Tailored Trades: Clothes, Labour and Professional Communities (1880-1939)

Thomas Hood’s poem Song of the Shirt was first published in Punch in 1843. Painting a glib portrait of the life of a garment worker the poem became a hit, inspiring its own popular song and painting.

With fingers weary and worn,
With eyelids heavy and red,
A woman sat in unwomanly rags,
Plying her needle and thread–

Stitch! stitch! stitch!
In poverty, hunger, and dirt,
And still with a voice of dolorous pitch,–
Would that its tone could reach the Rich!–
She sang this “Song of the Shirt!”

Hood’s final stanzas set the scene nicely for the topic of the Tailored Trades Research Network . Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, it brings together researchers at the Universities of Exeter and Northumbria to investigate how clothes and labour influenced and assisted in the development of professional communities at the turn of the twentieth century (1880-1939). I have been on placement here at the People’s History Museum and was given the opportunity to research and develop a display to complement the event.

When the sewing machine was widely introduced to the UK in the late 19th Century, it propelled the clothing industry into one of mass production. As Joan Perkin discusses, women faced the dilemma of wanting a machine, but at the same time, worrying it would mean the end of traditional handiwork. Piecework became a production line of tailors and tailoresses whose role was increasingly deskilled, becoming more repetitive and less specialist. Working from home was common in the tailored trades. Workers would often hire a sewing machine to finish ready-to-wear garments. Down the road from the museum Salford’s Working Class Movement Library contains a vast collection of publications from the National Union of Tailors and Garment Workers. This includes membership cards, magazines for union members and price lists for garments and piece work – as women would be paid by what they produced.

Some of the middleclass were ignorant of why women worked in tailored trades thinking that they were only doing it for ‘needle money’ to supplement their income. While this may have been the case in the 1930’s it was not true earlier in the century. A 1906 survey showed that more than half the women who were homeworkers were married to poorly paid husbands, and the rest were widowed with young children.

Printed much earlier in Punch, Leech’s popular cartoon ‘Pin money, needle money’ contrasted the lives of those who had to conduct homework, and those who chose to.

‘Pin money, needle money’ (Leech, 1849) Images from Museum of London (http://www.museumoflondonprints.com/search/artist/6823/john-leech)

‘Pin money, needle money’ (Leech, 1849) Image from Museum of London (http://www.museumoflondonprints.com/search/artist/6823/john-leech)

The 1906  ‘Sweated Industries’ exhibition exposed the appalling working conditions of those employed in trades such as matchbox making, chain making and of course tailoring. It raised awareness of the situation faced by garment workers, and encouraged middle class reformers to campaign on their behalf. Membership of tailors unions was originally only open to skilled male tailors. By the end of the 19th Century, however, women outnumbered men in the textile industry and women’s activity in trade unions can be traced from that date. Mary Macarthur formed The National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW) in 1906 by to organise women against the sweated industries and to fight for a minimum wage. Macarthur said that

“women are badly paid and badly treated because they are not organised and they are not organised because they are badly paid and badly treated”.

Macarthur supported full adult suffrage, and wanted to make sure that the working classes were represented in parliament.

Notebook kept by a tailor, containing various patterns and plans for garments. Working Class Movement Library

Notebook kept by a tailor, containing various patterns and plans for garments.
Working Class Movement Library

Middle and upper-class women indulged in fashion, which was a visual indicator of their status. They would employ professional dressmakers to create bespoke designs. However, with development of paper patterns in the late 19th century, working class women could recreate their own versions of fashionable garments cheaply. Something discussed in Patricia Cunningham’s  book Reforming Women’s Fashion, 1850-1920: Politics, Health, and Art.

Paper pattern advert from Labour Woman, June 1933, People’s History Museum

Paper pattern advert from Labour Woman, June 1933,
People’s History Museum

One thing that has struck me throughout this process is the realisation that while sweated working conditions were shocking, has anything really changed? As Mary Neal reported in 1906, “there is still much to be done before either men or women can wear even really good and expensive clothing with a clear conscience”. In my mind this still rings quite true, even if the work is no longer being carried out in the UK, I would question how much we know about the production of the clothes we wear today.

This blogpost was written by Ingrid Francis, a student at Newcastle University, who has just completed an eight-week placement with the People’s History Museum.

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