What they wore in P.E.I.'s Bygone Days

But in the bygone days on P.E.I., there was little choice — all but the most well-to-do Islanders made their own clothes, even spinning and weaving their own wool.

'Mum would rip it apart and turn it inside out and make us a coat'

The Hendersons of Freeland-Lot 11 had nine children and there were few store-bought clothes. (Dutch Thompson)

Reginald "Dutch" Thompson's column The Bygone Days brings you the voices of Island seniors, many of whom are now long-departed. These tales of the way things used to be offer a fascinating glimpse into the past. Every second weekend CBC P.E.I. will bring you one of Dutch's columns. 

Even for the style-challenged, getting dressed means almost infinite choice at your fingertips if you live in the present-day developed world. Many people have closets bursting with clothes.

There's even a slow fashion movement, to buy less and sew more — a backlash against the fast fashion of the last few decades that saw clothing become cheap and plentiful.

Dutch Thompson is an award-winning historian and storyteller. He has published a book about P.E.I.'s bygone days. (Pat Martel/CBC)

But in the bygone days on P.E.I., there simply was little choice. All but the most well-to-do Islanders made their own clothes, even spinning and weaving their own wool.

I guess he felt guilty that he sold my calf, and he got me the coat.— Kay Jelley

Historian Dutch Thompson talked with his cousin Kathleen Jelley, born Kathleen Henderson in 1913 to a thrifty, hard-working family in Freeland-Lot 11, P.E.I.

First store-bought coat

With nine brothers and sisters, anything store-bought was precious and Jelley recalled one night when she was a teenager, showing off her very first store-bought coat when friends came over for a visit.

Kay Jelley, front right, with five of her sisters, the Hendersons of Freeland-Lot 11. (Submitted by Dutch Thompson)

"It was beige colour and it had brown beaver fur, crossed over. Oh it was handsome," she told Thompson. 

Her father had bought her the coat after he sold a white calf that she had loved and hand-fed since it was born, she said. 

"He called it my calf. And of course, we never had anything. If it was 'our' hens, well they were sold anyway. We just called them ours," she said. "He went to Summerside to get the groceries, he brought me home that coat. I guess he felt guilty that he sold my calf, and he got me the coat."

'She sheared the sheep'

Jelley also recalled her father tying up sheep for her mother — "She sheared the sheep." 

Her mother would send the wool to MacAusland's Mill in Bloomfield — still a going concern — where they'd make it into rolls. She'd then spin and twist the wool and and knit it into scarves, caps, mittens, socks and even underwear for the family. 

"There were no slacks then, and we had to wade through snow to school," Jelley said. 

Interior of the men's clothing department at R.T.Holman's store in Summerside in 1911. The walls are lined with racks of men's suits, briefcases, suit cases and other goods (PARO)

A visit to MacAusland's is like going back in time, Thompson said. There are still big vats where the raw wool is washed and dyed, then carded and spun and finally woven into blankets. People bring wool from all over North America to be spun at the mill. 

As the youngest girl, Jelley saw plenty of hand-me-downs as well as clothes that were repurposed. 

"One of the ones in the States, one of dad's sisters or mum's sisters, sent old clothes home. Mum would rip it apart and turn it inside out and make us a coat. A lot of clothes was just made over," she explained. 

Interior view of S. A. MacDonald's custom tailor shop and clothing store on Queen Street in Charlottetown circa 1900. (PARO)

Two months' salary for a suit

A hundred years ago, people who had a sewing machine made their living going around from house to house making clothing.

MacPherson Bros. store in Montague, Prince Edward Island, 1914. (PARO)

Mary Morrissey, born in Emyvale in 1904, recalls itinerant tailor Malachy Callaghan coming to Donagh, P.E.I., where she had just begun a teaching job. 

"He used to take orders for men's clothes. He was a tailor, he used to make men's suits," she said. 

"I gave an order for a suit for my father, I think it was one of my first cheques I got. I thought he had done a lot for me up till I got out teaching, and now that I had a few dollars I'd pay him back. And that was in '21. I didn't have too much money but I had enough to give him for to make a suit for my father, and that was the suit my father was laid out in when he died in '30. A few Sundays he wore it — he wasn't a dancer and he wasn't a sport, he was a hard-working man. I don't think he ever dressed except on Sunday when he went to church," Morrissey said with a laugh. 

That suit cost Morrissey two months' salary. Morrissey and her husband Walter ran the Economy Grocery Store in Charlottetown for years — she died in 2015 at age 110. 

Repurposed flour and sugar bags

Morrisey's mother used to make clothes from flour bags, which was common. Everything from dresses to underwear and dish towels came from those empty 98-pound flour bags. The hard part, she recalled, was bleaching out the name of the flour company such as 5 Roses or Gold Medal Flour. 

'Sack fashion is the latest craze to arrive from America,' was the caption on this photo in 1947. This model is wearing an evening gown made from four sugar sacks. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Knowing women were using their flour and sugar sacks for clothing and other household items, companies began issuing their bags with pretty prints in the 1930s and '40s. (Nana's House/Facebook)

Some flour companies knew people were recycling their flour bags and began catered to those customers by creating pretty prints that are highly collectible fabric today.

Grace Swan, born in Little York, P.E.I. in 1920, told Thompson her mother Lily made her and her sister dresses out of gingham-patterned flour bags. 

"Mama made Dot and I each a dress. But people came home from the States, cause Gramma had a lot of sisters in the States, and we had these dresses on and they were cute little dresses. So they said 'Oh my the lovely dresses you have on!' And Dot says 'Yes Mama made them out of flour bags.' We weren't supposed to say that," Swan recalled with a laugh. 

"Uncle Harold let us have the double-seated wagon to go to the Sunday school picnic," Swan continued. "And I had a red gingham dress, mama made it for me, with a white collar on it and I was so about the whole thing that I had the corner in my mouth and I chewed the corner right off the collar! Mama wasn't too pleased."  

Flour sack 'too bright'

Lula Thomson and her two daughters Irene and Mae fondly remembered sewing everything from with sugar and flour bags. 

Lula Thompson was 100 years old when Dutch Thompson interviewed her about her life in P.E.I.'s olden days. (Dutch Thompson)

"Used to be pretty plaid flour bags we used to take and make house dresses and they were the prettiest darn things you've ever seen!" said Lula, who was 100 when Thompson interviewed her. "Make curtains and make quilt tops. It was awful pretty stuff, different colours you know."

One of Lula's daughters piped in with her own recollection.

"I wanted a new dress, and you fellas took me — we went out to Harold's store with old Rex in the wagon. And you and daddy got into a disagreement. You let me pick out which flour bag I wanted for my dress, and daddy thought it was too bright!" The women dissolve into laughter. "It's the God's truth!" said Thompson. 

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With files from Sara Fraser