Civil War Civilian Living History

Interpreting the American Civil War Home Front

Period Homespun Textile Descriptions

Compiled by Vicki Betts

Chicago Tribune, June 24, 1864. p.3, c.3

                                                                                                             Ackworth, Ga., June 9, 1864

Editors Chicago Tribune:

The accompanying song is from a letter of a Southern girl to her lover, in Lee’s army, which letter was obtained from a mail captured on our march through Northern Alabama. The materials of which the dress alluded to is made in cotton and wool, and are woven on the hand-loom, as commonly seen in the houses at the South. The scrap of a dress enclosed in the letter as a sample was of a grey color with a stripe of crimson and green—quite pretty and creditable to the lady who made it…

Clayton, Sarah Conley. Requiem for a Lost City: A Memoir of Civil War Atlanta and the Old South. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press 1999.

…but this was unusual in that to show our patriotism at this critical time, we were all clad in homespun dresses made by our own hands, the girls, with two or three exceptions, all being under sixteen years of age. We were a proud set, and confident of being the first to appear in Georgia cotton; so in our simply made blue and white and brown checks, with all eyes upon us walked proudly from the Union Depot out to the grounds on Fair Street near the cemetery.

It is needless to say we took a prize though we were just a little bit crest fallen to find one other, not a school girl but a young lady, also wearing homespun, which was a much more showy, pretentious one than ours. In her dress, a clear, bright blue was the predominating color; a narrow buff stripe, with probably a red and white thread running through it, alternating with the blue about every half inch. It was made quite stylishly, as I remember, more of a riding habit, a pretty skirt and tight coat piped with buff and ornamented with numerous buttons. We understood that she herself had woven the material. Both dress and wearer looked remarkably well and richly deserved the premium that was awarded them.

Fleming, Mary Love Edwards. “Dale County and Its People During the Civil War.” Alabama Historical Quarterly 19 (1957): 61-109

…Many white women spun pretty muslins. They wove the cloth thin in warp and filling, striped it or checked, it or put dots in it made of bits of bright colored cloth…I have samples of each of one of my Mother’s and one of Aunt Jane Mitzell’s cotton homespun dresses. They were of the same color and material, but were woven differently. The background was green, and one dress had small square black dots woven in stripes on the side (right), and the other had the dots thrown in squares…Pretty muslins for summer wear were made by spinning the thread fine and weaving it “single weighed,” [slayed?] as it was called, and by beating the wool lightly. Sometimes bright colored cloth was picked to pieces and bits of it used to put dots and figures in the cloth. The effect was very pretty.

Fountain, Sarah M., ed. Sisters, Seeds & Cedars: Rediscovering Nineteenth-Century Life Through Correspondence from Rural Arkansas and Alabama. Conway, AR: UCA Press, 1995.

Clara Dunlap, Ouachita Co. AR to Cornelia Dickson, Autauga Co. AL. April 22, 1863.

…I will send you several samples of homespun that I got in the neighborhood, the green & purple is Mrs. Dr. Stone’s make, the one with yellow stripe is woven (the stripe I mean) with 4 treddle’s like four treddle jeans, weave the stripe of yellow; leave off two treddles to weave the plain part; I think it very pretty, the yellow is dyed with paint…

Clara Dunlap, Ouachita Co., AR to Clarissa Dickson, Autauga Co., AL June 3, 1863

…Sallie was over Sunday & spent the day, all are well at home, she said, she has been weaving some nice shirting for brother J[ohn], woven single slaied; & previously she had woven some pretty checked homespun for the little girls dresses (purple & white)…

Hague, Parthenia Antoinette. A Blockaded Family: Life in Southern Alabama During the Civil War. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1888. Reprint ed. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991.

…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 check—together with the spangles that were woven into 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 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 wool 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 to as to form a square, diamond, or cross; 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…

In the weaving of all heavy, thick cloth, whether plain or twilled, two threads, sometimes three, were always passed through the reeds of the sley, when the warp was put in the loom for weaving the web of cloth. The experiment for muslin, and it proved quite a success, was to draw the threads of warp singly through the reeds of the sley. In the process of making muslin, both warp and woof were sized with sizing made of flour, to make the threads more smooth and unbending; whereas plain cloth had only the warp sized, and that with sizing of Indian-meal. When thread for muslin was beamed, and one single thread passed through the reeds of the sley, and only a slight tap pf the batten given as the shuttle passed through the opening with its quill of sized thread, the texture was thin and gauze-like, and stood out like any real muslin stiffened with starch.

The thread for our muslins was dyed a deep plum color. IN the case of each of our four dresses, the warp was the same: twelve or fourteen threads of the plum color and three threads of white alternating with the plum color and white thread the width and length of the cloth. The older daughter and I had ours filled in solid with plum color, which, with the narrow white stripes in the warp, made a very neat dress. The two other girls had their checked with white, so as to form a square with the white stripe in the warp; then small bits of crimson merino were placed in the center of the square. …

A woman who was a neighbor of ours made herself what really was an elegant dress for the times. The material was an old and well-worn black silk dress, altogether past renovating, and fine white lint cotton. The silk was all ripped up, and cut into narrow strips, which were all raveled and then mixed with the lint cotton and passed through the cotton cards two or three times, so as to have the mixture homogeneous. It was then carded and spun very fine, great pains being taken in the spinning to have to unevenness in the threads. Our neighbor managed to get for the warp of her mixed silk and cotton dress a bunch of number twelve thread, from cotton mills in Columbus, Georgia, fifty miles from our settlement, and generally a three day’s trip. She dyed the thread, which was very find and smooth, with the barks of the sweet-gum and maple trees, which made a beautiful gray. Woven into cloth, it was soft and silky to the touch, and a beautiful color. It was corded with the best pieces of the worn silk, and trimmed with pasteboard buttons covered with some of the same silk.

Some very rich-appearing and serviceable winter woolen dresses were made of the wool of white and brown sheep mixed, carded, spun and woven just so; then long chains of coarser spun wool thread dyed black and red were crocheted and braided in neat designs on the skirt, sleeves, and waist of these brown and white mixed dresses of wool…

The extent and variety of our cloth manufacture, our fertility in making designs, our different ways of waving, were really remarkable. We made cloth in stripes broad and narrow, and in checks wide and small. We made plain cloth, twilled cloth, jeans, and salt-and-pepper cloth, the latter by alternating one thread of white and one thread of black the width and length of the warp, and the same in the woof. This was a slow process, as the shuttles, with the quills of black and white thread, were changed at every tap of the batten. Plaids were woven both of wool and cotton thread. They required three and four shuttles and as many varieties of color. We had “dice”-woven homespun or “basket plaid,” as some would call it, which required three or four treadles and as many different ways of tramping them to form the plait. When the warp was dyed a solid red or deep garnet and filled in with blue, or perhaps purple, slate, or black, as one wished, or when the warp was dyed blue and filled in with whatever other color pleased the eye, such cloth we called our “chambrey.”

Sometimes lint cotton was dyed a deep and a pale blue, and then carded and spun as dyed. If the warp was a deep blue the woof would be pale blue; or the woof would be deep blue thread and warp pale blue. It was woven solid and tipped with bright bits of silk, cassimere, merino, or other fine woolen scraps, which, cut in small pieces, were woven in the meshes of thread.

I had the thread for the dress just mentioned dyed blue with our home-made indigo, and a deep garnet with a strong tea of pine-tree roots. One-half was dyed blue the other half garnet. In the warp it was four blue, and four garnet threads. Two shuttles were used, one with a blue quill of thread, the other with a garnet quill, and the result was a neat and simple plaid. I cut the buttons out of a gourd shell, and covered them with scraps of red merino. We always took pains to take such buttons off when our homespuns required washing. When the stuff had been starched and ironed, we stitched the buttons on again…

The bride’s dress was woven a solid light gray color, warp and woof; the buttons were made of gray thread, overcast with white thread. Special pains had been taken with some white cotton flannel, three rows of which, about three inches wide, were placed around the bottom of the skirt, with about three inches’ space between each row. The cuffs, collar, and appeared as if the bride wore a real fur-trimmed dress, and the effect was graceful in the extreme.

“Interesting Reminiscence of the War Between the States.” Confederate Reminiscences and Letters, 1861-1865. Vol. VI. Atlanta: Georgia Division, United Daughters of the Confederacy, 1997, p. 51

Sidney [Stiles] gave her consent but was disturbed about the universal question of a woman about to be married, “What Should She Wear for her Wedding?” There was the old dress, worn thread-bare, and there was the new red and white home-spun made of cotton raised on the family plantation in Houston County, spun, dyed, woven and fashioned into a beautiful garment by her mother’s faithful maid, Syntis.

Sidney decided in favor of the red and white homespun, and so at five o’clock in the afternoon of March 27, 1862, she and William Henry Elliot were married in Grace Episcopal church in Clarkesville…

Lipscomb, Mrs. Wary Ann. “Mrs. Wary Ann Lipscomb Remembers”

I carded and spun the filling for my new dress, wove it, made the dress and wore it to Charleston when I went to see my husband. It had broad, black stripes the width of my two fingers, and two green threads between the black stripes. It also had a little yellow stripe. It was really a beautiful dress and looked very much like silk.

Mead, Elizabeth Kemp. The Oklahoma Indian-Pioneer Interviews. www.novia/net/~vikia/FrancesKemp.html.

            I was thirteen years old when the Civil War broke out. At that time I was living with my parents on Red River, 12 miles north of Bonham. My mother wove and made all our clothes. I had the first homespun dress in the neighborhood. It was blue and white checked.

Memphis Daily Appeal [Jackson, MS], March 18, 1863. p.1, c.8

From the Mobile Tribune.]

North Alabama, March 1, 1863

Dear Brother.***We live among the poorest and most ignorant people in the world…An old woman, with brown yarn gloves and madder-colored homespun apron and sack, with blue and black homespun dress (all honor to her industry!) called on us the other day.

Moore, Dosia. War, Reconstruction, and Redemption on Red River: The Memoirs of Dosai Williams Moore. Edited by Carol Wells. Ruston, LA: Louisiana Tech University, 1990

I well remembers a dress that Sally Sweat had at this time…She was so young and gay, I suppose her older sisters hated for her never to have anything to wear except the usual subdued colors of our homespun; so Miss Jenny introduced an innovation. She found an old piece of red silk sash and frayed it out into a soft down. As the piece of cloth was being woven, someone stood by and now and then thrust in a bit of this bright fluff. The finished cloth was a perfect success—the dark brown ground gayly flecked with red.

Southern Confederacy [Atlanta, GA], August 25, 1861, p.3, c.1

Something We Like.

On yesterday we had the pleasure of “showing up” The Franklin Printing establishment to a party of ladies—among them Miss T., the daughter of an old friend—dressed in beautiful checked homespun; white, blue, copperas, and “Turkey Red” colors were beautifully woven into the fabric. It really was refreshing. Then if fit right. It was not only spun and wove, but cut and fit by the accomplished wearer, who has just completed a collegiate education.