Come take a walk with me back in time, along a trail less traveled. Have you ever wondered how the pioneers got their clothing, footwear and head coverings?
In early-day Utah Territory as the emigrants arrived with their wagons, oxen, mules, horses and cattle, they were prepared to make do with what they could carry with them. Bolts of cloth were a precious commodity, and some had them. They also had needles, thread and tools to create patches on what they wore. They also turned flour sacks, grain sacks and burlap into articles of clothing when the cloth was used up. Eventually canvas was salvaged from covered wagons or hand carts and made into serviceable pants or coats. Any scraps of fabric were saved for making quilts.
The pioneers’ very lives depended upon their ability to prepare shelter, plant gardens and get food enough to survive the first winter. Therefore, keeping their clothing simple meant no time to spend worrying about fashion. Mothers, grandmothers, older girls and some men spent most evenings with light from a candle or fire mending clothes, darning socks and knitting clothes for new babies, children and adults in the family. Using a notched stick for a spindle, fibrous material could be made into thread by hand.
Some had a spinning jenny — an early form of spinning machine with several spindles — and some had a spinning wheel from which making yarn or thread consisted of a handdriven wheel and a large single spindle. Others had a weaving loom from which sheep’s wool could be woven into a rough, woolen cloth. Once wool could be sheared from sheep, weavers could create bolts of cloth from yarn wound into skeins. A plant called flax was grown because the fibers from it could be woven into linen, a durable but soft fabric used for lighter clothing, underwear, bedclothing, table clothes and curtains. There are ladies clothing items displayed at the DUP museum on Vine Street in Tooele, but these are much fancier than the dresses pioneer women wore on a daily basis. Also, flat irons that pioneer women heated on top of their wood stoves and pressed their garments with can be seen.
Since aprons were easier to wash and saved the dresses beneath from many washings, they were made for women and girls to wear on a daily basis. Because of mud and dirt, women and girl’s dresses were worn short to below the ankle. Cotton, linen and wool were the mainstays for clothing. A bit of ruffle was also added to the neck or around the skirt or bottom of the dress. Both men and women wore about the same fabric. Little boys wore a gown or short pants below their knees until about 5 or 6 years old. They then graduated into trousers and a vest over their shirt with suspenders attached to their pants with a bone button, like their dads and older brothers.
When footwear wore out, animal hides were often used as a soft leather shoe in the form of moccasins that kept feet protected and could be made low around the ankle, or high to the knees, depending on the season. In the DUP museum, you can see the pioneer shoe forms that some pioneers brought with them across the continent.
Coats and hats were a necessity, and learning how to prepare an animal pelt for these items helped the pioneers stay alive through the cold winter days. The pelts were often used with the animal’s fur on to keep the pioneers’ heads warm. Work to cure and preserve the hide included scraping, cleaning, rubbing with lye formed from leaching wood ashes, then working the hide on a rock until it was soft. Rabbit fur hides were ideal for babies and toddlers when tanned using the same process. Because they were soft and pliable, they could be used for everything from soakers to little dresses and bonnets.
After a year or two merchants obtained and traded with more expensive cloth and more sewing supplies from which better dresses, blouses, shirts and trousers could be hand sewn.
Patricia Holden is the publicist for the Tooele County Company of the Daughters of Utah Pioneers. She is also a member of the DUP SheepRock Camp. She can be reached at v4bar@wirelessbeehive. com.