When Susan Cayton dons her 1812 garb to present a 19th century fiber arts demonstration at Fort Meigs State Memorial Park for the Fife and Drum Weekend, or to conduct a natural dyeing, spinning, or weaving workshop at the 577 Foundation in Perrysburg, she assumes a very convincing image of a stalwart frontier woman.
“It takes a lot of research delving into old chronicles, especially diaries, to get a feel for the character and the authentic details necessary to make my pioneer portrait from the past come alive,” she admits.
She designs and makes her own costumes.
Her simple dress of cotton or linen with high waist is worn over layers of undergarments - complete with a linsey-woolsey petticoat. She puts on a ruffled mob cap to keep her long hair up and out of the way. The frock is topped with a large-brimmed straw hat for protection from the sun while gardening or doing other outdoor chores. Cotton stockings, fingerless mittens, a woolen scarf, and, for a touch of elegance, a silk chemise, complete the ensemble.
“Down to the granny glasses, wooden clogs, and treasured crucifix necklace, attention to details adds to the realism,” Susan Cayton says. “It would have taken a year to make only one outfit. That's why pioneer women had just two, one for work and a Sunday dress.”
Mrs. Cayton is a fiber artist with two degrees from Ball State University. She belongs to the Black Swamp Spinners Group and the Toledo Weavers' Guild. She specializes in hand-woven rugs and wall hangings.
With her talents, skills, and passion for history, she can be found on an autumn day outside 577 Foundation's historic log cabin, in her “weaver's garden” harvesting blossoms from marigolds or dahlias. She uses them for coloring fabrics.
“I use the marigolds for the soft golden colors, the dahlias for rich oranges and yellows.” She grows indigo and dyer's knotweed for shades of blue. The madder root, when boiled, provides bright oranges and burgundies. Using what nature provides, she gets reds and purples from dead female cochineal bugs.
Two other raised beds near the cabin contain heirloom vegetables and fruits, grown to be in keeping with the historical setting. This year Mrs. Cayton planted cotton and flax. She is experimenting with coreopsis and cosmos blooms as color sources.
Recently, she led a workshop in natural dyeing , a lost art. The artisan explains: “All summer the flowers are collected. They are soaked overnight. Next day, in a large vat they are brought to a boil and simmered, then strained. At that time, the wetted yarn is added to the dye pot.”
This natural-colored yarn may be soaked in tin, copper sulfate, alum, or chrome before being placed in the dye pot. These chemicals influence the many shades and tints that can be obtained from a single dye pot. The mordant - a fixer that's usually chemical salts - is added before the dye is applied. This makes the dye become a part of the yarn - or colorfast.
Susan spins much of her own yarn on a wheel or a drop spindle, which is portable and was widely used before the invention of the spinning wheel. After the fiber has been combed or carded, it is drawn out and twisted to the desired thickness on either device. After the yarn is spun and dyed, it is hand woven on looms into fabric.
Susan Cayton volunteers over 200 hours each year at the Seven Eagles Historical Education Center in Grand Rapids and at Fort Meigs. At reenactments and costumed tours, she helps bring to life and preserve an important period in Maumee Valley history. Visitors have a chance to experience the past at a variety of levels via the sights, sounds and smells of earlier times.
Mrs. Cayton's husband, David, a retired professor of art at Bowling Green State University, also helps to preserve frontier crafts. He is involved in print-making, carving, and earthen pot-making.
At these historic encampments, where participants sleep in old-fashioned tents, cook over open fires, spin and weave, they and others relive the day-to-day life settlers experienced. So vivid is the experience, a visitor may wonder, “Is it here and now or then and there?”
These are important activities for the Caytons.
On a cool autumn day in 2000, an American woman who seems to have emerged from the 19th century, warmed by a woolen cloak, a gourd canteen over her shoulders, surveys her fall garden as she rests for a minute on the garden bench.
She reaches into her gab basket - it contains small comforts and survival items. “Here's a fan, a sewing horn, and a pocket watch. In my ditty bag are a tin lantern, deck of cards, dice game, fire-starter kit, brick of tea, and military knife,” she says of items that may stump many people today.
Driven by her own passion for the past, Susan Cayton is intent on keeping it alive for others.
“Through actually living history, we learn to appreciate the past and to share frontier life with others for a greater understanding of today and the tomorrows to come.”
Mona Macksey is a Toledo free-lance writer.