Needle and thread didn’t win the Civil War, but those two humble commodities played an important part in keeping in good repair the clothing of troops on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line, and in providing comfort to soldiers.
One of the last gifts a mother, sister or other female relative — North or South — might give a departing soldier was a “housewife,” a compact sewing kit made of cloth that could be rolled up and fit easily into a pocket or knapsack. The housewife might be equipped with a small reel of thread, needles of several different sizes for plain sewing and darning, straight pins and perhaps a few utilitarian buttons. Such kits were made by hand from scraps of cloth. Some had the soldier’s initials embroidered on them, some were unadorned. But, no doubt, plenty of love and prayers were stitched into them.
Civil War soldiers had need of such homely supplies. In the course of fighting, uniforms were torn, seams spilt open and buttons lost. In camp, stripes and other military insignia needed to be sewn on. Patching had to be done if pants and shirts wore out. This was especially true of the South, which did not have the resources for clothing resupply the North had.
Soldiers wounded in action, both the Blue and the Gray, numbered in the hundreds of thousands, creating a need for bed linens and bed shirts only the women during that awful conflict could assuage. Women organized “Sanitary Fairs” at which they sold items they knitted and sewed to raise money for supplies and medicines needed in hospitals. When they weren’t organizing fairs to sell what they had made, they were organizing to create from scratch what was needed. When Dorothea Dix, Hampden’s native daughter in charge of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, needed hundreds of bed shirts for the wounded, she called on sewing circles in Boston to fill her request. In no short order, women and girls threaded their needles, took on the task, and Dix got the shirts, practically overnight, and most likely made all by hand since sewing machines were not in wide use at the time.
Women made quilts, bedsheets and pillowcases for the war effort. They also made miles of bandages that unrolled endlessly for four bloody years to bind the wounds of those who had fallen at Shiloh, Cold Harbor, Gettysburg, The Wilderness and so many other battlefields that gnawed up the troops in dreadful carnage.
Southern women, without easy access to cloth, since none was manufactured in the South, used their needles to mend what they and their children wore, literally keeping the clothes on their backs.
Needles and thread were the only weapons women of the Civil War era had to fight the war, though they probably didn’t see it that way. Their role was to give comfort to the troops, in general, and loved ones, in particular, by knitting socks and mittens, hemming yards and yards of sheets and mourning the dead, whose names appeared in long, dark lists posted in public places.
Sewing and knitting most likely served as a comforting occupation to groups of women who gathered in church halls and in one another’s parlors to stitch. No doubt they exchanged the news of the day occurring in their towns. Perhaps some of that news found its way in letters to sons, husbands and brothers gone soldiering in Southern battlefields; the women praying as they wrote, perhaps, that the pen, and indeed needle and thread, were mightier than the terrible swift sword.
Spinners, felters and quilters who use wool batting may want to attend Drum Carding is Fun, a fiber workshop 10:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Friday, May 13, at A Wrinkle in Thyme Farm in Sumner. Learn the basics of using a drum carder and explore techniques for color blending and working with different types of fiber. For registration details and information on other classes, visit http://www.awrinkleinthymefarm.com/.
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