Kentucky in the Long Ago by Mrs. W. T. Lafferty: Finery Brought In From East Did Not Last Long; Made Her Own Clothes.
The woman in American history has been more admired than our Pioneer Woman and none since Mother Eve has had less written about her clothes.
The Pioneer Woman came to Kentucky during the period of the Revolutionary War, when America was fashion-mad; when the extremes of rich and plain attire in women’s war5drobes were most strongly marked; when dress in the larger cities, especially where British officers and their wives held gay court, and gave balls and parties had reached the point of extravagance; while in outlying districts, women whose sons and husbands were in the Continental lines, wore homespuns in order to send help to their fighting men.
The every-day dress of a farmer’s wife consisted of flannel gowns in winter, with camels hair gowns for dress up and in summer calico or poplin or linen.
These were simply made, a close fitting bodice, buttoned down the front, “V”-necked, short sleeved, with a straight, full skirt sewed to it at the waist line. At the neck, she wore her kerchief of some sheer white material, crossed neatly over the breast and the ends tucked in her belt. She wore thick or thin leather shoes with heels 1 ½ inches high and home knit stockings of yarn or threat as the season demanded.
According to her own story, the pioneer woman wore her “settlement finery” into Kentucky. But the trail was narrow and her clothes were frayed and torn by the briars and brambles along the way. She repaired and made over, as long as she could, but after she had converted the last of her best silk dress into a quilted bonnet for herself, and used the scraps for quilt pieces, she was confronted with the problem of replenishing her wardrobe.
It is difficult for people of the present to grasp the seriousness of her problem, located in a dense woodland, the haunt of savage men and savage beasts, a month’s journey from a store, and needing everything. Yet she met her emergency and met it well.
If she reached Kentucky in the spring and found it possible to get the land cleared and ready, she sowed her flax seet broadcast in May and when it was ripe, by mid-summer had it “pulled” and carefully dried in the sun. Strong men beat out the fiber in a flax-brake. Then it was swingled before the hacking took place. The fiber was sorted according to fineness and after twenty odd dexterous manipulations the flax was ready for the spinning wheel. The beautifully built little flax wheels were bought from a wheel-wright who loaded them on pafdk-horses and peddled them through the country.
If the pioneer woman had no time to wait for flax she followed the plan of the Indian woman and used the wild nettle as a substitute. It made a smooth linen, quite comfortable for hot weather wear but not to her taste because of its dull drab color, until Ann McGinty, that thrifty little woman of Harrods Fort, taught her how to dye it in pretty colors.
Securing wool for winter wear was a much more serious problem than finding flax, for sheep were the most difficult animals to bring into the Wilderness and had to be brought on horseback.
Ann McGinty, again following the custom of the Indians, used buffalo wool as a substitute for sheep’s wool and when the yards were brightly colored, they made comfortable, pretty materials for clothing and household needs.
Indigo and cochneal had to be bought of traveling peddlers but the bark of red oak or hickory made browns and yellows. Goldenrod mixed with indigo and alum, made green. Pokeberry boiled with alum made a rich crimson and the flag or iris made violet. The bark of the sassafras produced an orange yellow. The Pioneer Woman who became skillful in dyeing their yarns always spoke of the job as “coloring.”
When flax and wool were woven together, the material was called linsey-woolsey and this came to be the staple material for men and boys as well as for the women folk. Many a pioneer mother became noted for the beautiful stripes and the broken plaids she evolved for the adornment of her young daughters. Their underwear was a lightly woven wool for winter and linen for summer and the many choice heirlooms in Kentucky are made by hand of homespun linen and finished in exquisite embroidery.
One of the most durable materials woven of flax was called fustian and used for hard service by the men and boys of the home as well as by the slaves.
After Kentucky became a state and danger of Indians was over, a wave of prosperity made it possible for the pioneers to indulge their families in the luxuries of life to which they had been accustomed before coming to the wilderness. The rustling of black taffeta with its thread lace collar and exquisitely dainty “undersleeves,” was donned immediately, Morrocco slippers took the place of shoe packs and “my” lady sat in state by the fireside directing her slaves and presiding over her real Kentucky with the dignity of a queen. Her portrait hanging over her mantelpiece shows clearly that she was to the manor born. If she had not been well-born she could never had met her emergencies as she did.
Note: There are many illustrations on-line of pioneer flax wheels.
Next week: Pioneer Women Made Real Art of Fireside Cookery