Shedding Light on the Family Tree: The Value of a Sewing Machine in Chickens


The 20th in a series of posts about my family tree
Inspired by Amy Johnson Crow’s 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks

Prompt: Textile

Our family tree is rich with pioneer history. From the United Empire Loyalists (the Springer, Sumner, Fairchild lines) who fled north of the 49th parallel to homestead the untamed lands of the Talbot Settlement in southern Ontario in the late 1700s following the Revolutionary War, to the adventurous Scottish family who forfeited a genteel urban lifestyle to take a chance on a new life in the wilds of northern Alberta in 1927, our ancestors pulled every ounce of wherewithal into their experience and to create something out of nothing. Of course, great sacrifices were made in the process. The United Empire Loyalists’ lands and belongings were confiscated before they came to Upper Canada; the Gordons could only bring so much with them for that long trek across ocean and land to an uncertain future. Nothing of value is ever built without the proverbial blood, sweat and tears of hard work, perseverance, and faith. Pioneer women and men worked side by side taming the land and establishing an environment that ensured the health and survival of the family, frequently under the most challenging of conditions.

Every skill came into play, and a woman’s ability to sew was key. For in those early times of bleak uncertainty it was the ability to create a silk purse out of sow’s ear that kept the family clothed and the home furnished. Wherever they landed, and with whatever resources they had at their disposal, pioneer women used their creativity to inform self-sufficiency and create a nurturing home.

Sewing as a Survival Skill

Sewing was a survival skill passed from mother to daughter, and sometimes young women took this one step further by going for formal training as dressmakers and milliners. Evidence of this exists in my own family. In a newspaper article out of Great Falls, Montana (ca 1975) celebrating the life of my 2nd great aunt, Margaret (Belton) Cox upon her 88th birthday, the following was noted:

“Mrs. Cox has always regretted her lack of a high school education. Her father would not let her leave the farm to stay in a larger town that offered higher education. However, at 16 she was allowed to learn the millinery trade which, at that time, was paying the highest wages women could earn, about $25 a week, Mrs. Cox said.

By the time she had learned the trade and was old enough to go to work, jobs in the trade were scarce so she never became a milliner, but her knowledge added to a seemingly endless list of her crafts projects.”

Source: Unidentified Montana newspaper, ca 1975

Pioneer women made clothing out of whatever was available. In truth reducing, reusing, recycling, and repurposing were the de facto way of life. Nothing was wasted. Access to new material was a luxury. Hand-me-downs were altered from child to child; clothes beyond repair and scraps of material were re-purposed for quilts and other household items.

“We were in our little one room shack. Log. About 18 by 20 feet big. … There were two small square windows. The curtains were made from old skirts of dresses.”

Memoir, Alice (Gordon) McDonall ~ part of a description of their new log cabin home in 1938, Larkspur, Alberta

It was the 1930s, post-Great Depression and pre-WWII. Out of necessity and in the spirit of community the pioneers pulled together for all kinds of projects, clothing production included.

“One winter Mrs. Marshall supplied the wool from her sheep, Mrs. Turgeon spun it beautifully, and my mother knitted socks and mitts for all the men and boys in the three families. That must have been 1932.”

Alice (Gordon) McDonall ~ Memories of Sunniebend, 1900-1984

The Sewing Machine

Margaret (Belton) Cox’s 1920s Singer Sewing Machine

The importance of the sewing machine to the prairie pioneers cannot be over-stated. Granny Alice shares this memory. The year is probably around 1928:

“My mother regretted not having brought her sewing machine [from Scotland]. She missed it terribly, but one day a Mr. Duclos from Linaria came around with two or three in his wagon box. He was a trader and dealer. My mother offered him all the chickens and turkeys he wanted to take, for a machine. He made a fair deal with her and that sewing machine had a lot of use at our place.”

Alice (Gordon) McDonall, Memories of Sunniebend, 1900-1984

When my grandfather Stanley Lewis McDonall died in 1987 I inherited a number of family treasures, including my second great aunt Margaret (Belton) Cox’s 1920s Singer sewing machine. To this day the drawers contain everything that was left in them when she died in 1978, including bobbins, needles, buttons, keys, and zig zag attachments. Even the instruction manual for the machine is still there. I like to imagine her hunched over this beautiful piece of working furniture, creating a dress of her own design or patchwork quilt.

Both maternal great grandmothers, Jane (Robson) Gordon (1883-1959) and Mary (Belton) McDonall (1881- 1966) were seasoned seamstresses, and I happen to be the happy beneficiary of a number of their beautiful pieces, including the following:

“Wedding Ring” patchwork quilt created by my 2nd great aunt Margaret (Belton) Cox ca 1930s, Montana
Source: Family Archives

“Crazy Quilt” created by great grandma Mary (Belton) McDonall ca 1950s, Larkspur, Alberta
Source: Family Archives

Great granny Gordon was known for her tatting and crochet work. These doilies, two of them starched, were created by her pre 1959 Source: Family Archives

Fire Quilt

And finally, we return to the Fire Quilt (see How Curiosity Leads to Compassion), used wet by my paternal second great grandmother, Elizabeth (Sparling) McDonall, as a makeshift firewall for herself and her five children as they huddled in a trench on a McDonall family farm along with other terrified women and children trying to escape the Great Fire of Michigan of 1881.

The quilt is on display at The Ten Cent Horse Barn Museum of the Ubly Area Historical Society in Michigan.

A Final Word

These days great aunt Margaret’s old Singer sewing machine sits idle in the hallway, a lovely piece of family furniture safeguarding the needlework tools from a pioneer age. I honour my foremothers for their prowess with the sewing machine, crochet hook and a good old needle and thread. It enabled them to clothe their husbands and children, and beautify their spartan homes until over time, their families emerged from pioneer austerity to become more prosperous citizens. Evidence of their skills and stories live on in the quilts and crochet we hold dear and which I hope will live on for many years to come. ❦


2 thoughts on “Shedding Light on the Family Tree: The Value of a Sewing Machine in Chickens

  1. I love the details you share in this post! I actually had to learn to see on a treadle machine. The pioneers really did have to rely on such skills and reusing everything. We have lost touch with the value of everything.

    1. Thank you, Eilene. Connecting with my family history in this way for the past 20 weeks has given me an even deeper appreciation for my ancestors, the times in which they lived, and the hardships they endured. We can learn so much from those who have gone before, if only we would listen. 🙏

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