Adèle Emm stitches together a history of this clothes-making trade
Untilthe Industrial Revolution, ordinary people’s clothes were usually homemade. Women and young girls spun wool into yarn, men wove it into fabric and girls and women were taught to fashion it into clothes as soon as they could hold a needle – we’ve all seen examples of young girls’ meticulous stitchwork in samplers. Tailors (invariably male) made bespoke clothing for men.
The rise of textile mills, a burgeoning middle class and the demand for cheaper clothing with no time to make it at home meant that the bespoke tailor’s wares were too expensive for the average person and clothing was bought ready-made from the ‘slop shop’.
Clothing workers in the 1830s changed from highly skilled (and expensive) men to cheaper seamstresses and dressmakers who were paid piecework; literally working their fingers to the bone. In 1851, 268,000 women were recorded as milliners/dressmakers – highly trained women who had completed an apprenticeship. As indentures were paid for, these women tended to come from families that were affluent enough to afford the training. It was one of the few occupations for women that gave them a skill and, after the apprenticeship, a decent and respectable living. In many cases, women worked ‘on their own account’ in their own homes.
Seamstresses were ‘poor relations’ to dressmakers making ladies’ blouses and undergarments, men’s shirts and trousers. However, as many served an apprenticeship, it was deemed a more respectable occupation than working in a factory – needlework was associated with femininity unlike those tomboys in the mill! A seamstress’s hours, however, were longer than a millworker’s
Needlework was associated with femininity unlike those tomboys in the mill
– how much longer depended on the amount of light and the time of year. They also had to provide their own needles, thimble, thread, trimmings and, of course, candles or gaslight. Heating was the first sacrifice of the low-paid.
In 1844, Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) ghoulishly listed the illnesses and disease that seamstresses were subject to: “bent posture, enervation, exhaustion, debility, loss of appetite, pains in the shoulders, back and hips, but especially headache, begin very soon; then follow curvatures of the spine, high deformed shoulders, leanness, swelled, weeping, and smarting eyes, which soon become short-sighted; coughs, narrow chests, and shortness of breath” and finally, after such a catalogue of affliction, blindness, consumption and an early death.
There is also a lot of internet debate as to whether many seamstresses were prostitutes – “seamstress” was occasionally a euphemism for a sex worker.
In a variety of Victorian ‘social novels’ including, most famously, Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth, we hear the tale of a respectable country girl who travelled to the big city, found work as a seamstress and, unable to keep herself on such a pitiful wage, fell in with an unsuitable man only to be deserted, reduced to prostitution and, as in all Victorian morality tales, die young.
There is probably some truth behind the idea that poverty drove women to sell themselves to survive, but if a woman described herself as a seamstress, that’s likely to be what she was. However, a caveat is that someone recorded in a census as a prostitute was a woman held overnight as such in a prison cell – an enumerator’s sensibility would not oblige him to record anyone else as one.
During the high season when London partied, a dress might be ordered one day to be delivered the next or the one after. Designing them were, for instance, court-dressmakers making clothes for people attending functions at the Royal Court. Meanwhile, hidden from the sight of the fashionable customers, an army of seamstresses slaved in the back room. Among them were 12-year-old apprentices who received no pay but were expected to work late into the night until the job was finished.
The 1847 Factory Act commonly known as the ‘Ten Hour Act’ applied to factories and workshops. It limited women and young people under 18 to working 10 hours a day on Monday to Friday and eight hours on Saturdays (a total of 58 hours) with Sundays off. However, there was widespread abuse of the system and it didn’t apply to a woman or young person working in a back room.
During the Edwardian period when the fashion was for blouses with tightly tucked and elaborate pleats, a seamstress might stitch up to a dozen blouses a week for 10 shillings (50p). The blouses sold for between 18 and 25 shillings each (90p to £1.25). It was repetitive and fiddly work.
The clothing that a seamstress wore belied her skill. With no money to pay for fashionable
A Victorian woman making a dress in a well-lit parlour, 1865
A dressmaking class at Hammersmith Trade School
for Girls, London, 1911