Musings on Clothing...

Pioneer Life in Palo Alto County
From the Iowa Journal of History and Politics Volume 46 Issue 2 April 1948

Memoirs of Etta May Lacey Crowder written between 1930-1932

...During those early days most clothing was made at home and by hand. There
were very few sewing machines in that locality. In fact, the first few years
there was none in our neighborhood. Aunt Harriet Tressler obtained the
agency for the Florence machine and sold a few and also got one for herself.
At that time a clean calico dress was plenty good enough for church or
Sunday school and a gingham or calico sunbonnet frequently took the place of
a hat. I once heard a young lady remark that her mother had spent sixteen
dollars on her one Saturday. That was worth boasting about.

Everyday wear for men usually consisted of a pair of overalls and a "wamus"
or "roundabout". This was a short jacket gathered into a belt at the bottom
and finished at the neck with a close fitting straight or turn-over collar.
The sleeves were gathered into a cuff which buttoned tightly around the
wrist. When these garments or any everyday clothing were bought ready-made
the sewing was usually so poorly done that it must be done over at home.

One of the neighbors, whose wife was a victim of tuberculosis, thought to
make the work easier for her and bought a pair of ready-made overalls. Next
morning when he put them on and started to build the fire, he stooped over
and the new overalls began to rip in the seams. The next day mother went to
see this neighbor and found her sitting up in bed sewing on the overalls and
wishing her thoughtful husband had bought the goods and let her make them

The material used in overalls was the same as that used in grain sacks. Each
farmer marked his grain sacks with his name stencilled in large letters to
identify them when they were borrowed. The whole neighborhood was amused
when the waggish Schuyler Cummins appeared one day in a pair of overalls
with A.V. Lacey printed on one hip and Philo Sanford on the other.

Wreaths of hair flowers, worsted flowers, and even seeds were made by the
girls and women who had a taste for that sort of work. Mother had a very
beautiful wreath made of different kinds of seeds, which she bought from the
woman who made it. The frame for the wreath was covered with pine cones with
a border at the inner edge of large kernels of corn and an outer edge of
peach stones. Hair flower wreaths were made from the hair of the members of
the family and of friends. I made one of these once on which I spent many
hours that might better have been spent in improving my mind, but one had to
have some recreation and there were no movies to attend!

Among the industries practiced at home in the early days was the making of
straw hats. Not every one knew how to do this but mother was one who did.
Before the first crops were raised hats were made from blue joint, a wild
grass which then grew rather tall on the uplands and had a stem very much
like that of wheat. It was stiff and hard to work with and as soon as
possible wheat or oat straw was used. The straw was first plaited, four or
more strands together, then sewn into shape. The hats were fitted to the
heads as they were sewn, so the boys had to come into the house often and
try them on. The hat was begun at the center of the crown, the braid sewed
around and around until the required size was reached. Then it was turned by
drawing the braid tighter and the crown was continued until the required
height was reached. It was then turned again by sewing the braid more
loosely and the brim was formed.

Knitting, which was done by most of the women, was usually confined to the
necessities-socks, stockings, mittens, mufflers, and wristlets. A few did
fancy knitting, such as lace edgings, chair tidies, and even bedspreads.
These bedspreads were usually made from carpet warp, though I have seen a
few that were made from the finer cottons. Crocheting was more popular for
the tidies and laces, for it could be done more rapidly. ordinary sewing
thread was ofent used, usually in white. Crocheted edgings were used on
underwear, pillow slips, aprons, and especially on children's clothes.

The day of the spinning wheel had about passed at that time, though I have
seen a few women spinning. The yarn for knitted hosiery and mittens was
bought at the stores. Many knit their cotton stockings also. Some of these
were very elaborate, being knit in "featherwork", "shellwork", or "oak leaf"
patterns. When we wore those stockings showing the pattern which was
continued fover the instep, we thought we were very much dressed up...
Northwestern Iowa, It's History and Traditions 1804-1926
Vol. 1, Chicago: S.J. Clarke Publishing Co. 1927

Most of the clothing was home-made. Every farmer kept a flock of sheep. In
earliest times the carding, the spinning and the weaving were all done by
the women. There was a spinning wheel in every home. Often there were two-a
large one for wool and a smaller one for flax-while one loom might serve
many families. Linsey, or linsey-woolsey, was made of linen and woolen
yarns, the wool serving as the filling. Men rested betimes, but the women
did not. They wove the cloth and knitted the stockings. When they could not
make new cloth fast enough, they patched the old. Even then, they could
hardly keep their families out of nakedness. One woman of those times said
she had often sent her children into the woods on the approach of strangers,
because, they did not have clothes enough to make their bodies presentable.
When the settlers first began to buy cotton goods, the clothing came in
plain colors and it was dyed to suit individual tastes. Walnut bark and
hulls, sumac, madder, indigo and other native materials were used as
dye-stuffs, and the resulting colors were often hideous. But it was all in
the pioneer lifetime.
And the only tidbit I had in my notes files [which are very rough] relating
to Irish clothing (so far):
Beagh [Galway]- A History and Heritage p. 155
...women wore hooded cloaks, usually of serge, handed down from mother to
daughter or a shawl on their heads or a linen cap. Men wore Glengarry
knitted cap or fur caps of hareskin.
Other interesting links on clothing:

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2001 Cathy Joynt Labath