The Fabrics of a Pilgrim’s Life

Today in the United States we celebrate Thanksgiving Day. Originally a celebration of survival in a new land, now we gather with families and friends to feast, and hopefully share our appreciation of each other. We also eat, drink, chatter, play games, watch football, and gear up for major shopping trips.

In grade school we studied the Pilgrims and the Native Americans who taught them much about living in the New World. We learned about the families who sailed on the Mayflower and settled in Massachusetts (although they were aiming for Virginia.) We read about the incredible hardships they faced, and credited them with being the first Europeans to truly settle on this continent, the first immigrants to the New World.

Plimouth Plantation Farm House.We understand that there were others before them, from the explorers who mapped the East Coast and Caribbean, the early settlers in Virginia, the Vikings who sheltered in Newfoundland before the year 1000, even the migration of First Peoples into North America. But the story of the Pilgrims does touch us, perhaps even shaping our most stereotypical thoughts about the founding of America. Their flight from England because of religious persecution, the struggles of the voyage and the first years here, how they took on the challenge of colonization and eventually managed to thrive ̶ these are the legends we return to as we celebrate this Thanksgiving.

Familiar Image of a Pilgrim Hat

This familiar image is probably not historically accurate.

Did you know that the image of a Pilgrim, with a buckle on a hat and severe black clothing, is not accurate? They came to the New World with the clothing of home, simple items of wool, hemp, and linen. Their attire was modest and multi-layered, from stockings with garter ties, to layers of petticoats or pants and waistcoats. Women did wear aprons, and close-fitting bonnets. There were no zippers or belts, pants were laced to waist coats. Both men and women tied a small satchel around their waist, calling it a pocket (from the old Anglo-Norman word pokete.)

The Plimouth Plantation reenactments include wonderful examples or clothing and crafts.

The idea of black clothing is also a myth, as black dyes were very rare. Natural dyes made from local plants and minerals were most commonly used, generating earthy browns, dark yellows, rusty reds, and a few blues and greens. Many things were simply not dyed, like tan and brown shades of linen and hemp fabrics. Clothing historians suggest that the tradition of dyeing the top layers of clothing a darker color came to help hide the dirt and wear of daily living.

Spinning wheels came here with the pilgrims, but it appears to have taken many years to establish a solid supply of local wool and flax. Spinning of flax and wool was done by older girls, but often men ran the looms, as they were large and made of heavy wood. With limited new supplies of fabrics coming from Europe, these new immigrants carefully mended and patched their clothing, and saved every scrap. Many of these early settlers spent their days on basic survival, and quilt-making was not common unless the family had hired help. Quilts being made in Europe at the time were sometimes very decorative, but the quilts made by these early settlers were usually simpler and used available scraps. It was not uncommon for these functional items to include wool and linen together. Some early Plymouth quilts highlighted light and dark fabrics in simple patterns, like Shoo Fly, Log Cabin, and four patches, and are now found in museums.

The Mayflower II, built to reenact the original journey. Its sails and rigging were made from hemp.

The Mayflower II, built to reenact the original journey. Its sails and rigging were made from hemp.

When the Pilgrims first moved from the shelter of the Mayflower into homes on land, the Mayflower returned to England. It came back a few months later with supplies like livestock, food, tools and fabrics, and found only half the original colony of about 100 people still survived. But within a few years, other colonies were established by other groups with similar motives for leaving England, Holland, or elsewhere. By the middle of the 1630’s the Plymouth settlers were meeting their Connecticut neighbors from Holland, with the help of their Native American guides.

The Mayflower itself was not a new ship when it carried the Pilgrims to the New World. It had been an active cargo ship in the North Sea, along the Atlantic Coast of Europe, and even hauled Italian wines to England. As was the custom at the time, the sails and rigging were all made from hemp. Hemp canvas was common for sails until the cotton boom of the 1800’s.

If you head to a fabric store this weekend, I hope you will take a minute to think about the humble beginnings of quilting in America. The Pilgrims lived simply, in fabrics that were probably rough and heavy. They layered clothing for warmth and modesty. But their practical quilts were made to warm and comfort their families, just as we make ours today.

Read the Thanksgiving 2011 post on Broadcloth for Furs – Early Fabric Trading in North America.

For References and Bibliography, click here.


©2010, The Curious Quilter, thecuriousquilter.net, maryeoriginals.com.

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About thecuriousquilter

Quilter, sewer, writer, gardener, mother, sister, friend, always learning, always curious.
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3 Responses to The Fabrics of a Pilgrim’s Life

  1. Lynda in Spokane says:

    It always amazes me to think of the challenges endured by the pilgrims traveling to a new, undeveloped country and creating a home. What hardships they endured! Thank you for reminding us of those who went before us to allow us to lead the life we do. We truly are blessed.

    Enjoy your Thanksgiving–you have reminded me why it is, indeed, a day to give thanks.

    Lynda in Spokane

  2. J. Johnson says:

    I always thought that the buckles on the hats looked mighty silly, and would not help keep the hat on right!

    Hemp? Makes perfect sense, but we have so come to associate it with POT that we forget about it as a fabric. Occassionally I see it under organic fabrics.

    Whether we comment or not, your regular readers love when you do these timely little snippets tying fabrics and history together. Thanks!

  3. Pingback: Broadcloth for Furs – Early Fabric Trading in North America | The Curious Quilter

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