Sewing Machines: Liberation or Drudgery for Women?

Joan Perkin discusses the impact on women’s lives of the advent of the sewing machine.

Manchester factory girls making men's shirts on Wheeler & Wilson machines, 1909.The Scientific American (September 22nd, 1860) considered that, after the Spinning Jenny and the plough, the sewing machine was ‘the most important invention that has ever been made since the world began’. Despite laments that machines would destroy handicraft, most women welcomed the invention and wanted one, but how truly liberating were they?

Sewing machines were patented in the USA in 1846, and exhibited at the Great Exhibition in London in 1851. The Times praised ‘the useful character of the [American] display’ as contrasted with the ‘showy’ exhibits in the other national sections. The sewing machine became the first durable, technologically complex household appliance to find a national market in America and soon afterwards in Britain. Each of its essential mechanisms was independently devised by a number of inventors between 1790 and 1855, with the American tailor Elias Howe patenting in 1846 ‘a lock-stitch machine using double thread’. Another American, Isaac Merritt Singer (1811-75), patented his own version of Howe’s machine in 1851, and Howe had to fight in the courts until 1854 for his royalties. There was a bitter patent war which led to a patent-sharing arrangement between major firms and a ‘sewing machine combination’ of manufacturers. In 1877, when the original patents expired, over half-a-million sewing machines were in use in the US, and one-fifth of all American machines were being exported. Singer was one of the most forceful, flamboyant and unscrupulous tycoons in American business history, and it was his name that became synonymous with ‘a machine that would transform domestic clothing production’.

The American journalist and campaigner for women, Sarah Hale (1822-79), wrote in Godey’s Lady’s Book in 1867 that to make the average shirt by hand required 20,620 stitches; at a rate of thirty-five stitches a minute, a competent seamstress could complete a shirt in ten to fourteen hours, work for which she was ill paid when she did it for a living. As Thomas Hood wrote in Song of the Shirt (1843), she was ‘Sewing at once, with a double thread/A shroud as well as a shirt’. Operating a sewing machine at 3,000 stitches a minute, a seamstress could assemble a shirt in an hour with neater results, though her pay was still low.

In the early nineteenth century, as earlier, most British working-class women made their families’ clothes,  from cotton calicoes for dresses and shirts, and from fustian for trousers and jackets. Writing in 1832, however, the Reverend G.S. Bull observed:

... in many cases young women employed in factories do not make their own clothes at all; their working clothes they obtain at the slop-shops which abound in the manufacturing districts, where ready-made clothes are to be had; and their Sunday dress is, of course, of a very smart description, whenever they can afford it.

Some middle-class women continued to sew clothes for their families by hand. They were advised by Mrs Beeton in her Book of Household Management (1861) to purchase a sewing machine and manufacture the family wardrobe with the help of a dressmaker employed to come to the house. The novelist Mrs Gaskell was sentimental about hand-sewing being a labour of love. Though she thought some clothes should be made by the woman of the house, she wrote to a woman friend in 1862 who had complained that she was too busy sewing to find time to write novels:

I dare say at present it might be difficult for you to procure the sum necessary to purchase a sewing machine; and indeed, unless you are a good workwoman to begin with, you will find a machine difficult to manage. But try, my dear, to conquer your clumsiness in sewing.

Wool and silk were the materials favoured by the more affluent. Dresses, shirts and hats were made for them by an over-worked labour force of seamstresses and milliners whose working conditions, in their homes or in small outwork shops, were often worse than those in the textile mills. It was common for dresses to be made to the client’s own patterns; they saw fashion dolls from Paris, and fashion plates in the ladies’ magazines, which they copied. Once sewing machines were available, ladies expected more and more complicated clothes to be made for them at lower prices, forgetting that there was often a lot of hand-finishing involved.

Women and children employed in the domestic system of clothing production, which preceded industrialisation and survived alongside it, worked in overcrowded insanitary cottages and workrooms for long hours each day, to eke out the family income. Few of them, despite unremitting toil, could earn a living wage, and they were powerless to resist payments in kind, petty exactions for errors, and the greed and dishonesty of many middlemen. They also often had to provide thread and bast. ‘Slop work sewing’ (piecework done at home on inexpensive goods) was the resort of the least skilled and most house-bound of women; it was subject to seasonal peaks and troughs; and the large number of available workers allowed manufacturers to keep lowering the rates paid per piece.

At the time of the 1851 census in Britain, there were 268,000 milliners and dressmakers, as against 502,000 people working in cotton textile manufacture (including printing and dyeing). This figure probably excludes many casual homeworkers. Most dressmakers had in fact served  apprenticeships and were competent. Those who sewed in the workshops of the fashionable London couturiers endured harsh working conditions. For several months of the year it was customary to work for eighteen to twenty hours out of twenty-four, and often through the night, to provide wealthy women with clothing à la mode for ‘the Season’. Most workers in this area, it was estimated, could not last more than three to four years. Only ‘a constant accession of fresh hands from the country’ enabled the business to continue, according to the Children’s Employment Commission of 1843. Prostitution among dressmakers and milliners was notorious, due to the seasonal nature of the work and the lack of wages for up to eight months of the year, as Henry Mayhew reported in his 1851 series on needle-women in the Morning Chronicle.

It was also the case that thousands of young women of respectable parents were forced by the financial misfortunes of their families to try and earn a livelihood by needlework, which was considered more genteel than work in a factory or mill. The failure of the family fortune around 1820 forced Harriet Martineau (1802-76), for example, to take up needlework to support herself (before her father died and she became a writer).

Machine production of garments transformed the social meaning of clothing in the nineteenth century, making stylish clothing available to almost everyone. It also fostered the organisation of a large garment-making industry, and the production of men’s clothing was moved from the home to the factory and sweatshop. Power-driven machines were used by larger employers such as John Barran of Leeds, the first tailor to move into what the 1878 Factory Act defined as ‘factory production’. The hand- or treadle-operated sewing machine marketed in 1851 was quickly introduced into both workshops and the homes of individual outworkers.

By 1862, three out of four new sewing machines were bought by garment manufacturers, but the makers realised their largest potential market was in the millions of families who meant to have a sewing machine in their homes when they could afford it. Yet how many people was that? The earliest machines were  expensive and some men doubted that their wives would be able to operate them, so they were re-designed into smaller, lighter machines with polished metal surfaces, elaborate ornamentation and cabinets of fine woods. However, this did not solve the problem of cost, until the Singer company in America decided in 1856 to rent out the machines and apply the rental fee to the purchase price, as was already the way pianos were being sold in New York. Suitable buyers (i.e. men with good credit reputations) could purchase a sewing machine for $5 down (half a week’s average wage) and pay the balance plus interest in monthly instalments of $3-$5. Singer referred to the plan as ‘hire-purchase’. Success was immediate, and by 1876 Singer was selling twice as many machines as its nearest rival. Eventually the cash price of the machine fell, but most buyers still preferred to pay on the instalment plan.

Certain domestic industries such as dressmaking that were respectable at the beginning of the nineteenth century later became ‘sweated industries’, some of which survive to this day. Attempts were made to control working conditions in sweatshops in the late nineteenth century. Seasonal trades such as dressmaking were legally permitted to employ workers overtime for forty-eight days in the year, but illegal overtime was common, whereby women worked through their breaks, took work home, or, in the manner of the workroom portrayed in Edith Lyttelton’s play Warp and Woof (1908), were herded into a back room at the appearance of the factory inspector. Women’s organisations continually raised these issues, and the Fabian Women’s Group persuaded the Daily News to organise an exhibition of Sweated Industries in 1906, to educate the public in what it meant to sew shirts, make nails or paper-boxes and so on. It also produced some vividly expressive photographs which were reproduced in the handbook to the exhibition and sold widely. The Anti-Sweating League, backed by the trade unions, was formed in 1906 and helped to force action by the Liberal government. A House of Commons Select Committee on ‘sweating’ defined such work in 1888-90 as ‘work carried on for inadequate wages and for excessive hours in insanitary conditions’, and it was mostly done by women, The work was done in unregulated workrooms as well as in homes. Winston Churchill introduced the Trades Boards Act in 1909 to deal with some of the worst areas. Trades Boards were set up, empowered to regulate pay and conditions in four of the most notorious trades, including tailoring. How effective they were is uncertain, because the civil service did not have the capacity to inspect and supervise all the small workshops, still less women working in their homes.

Sexual divisions of labour long established in the domestic field of production, which preceded industrialisation were then taken into the factories where they survived technological change. In the tailoring trade, male tailors used their wives to make button holes, turn cuffs and fell seams, tasks that continued to be considered women’s work throughout the nineteenth century. Male tailors excluded women from their trade unions as early as 1834, but themselves became an increasingly endangered species as the market for ready-made clothing expanded. With the rapid diffusion of the sewing machine during the late nineteenth century the number of outworkers increased substantially. As the process of making a garment became increasingly sub-divided, the demand for women’s labour to stitch seams and ‘finish’ the ready-made goods increased, but men preserved their control over the bespoke trade. To this day, of course, the best (and most expensive) men’s suits are made by hand.

The tailoring trades were organised by an elaborate and virtually impenetrable system of internal and external sub-contracts. For example, women machinists in the workroom might subcontract some work to other women working on sewing machines at home, and firms might subcontract parts of orders to outworkers. Paradoxically, factory legislation of the period served to increase the number of outworkers, because MPs were reluctant to interfere with the running of small premises where no young children were employed, or with domestic workshops (usually homes) where only family members worked. In her investigation of the tailoring trade for Charles Booth’s survey of London, published in 1889, Clara Collett found that in some cases the sub-contractor did not know where a set of shirts went to, and the finisher did not know where they had come from. In tailoring, it was the women finishers in particular who, at the bottom of the labour heap, tended to suffer most from the system. The Royal Commission on Labour reported in 1894 that much of the cheapest work for Bristol clothiers was done by a female labour force at home, and the 1901 Census recorded one-third of the women employed in the clothing trade as homeworkers.

The social investigator Clementina Black reported in 1915 in her book Married Women’s Work that in the trade of blouse-making the competition between power machines and hand machines made itself felt and had an adverse effect on homeworkers’ pay. There were great differences of rates between one employer and another, and often the worst-paying demanded the most work. Women hired a sewing machine for 1s.6d. a week; one sewed painters’ aprons at 5 pence a dozen; she made two dozen in two-and-a-half hours, but her profit did not exceed 7s. a week. Black also said that in many trades, the article had to be ‘finished’ by a homeworker after the basic sewing had been done  in the factory. For example, in glovemaking there were fellers and liners and those who made folds on the back of gloves. Shirt, collar and cuff makers sometimes worked in factories, but others worked at home. A trouser finisher, employed full-time in a small workshop, said she had to provide her own materials and earned 5s. a week. All the women workers found that the faster they worked, the more likely the piece rates would be lowered.

Contemporaries often failed to realise that homework was an integral part of a trade or industry. An exchange between a finisher and members of the 1888 House of Lords Select Committee on Sweating showed the difficulty of politicians and policy makers in understanding the nature of homework and their tendency to assume that such a worker did the work by hand only because she was too inefficient to do otherwise. The witness was subsequently recalled and it was established that her particular work (some form of basting or binding) could not be accomplished by machine.

The Select Committee on Homework spoke in 1890 of ‘the anarchy of competition in the London clothing trade’. Small units of production frantically competed with each other in undercutting prices. It was easy to enter into the production of ready-made clothing. The essential tool was the sewing machine, which was relatively cheap, so little or no capital was required to set up a small workshop and also find homeworkers. High rents in London, and the seasonal nature of the trade, discouraged the expansion of small workshops. Women and girls provided  the cheap labour, as the production process was broken down and the skill content of the work deteriorated (except in bespoke tailoring).  Homeworkers supplied their own heat, light and materials – glue, paste or thread – and sometimes paid an annual premium for the supply of work. This was particularly true of dressmaking, and it did not die out until the growth of the ready-made trade in the 1920s. Dress-makers working at home also had to meet the cost of hiring a sewing machine at ls.6d. or 2s.6d. a week, and women usually had to call for their work and were kept waiting in all weathers.

After the establishment under the Trade Boards Act of 1909 of a minimum wage in tailoring, the number of homeworkers decreased. Some employers introduced ‘speed up’ for their factory hands, resulting in less work for outworkers. But some technological changes resulted in new forms of homework or a greater demand for certain traditional tasks performed by homeworkers. Thus, as the Leeds tailoring business became more advanced, with up to forty sewing machines grouped together in workshops (compared with London’s eight to ten) so the amount of work for the lowly ‘finisher’, usually a homeworker, also increased. Opportunities for casual earnings through homework shrank during the inter-war years, in all occupations except tailoring. The New Survey of London Life and Labour also reported that whereas in the 1880s homework had mainly been done to provide a vital supplement to the family income, in the 1930s many women did such work to provide extras for the family.

Some middle-class observers in the late nineteenth century thought the only women who would work in the sweated industries were those doing it for ‘pin-money’ or pocket money, but an investigation in Birmingham in 1906 found that more than half the women were married to men earning inadequate wages, and almost half were widows with small children. In rural Essex in 1909, Maud Davies found wives working for the tailoring industry with cloth sent from Manchester, East London and Leicester to be made up. Their pay of around 7s. a week was a significant addition to the husband’s earnings of 12s. to 15s. Needleworking was the single largest paid occupation for women who worked at home.

What, then, do we conclude about the effect of the sewing machine on women’s lives? For women who made clothes for themselves and their families, the machines liberated them from hours of tedious hand sewing. For the middle class it was possible to have elaborate clothes made by a seamstress in a shorter time, on machines in their homes, and they expected the work to be done more quickly, for less money. For the rich, dressmakers produced the most fashionable garments which often required both machine and hand sewing. In spite of the Crimean War, it was said in 1856 that ‘there seems no abatement in the richness and costliness of ladies’ attire’. Yet the workers were ill paid.

Sewing machines were not liberating for women who tried to make a living by sewing. Those who worked in sweat shops worked harder and harder but then had their piece rate wages lowered. Women factory workers in the clothing trade earned better wages than those in sweat shops – around 13s. 6d. a week in the early twentieth century, but work depended on demand which was seasonal. The clothing trade was always subject to boom and bust. Machine production made stylish clothing available to almost everyone, but women workers were never well paid. To our shame, there are still sweatshops in Britain, producing cheap clothing on sewing machines, and women earning miserably low wages from similar homework. It is in the underdeveloped world, however, particularly South America and the Far East, that sweated labour is commonplace in the production of cheaply-produced clothes which are sold at vast profits in the developed world. Most of it depends on the sewing machine, and on the labour of exploited women and young girls.

For Further Reading:

Duncan Bythell, The Sweated Trades (Batsford, 1978); Sally Alexander, Becoming a Woman (New York University Press, 1995); Ruth Brandon, Singer and the Sewing Machine (Barrie and Jenkins,1977); Angela John (editor), Unequal Opportunities (Blackwell,1986); Jane Lewis, Women in England, 1870-1950 (Wheatsheaf Books, 1984); Naomi Klein, No Logo (Flamingo, 2001).

  • Joan Perkin is the author of The Merry Duchess to be published this month by Athena Press.