Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Appalachia:The Land of Self-Sufficiency

"Use it up, wear it out, make do, or do without." - Medal Bryson

This quote is from a friend of mine's Granny. What a perfect way to describe how the people of Appalachia have lived for hundreds of years. Mountain folk have done what needed to be done to survive long before "green" living and self-sufficiency were trendy. 

The isolation that comes with mountain living didn't give residents any choice. It was do or die. The only way people got around in early Appalachia was by foot or horse and wagon. The roads were steep and narrow but even if they could have gotten to town easily and often, there was little money to be spent for the things they needed. When a family did have money, it was spent on necessities that they couldn't find or make such as coffee, sugar, lamp oil, and shoes. 

The mountain people depended on what could be found in nature and hard work to get what they needed. In the book Dorie: Woman of the Mountains by Florence Cope Bush, Florence tells the story of what rural mountain life was like for her mother (Dorie) and her family. She gives great examples of how they provided for many of their needs, one being clothing. 

Dorie mentions that early settlers had brought flax seed from Scotland and Ireland when they came to America. They used the stalks to make clothes. "Ma was an expert at spinning, weaving, and dying material for our clothing. The stalks were spread out on the ground where rain and dew would cause the outer skin to rot, separating the fibers from the woody portions outside. The long, straight fibers were twisted together to make thread, which was wound on spindles and later woven into material for dresses, underwear, and linens for the house. It became the "linsey" part of the linsey-woolsey - so well known from the Western frontier days." 

Her family also raised sheep for wool. "In the late spring or early summer, Pa, Uncle Julius and Uncle Aden sheared the sheep. They had to wait until the weather was warm because the fleece is cut close to the skin, leaving the sheep almost bare. If they sheared the sheep before Dogwood winter (usually in May), it was likely some of the sheep would die from exposure. Wool from the shoulders of the sheep is better than that taken from other parts. Ma used the shoulder wool for dresses. The stiffer wool made heavy coats that were rainproof. Ma would card the wool- straightening our the curly-kinky hair so that it could be spun into thread. A small loom stood by the corner window for the needed sunlight. Ma would weave the yarn into cloth." 

Dorie went on to explain that they would make their dresses in dark colors because they usually only had a couple of dresses and darker colors were less likely to show dirt by the end of the week. They would use things such as onion skins, hickory bark, and dandelion flowers to dye the yarn into pretty colors. 

Making clothes wasn't the only way they provided for themselves. They built their own homes and furniture.They grew, raised, and foraged for their own food. Doctors were few and far between so the mountain folk relied on plants to cure their ailments. 

These families didn't let things go to waste either. A family could re-purpose just about anything. Empty jars and cans became a place to store seeds and sewing notions. Newspapers were used to paper the walls to help keep out the cold. Clothes that were outgrown were passed down to the next sibling until it couldn't be repaired any longer but the mountain people wouldn't just throw out the rags. They would turn the scraps of material into beautiful quilts, rugs, and baskets. 

Mountain people developed a strong craft tradition based on need. My friend, Stephanie, picked up some of these traditions from her grandmother (the lady I quoted at the beginning of this post) and mother. She owns a shop, Burnt Branch Creations in Andrews, NC where she teaches, makes, and sells some of the things that can be made from repurposed materials and much more. Here is some of her work & you can click here if you would like to purchase some for your home.


 I'm thankful that these skills have been passed down in Appalachia and I think it is something that we must encourage the younger generations to keep up. You never know when the day may come when we'll need these skills to survive. 

Do you know and use any of these mountain skills? If the need arose, do you think you have the "know how" to survive like the mountain folk of early Appalachia? 

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