The Lena Dancy
An Example of the Patriotic Homespun Dress*
by Vicki Betts
*This article originally
appeared in The Citizens' Companion vol. 9, no. 4 (October-November
Caption: The Lena Dancy Homespun Dress currently resides at the Texas Memorial Museum,** the University of Texas at Austin, Item 55-2. The photographs were taken by Vicki Betts and are used with permission.
**Although I examined this dress at the Texas Memorial Museum, this collection will soon be transferred to another, as yet undecided, location. If inquiries are sent to the TMM, they will be forwarded.
Although completed in 1864, Lena
Dancy's homespun dress exemplifies the "patriotic" homespun garment,
created not out of necessity but out of the pride, independence, and spunk of a
fourteen year old girl, a daughter of the planter class.
It is an extravagant dress, fashionably cut, and probably carefully
fitted to the original owner who outgrew it within a year.
Martha Evelina ("Lena") Dancy (1850-1936) was the eldest child of John Winfield Scott Dancy (1810-1866) and his second wife, Lucy Ann Nowlin Dancy (1828-1902). John Dancy immigrated to the new Republic of Texas from Decatur, Alabama, in December, 1836, and soon established himself as a planter, attorney, politician, newspaper editor, railroad booster, and one of the founders of Rutersville College. He served as a representative to the Republic of Texas Congress, the state Senate, the state House of Representatives, and the Secession Convention, as well as a member of John Coffee Hays' First Regiment of Texas Mounted Volunteers in 1842 and Ben McCulloch's spy company in 1847. Because of her father's position, Lena was able to meet people like Sam Houston, Francis Lubbock, Sam Maverick, Robert E. Lee, and Gen. Bankhead Magruder. Although too old to serve in the Civil War, John Dancy supported it financially. Lena knitted socks for the cause, and the family often entertained traveling soldiers, one of whom taught Lena how to shoot with a pistol. By 1862 Dancy realized that he would need to produce textiles on the plantation, and he bought at least twelve spinning wheels, two reels, and a loom, setting up a loom house next to the slave nursery. A weaving pattern book for "Counterpanes &c." survives among Lena Dancy's papers in the Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin. Among the patterns noted are nine snowball, huckaback, serge or blanket twill, the Democrat Beauty of Georgia, Mississippi Hills/Bull Mountain—Georgia pattern, Talbot's Beauty, Job's Cross, Lady's Finger, Beauty of Florida, Rose Diamonds and Rose Vine.
Lena believed that "the doom of the Southern Confederacy broke her father's loyal heart," and he died in La Grange on February 13, 1866, leaving a wife and four surviving daughters. Lena recalled proudly that he was buried in "a beautifully woven wool-suit, made by my mother, 1864, from the sheep in his own pasture, spun & woven by his own negroes—dyed from bark off his own trees." After her father's death, the family continued to live at the plantation for a while, then moved into LaGrange and finally to Austin. Lena attended school there and at the Carnatz Institute in New Orleans where she studied music. On October 12, 1870, she married James Peacock Ledbetter, attorney son of a nearby Round Top, Texas, family, and in 1888 they moved to Coleman, southeast of Abilene. There she raised four daughters, conducted a "Ladies Orchestra," composed and published music, painted, and allowed her home to be used as the Episcopal Church for twenty-seven years. Lena Dancy Ledbetter died on November 20, 1936, having lived to see the celebration of the centennial of the Republic of Texas.[i]
As of the 1860 census, Col. Dancy owned 180 improved acres and 1820 unimproved acres, although by 1866 that had grown to 2339 acres total. Most of it lay in the fertile Brazos River Valley opposite LaGrange. His slave property evidently increased as well, from 15 of his own and 10 of his brother's in 1860, to the 98 that Lena consistently remembered by the end of the war. Horses and mules increased from 8 to 104, sheep from 1 to 250, but cattle decreased from 128 to 60. In 1860 the farm produced 4000 bushels of corn, 19 bales of cotton, 150 bushels of Irish potatoes, and 300 bushels of sweet potatoes.[ii]
During the war Lena became intrigued with the fabric-making process, and at age 14 she decided to complete a dress from beginning to end on her own, despite the fact that she could have had others do that chore for her. She spun, dyed (unfortunately, she never told what the dye was), wove and sewed this dress all on her own, and she also spun all of the sewing thread for it. She later wrote that she taught several girls to sing the now well-known "Homespun Dress Song" while proudly wearing her own version of this patriotic attire.
Lena created a fancy day dress cut in a woman's style. The fabric is fairly light weight cotton, of a plain weave, log cabin pattern, basket motif, 42 threads per inch. Each basket motif is 12 threads by 12 threads squares, with the dark threads first horizontal, then vertical, then horizontal again, repeated approximately every 5/16". Lena described her dress as black and white, but it is now brown and cream, trimmed in medium blue piping, buttons, and binding. The fabric is heavily pieced and patched, but it is not evident whether the cause was tears or from replacing weaker fabric. The dress does not appear to be pieced just to extend the available fabric.
The bodice is gathered onto a self waistband, but the off-white muslin lining extends only across the shoulders, front and back. The lining comes down 4 3/8" from the front of the jewel neckline and 6¼" from the neck down the center back. The back lining is stitched to the dress in a running ½" stitch, 3/8" from the bottom unhemmed edge. The lower edge of the front lining is not attached. There is a blue-green back neck edge binding 3/8" wide, and it goes 1 3/8" beyond the shoulder seams toward the front of the dress, where a similar binding of the dress fabric picks up. The shoulder seam allowances are only ¼". The front bodice opening incorporates a folded back facing from 7/8" to 1" wide. There should be five functional medium blue cloth covered buttons down the front opening—the top one is missing. The buttons are slightly oval shaped, 7/16" long, using a factory plain weave fabric—some are flat topped and some are bevel edged. The buttons are attached individually and crudely with off-white thread. The buttonholes are set back ¼" from the bodice opening edge, done in black thread, and obviously hand done. The shoulder seams are 7", the front bodice length from neck to top of waistband is 9½", the back bodice length from neck to top of waistband is 12". The front bodice gathers are concentrated in the center 2¾" of the waistband, and the back gathers are mostly 3" either side of center back. The 1" wide self waistband is also lined in muslin, and it closes with two flat hooks and eyes. The seam allowance between the bodice and the waistband is 5/8". There is medium blue piping on either side of the self waistband, and the waist measurement is 22¼" around.
The unlined skirt is four panels wide—the front panel is gored and slit down the center front 7¼" as part of the dress opening. There are two small triangular gussets at the hem extending either side of the center front gored piece—the gussets are 10" high and 2¾" across at the hem. The other panels, all square cut, are 32", 33 ½", and 33" wide, selvedge to selvedge—total skirt bottom circumference is 137". The cut edges of the gored piece are overcast. The skirt is 31½" long. There are no pockets. The skirt is gauged to the bottom of the waistband with about 1" turned down. There is medium blue piping down either side of the front panel, with matching fake 3/8" medium blue buttons inside that line on the front panel—17 on one side and 19 on the other. They are fake because they are just circles of fabric, with raw edges turned under, appliquéd onto the dress without any hard center core. The hem is a 1½" fold up self hem, sewn into place with a 1/8" running stitch, without any facing or edging along the bottom.
The sleeves are basically a two-piece coat sleeve, but with the back piece longer and wider than the front, so that the back piece is gathered onto the front piece along the outer edge. The sleeve is gathered into the armscye which is piped in medium blue, with blue piping down each sleeve seam. Halfway down on the inner side there is a foldover tuck about 7/8" which accentuates the teacup handle curve of the sleeve. The inside of the arm is 12¾" while the outside is 27½". The sleeve is entirely lined with muslin. The wrist is edged with medium blue fabric matching the piping and buttons, showing ¼" on the outside and ½" on the inside. The blue-green of the back neck edging appears again as a band on the inside of the wrist, further in from the blue decorative edging. Twelve blue cloth covered buttons (hard center) are attached down each sleeve along the piping on the smaller (front) piece of fabric.
This dress in now quite fragile and stained, especially across the back of the shoulders. In some places the threads of the homespun fabric have given way. The blue piping is also quite worn. A 1917 photograph of the dress being worn by a too tall young woman is included in Paula Mitchell Marks' Hands to the Spindle, and a close up of the fabric appears in David Holman and Billie Persons' Buckskin and Homespun: Frontier Texas Clothing, 1820-1870. It is also featured in the University of Texas' Center for American History Winedale webpage-- http://www.cah.utexas.edu/exhibits/WinedaleStory/green7/green7c.html.
Illustrations in article:
1) Sketch--Lena Dancy
Homespun Dress by Vicki Betts.
2) Photo—Full front of the Lena Dancy Homespun Dress.
3) Photo—Full back of the Lena Dancy Homespun Dress.
4) Photo—Detail, Lena Dancy Homespun Dress. Bodice front, with sleeves and waistband.
5) Handwritten note by Lena Dancy with words of "The Southern Girl's Song" and paragraph about dress. From the collection in The Center for American History, the University of Texas at Austin.
6) Photo—Detail, Lena Dancy Homespun Dress. Inside bodice, showing partial lining.
7) Photo—Detail, Lena Dancy Homespun Dress. Inside waistband, showing lining.
8) Photo—Detail, Lena Dancy Homespun Dress. Closeup of fabric, with scale.
[i] Marks, Paul Mitchell. Hands to the Spindle: Texas Women and Home Textile Production, 1822-1880. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1996, pp. 80-85,89,98,100; Lena Dancy Ledbetter. Papers. Boxes 2E353 and 2E354, Center for American History, University of Texas, Austin, Texas; Gertrude Harris Cook, "Col. Dancy—Father of Texas Railroads," Dallas Morning News, October 11, 1931, p. 4; "Visitor in City, Daughter of Prominent Early-Day Texan Knew Houston," Houston Chronicle January 23, 1936; Lena Dancy Ledbetter, "Tulsa Woman Recalls Events of Texas History," Tulsa Tribune, April 19, 1929; "Dancy, John Winfield Scott, " The Handbook of Texas Online, <http://www.tsha.utexas.edu/handbook/online/articles/view/DD/fda7.html> [Accessed Sun Aug 18 17:55:19 US/Central 2002 ]; John Henry Brown, "Col. J. W. Dancy, La Grange, Texas," Indian Wars and Pioneers of Texas (Austin: L. E. Daniell, 1880), Reprint ed. Easley, SC: Southern Historical Press, 1978, p. 484-486; Democratic Voice [Coleman, Texas], November 26, 1936, p. 4, c. 6; David Holman and Billie Persons, Buckskin and Homespun: Frontier Texas Clothing, 1820-1870 ( Austin: Wind River Press, 1979), p. ??.
[ii] Population, Slave and Agriculture Census, 1860, Fayette County, Texas; Probate Case No. 709, Jno. W. Dancy, Fayette County, Texas.