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Women's Work: Textiles at the Museum

Written by Nancy Flagg and Mary Bowlby

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

The first part is available here. The second post is available here.

Textiles at the Museum

Heritage textiles at Job Carr Cabin Museum include quilts, flour-sack curtains, rag rugs and cotton pinafores

Photo credit: Emily Sight Photography

What type of clothes and textiles did the homesteaders make with their fabrics? Take a look at the photo of a Job Carr Cabin Museum interior for a fine example of common textiles of the era as well as the ubiquitous nature of women’s work. On the wall over the bed is a heritage quilt made around 1890. The log cabin blocks are arranged in a barn-raising format and the contrasting light and dark materials create diamond patterns. Most quilts made on the frontier were constructed from scrap fabrics and worn-out clothes. This particular quilt top was constructed from old shirts, an old necktie, and dress scraps of wool, silk, and cotton. The backing was made from salt sacks from a company in Minnesota and the padding (batting) from wool flannel.8

The quilt was tied with black yarn rather than being hand-quilted. The stitches are close together and very even, leading to the conclusion that the piecing was done with a treadle sewing machine. The quilt was enlarged sometime after its original creation by adding extra, more crudely made blocks around its edges.

The use of scraps from old clothes creates a kind of quilted memory book. Although quilts were made for comfort and warmth, they also tell the story of people’s lives. A quilt might contain “pieces of a daughter’s graduation dress or a mother’s apron” and are priceless bits of history. Recycling "found" fabric was a common quilting practice up through the 1930s.9

Volunteer Meg Justus shared her quilts with visitors to Job Carr Cabin Museum.

Meg passed away from cancer in 2017.

The quilt on the museum bed was sewn and donated by museum volunteer Meg Justus. The quilt is a “Corn and Beans” pattern; a popular pattern from the Civil War period done in a reproduction fabric. The quilt top was machine-pieced with a sewing machine and the quilting itself was done by hand to join the backing material to the front. A few settlers had sewing machines, but because the machines weren’t invented until 1846 and it was several more decades before they were standard in homes, most settlers hand-stitched the pieces and hand-quilted the bed covering.10

A young visitor at the museum inspects the museum's corn and beans quilt

Many other frontier home textiles were also made from whatever materials were available. The curtains shown in the top photo were crafted from flour-sack materials. The floor rug is an example of clothes and other rags woven together by hand to make a floor covering. Hanging on the right wall are cotton pinafores, made by museum docent Margo Webb. Pinafores were worn like aprons to keep dresses clean.11

A Great Wheel

In 2013, Job Carr Cabin Museum received a spinning wheel, generously donated by Michele and Dan Heidt. This “Walking Wheel” was built between 1809 and 1814 at the Alfred Shaker Community, a religious community in Alfred, Maine. It is stamped with the letters “SR AL”, referring to Samuel Ring – the leader of the Community where the spinning wheel was made.

The museum's spinning wheel is one of up to 700 made at a Shaker Community in Alfred, Maine

The “Great Wheel” is notably large, but it is also lightweight and comes apart easily. This would have made it relatively easy to pack it into a wagon for the trip out West on the Oregon Trail. Though we don’t have documentation of how this wheel arrived on Puget Sound, we like to think it might have been a treasured traveling companion.

A museum volunteer spins yarn on the Walking Wheel

Works Cited

Bowlby, Mary (personal communications, June 2012)

Coleman, Lynn, (September 2009). 19th Century Historical Tidbits. Spinning Wheels. http://www.historicaltidbits.blogspot.com/2009_09_01_archive.html

Flagg, Nancy, (2012). Quilts and the Underground Railroad, Sacramento Press. http://sacramentopress.com/headline/64162/Quilts_and_the_Underground_Railroad

Justus, Meg (personal communication, May, 2012)

Kovel, Ralph and Terry, (June 11, 2006). Hope Chests Make Longtime Family Keepsakes. LJ World.com. http://www2.ljworld.com/news/2006/jun/11/hope_chests_make_longtime_family_keepsakes/

Meeske, Susan, (no date). Quilt Me a Story. Rutgers School of Communication and Information. http://comminfo.rutgers.edu/professional-development/childlit/books/MEESKE.pdf

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. http://www.americancenturies.mass.edu/collection/itempage.jsp?itemid=15517

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