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Women’s Work: Creating Textiles on the Frontier

Written by Nancy Flagg

Originally published in the Eureka Times, 2012 Summer issue

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

The second post is available here. The third post is available here.

Native American Coast Salish women wove their clothes long before the emigrants arrived. The women wove blankets, clothes and baskets with goat wool, cedar, dog hair, hemp and cattails. Weaving was also seen as a way to share Salish teachings. Washington State University Professor Michael Pavel says, “The most important of these teachings is unity, which teaches our society that individual fibers are weak until twisted together. Like individuals of a family, community, tribe or nation, we are weak until we learn to work together in unity…"7

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In addition to clothing , Coast Salish women like Anna Squally wove baskets from a variety of natural materials.

Pioneer Women's Work

They say that clothes make the man but they don’t mention that it is women who make the clothes. And the curtains. And the quilts. And the rugs. In Tacoma’s pioneer years, women did all those chores as well as cooking and cleaning, tilling the soil, cutting wood and building fences.

Pioneer Abigail Scott wrote, “…to sew and cook, and wash and iron; to bake and clean and stew and fry; to be, in short, a general pioneer drudge, with never a penny of my own, was not pleasant business.”1 

Despite all the work that pioneer women performed, census takers recorded them as “not gainfully employed.”2

In the latter half of the 1800’s, fabricating textiles and making clothes were a large part of women’s duties. City dwellers in the east had easy access to manufactured fabrics in a variety of materials, colors and style. On the western frontier, women often had to spin and weave raw materials into cloth before they could even begin making their own clothes.

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A volunteer spins wool into yarn at the Job Carr Cabin Museum's annual Pioneer Days Festival.

As the century progressed, more western stores carried a limited selection of fabrics and clothes. When the Northern Pacific Railroad connected to Tacoma in 1873, the availability of textiles and clothing rapidly increased.3 Montgomery Ward & Company in Chicago had started its mail order business a year earlier and was poised to provide western families with the goods they needed at reasonable prices; all delivered by train.4

Despite increasing availability, not all emigrants had sufficient resources to purchase clothing. Many women settlers continued to produce most of the family clothing into the 20th century.5 However, those who were able to at least buy pre-made and pre-patterned fabric saved countless hours in their clothes making process.

Making Fabrics

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Loom and spinning wheel on display during a demonstration at Job Carr Cabin Museum.

Making fabrics from scratch was a long, laborious process but a necessary one in the early days on the frontier. Raw wool was one of the primary materials used for making clothes and textiles; some families raised their own sheep for a wool supply. The men sheared the wool and the women and children cleaned and carded it. Carding involved combing the wool to eliminate clumps, separating the fiber strands and then aligning them in one direction. Next, the women wound the fibers onto a spindle at an angle that caused the fibers to twist in yarn. The wheel kept the spindle spinning at a fast clip and was either turned by hand or with a foot treadle.

Learn about how wool and other fibers are used to make yarn using a spindle in this video.

As one might imagine, the long spinning process was rather repetitive and mind-numbing. Women recited rhymes and sang songs to pass the time. Some songs were just nonsense syllables that matched the rhythm of the work. “Sarasponda”, a tune known by children across the U.S., is reputed to be an old Dutch folk piece that imitates the sounds of spinning, “Sarasponda, sarasponda, sarasponda ret set set…A doray-oh, A doray-boomday-oh…” 6

Flax was another common raw material and was used to make linen and lace. The pioneers pulled flax plants from the ground, dried them and removed the seeds. They separated the flax fibers from the hard stalk and spun the fibers on a flax wheel to create thread for linen cloth. Cloth made with a combination of wool and flax was called linsey-woolsey, a warm and durable cloth.

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A volunteer weaves yarn into cloth at the Job Carr Cabin Museum's annual Pioneer Days Festival.

After women created thread, they weaved it into whole fabric, typically with a loom. A loom is a wood-framed (usually) device that holds a set of threads in one direction so another set can be interwoven at right angles creating a tight grid of whole cloth. Knitting is another form of weaving that is done by hand with knitting needles and results in a looser, bulkier cloth.

All-beige or gray cloth is a bit boring, so women dyed the new cloth different colors by adding crushed berry juice, roots, fruit pits, flowers and leaves.

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Natural materials for adding color to fibers

In addition to wool and linen, cotton was a very common textile. Settlers acquired cotton fabric by dissecting the clothes they brought with them, converting sack grains to cloth purposes or buying fabric from general stores.

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, 1008, 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.

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.

Salem County Historical Society, (March 2006). Colonial Life-The Women. The History Highway in Salem County, Volume 14.

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.