October 1995

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Depression and

Wartime Resourcefulness


Helena Howard

Those of us who grew up during the depression of 1929/30 will each remember those days differently. I grew up on a farm and hearing about people being hungry and standing in line for a free loaf of bread was like hearing about tragedy in another country. We had the same diet as always, meat and potatoes, three times a day, with canned fruit and vegetables from last year's garden and always fresh apples and all the milk we wanted.

When the depression faded, we got electricity and a refrigerator. World War II soon followed and once again you could not buy many items commonly used every day. This time it was not because of a lack of money but because many household things disappeared from stores or were curtailed. People had to turn in an old empty tube in order to buy toothpaste, and had to have a coupon to buy shoes.

The depression had trained us somewhat for this — we knew how to make baby dresses out of the back of father's white shirts, we passed around clothing and shoes, and used pots and pans that relatives no longer needed. How wonderful if a relative had some diapers that were not worn out and a new baby could enjoy their softness gained from many washings.

I remember, too, when colorfully printed feed bags arrived. Burlap which had always been used to hold cow feed, could not be found as the army had priority for jute, so feed companies started using cotton fabric. These feed sacks were brightly colored, with flowers, plaids and stripes. By trading with neighbors, enterprising housewives could often get enough of one pattern to make curtains, dresses, shirts, or whatever they wanted for their homes and their families.

Someone in our neighborhood heard that scraps left over from making parachutes were available just for payment of the shipping charges. A group of us decided to send for a supply to see if the scraps were usable. When the carton came, it was much too large to go into a station wagon, but practical women knew enough to open the box and stuff the material into the vehicle.

Where to unload all the long strips of heavy rayon fabric? Someone remembered that our house had two adjoining living rooms, and so it was decided to bring the scraps to our house and pile it on the floor of one living room. What a colorful mass it was all matted together. The strips were the shiniest and brightest cloth I had ever seen.

The next step was to separate the colors, and this called for a party. When everyone was seated around the pile, each person picked a color and wound their strip to form a ball. If you discovered that someone else was winding the other end of the strip you were rolling, no matter, pick another color that contrasted or harmonized with your first choice. There was so much material that the party lasted for several late evenings.

While we wound we planned what we could make from the long strips. Rugs were the most popular choice. To weave rugs from these strips we needed to have frames to stretch strands across and then to inter weave with other strips. My father-in-law made a strong wood frame for me that was two feet wide and four feet long with nails evenly spaced and sticking up along the edges of all sides.

I began a rug by looping strips back and forth across the frame around the nails on the long sides. Then I wove, over and under alternate strands, strips running the long way of the frame and placing each strip around the nails that were across the ends of the frame. When I placed the next strip after going around the end nail, I of course wove this strip oppositely from the preceding strand, under a cross thread where I had gone over before. This made plain weave fabric.

We used many methods to weave the strips through the cross strips. I found that an old-fashioned button hook worked best for me. The long handle allowed me to reach over and under eight to ten inches of the cross strands before pulling through the material. Once the frame was filled tightly, a new rug was ready to be taken off the protruding nails. I stitched across the ends several times to prevent raveling and then cut the end loops so that I might have fringes on my rug. We discovered that we could weave the colored strips to form patterns in almost any geometric design we fancied.

I made a great many rugs, and I still have many of them. They never wore out, and they never faded, but the rugs were slippery and could not be trusted on smooth surfaces.

For a long time it seemed that the supply would never run out. When our children were growing up there was still enough material in the neighborhood for them to have parties and make pot holders and place mats for their youth group to sell.

We did have fun making rugs and hot pads from fabric scraps just as we had the satisfaction of being able to fashion good-looking clothing and furnishings from still serviceable materials.

1995, Helena Howard
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