The Silk Umbrella

Originally written for the U.S. Civil War Ladies Auxiliary, Inc. newsletter, July 2012

The Silk Umbrella by Sarah Koby

Black silk was the favorite material for piecing out old clothes, because it suited everything… An old black silk skirt with nine flounces was a treasure in our family for nearly two years, and when that store was exhausted, we fell back on the cover of a worn-out silk umbrella. The finest traveling dress I had during the war, was a brown alpaca turned wrong side out, upside down, and trimmed with quillings made of that same umbrella cover. I will venture to say that no umbrella ever served so many purposes or was so thoroughly used up before. The whalebones served to stiffen corsets and the waist of a homespun dress, and the handle was given to a wounded soldier for a walking stick.
By Elzey Hay, from “Dress Under Difficulties: Or Passages from the Blockade Experience of Rebel Women,” published in Godey’s Lady’s Book, July 1866 (and reprinted in excerpt form in Survey of Historic Costume: A History of Western Dress, 4th Ed. By Phyllis G. Tortora & Keith Eubank)

In the south during the civil war, it was very difficult to get new fabrics, so people had to make do with what they had. This autobiographical passage by Elzey Hay shows that it wasn’t just old clothes that people turned to, but that anything and everything might be put to use. It reminds me of the saying “Use it up, Wear it out, Make it do, or Do without!” I’m not certain when this saying originated, but the truism is as valid as ever.
Southern women (or at least well-to-do southern women) began the war with large wardrobes with a high turnover rate – they gave away clothing that they were tired of or felt they had no use for. Later on, as the war progressed, they found that they regretted this, since they ran out of clothing, and what they had had begun to wear out. However, the women learned to make do with what they had. They resewed dresses, and the new styles with less puffy sleeves allowed them to make do with less fabric. Skirts and blouses (instead of dresses) meant that they could also use two different fabrics to make an ensemble if they couldn’t find enough to make it all one fabric. Ladies still tried to be fashionable, as much as they could under the circumstances. If there was a Godey’s Lady’s Book, ladies would flock from miles around to see it, even if it was an old copy.
The silk umbrella is a great example of making every bit count. The silk of the actual rain-cover was used for patching just like the black silk skirt. But then – why throw the rest away? They managed to use the whalebones of the umbrella to keep themselves respectably corseted, and even the handle was given to a soldier who needed a walking stick. But the part I find most interesting is the quillings. These are little curls of fabric used to decorate another piece of fabric. This young lady took the decorations from an old umbrella, and used them to decorate a traveling dress! That’s just marvelous – in the midst of war and hardship, she found the opportunity to keep a little bit of beauty.

Most sincerely yours,
~ Sarah

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