The darkness of evening to our cottage dwelling forebears meant a time to finish the heavy work and relax before bedtime. Conversation and craft were the main preoccupations after evening prayers were said. This part of life like all others was governed by austerity.
Everything in life was scarce or ‘running out’ for at least some of the time. People had to be sparing in their consumption of things we can take for granted today: ‘spare the fuel’, ‘spare the light’ were common sayings. In this context it is understandable that things of the everyday were minded, and repaired when broken, or ‘upcycled’ for their materials – to use a contemporary term – when out of use.
Around the fireside on long evenings sewing was a popular pastime – with both sexes. Making do and mending of clothing was done regularly in a time when clothing was scarce. From the Middle Ages clothing was designed to be used for many years: for example womens’ clothes and had adjustable stays to allow for pregnancies as they occurred. Throughout the eighteenth century there was a big market in second hand clothes in Ireland. Poorer people in Ireland were commonly dressed in ‘rags’ according to commentators, their clothing threadbare and held together by patches. A relative who emigrated might send a parcel of clothes back home which was much anticipated and valued by the recipients. By the nineteenth century techniques of mass production applied to textiles and the making of clothes meant they became more common, but they were still valued.
People owned one or two sets of working clothes and a set of ‘good’ clothes. The everyday clothes had to be constantly maintained, patched, stitched, sponged, dried, cared for.
Therefore people sewed, patched and maintained their clothes on a daily basis. When clothing was no longer viable it might be upcycled into bedding, such as patchwork quilts.
Patchwork quilts could be said to be an expression of frugality but in Irish cottages they were sometimes made as wedding gifts and for pleasure, or for home décor. Rooster red fabric was popular in the Victorian era and was often combined with used flour sacks to give a red/white contrast in dark bedrooms. Quilts are often seen as a grand expression of ‘mend and make do’ but often quilters would source and buy fabric especially for their quilts which showed that design rather than austerity was important. Some people supplemented their income by making patchwork quilts or by taking in the clothing repairs of others.
Irish patchwork was bought to the US by emigrants who brought with them styles from Ireland. The Irish chain is one of these styles that remain popular with quilters today. The Irish method of appliquéing a blanket between patched layers is also notable, but not often used today.
The Irish habit of hand sewing described is long gone, but it persisted enough into the twentieth century for many homes to adopt the sewing machine as part of the furniture, with Singer a popular brand.
James Brennan (1837–1907) Patchwork (1891) Crawford Art Gallery, Cork.
Double Irish Chain quilt, c.1904 (Nebraska State Historical Society).