Saturday, 31 March 2012

Slop Workers

Recently I have been sewing clothes for myself for a change. I don't have a large wardrobe, and don't wish to; I make enough to see me through, and appreciate the lack of decision making I have to do first thing of a morning! I find that the 'modern' ways of dressmaking, i.e. zips and commercial patterns that rarely fit without huge changes to the original, somewhat perplexing! But I do enjoy the opportunity to make things that fit me so much better than any shop bought clothes ever would, and to decide on the styles that I like to wear, rather than having to wear what is 'fashionable' at the time.

In 2012 with a sewing machine, I can run up a basic pencil skirt in a day. Fantastic! But just how did women cope with producing or obtaining their own clothes without the use of one? The thought of hand sewing my own clothes is totally foreign, but this is how it had always been done prior to the middle of the 19th century.  So how did the seamstresses do it, and what were their lives like? Even once sewing machines had been invented, and for many decades on, women continued to painstakingly sew their clothing entirely by hand. As an adjunct, we also mustn't forget the roaring trade in second hand clothes throughout the centuries, for those too poor to purchase or produce their own, (although to admit this would of course have meant social suicide to many).

Now to swerve from the point a little, and look at tailors. Hundreds of years ago, it was the men who ran the businesses, and clothes and dressmaking were no exceptions. Male tailors were given the cloth, and would make up items for you.  The wages were low, and hours long.

'The Tailor' ~1565-70 Giovanni Battista Moroni (1525-78)    
Working men and women were able to purchase ready-made clothing from travelling salesmen, who sold at markets around the country. The only shops to speak of in the sixteenth century were based in the richest areas of London. Female seamstresses were confined to making underwear and lesser items of apparel.

By the 17th century, the second hand clothes market was booming, partly due to the increase in the cost of new silk. Though this was not the case during the plague outbreak, as "...the disease was so virulent that it could be caught by touching the clothes of the victim..." (The Art of Dress- Jane Ashelford).

'The Tailor' ~ 1741 Pietro Longhi (1702-85)
The situation of male tailors began to change by the late 17th century, as women for the first time slowly began to elbow their way into the profession. These 'mantua makers' produced the gowns and other garments for women which had long been the occupation of men. The men did however continue to make the stays, which required much hard work in the manipulation of the bones.

As the 19th century dawns, the length of time between one fashion and the next decreases greatly. This was assisted through greater and faster forms of communications, and the introduction of the fashion magazines from the previous century. Shops now house the wares of the crafts person who often lived above it, and simple items of clothing can be purchased ready made, such as cloaks and outfits for the lower classes.

1824 Plate of the The Ladies Dressmaker from 'The Book of English Trades and Library of Useful Arts', 1824. Manchester City Art Galleries

Due to lovers of Regency dress, this image is everywhere on-line, mainly because of the underpinnings that it depicts. Yet it is showing us a dressmaker taking measurements and draping fabric for her pattern making, with very little having altered since the previous century for the individual dress makers. A surge in women working in the sewing industry came about during the Regency era as large amounts of sails and military uniforms were in demand due to the Napoleonic wars of 1805-15, creating for the first time many, many jobs for women in the needlework profession.

It was also around about this time that fashion shops sprang up in greater numbers in the English capital, and the first department store was also opened. Ladies now had more of a choice in regards to what they wore and who they chose to make it for them. A dress could be bought in London, or at the very least sumptuous new fabrics to be taken home and made up by oneself or a local dress maker. It was not until the 1830s that a lady could purchase a paper pattern from which to make up a dress for herself at home. Although this was a service available in a very few shops, the 1850s saw the first magazine published which included paper dress patterns.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, shops which sold apparel began outsourcing their work to women who found it almost impossible to secure any other form of employment. This very fact led to long hours and extremely low levels of renumeration. And as I write this, I cannot of course, help but compare these seamstresses stories to those I hear of OUR fashion businesses here in the UK, who outsource their work to be completed abroad in much similar circumstances. (This is yet another reason why I haven't walked into a fashion store and bought an item of clothing for 4 or 5 years.)

And so now we reach the most miserable and dejected of women; the Victorian seamstress, depicted in many a book and film, hunched over her work in utter despair- "how will I get this shirt finished by morning?" she cries, whilst at the same time also knowing that she has not had a decent meal in a few days...

'A Tired Seamstress' ~ Angelo Trezzini (1827-1904)
Victorian seamstresses largely worked either at home, or at a business establishment. They worked ridiculously long hours, and were badly paid and cared for. Light was poor and working conditions almost intolerable. Often with poor ventilation, respiratory problems were rife, as the lint swirled endlessly around the cramped room and into their lungs. The women were either worn out at the busiest times, or dismissed when work was scarcer. Once without a job, many turned to prostitution as they were left with little option. The middle man between the larger clothes businesses and the women who worked in their own homes could often become a greedy bully, forcing the girls to work harder and harder as their cut became steadily greater.  (And it is here that we come across the saying 'sloppy work', which derives from the poor workmanship produced by some of these worn out women, who worked for the slop trade, producing cheap mass clothing at great cost to their own health.)

Home workers played a greater part in garment production as the regulations regarding factory work became more stringent, so employers would fall back on them more and more to meet deadlines that they simply couldn't get away with in the factory environment. In 1855, 'The Sempstress' (another word for seamstress), magazine attempted to record what wages these women received:

  "The shirt-maker makes shirts for 2s. a dozen; her usual time of work is from five in the morning till nine at night winter and summer; and for all this she earns on an average 2s 10 1/4 d. per week, or 2s. clear after deducting cotton and candle."

'The Seamstress' 1880 ~ Alexander-Hugo Bakker-Korff (1824-82)
Thankfully, by the close of the nineteenth century, groups were being set up to improve the needlewoman's working conditions, and  were trying to shine a light upon her exploitation and poor wages. These included 'The Society for the Relief of Distressed Needlewomen' founded in 1847, and 'The Association for the Aid and Benefit of Dressmakers and Milliners' founded three years earlier. These associations were eventually effective, producing fairer working conditions for all, and creating some provision for seamstresses in their old age.

Out of all of these tales of poverty and degradation, there is one thing which I find myself being almost jealous about; the fact that back hundreds of years ago, a person who wanted to enter the trade of fashion and clothes making was able to become apprenticed to a tailor to learn his or her 'art'.  Being largely self taught, I often long for a contemporary opportunity similar to that.

My other thoughts are with the women everywhere of the 1800s and beforehand, who of an evening picked up the work boxes and needles, and painstakingly added white-work to nightgowns, tucks to petticoats and embroidery to other items of underthings all by hand. Though not for money; the only thing dictating their hours of work were the fashions and conventions of the time. These garments must have taken months and months to produce. And yes, on the one hand I almost feel sorry for them, but the beauty of their work also makes me glad that they did take the time to do it all... so that one day, many decades later, people such as myself picking those items up, whilst marvelling at them, find themselves thinking 'where have our needlework skills gone to, and why don't we have the opportunity to wear such beautiful clothing today?'

with love,
Naomi