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Chapter 5:

  • Homespun dresses.
  • -- home-made buttons and pasteboard. -- Uncle Ben

Willow wickerwork came in as a new industry with us. We learned to weave willow twigs into baskets of many shapes and sizes.

A woman of our settlement wove of willow switches a beautiful and ornate body for her baby carriage. As much, she said, to show what she could make out of willow withes, as for the real use of her baby.

The switches were gathered when the willows were flowering, and stripped of bark and leaves; what was not wanted for immediate use was put by in bundles, to be used in our leisure hours. When placed in warm water the withes were soon as flexible as if freshly gathered and peeled, and were as easily woven into varied kinds of wickerwork.

Mrs. G---had a flock of sixty or seventy head of geese. A large stream of clear water ran within a stone's throw of the rear of the dwelling, through what was the [62] main pasture-lot for the geese. Clear pools of water, caused by the sudden bend of the stream, rocks, or perhaps a fallen tree, were formed as the stream wound through the pasture-lot, in which the geese were nearly all the time swimming. This kept their feathers snowy white. Wishing a finer grade of fans than we had made of braided palmetto or woven rushes or pasteboard, it was not long ere we had learned to put the secondary wing-feathers of geese to that use. When the feathers were “ripe” we would pluck them, being very careful in the plucking to string on a strong thread the feathers one by one as they were taken out. All the right wing-feathers were placed on one string, the left wing-feathers on another separate string, so that when we were ready to arrange the feathers for making fans, each feather would be in its proper place, just as drawn from the wing of the goose, and would therefore have the fitting curve. The secondary feathers of both wings were used to make one fan. Its handles were of cedar or pine wood and were sometimes made on the “turner's machine,” but oftener we whittled them out of cedar or pine wood ourselves. [63] They were always covered with scraps of velvet, silk, cassimere, or merino, and bits of old faded ribbon dyed some bright color. We soon became adepts in the art of making fans out of the wing-feathers of geese, and beside those for our own use we made and sold many in the city of Eufaula for ten, fifteen, and twenty dollars apiece.

A sister of Mrs. G--, who lived some little distance from us, and who owned a large flock of pea-fowls, often favored her sister with the more valuable dark olivegreen wing-feathers of her magnificent birds, and they made superb fans. I was remembered by Mrs. G--, and was given a select pair of wing-feathers. I gave my best skill to this fan, for it was to be a present to my mother. The handle I covered with a piece of dark green silk velvet for which I exchanged a scrap of silk of a different color, so as to have an exact blending of the feathers and silk velvet for covering the handle. On either side where I had joined the handle and feathers, I placed a rosette made of the small green and blue variegated feathers that adorn the neck and breast of the pea-fowl. Two buttons cut out of pasteboard and covered [64] with a bit of the silk velvet, saved from covering the handle, were placed in the centre of the rosettes. I think it would have been difficult to have singled out that fan as not imported. I was offered thirty dollars for it as soon as it was completed. One would scarcely believe how beautiful our snow-white fans of geese feathers were, with their large rosettes on either side, made of the blue and green small feathers that grace the neck of the peacock. We made fans also of gray goose feathers, and from feathers out of turkeys' wings and tails were made strong substantial fans, for every-day use in summer.

An amusing incident happened one day while we were making fans of the feathers of the geese. We had been told by some one that if we would tie a strip of scarlet cloth around a goose's neck, it would fly away and never return. Late one afternoon the oldest daughter of the house and I were strolling all alone in the pasture-lot where the geese were feeding on the luxuriant grass. At sight of the sleek, glossy flock feeding en masse, the impulse arose on the instant to put to the test the romantic hearsay, and we quickly caught a goose [65] of snowy whiteness. My companion then took off her crimson silk belt (a relic of ante-bellum days). We tied it around the anser's neck, kneeling on the soft carpet of grass, one holding the goose by the wings, while the other adjusted the belt; then we loosed it, expecting to see the spread of wings that was to bear it from our sight forever. But nothing of the kind happened. It stepped cautiously around with its neck gracefully curved as if endeavoring to divine the mystery of the crimson streamer, while the entire flock without a single exception set up a hissing and cackling that was almost deafening, and with necks extended began to chase the goose with the scarlet pennant. The loud cackling of the flock awoke the quiet of the house, and soon a negro girl came running, sent by her mistress, to see what was disturbing the geese. The legend had proved false; but we wondered not, as we retraced our steps, that the loud cackling of a flock of geese in Rome betrayed the presence of the Gauls who were about to storm the citadel.

Mrs. G — promised her two older daughters, her niece, and myself a new [66] home-woven, home-spun dress, just so soon as we should jointly finish the make — up of the slaves' fall and winter clothing, which we joined hands forthwith in cutting out. Two suits apiece of heavy goods were made for their winter wear, and two suits apiece of material not so heavy for their spring and summer wear. It usually took from six to eight weeks of cutting out and sewing to get all the slaves into their new garments. We were ever willing to lend our aid in the make — up of the negroes' clothing, yet the promise of a new homespun dress, to be dyed and woven as best pleased us four, aroused our latent energy, and we soon completed the task without once knowing fatigue. Then our homespun dresses came to the front. There was much consulting, advising, and draughting by the four, before we had decided as to the color, check, or stripe we should have our dresses dyed or woven. I well remember the color, stripe, and checktogether with the spangles that were woven in the meshes of thread — that we each made choice of. The warp was the same for all four dresses,--nearly solid drab, with the exception of a narrow stripe of [67] white and blue threads in a group, for every twelve or fourteen threads of drab, running parallel to each other the whole length of the warp. The drab was dyed with the bark of the willow-tree. The hanks of thread for the woof of my dress were closely plaited and dyed a deep, clear blue with our home-made indigo. When woven it presented the appearance of “cirro-cumulus” clouds. The niece and one of the daughters betook them to the garret to rummage amongst antique silk and woolen garments much “the worse for wear.” Part of an old black silk, and some red scraps of merino, and a remnant of an old blue scarf, was what they decided upon as spangles for their dresses, and both were to be just alike. The black silk and red and blue were cut into narrow strips; the strips were again cut into bits from a quarter to half an inch in length and woven in the meshes of thread the whole length of their dresses.

The black, blue, and red bits of color were placed in by hand, varying from an inch to two or three inches apart. Sometimes the bits of bright color were placed in so as to form a square, diamond, or cross; [68] sometimes no order or method was heeded, but they were placed in on the “crazy” plan; yet when all the tiny bits had been placed in and when the material was made up into the dress, it presented quite a spangled appearance. The other daughter had hers woven of solid drab, of willow-bark dye, and with a narrow stripe of blue and white running the length of it in the warp; and this was just as pretty as the rest of our dresses, that had given a deal of trouble.

Buttons for our dresses were our next consideration, and we had quite a debate on this weighty subject, as our substitutes for buttons and material for making them were many and varied. It was something bewildering for us to determine finally what sort of buttons we should adopt.

Rude machines were devised for making buttons of wood as the war went on, and we were thrown more and more upon our own resources. The buttons made of wood were of various sizes, and were strong and lasting for heavy goods, especially the clothing for the slaves. Sometimes we would get the wood buttons, polish them with a bit of sandpaper, and varnish [69] them with a little of the copal varnish that happened to be on hand when the war began, and which was being carefully husbanded; our buttons thus polished and varnished exhibited some likeness to those we had been wont to buy in palmier days. Many a household manufactured its own buttons. They were made of cloth cut round, and of as many ply as was necessary for firmness. Thick, heavy buttonhole stitches were worked all around the edge with thread coarser than the cloth of which the button was made, and when these were stitched on firmly there was no worry about the washerwoman's breaking or washing them off.

Thread that we spun at home was used for making buttons. The process was simple. A small reed, or, if that was wanting, a large-sized broom-straw, could be used; around this the thread for such buttons would be wound till of sufficient bulk; it was then slid from the reed; the buttonhole stitch was used here again, and was thickly worked around the eyelet made by the reed; the eyelet was crossed with thread stronger than that of which the button was formed, for the purpose of attaching [70] it to the garment. Persimmon seeds were also used for buttons with very good success, for being of such a tenacious and solid substance they could be put on clothing that required washing. Very nice buttons were also shaped out of pine bark, and were covered or not, just as one liked, but these were useless on garments for wash. The shell of the common gourd was almost universally used at the South for buttons during the period of the war; when covered with strong homespun cloth they could stand washing. Pasteboard was also used to make buttons. We have often cut in different shapes and sizes pasteboard and the shell of the gourd for buttons. We would have them round, oval, square, or diamond shaped, then cover neatly with cloth, with scraps of silk, or with fine pieces of colored woolen goods, to match whatever material was used for dress or basque.

Our pasteboard was made in our own homes. I smile even now when I think of that crude process. We used old papers and worn garments and a paste made of flour, or bolted meal sifted through fine cloth. A paper was spread on a table, [71] paste was spread evenly and smoothly over the surface of the paper, a layer of cloth just the width and length of the paper was laid on, another coating of the paste followed, and so on, alternating with paper, paste, and cloth, until the required thickness was reached; then with a hot smoothing-iron the whole was pressed till perfectly dry, smooth, and glossy, and we had pasteboard adapted for all household needs.

But to return to our buttons. They were made of drab thread, and after we had thickly worked the button-hole stitch around the eyelet, each took thread colored to blend with the warp and woof and again lightly overcast the button, so that the drab showed only as the background. The older daughter and I overcast ours with blue thread; the other two overcast theirs with red thread. It was then fashionable to place straps on the shoulder seams of ladies' dresses, with generally from four to six buttons on the straps. We placed straps on ours, trimmed with the buttons which we had made, and they added not a little to the finish.

We had intended to wear our new homespuns to the village church the Sunday [72] after completing them. Perhaps there was the least bit of vanity in our thoughts of how we should appear in church in our first home-woven suits; palmetto hats that we had braided and made with our own hands; slippers that we had knit, with soles cut out of our home-tanned leather, and on which we had with our own hands joined uppers and soles together. But

The best laid schemes o‘ mice and men
Gang aft a-gley.

It was Saturday night, and our new dresses had been pressed with the smoothing-iron all so nicely and hung on hooks alongside the wall, so as to avoid any unnecessary creasing. All four of us hung up the dresses with especial care just before we stepped into the dining-room to have our suppers. “Eliza and Mary always have something new and unusual in the make of their homespun dresses,” thought we, “but they shall be surpassed to-morrow.” Both teacher and pupils were at an age then when the heart is keenly desirous for beauty and effect.

Uncle Ben was the negro man who drove the carriage, made fires night and morning in all the rooms of the house, [73] hoed the garden, helped Aunt Phillis, the cook, who was his wife, and did chores in general around the house and yard. Now it happened, as Aunt Phillis afterward told us, that Ben had made his plans for that very Sunday also. He was to meet by agreement with the negroes of contiguous plantations in a swamp not far distant from the negro quarter on Mr. G--‘s plantation, to engage in games with cards. Their masters of course knew naught of it, for they would not have permitted it. In passing round the house and yard Uncle Ben heard us say we were going to the village church that particular Sunday, and that we should be sure to wear our new home-woven suits. He knew he would have to drive the carriage, and I suppose he thought if it had not been for our new dresses of the homemade cloth, like as not we would not want to drive; for often we did not use the carriage on Sundays, but preferred walking to the quiet country church and Sabbathschool scarce a mile from my employer's residence.

While we were all at the supper-table that Saturday night, Ben, as usual, was [74] making the round of the rooms, replenishing all the fires. He reached our room. There were the four dresses hanging plain to view, and he thought of having to drive the carriage on the morrow. One of the little girls had taken a bath and left a large basin of water, with the sponge in it, near the fire-place. Ben gathered up the sponge, pressed some of the water from it, wiped the soot from the chimney's back, and smeared our prided homespun garments to his heart's content! Then he carefully disposed the skirts so as to effectually conceal the smut. It being Saturday night, he expected that we could not have the much-soiled dresses ready for Sunday's wear, even if we should discover the smut that evening.

When we went back to our rooms from the supper-table our first glance was toward our much-valued dresses, which appeared to hang just as we had left them. But before we had seated ourselves, surprise was manifested at some large flakes of soot on the hearth and floor and near to our precious garments. One of us called attention to the sponge, which was almost black, floating in the basin of water. The fire, beginning to burn anew, showed the [75] chimney's back almost free of soot, and scarcely dry from the sponge. Thinking no harm had befallen our homespuns, I casually touched the folds of mine, when several flakes of soot fell to the floor. Immediately I loosed wide the folds of the skirt, when, lo! such a smut never before nor since have I seen, from waist line to the hem, one whole width all begrimed with soot. The other girls flew in a trice to their dresses, and as quickly unloosed the folds of their skirts. Lo! behold, it was smut, smut, soot, soot, broad and long! We knew in an instant it was Ben, for he was often “contrary” about driving the carriage, especially if he had made plans for his own amusement. Irritation and disappointment were the prominent feelings at first, augmented by the thought that our homespuns would never look decently again, but our vexed feelings soon gave way to ringing laughter as we pictured to ourselves Uncle Ben in the midst of smutting our dearly-prized garments. He deserved punishment, surely, but beyond a good scolding no correction was administered, although Aunt Phillis declared that “Massa orter half kill Ben fur sicher mean trick.”

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