Well Worn

It has never been easier to get dressed than it is today.  After browsing online stores, we narrow our choice of an article of clothing according to design, size and color.  Click!  It’s on the front porch in a few days.  What would our ancestors think of that?  Subsisting for them meant making what they wore (as well as what they ate and a place to live) from scratch.

Eons before stretch denim jeans and synthetic Dryfit shirts, people had to first think about where the thread came from.  Then they wove it into sheets of fabric, and finally, constructed a garment, whether it be dress, trousers, shirt, or scarf.

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For his inauguration in 1789, George Washington didn’t want to wear anything made of imported fabric.  His brown suit was wool and cotton broadcloth (“homespun”) with a nap which resembled velvet, woven in Hartford, Connecticut.  http://www.mountvernon.org


The long, warm growing season of the South in which cotton flourished was a cause with far-reaching effects.  Large plantations required many workers, and owners resorted to buying slaves to cultivate and harvest their crops.  The situation almost prevented our country’s beginning; the divisiveness of northern and southern states led to the the Civil War less than a hundred years later.  Cotton remains a staple in today’s world, but it now comes from developing countries.

cotton plant


Spinning Wheel


An encouragement to industry, this 1749 English engraving also shows something of eighteenth-century clothmaking.

Eighteenth Century engraving of industrial cotton loom.   http://www.history.org

antique homespun coverlet fabric, hand woven indigo blue cloth table runner

Indigo-dyed homespun coverlet from the 1800s.  http://www.laurlleaffarms.com


Synonymous with a bride’s dowry, linen was in the makeup of fine bedding, tablecloths, blouses and underwear (ancient Egyptians used it to wrap mummies).  The flax plants from which it comes were raised by early colonists.  In recent times, according to Purdue University, it has been commercially grown in a few north central states for oil rather than fiber.

Colonial American Linen 

Flax being harvested for linen thread.  http://www.fabric-store.com


Silk speaks an exotic language through its texture and heritage.  Ancient China produced fine silk fabric for centuries before American colonists imported silkworms and mulberry trees to try and produce their own.  The experiment didn’t have much success.

Nineteenth Century engraving of the process which produced silk cloth.  http://www.enwickipedia.org

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Silk scarf made in France in the late 1700s.  http://www.newlive-auctioneers.com


The natural coat which keeps sheep warm has transferred its insulating power to humans throughout history.  New England colonists including the John Adams family raised sheep for wool, which they sheared off, cleaned and carded, spun into yarn, dyed and wove into fabric.  Native Americans, too, were skilled in making woolen garments and blankets.

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First Phase Navajo chief’s blanket of finely woven wool.  In 2002 it was appraised at the Antiques Road Show for over $300,000, and sold at auction for over half a million dollars.  http://www.pbs.org


Original residents of this country hunted deer, tanning and sewing with sinew their jackets and heavy leggings.  In the Revolutionary War some regiments wore buckskin uniforms.  Fringed shirts of our Indian brothers also became a symbol of mountain men, cowboys, and the West.

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Theodore Roosevelt in his custom-made buckskin shirt, 1884.  http://www.neh.gov

The subject of leather brings us into a whole ‘nother realm: shoes.  You can bet that between online window shopping sessions for my next pair of Nikes, I’ll be looking into the heritage of footwear.



Made Up

Dabbling in the history of cosmetics…

Image result for history of makeuphttp://www.hercampus.com

Would you rub lead powder all over your face?  Or arsenic?  How about dried cat dung?  Women have always tried to make themselves look more appealing, and records of the past reveal how far they were willing to go.


Living in hot, windy Egypt 4,000 years ago naturally dried out the skin (just as it does today).  Queens Cleopatra and Neferteri applied castor oil to soften their faces, and ground up certain rocks to decorate them.  Malachite, a kind of copper, served as green eye shadow; black kohl outlined the eyelids of the images we’ve seen in drawings.  Ancient Greek girls came up with ingenious fake eyebrows made of ox hair.  The Romans mixed thyme, marjoram and rosemary in their olive oil beauty treatments (did they take the leftovers and go broil a chicken for supper?)  Geishas in Japan of long ago wore lipstick which included crushed safflowers.



Queen Elizabeth I of England was famous for her pale look, dubbed, “the mask of youth.”  She put a mixture of white vinegar and lead on her face to cover up the ravages of smallpox she had in her twenties.  Other ladies lightened their complexions with egg whites and dyed their hair red with henna.  For a hair remover, they ground dried cat dung and mixed it with strong vinegar.

A few hundred years later, Queen Victoria proclaimed that using makeup was immoral.  She associated it with ladies of the night and stage actresses.  When motion pictures were invented, the lights required special makeup so faces wouldn’t be washed out on screen.  From silent pictures to the first talkies and on to glamour days of the 1930s and 40s, female movie stars were identified with their makeup.

Max Factor had opened a professional studio for actresses in California in 1909, and soon ordinary women were coming in to buy his products.  During World War II, lipsticks were most popular because they were colorful and inexpensive.  Other makeup containing petroleum and alcohol were unavailable because those ingredients were being used in the war effort.

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Glam: Marlene Dietrich.  http://www.bestmoviesbyfar.com




Nobody who saw Twiggy on her first magazine cover in 1966 will ever forget it.  A totally unique look, her haircut and false eyelashes were done on the spur of the moment, and it went viral.  She didn’t wear it long, but the teenagers of the world did.

Then came the 70s when many girls stopped wearing makeup, and some never started.  Oh, perhaps occasionally, but even if the FDA prohibits lead and arsenic in those products, can any of them be good for your pores?

Today’s cosmetic looks run the gamut of soft and sweet to dark and Gothic, with most somewhere in between.  I won’t even get started on supermodels.  I do not pretend to be an expert on this subject, but as my husband says, “If a barn needs painting…”