Weaving Personal Stories

While the crowds were at the crowd-pleasing Madeline exhibit, I lingered in the New York Historical Society’s thoughtful and thought-provoking show of Civil War textiles.

Click in and then zoom in for the patriotic theme

Click in and then zoom in for the patriotic theme

In a time when a show of patriotism in a dress fabric or handkerchief could be dangerous to flaunt in the street, politics play throughout the era revealing a complexity that defies any North-good/South-bad dichotomy.

Commemorative handkerchief of people and battles

Commemorative handkerchief of people and battles

And exhibits like this help me look behind the war news to how people lived everyday.

Eastman Johnson Knitting for the Soldiers 1861

Eastman Johnson
Knitting for the Soldiers




Women knitted stockings in every spare moment.  Your son or brother or husband was marching through a pair a week.  And the war went on for so long, with endless marching.  Hand knits were valued over cheaply made mill products.


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But soldiers seemed to hate havelocks, even when handmade by women at home.  This cap inspired by soldiers in India, protects your beloved’s neck from being sunburned.  The men didn’t care, using them instead as bandages or rags.


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But all the men, enlisted and officers alike, carried a Housewife, like a little sewing kit, and here is the camp bed made by General Thomas Hubbard.  Everyone had to be crafty and resourceful for meager comforts.

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Back home, if bereaved, you could order your mourning attire and black bunting for your windows, doors, and mirrors from a sample book, complete with a range of shades of black.  The book on display from Jordan Marsh in Boston made the reality and prevalence of death as powerful as any battlefield photograph.

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2014-07-30 12.49.13Women in the South made quilts for the war effort, as a correlate for the Sanitary Commission in the North.  Fantastic artistry with fabric was sold to fund the building of a gunboat or other war needs.  Politics was ever present.  The Arkansas maker of this quilt put nine stars on her flag because hers was the ninth state to secede.

The quilts were often buried to protect them from Union soldiers, who also took them home as souvenirs.  One Georgian woman watched her quilts be torn apart for use as saddle blankets for Union horses.  A need and sign of disrespect at the same time.

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The explosively rising cost of cotton was a boon for Northern mills, which could temper prices through manufacturing efficiencies.  Here’s a Northern quilt made from the scraps of mill-made uniforms.




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Many hands worked on this story quilt from 1875, advocating for Women’s Rights- the cause that took a back seat to abolition.  Post war, women didn’t want to retreat into the background, another war casualty.

In 1881, some clever recycler used souvenir ribbons from the war to make her quilt.

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One object was actually terrifying in person.  The KKK formed in1866 after the war, to reassert white supremacy in the South.  Quashed by Federal forces by 1873, it reemerged with force in 1915, in reaction to immigration.  The hood on display, with its tiny tear and stain (which I couldn’t bear to be near, much less photograph), demonstrates that women were admitted to the KKK.  It was cherished enough to be preserved by its owner, a woman from Vermont.

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I put this story together for you, a select few of many from the show.  It’s so much more.  There’s beauty large and grand, hand-held and quotidian.  A slice of war life through textiles that makes it all seem so timeless, timely, and present.

One thought on “Weaving Personal Stories

  1. Charming article, Rena. We visit the New York Historical Society most every trip to NYC.
    The exhibits never fail to amaze us in their content and presentation. This article is such a well presented depiction that one feels they have actually seen it. Thanks.


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