As you sit looking at the perfectly hand finished hem of your newly altered dress or the overlocked edge hiding under the lining, there’s a story hiding within these stitches.
The industrial revolution brought the sewing and garment making from the dimly lit crammed private rooms of women (1846 the sewing machine was invented) into the factories.
The textile industry became the biggest employer of women. As families moved in from the country, women became cogs in the factory machinery. They were often labelled ‘the unskilled’ workforce behind the shirt making machinery or laundry tubs, they suffered long working hours but their meagre wages were invaluable to their often growing families.
As the ready to wear industry took off factories produced garments such as coats, petticoats, shirts, trousers, gloves, hats and footwear.
The invention of department stores such as Selfridges spurred on the mass produced goods. Soon the department stores offered made up garments in the latest fashion. Although the novelty of the beautiful shopping experience with tea rooms and restaurants attracted a new crowd, the middle class women often tried on but then let their own seamstress copy the latest fashion. Meanwhile the ladies working the factory floors couldn’t even dream of paying for a cup of tea in the new department stores, the working hours were between 9-12hrs and the pay were even lower than their male counterparts. The conditions were gruelling, the air was filled with floating fibres that caused respiratory problems and the dyes were toxic and flammable.
As the introduction of machinery in the garment industry boosted production and drew down the cost price it also undermined the skills and art of garment making, that we today after decades of a buy and throw away culture revere so highly. Haute couture is once again popular among the ones who can afford it.
There’s now days an appreciation for the skilled woman behind the hand finished hem and the beauty of a perfectly altered garment. And today we are soberly prepared to pay a price reflective of the skill and talent involved. Although it might have been the educated middle classes that drove the suffragette movement forward it was these working women , the foundation of the textile and garment industry in this country and their conditions, that spurred some of the suffragettes on to fight for the right of women.
So when we look at a hem or the seams of our garments next time let’s t remember the history behind them and be grateful to the women who fought to alter the female conditions a 100 years ago.