Seam­stress

Adèle Emm stitches to­gether a his­tory of this clothes-mak­ing trade

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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.

Stitched up

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

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