This is one long, cold winter. Brrr! It has driven me to go back to wearing turtlenecks and 100% wool sweaters. I pulled out my favorite Polo sweater and found holes! Moth holes! I pulled a couple more & the little buggers were chomping on most of my Polo and Izod sweaters. They love wool and here they’ve got good – expensive – taste but oh I was sooo mad! It is devastating to pull out a favorite sweater and find holes in them thanks to these little critters. What do people do today when this happens? After muttering a few colorful metaphors, the sweater gets tossed.
In today’s society of being constantly busy, we’ve become a throwaway society. Broken, buy new! But that’s not how people used to be…
For centuries, many people did not have the wardrobes we have today. Unless you were royalty or titled, the majority had a few articles for everyday and one dressy piece for church or social gathering. During the time of the American Civil War, a great deal of men’s clothing was made of wool. Pants, frockcoats and waistcoats were wool. Why? Because wool is a great fabric. Made of tightly woven fibers, it held dirt on the surface unlike cotton, which absorbed it, whether it was mud or wine or anything, staining it. If mud got on wool trousers or skirt, it’d be allowed to dry then a fabric beater, like a carpet beater, would be struck on the item and the dried wool would flake off.
For ladies, with those long skirts that hit the floor, what did they do to make them not fray or mar with dirt? Many ladies put a ruffle around the bottom and it took the filth off the streets, sidewalks and home. If it didn’t wash out, the ruffle was torn from the skirt and a new one attached. A new ruffle made of another color or new trims, made the skirt look new. Or they lined the bottom with twill-tape, sewn on the inside so only a glimpse of it showed on the hemline. Colored to match the skirt, this piece save the hem from dirt and once it was beyond redemption, it was an easy to remove and replace.
During the Civil War, Southern ladies had to become the Frugal Housewife and find alternatives as the Union naval blockade kept imports out. Therefore, fabric from the North or England wasn’t available, neither were many notions such as stays for corsets, etc. So they redesigned what they had. Fixed their hoops by narrowing them or not wearing it at all. They streamlined their skirts, cutting fabric to repair another area, thus making the skirt not as wide as fashion dictated. Pagoda sleeves were made narrow, cuffs and collars made from other scraps and they reversed the fabric to give it a ‘fresh’ appearance. Women already used shank buttons on their bodices. These buttons were not truly sewn on but the shank went through the slit at the buttonhole and was held there by a ribbon that ran the length of the bodice. To give a change of appearance, they pulled the ribbon, releasing the buttons and they threaded different ones in their place. Quite the ingenious way to make one outfit look like five.
Surprisingly enough, The Gone With The Wind portrayal of using curtains for material wasn’t that far off the norm.
Keep in mind, ladies changed clothing many times a day. During the winter, it may be 3-5 times, summer 7-9 depending. They had their morning gown, working gown, cooking, traveling, day dress as well as evening supper, evening party and ballgowns. It might sound insane to change but it was a way to keep the outfits cleaner than wearing one all day.
Laundry was a nightmare – an all day affair literally. Washed by hand with a scrub board and soap, it was a task assigned to Mondays. Whites were done in boiling water, colors in cold. Dresses were roughly 7-8 yards of fabric. A big piece to wash so they deconstructed it – bodice from skirt, sleeves from bodice – so smaller pieces to scrub and to dry. Drying was on clothesline outside. Whites placed in sunlight to bleach them whiter; colors turned inside out and hung in the shade to keep from fading. Ironing was with a cast-iron iron like we see for decoration today. It had to warm enough to iron but not hot enough to burn. Regardless of societal class, when they could afford to, they hired a 12 year old to do it for them. One way to make the load not as heavy, they changed clothes throughout the day so they weren’t soiled – I read an account of a lady who wore a new dress in May and didn’t wash it until August! Yet some had to be done and it was much easier to wash collars and cuffs, which get noticeably dirty, than the whole dress.
But what about those moth holes? They FIXED them. Women learned how to sew – whether they were good or not didn’t matter. They learned it enough to be able to repair things. Knitting was also a skill majority had. With that knowledge, and using things like cedar chests, they could keep most of their woolen fabric safe.
My mother was a Depression era child. These children were educated about getting by on nothing and making things last. My mother was great at sewing. Made all my clothes I wore in childhood. I remember wishing for store bought clothes…difficult being the one with the pretty – and unique – outfit. She also knitted and for these, she knew how to get into the sweater and reknit the holes closed. Alas, I never acquired those skills…
So, I did the best I could – I used needle and thread to sewn them close.
There actually is a book on how to be a frugal housewife: The American Frugal Housewife, Dedicated To Those Who Are Not Ashamed Of Economy by Mrs. Child, 1833. A fascinating read. Makes you wonder – could you become a “frugal housewife”?