. That it was so noted when only precious scraps remained may indicate the owner knew something of its origin, likely more than we know of linens we purchase today.

More often the backstory of old fabric is purely domestic. Flax, harvested from the fields, and wool, sheared from the grass-clipping sheep that kept pastures clear, were processed painstakingly. They were spun into thread or yarn and crafted into material, blankets and cloth woven on heavy timber looms, and clothing knitted on ivory and wood and bone needles. 

Skeins of thread from flax grown on Block Island and dating from the 1890s, sit with wooden needles at the ready, in a basket with big balls of cloth strips. Fabric, no matter the source, was not discarded, be it calico worn beyond service, or linens, turkey red and others. It was saved, torn into long, narrow pieces, and some is waiting still, more than a century later, to be braided into mats and rugs.