Return to site

Women’s Work: Creating Clothing on the Frontier

Written by Nancy Flagg

Originally published in the Eureka Times, 2012 Summer issue

This is the second in a three-part series about pioneer textiles and clothing.

The first post is available here. The third post is available here.

broken image

Museum staff and volunteers in period clothing from the mid-1800s.

Women's Clothing

What were frontier clothes like? “Calico was the fabric of choice” for women’s everyday clothing."12 Calico, an unbleached coarse cotton fabric, was inexpensive and washable. Gingham, denim and wagon canvas were other common fabrics used to construct clothes.

As for style, “the plain Mother Hubbard dress served as the main work dress. The rather shapeless, long-sleeved, full-length gown had no waist to speak of and a yoke.”

Although everyday wear was basic, pioneers had their fancier Sunday clothes. Women kept tuned to the country’s latest fashions by passing around their few copies of Godey’s Lady’s Book. Godey’s was a highly popular magazine published in Philadelphia. Each issue contained articles, poetry, sheet music and the latest fashion illustrations, complete with patterns so that the clothes could be made at home. The presence of Godey’s on the frontier helps explain why women’s Sunday clothes exhibited impractical dress hoops and puffed sleeves.

broken image

Rebecca Carr in her "Sunday" best

Embellishment Techniques

Women also let their creativity loose by adding trim and ornamentation to their clothes, using tatting, embroidery and crochet techniques.

Tatting was a technique for making lace to adorn a collar, handkerchief or table linens. Using a 3-inch long tatting shuttle, rows of knots with tiny lacey loops on top of them are formed.

Embroidery is a technique for decorating fabric using needle and thread. Different types of stitches are sewn into cloth to create flowers, borders and other ornamental patterns. Samples of embroidery skills, “samplers”, were made by most girls as a way to practice and demonstrate their embroidery prowess. The samplers included letters of the alphabet, verses, and records of marriage, birth and death dates. The girls used their embroidery skills to monogram the towels, tablecloths and other fabrics in their hope chest that would go with them when they married.

Crochet is a technique using a crochet hook and either yarn or thread. Chains of fabric are created when loops of thread are pulled through another loop. Crochet had a period of popularity in the middle of the nineteenth century when machine-made colored thread became available. Crochet can also be used to make clothes and afghans, similar to knitting, however it is unlikely that the technique was used much by frontier women for other than decoration because it used much more thread than weaving.

broken image

Margaret Carr's dress is embellished with trim, age 14, ca. 1864/1865.

Men's Wear

Men wore overalls and cotton work-shirts for their daily outfit. Denim and corduroy (both made from cotton) were favored fabrics because of their durability and comfort. Companies back east sold denim but the fabric became more locally available when Levi Strauss opened his company in San Francisco in 1873. Levi manufactured and sold his patented denim pants with metal rivets to serve the hardworking gold miners. Later, his markets expanded to pioneers and eventually to the world!

Men also had a version of good clothes they saved for Sunday or for important business in town.

broken image

This photo of Job Carr is an example of men's "Sunday" best.

Although the photo shows only a little of Job’s outfit, there is enough information to make a few assumptions. Job’s grey beard and suit style suggest that the photo was taken when he was a little older, sometime after his 1864 arrival in the Pacific Northwest. The suit appears to be a sack coat which was a style that became a standard for men in the 1860’s to the 1880’s.

The suit seems in good condition, tightly constructed and well-fitting which makes it likely that it was either tailored specifically for him or bought from a store. Just like today, people in the 19th century were concerned about saving time. For example, Job’s white shirt may be a full linen shirt but it may also have been a dickey, which was a shirt front (no back or sleeves) that could be purchased from Montgomery Ward’s for about 20 cents. Similarly, inexpensive paper collars were in vogue because they could be worn once and thrown away, thereby saving time on laundry chores


Chores in the new lands were never-ending and pioneer women gathered with neighbors as often as possible to share the tasks. The maxim “many hands make light the work” was certainly true when friends helped quilt, comb and clean wool fibers, spin thread, weave cloth, dye fabric, cut fabric, fit clothes, and sew and mend garments.

broken image

A loom demonstration at the Museum's annual Pioneer Days Festival in Tacoma's Old Town Park

The breadth of women’s work on the frontier was immense, even if not fully appreciated by the census takers or most history books. Although women’s work was ‘seen as part of the natural functions of the universe…, as little noticed as breathing’, without that work, none of the men’s work usually associated with frontier living could have been accomplished.

"Sewing was all tedious hand work - costumes were elaborate with trimmings - and quite some task when the children's togs were added." ~Mrs. Howard Carr

Learn about making cloth, weaving, and looms in this video with Living History Performer Karen Haas.

Works Cited

Bartling, Kathy, (2008). Sarasponda. CMP General Music Teaching Plan.

Bowlby, Mary (personal communications, June 2012)

Coleman, Lynn, (September 2009). 19th Century Historical Tidbits. Spinning Wheels.

Corduroy, (2004).

Crochet, (2012). Wikipedia.

Denver Fabrics, (2011). Facts About Denim Fabric.

Enss, Chris. How the West Was Worn. Bustles and Buckskins on the Wild Frontier. Guildford, CT. The Globe Pequot Press/TwoDot, 2006.

Flagg, Nancy, ( 2012). Quilts and the Underground Railroad, Sacramento Press.

Flax, (2012). Wikipedia.

Foster-Harris with Evelyn Curro. The Look of the Old West. New York, NY. The Viking Press, 1955.

Godey’s Lady’s Book, (2012). Wikipedia.

Hands on History, Inc. (no date), Colonial American Spinning & Weaving Study Guides.

Hevrdejs, Judy, (2012), Montgomery Ward’s first catalog. Chicago Tribune.,0,3067002.story

Justus, Meg (personal communication, May, 2012)

Kellogg, Caroline, (no date). Talented Job Carr, first settler of Tacoma. Time Machine. Tacoma News Tribune as cited in Rootsweb, January 14, 2008, Job Carr biography.

Kolski, Lynda, (December 15, 2009). All Knotted Up-Tatting Laces: All Sorts of Antique Linens. Worthpoint website.

Kovel, Ralph and Terry, (June 11, 2006). Hope Chests Make Longtime Family Keepsakes. LJ

Margison, Olga, (2009). Native Canadian Indians (Coast Salish Tribe) History of Fashion Canadian Indians - History of Fashion EN.pdf

Meeske, Susan, (no date). Quilt Me a Story. Rutgers School of Communication and Information.

Montgomery Ward, (2012). Wikipedia.

Needlework Tips & Techniques, (2007). Embroidery history – 16th-19th centuries.

Osmond, Candace, (2012). All the Basic Crochet Stitches and Tips to Get You Started. MostCraft.

Paludan, Lis. Crochet History and Technique. Interweave, 1995.

Pavel, Michael as cited in Washington State University, Museum of Anthropology, (nd). SQ3Tsya’yay: Weaver’s Spirit Power.

Peavy, Linda and Ursula Smith. Pioneer Women. The Lives of Women on the Frontier. Norman, OK. University of Oklahoma Press, 1996.

Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association, (2008). American Centuries Great Wheel. (1995). Making a Silk Purse out of a Sow’s ear. 

Reedstrom, Ernest Lisle. Historic Dress of the Old West. New York, NY. Sterling Publishing, 1986.

Stamper, Anita and Jill Condra. Clothing Through American History: the Civil War through the Gilded Age, 1861-1899. Santa Barbara, CA. ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2011.

State Historical Society of Wisconsin, (2002). Patterns of History, 1878 Men’s Sack Suit.

Walton & Taylor Mercantile, (2012), Sack Suit 1870.

Weaving, (2012). Wikipedia.

Wells, Kathryn, (no date). Kathryn of the Hills’ Spinning Page.

Zeman, Theodore and Randall Miller. The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Daily Life in America: The War of Independence and Antebellum Expansion and Reform, 1963-1861. Westport, CT. Greenwood Press, 2008.

About the Author: Nancy Flagg volunteered with Job Carr Cabin Museum as a freelance writer living in Sacramento, California. After seeing our ad for a volunteer writer, she visited the museum's website and was intrigued by the log cabin, Job Carr's role in Tacoma history and the clear community and staff support for the museum. When not writing, Nancy can be found working as a university financial administrator, playing the euphonium (a tenor tuba) or playing bass guitar in the all-women-over-50 class rock bank that she founded.