CPR Section House

CPR Section House

Monday, January 31, 2011

Handy with a Needle

Mum came with skills of her own to the bush of Northen Ontario/Quebec from wartime England . Her stint on the farm and in the British Army gave her particular skills that turned out to be essential in the isolated places in Canada .

Flour came in 50 and 100lb bags made of sturdy (500 thread count) cotton with the company name stencilled onto the front and sewn shut with cotton string . Once the flour of each bag was used up , she harvested the remains -a yard and a half of cotton fabric and string .

On Wash Day , she would scrub each bag
until the logo was as faded as possible , then coated the bag with sunlight soap and set it outside to bleach in the sun . After several hours of bleaching , Mum rinsed each bag thoroughly and set it to dry again . After drying , the cloth was carefully folded and collected in her steamer trunk until she had enough to start making pillow cases , sheets and teatowels on long winter evenings . Dad's wages were not high enough to warrant buying these items from the CPR Supply Car and running up debt .

Sugar bags were a lighter weight cotton - finer and more luxurious than the flour bags . Mum carefully cleaned and saved them ,too . When she had enough of these bags , she made herself a peasant style blouse onto which she embroidered flowers - using the coloured threads she had brought from England in her steamer trunk . Other sugar bags became table cloths ( particularly 'tea' cloths )  , dinner napkins and hankies . All these things were sewn by hand during the quieter moments of the day , or by dim lamplight in the evenings .

When the first winter showed Mum just how cold it could get up north , and she saw Dad stumble in frozen to the bone most days , Mum made up her mind that he needed a good warm wool sweater ,socks and mitts . She knew that the supply car didnt carry raw materials for ' making your own ' , but they did have heavy wool blankets of CPR issue and small rugs - all made for them by mills out of Montreal . That meant of course that the mills had left overs that would be too small to feed the giant looms , but plenty big enough for handknitting . Usually , these 'ends' were reprocessed in woolen mills into other yarn for things such as small rugs or felt .  Mum quickly wrote a letter to the same man to whom she had mailed her last letter , describing the winter and how dangerous it was to the men in the north . She asked him to arrange for millends from the rug/blanket mills to be sent to her from Montreal , if he would be so kind , and hoped that it would not be out of reach financially . A week later , Mum had her wool for free ( the one and only time ) . But , the Supply Car now carried knitting wool for women along the line , although Mum continued to order wool from the rugmills for years .

She used the rugwool to knit a heavy longlasting sweater which she happily pulled over Dad's head a week after she got the shipment . The blanket wool was for socks , mitts and touques . Now , she did not have to worry that Dad would freeze to death along the side of the track on his long dangerous walks of his section .

On the Northern spurlines , most men were single and depended on the CPR Supply Car for clothing . Much of it was not fit to the severely cold winters and the outside jobs . But they they made do , doubling up where possible , which also meant doubling the bill they owed to the CPR .

Dad bragged about how warm Mum's homemade mitts and socks were , so it wasn't long before section men were asking Dad if she would knit some for them .  She agreed to do so only if they brought in the wool ... 50cents a pair- undercutting the CPR price by 10cents ( the wool plus a small amount for her labour still cost less than the supplycar) . The CPR supplies now included wool because there seemed to be a demand for it by labourers . When the CPR raised its price for wool the following year , Mum had earned enough through her knitting to bring in the extra wool directly from the mills for knitting . The orders she received from the men could be covered without using the Supply Car along their line .

As a child , I watched fascinated as Mum knitted while she read or watched television , without ever looking at what she was doing . I asked her where she learned to knit .

" On the farm, during the war . You weren't allowed to just sit."
" How do you know what to do?"
" The patterns are in my head."
" How can you knit so fast ?"
" Practice...lots of practice ."

 Mum's Knitting Schedule and Prices ( about 1946 )
-pair of mitts - 40 cents - 1 day
-pair of socks - 50 cents - 2 days
-touque - 25 cents - two hours
-sweater - $4.00 - 4 days - front,back, 2 sleeves - simple pullover with no pattern 

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