Reflections of Ponoka: The fabric and skills that helped to build a nation

Sewing is an age old skill that has primarily been delegated to women, who in turn heartily responded with whatever meager tools and materials they had available to clothe their families, cover their beds, and fashion their homes into a warm and friendly place to live.

This classic display at the Fort Ostell Museum in Ponoka depicts sewing throughout the ages

Sewing is an age old skill that has primarily been delegated to women, who in turn heartily responded with whatever meager tools and materials they had available to clothe their families, cover their beds, and fashion their homes into a warm and friendly place to live.

In the early settlement of the prairies hardy natives used buffalo hides and other skins that were tanned and sewn together with animal tendons to make moccasins, clothing, blankets, and other vital items that were crucial for their survival. After the arrival of the Hudson Bay trading posts, beads and other trinkets were available for the skilled Indian women to sew them by hand into intricate designs on garments and cherished possessions.

With the inventions of weaving and looms, miles of plain or fancy fabrics and threads were produced to make it a little easier to create clothing and accessories for all the occasions and necessities during those colourful early years of our proud heritage. Of course it wasn’t long before the first sewing machines and garment factories were introduced to modernize the traditional production processes that had begun many decades earlier with hard work and keen determination and imaginations.

The first sewing machine, likely operated with a foot pedal, was invented by Thomas Saint in England in 1790, and featured a single thread chain stitch for use on leather. In 1830 Barthelmy Thimonnier introduced a machine for making soldier’s uniforms, and utilized a hook needle that carried the thread back and forth through the material and formed a strong stitch. By mid-century several companies began to mass-produce sewing machines, including Thomas H. White and William L. Grout with the early White Sewing Machine, and Isaac Merritt Singer, who invented the world’s first practical sewing machine in 1850. Singer conceived the idea of using a treadle similar to that of a spinning wheel with a hand-crank to generate the power, and by 1855 the Singer Sewing Machine Company had become the largest in the world. Entrepreneur Edward Clark responded quickly to the family sewing craze by developing the instalment plan or payment purchases that assisted even those with the most meagre income to purchase a home sewing machine.

By 1870 the Singer Company had sold 170,000 machines, and after inventing the first practical electric sewing machine their annual sales would reach 1.35 million by the turn of the century. The New Home Sewing Machine Company were also busy serving this exciting new industry, building a factory in the early 1900’s that would employ 743 individuals, and by 1937 had produced 7 million of their fine machines.

Sewing through the years in Ponoka and districts

A unique display at the Fort Ostell Museum in Ponoka shows us some of the traditional sewing machines, wooden croquet hooks and needles, and colourful materials that were utilized by busy mothers and daughters to perform magic at the turn of the century, into the dirty ‘30s, and on past the war years. There is also a tiny doll with a leather body and bisque head that many young girls spent hours making doll clothes and dainty costumes, as well as honing their sewing and knitting skills. When there was time from chores or school, they played with their creations until they were well into their teens, and there were very few other attractions.

During the First World War women were employed in garment factories across the world, while throughout the extremely difficult depression years women sewed most of their clothes, usually saving one set for each family member for special occasions such as church, weddings, school, and funerals. Children wore hand-me-downs and clothing made over from the used items of adults, and occasionally fashioned from used flour and sugar sacks.

Due to absolute necessity, the long and cold winters were spent sewing warm quilts from scraps to use as bedding or even curtains.

During the Second World War material was limited, as everything went into the war effort, and the women were required to work in the huge garment factories, as well as sew for their large and growing families. Here at home, with many of their loved ones away serving their country, most of the local and district ladies, their clubs, and friends gathered at their homes, churches, or community halls to sew or knit hundreds of sets of flannelette pyjamas, tuques, gloves, socks, etc., which were packed into the vital Red Cross Care packages to be sent to our brave soldiers everywhere. An article in the Ponoka Panorama History book stated that Granny Peterson held the record of knitting over 100 pairs of warm wool socks, while the Ponoka Lions Club provided the funding for many years to purchase all the wool and sewing supplies that were required for these wonderful ongoing community efforts.

As the tradition carries on, ready-made clothing is now the order of the day, but the extreme skills of sewing have now become a creative art. Women, as well as some men, can now sew for pleasure, producing unique articles of their own creation, or quite possibly still following those same age-old McCall or other assorted patterns that have been around for decades. Also added to the mix among a vast array of fancy yarns and threads are the exquisite creations of quilting, knitting, crocheting, needlepoint, and many other splendid crafts and hobbies. Sewing machines are still very evident, but are now operated by computers, have become light and portable, and will keep you in stitches of all sizes, shapes, and designs.

As far as yours truly is concerned, I can still darn socks, as long as I have a thimble and a steady hand to thread the needle. I will however, always admire the magnificent talents that my mother and thousands of other special ladies, have, and always will perform when their gentle hands come in contact with needles, wool, and thread on a quiet afternoon.

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