Sewing Back Then

Pattern

Write a new post in response to today’s one-word prompt.

godeys-fashion-plate

(A fashion plate from Godey’s Lady’s Book, circa 1850)

For a long period of time, as a young teen and even as a pre-teen, I loved reading stories that featured the pioneer women in America as they traveled the trails “Out West.”  Some of them were ill-equipped for what would be required of them.  Others fared better because of a strong, independent nature and a willingness and ability to learn whatever they had to learn in order to survive

One skill  almost every pioneer woman had to learn  was sewing. There were no stores in which to shop for clothing for a growing family.  I remember one story, possibly from The Little House on the Prairie series, in which the mother  created new clothing for her family by taking apart the old, outgrown or outworn dress or pants. The pieces would then be traced  with enough room to grow, and a seam that could be let out as time passed.

They didn’t throw out the old clothes. They were used for rags, for patching other clothes, or for pieced quilts. Nothing wasted.

Where did they get the fabric?  Spinning wheels and weaving looms were put to work to produce material. This work was often done during the long, cold winters when  it was warmer–and safer–to stay indoors.  Of course, in order to spin the threads that would be used on the loom, a woman had to know how to  get the wool from  the sheep or goats that she fed and cared for.  She had to learn how to process the raw materials in order to have something to spin, then weave, then sew into useful clothing for her family.  She was a one-woman factory!

Patterns were used over and over. They were drawn, sometimes, on plain muslin cloth. When muslin wasn’t available, old newspaper or butcher paper, basted together to make a piece big enough for the pattern,  was used instead.

No matter what tools were available, though, the whole process turned a woman into a one-woman factory.  If you’ve ever wondered what they did on those long winter evenings, now you know.  Knitting, making mittens and hats and stockings  and sweaters; spinning thread, weaving fabric, following a pattern to sew literally everything they wore, took up those long hours. Of course, girls in the family learned these skills early so they could help with the process.

If a woman was very lucky, there was a general store within a day’s drive from the homestead. These stores carried  bolts of factory-made fabric, a true luxury. They also usually had a book of patterns, such as Godey’s Lady’s Book,  that was full of pictures of the latest styles and many other helpful articles for the pioneer wife.  It was a trip to look forward to when  going to town meant packing food for the journey, and taking camping supplies for an overnight camp on the way home.

Godey’s contained colored illustrations of new styles. These illustrations were called fashion plates. If a woman was told she looked “just like a fashion plate,” it was a compliment to her sewing skills and her appearance.

Most of the sewing was done by hand. Quilts were also products of the pioneer wife, and they were hand-cut, hand-pieced, and hand-stitched. Honestly I don’t know when those women had the time to tend to everything else they had to do!

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10 thoughts on “Sewing Back Then

  1. Really enjoyed your bit of history. So that’s where the expression “fashion plate” comes from!

    Our church ladies still do work with patterns and sew their own clothes, because it’s impossible —and horribly expensive– to buy the style of dresses we wear. Patterns are used many times over and passed around among friends.

    As to “back in those days” Grandma also made this huge garden and canned tons of produce. Sewing was for winter days—no hopping in the car and going to town for something to do! But can you imaging doing all that sewing, mending, and quilting by candle or lamp-light? I was in an Amish home one evening; with only a kerosene lamp to light their kitchen the light was really dim!

    And you didn’t mention that Grandma had a baby every year or two. But one thing, from little on up, the children worked as part of the family unit. Mom-in-law bragged about cooking a complete dinner for their family (after baby #10) and the visiting company — at age nine. I read an account of one young fellow who considered himself a man at age twelve and rented land of his own, using his dad’s equipment to farm it.

    1. I thought of so many other things I could have mentioned, but I was concerned that the post was already too long!

      Yes, things were surely different back then. Children were expected to do all sorts of chores that today’s parents would consider much too hard for their kids. I believe that even today children would feel a lot better about themselves if they were a working part of the family, contributing to the well-being of all the other family members.

      1. I do agree. But that takes “parenting” — something often lacking in today’s world of broken homes.

        My Aunt & Uncle both worked, so I was a “latchkey kid” with no responsibilities except to bring home a good report card. No chauffeuring, no ditch-on-the-other-side “helicopter mom”, no after-school sports or self-improvement classes. I really do understand why children today seem so connected to their peers rather than their parents. But I have seen enough good homes to realize how things could be.

        As to the time to do so many crafts, just think of a world with NO electronics. If we all freed up all their TV and radio and internet hours — and reduced our book quota to maybe four per year— just think of all the time we’d have for crafts. 🙂

      2. I was a latchkey kid, too, back in the 50’s. We got a TV when I was 8, which would have been 1955. My favorite thing was The Mickey Mouse Club 🙂 My mom and dad had a solid marriage, though, and I never felt abandoned or afraid. The neighborhood was full of kids our age, and there was always some mom or dad home that we knew we could go to for help. Even after we had the TV, we still spent most of our time outdoors. You’re right. And I’ve REALLY overdone the amount of time I spend on my laptop with this ridiculous back of mine. Terrible.

      3. Yeah, I spent so much time online and also reading oodles of books when I was taking chemo. I could have been doing cross-stitch, piecing quilts, or darning hubby’s socks. So I guess it is mainly about what we call “priorities.” 🙂

  2. I find it amazing that despite all of their other chores, not only did women find the time to make their own clothes but also often embellish them with (sometimes very intricate) embroidery. And if they weren’t embroidering their clothes, many young women in a long unbroken line down through many centuries produced samplers of fantastic quality.

    My wife is a cross stitch designer, and because of that I’ve read several histories on the subject. I’m astounded by not only the universality of needle arts, but also the consummate skill exhibited by so many women regardless of culture. (Of course men played a part too – for instance, the word “sampler” started with traveling male tailors who carried books of “sample” stitch styles which people could order on their clothing. But overall, embroidery in general has been a traditionally female art form. Yay, ladies!)

    🙂

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