March 1996

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Letters to Suzanna

Washing, Ironing and Sewing


Barbara H. Bell

Letters to Suzanna is a series of fictional letters based closely on historical facts that tell of the day-to-day experiences of a family establishing a homestead in the region near the south end of Seneca Lake in the early nineteenth century. Click here for more letters.

Dear Suzanna,

In your last letter, you asked about our washing and mending and making clothes. I have already explained about the washings. It became a matter of pride to be the first woman to hang out clothes of a Monday morning. That was the usual washday although it was frequently necessary to wash a few things on other days, especially if there was a very small child in the family. We had one neighbor whose washing would be out at the crack of dawn. Mama always suspected that the lady washed clothes on Sunday night so she could hang things out so early. Except when it was needed, Mama never washed on Sunday. She tried to get some time to rest on the Sabbath.

As for ironing, we really did not iron many clothes. It was not as though we were going to parties or other places where we needed to look all fussed up, very often. Mama brought a sad iron with her when she moved to our homestead to live but it was not easy to heat it by the fireplace and not have any soot or ashes on the bottom that would rub-off on our clothes. Mama had an old rag over which she ran the iron before getting to our good clothes. Soot and ashes came off on the rag, you see.

Our very best clothes, she did iron but because we seldom wore them she did not have to do it often. First she heated some flat stones as near the flame as possible. She set the iron on them, but it cooled so fast that ironing even one item of clothing took a long time. Women's gowns were long, remember, and usually were full from the waistline so there was a lot of cloth to cover. Mama never had an ironing board. She spread a flannel sheet on our only table and that served as an ironing board. But, mostly, we just wore all garb the way it looked when dried from the wash.

We did have a special way to make our ribbons look ironed and flat, and it did not require all that fuss. We "ironed" them between our fingers while they were wet and then hung them carefully to keep from curling or folding over along the edges. We might have to similarly re-press them a few times before they dried and held their shape. We never had many ribbons, anyway.

As for mending, well, we did a lot of that! When your wardrobe was as limited as most pioneers, you did not let garments get beyond use for lack of mending. How many times I heard "A stitch in time saves nine"! We mended clothes until we found ourselves patching the patches, sometimes. When clothes were beyond further mending, we carefully withdrew all the thread which we could to use again. If adult items had enough strong cloth remaining, it was sewn into something a child needed. Pieces too small for anything else, but not yet threadbare, went into quilt pieces if at all suitable. There was always and forever a quilt in the making.

Mama never liked patches to show, except it did not matter so much on work clothes of the men and boys.

When she mended, she made an effort to exactly match the hole with the original cloth. If impossible to do that, a patch would be put on the underside and neatly stitched in place. Then Mama would cut out a pretty shape of a flower or a bird or maybe a star and cover the patch from the outside. These were usually sewn in place with fancy stitches to increase the "prettiness."

We were taught to quickly repair seams and hems and small tears before they turned worse.

Clothes were too valuable to throw away as long as there was even a portion which could be used. When beyond human wear, old clothes became dish rags or small towels. Or scraps would be put to use in the outhouse as explained in a previous letter. Women had a regular trade activity going on, passing along children's garments. Even quilting pieces were exchanged to add variety to the family's bed covers.

In fact, it was so hard to come by new clothes, in the economy of our day, that many people specified in wills who would inherit which items from the dead person's wardrobe or any new cloth which might happen to be on hand in the same ownership. Household linens and pillows, too, were often allotted in someone's will along with every piece of furniture or tool or work animal. Such inherited items were as helpful as cash to many descendants.

Of course, all sewing was done by hand. As young as age five, little girls began to learn everyday sewing chores. If a family could afford embroidery floss, she would soon learn fancy work, too.

Some of us enjoyed sewing but many little girls found it uninteresting, and having to sit still for an hour or more while concentrating on such household chores was detested. All of us heard "Take smaller stitches" repeatedly. If stitches were too long, the sewing went faster but seams came apart quickly.

"Smaller stitches! Take care! Do it well the first time or do it over."

I recall commencing my sewing by doing hems of blouses for Papa, sometimes merely to restore places coming undone. A good seamstress would do this without many stitches showing on the outside. The many strengthening stitches were on the underside where no one could see and one would put only very short stitches where they could be seen. To do this, you pushed your needle through the cloth and returned in almost the same spot while making sure the width or length of the visible stitch was enough for a firm anchor, nevertheless. Girls and women were admired for their fine stitching.

Papa knew how to do simple sewing. He had to learn during the years after he left his parents' home and before Mama took over. Mama saw to it that her sons could manage the simplest of sewing, too.

Most clothes were fastened with drawstrings. Buttons were expensive. The earliest settlers seldom owned buttons. Drawstrings were something else for which small girls could be responsible. Some were twists of yarn and could be made on a drop spindle at home without needing a spinning wheel. Sometimes, in taking apart an old garment, long strips of cloth could be cut along weakened seams. These would be cut very narrow and then twisted to make drawstrings. A few catch-stitches would be taken along the length to keep them from coming undone and to make them a bit stronger.

Slim strips of deerhide made excellent drawstrings which lasted a long time. They would also survive a lot of stretching without "giving" to the point of permanent damage. If a lady could afford to buy pins (I mean straight pins, not safety pins which were not even made in the United States until I was older), she might fasten some clothing with them. Pins were either handed down in families or hand-made, in my youth. Incidentally, the name pin comes from a Latin word for feather and it is believed that the first "pins" were carved from the shafts of bird feathers.

Can you imagine fastening a baby's nappies with straight pins? That is how it was done.

Some people carefully harvested large thorns from brambles to use as pins. I have even seen blouse necks shut with dried burdocks.

We were more fortunate than many pioneers in the Town of Reading because of Grandfather's store in Connecticut. The village there had been settled for many years so bolts of new cloth, thread and buttons were always in stock. Every time we had a visitor from there, our grandparents sent gifts of items from the store which they knew we could not obtain here. We received buttons that way.

Some folks knew how to make buttons from animal bones. We did not do this at our house.

Getting buttons for sewing meant that we had to learn to make neat and pretty buttonholes for our Sunday clothes, the ones most likely to have buttons. Hand-sewing a sturdy buttonhole without making it bulky was a very fussy job. Ruth and I both learned but it was never one of my favorite past-times. Ruth avoided that job even more than I. When clothes were taken apart, the strips with buttonholes were removed intact, if possible, for reuse.

Many settlers never owned but one cap or bonnet. Some women became excellent milliners and this was a way to earn a little money, or barter, at home. It was a common practice for a lady to own one basic hat form. As styles or seasons changed, the exterior cover would be removed (carefully, of course) and a different color or type of basic cloth would replace the old. Then, according to the taste and pocketbook of the customer, the milliner would redecorate the bonnet. Mama always did her own and those which Ruth and I had, as long as we lived at home.

A little boy's cap might be something his grandmother knitted or a real hat that an older member of the family outgrew or replaced.

Little girls often wore a type of sunbonnet with a strip hanging down the back to protect the nape of the neck. Most seamstresses could make them.

Girls and women often simply tied a scarf over their heads or had a shawl or cloak with an attached hood. A scarf was usually made from scraps of garments they had taken apart.

Men were more apt to have store-bought caps or hats. These were commonly worn until they were so dirty, they were stiff and most likely full of holes. Men often went to church or pubic meetings without hats, lacking one that was considered of acceptable appearance to be seen on such occasions.

I have seen men and boys wearing caps made of scraps of fur. Little boys especially liked to have an animal tail dangling down from such head gear. In my family, no one ever had this kind of noggin cover.

Shoes were something else again. Some men knew how to fashion foot gear from hides but often there was no such handyman in a sparsely-settled area. Papa sometimes patched our worn shoes and tried making some from a hide. He never owned the right tools to make fancy slippers. Mama made cloth shoes for all her children when small. She made them with cloth soles, using the hardiest material available. These shoes were always tied with strips of cloth rescued from Mama's rag bag.

She had a pair, herself, that she made when getting ready to be married. They were of a shiny black material and had stiff soles that a shoemaker near her home had attached to the tops she made. They were so pretty! She sewed button holes and attached straps with pretty glass buttons to fasten them. These were saved to be worn only on very very special occasions. When she grew older, her feet widened and the shoes no longer fit so she stowed them away in an old trunk.

Which reminds me about wedding clothes. Most ladies made a wedding dress which they could later wear for Sabbath best. Around Reading, in those early days, a man's wedding clothes were most likely his best looking blouse and trousers. I recall seeing one couple married at home where the groom was barefoot.

Shoes, because of their value and scarcity, were not worn unless necessary. We sometimes carried ours when going to church and put them on when nearly there. We would remove them again on our way home.

I still love to go barefoot!

© 1992, Barbara H. Bell
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