Category Archives: N. C. Historic Sites

What to Wear in the 18th Century

North Carolina has 27 Historic Sites that offer hands-on history programs. Yesterday I went to the House in the Horseshoe, near Sanford, for a workshop on 18th century clothing. Gail Mortensen-Frazer showed us outfits she sewed, in the authentic manner of the time, stitch by tiny stitch, from fabrics the American colonists could weave, like linen and wool, and fabrics only the wealthy could buy, like cotton and silk. She wore an authentic outfit for a housewife of the Revolutionary period, with layers of shift, petticoats, corset, bodice, scarf, and apron, and no less than three cotton caps, as well as hand-knit stockings and cobbled shoes.

Cotton was imported from Egypt and India until the invention of the cotton gin near the end of the century. Linen was woven from flax, which the colonists grew, and wool came from the sheep they raised. Making clothing included preparing the fibers, spinning the threads, weaving the cloth, and sewing one stitch at a time with a needle, a labor-intensive process that made clothes very valuable. If you visit the House in the Horseshoe, you won’t find closets for the small number of garments most people could afford. Pegs on the wall and a small chest were enough.

Mortensen-Frazer is an historic re-enactor. Her entire family goes to events where they act the part of a Colonial-era family attached to a Militia regiment and loyal to the King of England. Over the years, her hand-made clothing has not only looked good as a result of her skill, but it has lasted with minimal patching and fading, even after washing in an iron pot, as the colonists did their laundry.

Clothing production from that era actually added to the English language. The phrase “Put your best foot forward” came from the habit of standing with one foot extended to show off one’s good shoes, especially fine if they were decorated with buckles. “Losing your head” could mean losing your white cotton cap, called a “head,” which both women and men wore at home, to keep their hair tidy in a time when daily or even monthly shampooing was not yet done. (You won’t find a bathroom in that house, either.)

I knew of the House in a “Horseshoe” bend of the Deep River because it was across the river from the farm of my great-grandparents, Smith and Maggie Alexander. More about them later.  The House in the Horseshoe was built about 1770 and still has bullet holes in the front wall from a battle between Tories and Whigs in 1781.

Another clothing workshop will be offered at the house on June 9, and a reenactment of the battle will take place in August. Information can be found here: http://www.nchistoricsites.org/horsesho/

Copyright 2018 by Glenda Alexander.  All Rights Reserved.