Knitting has enjoyed a resurgence of interest in a new generation as a “stress reliever.” If you enjoy this “retro” craft, imagine keeping your household stocked with socks, blankets, and sweaters!
For Pioneer women, sewing was not a hobby – it was an essential skill to keep a household running.
As people headed West to carve out a new civilization, there were few stores on the Frontier. Women had to make all of the textiles they would need for their families, such as clothing, blankets, curtains, and rugs. The well-rounded housewife would possess the necessary skills to knit, weave, spin, and sew.
In the early days, stores might supply fabrics from “back east,” and a few notions (or sewing supplies), but there was no such thing as “buying off the rack” quite yet. Those with more disposable income bought fabric and took it to a dressmaker or tailor for a custom fit, but the average family had to rely on the woman of the house for their wardrobes.
Sewing skills were passed through generations from mother to daughter, who began making “exemplars” or embroidery samplers as soon as she was old enough to hold a needle. A little girl would also practice her sewing skills by making dolls and doll clothing. By the time she was old enough to marry, she would be proficient in all of the crafts her mother taught her.
As manufacturing expanded, and settlement spread further west, products that were previously handmade could now be purchased in stores. By the early 20th century, women started buying ready-to-wear fashions instead of making clothes themselves. Department stores began stocking the same outfit in multiple sizes to accommodate the shopper’s desires.
Today these historic crafting skills are preserved by museums all over the country in the form of educational exhibitions and demonstrations. Next time you visit a museum, take special note of the dresses, rugs, curtains, and other textiles on display.
Think about the time it took to make everything by hand! Look for museum workshops and classes, as well as summer camp experiences for children to help keep these skills alive.
Knitting and quilting are hot hobbies right now. But do you know anyone who can spin wool into yarn? What about someone who is proficient in tatting? In a museum setting, you will probably find someone practicing these crafts, just as the Pioneers did 200 years ago.