Jennie Megquier’s letters from Gold Rush San Francisco record a few interesting notes about clothing. In November 1849 she wrote:
I have starched twenty shirts this evening. I tell you this to give you an idea of the amount of work I have to do. Uncle has given me a whole piece of calico, one of de laine, one balererine. I shall make it all into broad aprons as I cannot get time to make a dress and when they get dirty throw them away that is the order of the day in this rich country.
Calico is a plain weave cotton fabric, and delaine was a lightweight wool fabric, often with a print. What balererine is I have no idea. Delaine is the sort of fabric that Jennie would have ordinarily used to make a nice dress, not aprons. Some of you may recall that Caroline Ingalls, in Little House in the Big Woods, wears her delaine dress to a barn dance. It’s her best dress.
Uncle had some washing done for which they charged six dollars a dozen, they looked so bad, he gave them two dollars to keep them.
Which sounds like a joke, but that’s what Jennie wrote.
Later she had more time to sew, and in 1853 wrote:
I was in at Mrs. Calkins today, all well, she and Mrs. Davis are making dresses all the while, I presume they have twenty five in a year, a silk dress lasts but two months at the best. I know not why but everything goes to destruction in a very short time here. . . . I have been making me a brown silk, and next week I am going to make a black one, today I have been making a pink thibet sack trimmed with velvet ribbon but I am sure I do not know when I will wear it.
Thibet was another fine woolen cloth used for making dresses. Originally “thibet” referred to a coarse Tibetan cloth woven from goat’s hair, but later it came to mean a kind of woolen fabric suitable for suits or dresses.
By a “sack” she either meant a free-hanging dress with a loose waist or more likely, a jacket, overcoat, or wrap that fitted loosely over a dress. It could also be spelled “sacque.”