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Chapter 4:

  • How cloth was dyed.
  • -- how shoes, thread, hats, and bonnets were manufactured

There was some pleasant rivalry as to who should be the most successful in producing the brightest and clearest tinge of color on thread or cloth. Most of the women of southern Alabama had small plats of ground for cultivating the indigo bush, for making “indigo blue,” or “indigo mud,” as it was sometimes called. The indigo weed also grew abundantly in the wild state in our vicinage. Those who did not care to bother with indigo cultivation used to gather, from the woods, the weed in the wild state when in season. Enough of the blue was always made either from the wild or cultivated indigo plant. We used to have our regular “indigo churnings,” as they were called. When the weed had matured sufficiently for making the blue mud, which was about the time the plant began to flower, the plants were cut close to the ground, our steeping vats were closely packed with the [46] weed, and water enough to cover the plant was poured in. The vat was then left eight or nine days undisturbed for fermentation, to extract the dye. Then the plant was rinsed out, so to speak, and the water in the vat was churned up and down with a basket for quite a while; weak lye was added as a precipitate, which caused the indigo particles held in solution to fall to the bottom of the vat; the water was poured off, and the “mud” was placed in a sack and hung up to drip and dry. It was just as clear and bright a blue as if it had passed through a more elaborate process.

The woods, as well as being the great storehouse for all our dye-stuffs, were also our drug stores. The berries of the dogwood-tree were taken for quinine, as they contained the alkaloid properties of cinchona and Peruvian bark. A soothing and efficacious cordial for dysentery and similar ailments was made from blackberry roots; but ripe persimmons, when made into a cordial, were thought to be far superior to blackberry roots. An extract of the barks of the wild cherry, dogwood, poplar, and wahoo trees was used for chills and agues. For coughs and all lung diseases [47] a syrup made with the leaves and roots of the mullein plant, globe flower, and wild-cherry tree bark was thought to be infallible. Of course the castor-bean plant was gathered in the wild state in the forest, for making castor oil.

Many also cultivated a few rows of poppies in their garden to make opium, from which our laudanum was created; and this at times was very needful. The manner of extracting opium from poppies was of necessity crude, in our hedged-around situation. It was, indeed, simple in the extreme. The heads or bulbs of the poppies were plucked when ripe, the capsules pierced with a large-sized sewing-needle, and the bulbs placed in some small vessel (a cup or saucer would answer) for the opium gum to exude and to become inspissated by evaporation. The soporific influence of this drug was not excelled by that of the imported article.

Bicarbonate of soda, which had been in use for raising bread before the war, became “a thing of the past” soon after the blockade began; but it was not long ere some one found out that the ashes of corncobs possessed the alkaline property essential [48] for raising dough. Whenever “soda” was needed, corn was shelled, care being taken to select all the red cobs, as they were thought to contain more carbonate of soda than white cobs. When the cobs were burned in a clean swept place, the ashes were gathered up and placed in a jar or jug, and so many measures of water were poured in, according to the quantity of ashes. When needed for bread-making, a teaspoonful or tablespoonful of the alkali was used to the measure of flour or meal required.

Another industry to which the need of the times gave rise was the making of pottery, which, although not food or clothing, was indispensable. Of course, our earthenware was rough, coarse, and brown; and its enameling would have caused a smile of disdain from the ancient Etruscans. Nevertheless, we found our brownglazed plates, cups and saucers, washbowls and pitchers, and milk crocks exceedingly convenient and useful as temporary expedients, as no tin pans could be had; and we were thankful that we could make this homely ware.

All in our settlement learned to card, [49] spin, and weave, and that was the case with all the women of the South when the blockade closed us in. Now and then, it is true, a steamer would — run the blockade, but the few articles in the line of merchandise that reached us served only as a reminder of the outside world and of our once great plenty, now almost forgotten, and also more forcibly to remind us that we must depend upon our own ingenuity to supply the necessities of existence. Our days of novitiate were short. We soon became very apt at knitting and crocheting useful as well as ornamental woolen notions, such as capes, sacques, vandykes, shawls, gloves, socks, stockings, and men's suspenders. The clippings of lambs' wool were especially used by us for crocheting or knitting shawls, gloves, capes, sacques, and hoods. Our needles for such knitting were made of seasoned hickory or oakwood a foot long, or even longer. Lambs' wool clippings, when carded and spun fine by hand and dyed bright colors, were almost the peer of the zephyr wool now sold. To have the hanks spotted or variegated, they were tightly braided or plaited, and so dyed; when the [50] braids were unfolded a beautiful dappled color would result. Sometimes corn husks were wrapped around the hanks at regular or irregular spaces and made fast with strong thread, so that when placed in the dye the incased parts, as was intended, would imbibe little or no dye, and when knit, crocheted, or woven would present a clouded or dappled appearance. Handsome mittens were knit or crocheted of the same lambs' wool dyed jet black, gray, garnet, or whatever color was preferred; a bordering of vines, with green leaves and rosebuds of bright colors, was deftly knitted in on the edge and top of the gloves. Various designs of flowers or other patterns were used for gloves, and were so skillfully knitted in that they formed the exact representation of the copy from which they were taken. For the bordering of capes, shawls, gloves, hoods, and sacques the wool yarn was dyed red, blue, black, and green. Of course, intermediate colors were employed in some cases. The juice of poke berries dyed a red as bright as aniline, but this was not very good for wash stuffs. A strong decoction of the bark of the hickory-tree made a clear, bright green [51] on wool, when alum could be had as a mordant; sometimes there were those who, by some odd chance, happened to have a bit of alum.

There grew in some spots in the woods, though very sparsely, a weed about a foot and a half high, called “the queen's delight,” which dyed a jet black on wool. We have frequently gone all of two miles from our home, and, after a wide range of the woods, would perhaps secure only a small armful of this precious weed. We did not wonder at the name, it was so scarce and rare, as well as the only one of all the weeds, roots, bark, leaves, or berries that would dye jet black. The indigo blue of our make would dye blue of any shade required, and the hulls of walnuts a most beautiful brown; so that we were not lacking for bright and deep colors for borderings.

Here again a pleasant rivalry arose, as to who could form the most unique bordering for capes, shawls, and all such woolen knit or crocheted clothing. There were squares, diamonds, crosses, bars, and designs of flowers formed in knitting and in crocheting. [52]

We were our own wool-sorters, too, and after the shearing had first choice of the fleeces. All the fine, soft, silky locks of wool were selected for use in knitting and crocheting.

Our shoes, particularly those of women and children, were made of cloth, or knit. Some one had learned to knit slippers, and it was not long before most of the women of our settlement had a pair of slippers on the knitting needles. They were knit of our homespun thread, either cotton or wool, which was, for slippers, generally dyed a dark brown, gray, or black. When taken off the needles, the slippers or shoes were lined with cloth of suitable texture. The upper edges were bound with strips of cloth, of color to blend with the hue of the knit work. A rosette was formed of some stray bits of ribbon, or scraps of fine bits of merino or silk, and placed on the uppers of the slippers; then they were ready for the soles.

We explored the seldom-visited attic and lumber-room, and overhauled the contents of old trunks, boxes, and scrap-bags for pieces of cassimere, merino, broadcloth, or other heavy fine twilled goods, to make [53] our Sunday shoes, as we could not afford to wear shoes of such fine stuff every day; home-woven jeans and heavy, plain cloth had to answer for every-day wear. When one was so fortunate as to get a bolt of osnaburgs, scraps of that made excellent shoes when colored. What is now called the “base-ball shoe” always reminds me of our war-time colored osnaburgs, but ours did not have straps of leather like those which cross the base-ball shoe. Our slippers and shoes which were made of fine bits of cloth, cost us a good deal of labor in binding and stitching with colors and thread to blend with the material used, before they were sent to the shoemaker to have them soled.

Sometimes we put on the soles ourselves by taking wornout shoes, whose soles were thought sufficiently strong to carry another pair of uppers, ripping the soles off, placing them in warm water to make them more pliable and to make it easier to pick out all the old stitches, and then in the same perforations stitching our knit slippers or cloth-made shoes. We also had to cut out soles for shoes from our hometanned leather, with the sole of an old shoe [54] as our pattern, and with an awl perforate the sole for sewing on the upper. I was often surprised at the dexterity with which we could join soles and uppers together, the shoe being reversed during the stitching, and when finished turned right side out again; and I smile even now when I remember how we used to hold our selfmade shoes at arm's length and say, as they were inspected: “What is the blockade to us, so far as shoes are concerned, when we can not only knit the uppers, but cut the soles and stitch them on? Each woman and girl her own shoemaker; away with bought shoes; we want none of them!” But alas, we really knew not how fickle a few months would prove that we were.

Our sewing-thread was of our own make Spools of “Coats'” thread, which was universally used in the South before the war, had long been forgotten. For very fine sewing-thread great care had to be used in drawing the strand of cotton evenly, as well as finely. It was a wearisome task, and great patience had to be exercised, as there was continual snapping of the fine hand-spun thread. From broaches of [55] such spun sewing-thread balls of the cotton were wound from two to three strands double, according as coarse or fine thread was needed. The ball was then placed in a bowl of warm soapsuds and the thread twisted on to a bobbin of corn husks placed on the spindle of the wheel. During the process of twisting the thread a miniature fountain would be set playing from the thread as it twirled upon the spindle. Bunch thread from the cotton mill, number twelve, made very strong sewingthread, but little could we afford of that; it was exceedingly scarce. When the web of cloth, especially that of factory bunch thread, had been woven as closely up as the sley and harness would permit the warp opening for the shuttle to pass through, the ends of the weaver's threads, or thrums, generally a yard long when taken from around the large cloth beam, would be cut from the cloth and made into sewing-thread. We spent many evenings around the fire, if winter time, or lamp if summer weather, drawing the threads singly from the bunch of thrums and then tying together two or three strands, as the thread was to be coarse or fine. It was [56] also wound into balls and twisted in the same manner as other sewing-thread. The ball would be full of knots, but a good needleful of thread, perhaps more, could always be had between the knots.

There were rude frames in most people's yards for making rope out of cotton thread spun very coarse, and quite a quantity of such rope was made on these roperys. A comical incident occurred at one of the rope-makings which I attended. One afternoon, I had gone out in the yard with several members of the household, to observe the method of twisting the long coil of rope by a windlass attached to one end of the frame, after it had been run off the broaches on to the frame. Two of the smaller girls were amusing themselves running back and forth under the rope while it was being slowly twisted, now and again giving it a tap with their hands as they ducked under it, when, just as it was drawn to its tightest tension, it parted from the end of the frame opposite the windlass, and in its curved rebound caught one of the little girls by the hair of her head. There was “music in the air” for some little time, for it was quite a task to free [57] her hair from the hard twisted coils of rope.

Our hats and bonnets were of our own manufacture, for those we had at the beginning of the war had been covered anew, made over, turned, and changed till none of the original remained. As we had no “flowers of sulphur” to bleach our white straw bonnets and hats, we colored those we had with walnut hulls, and made them light or dark brown, as we wished. Then we ripped up our tarlatan partydresses of red, white, blue, or buff, some all gold and silver bespangled, to trim hats with. Neighbor would divide with neighbor the tarlatan for trimming purposes, and some would go quite a distance for only enough to trim a hat. For the plumes of our hats or bonnets the feathers of the old drake answered admirably, and were often plucked, as many will remember, for that very purpose. Quaker or Shaker bonnets were also woven by the women of Alabama out of the bulrushes that grew very tall in marshy places. These rushes were placed in the opening of the threads of warp by hand, and were woven the same as if the shuttle had [58] passed them through. Those the width of the warp were always used. The bonnets were cut in shape and lined with tarlatan.

The skirt of the Shaker was made of single sleyed cloth, as we called it. In common woven heavy cloth two threads of warp were passed through the reeds of the sley. For the skirts of our bonnets we wanted the cloth soft and light, hence only one thread was passed through the reeds, and that was lightly tapped by the batten; it was then soft and yielding. When the cloth was dyed with willow bark, which colored a beautiful drab, we thought our bonnets equal to those we had bought in days gone by. There was variety enough of material to make hats for both men and women, palmetto taking the lead for hats for Sunday wear. The straw of oats or wheat and corn husks were braided and made into hats. Hats which were almost everlasting, we used to think, were made of pine straw. Hats were made of cloth also. I remember one in particular of gray jeans, stitched in small diamonds with black silk thread. It was as perfect a hat as was ever moulded by the [59] hatter, but the oddness of that hat consisted in its being stitched on the sewingmachine with silk thread. All sewingma-chines in our settlement were at a standstill during the period of the war, as our home-made thread was not suited to machines, and all sewing had to be done by hand.

We became quite skilled in making designs of palmetto and straw braiding and plaiting for hats. Fans, baskets, and mats we made of the braided palmetto and straw also. Then there was the “bonnet squash,” known also as the “Spanish dish-rag,” that was cultivated by some for making bonnets and hats for women and children. Such hats presented a fine appearance, but they were rather heavy. Many would make the frame for their bonnets or hats, then cover it with the small white feathers and down of the goose, color bright red with the juice of poke berries, or blue with indigo mud, some of the larger feathers, and on a small wire form a wreath or plume with bright-colored and white feathers blended together; or, if no wire was convenient, a fold or two of heavy cloth, or paper doubled, was used to sew [60] the combination of feathers on for wreath, plume, or rosette. Tastefully arranged, this made a hat or bonnet by no means rustic looking.

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