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