Month: December 2013

E is for Embroideress

This post was originally published on this site

This post was originally featured on , on . You can read the original article here at http://victorianoccupations.co.uk/e/e-is-for-embroideress/

When deciding which predominantly female occupation to write about for the E in our alphabet I had to make a difficult decision between Envelope Folder and Embroideress. There are, of course, a surprisingly large number of other ‘E’s in the census – Errand girls were frequently recorded, Eating House Keepers, a couple of Electric Primer Testers in 1901 in Camberwell, Enamel Painters and even an Electrical Fitter (a surprising occupation for a woman), but in the end, after careful consideration and reading around the various occupations, it seemed that the embroideresses had an interesting story to tell, although I must confess, had I managed to get more information on that Electrical Fitter and the Electric Primer Testers they may well  have made the A-Z!

Embroideresses were everywhere in Victorian England. Most towns and villages had at least one working in the community, and when you consider the extent to which the clothes of the rich and the uniforms of service personnel at all levels were richly embroidered in the nineteenth-century, it is unsurprising that they made up such a significant part of the workforce.

court dress

Court Dress, 1860-65 c Victorian and Albert Museum, London

They were skilled women – although, in the homes of the middle and upper-classes embroidery was a skill taught to all young ladies – the actual work of embroidering on an industrial scale, with the perfection required to produce piece after identical piece, each to an extremely high standard, required the dexterity and skill of a top needlewoman.

In the  image here of this beautiful court dress dating from 1860-65 the detail is staggering. The edge of the train is worked on a machine, but the roses and morning glories covering the skirt, bodice and train are each worked by hand.
The most skilful of these women served anything from a four to seven year apprenticeship, however their work was far from guaranteed.image here of this beautiful court dress dating from 1860-65 the detail is staggering. The edge of the train is worked on a machine, but the roses and morning glories covering the skirt, bodice and train are each worked by hand.  The most skilful of these women served anything from a four to seven year apprenticeship, however their work was far from guaranteed.

In the mid nineteenth-century many women worked, not on the glorious dresses shown here, but on the collars and uniforms of the services. What is forgotten in our days of mass produced garments and materials, is that every single badge, every stripe, every motif, every collar on every military uniform, every police uniform, every service garment, every clerical robe, had to be hand embroidered.

In an article written in The Morning Chronicle, in January 1850, an embroideress described the type of work she was doing.[1]

embroideress

This particular woman, who had worked for many years as an embroideress having served a seven year apprenticeship, was preparing collars and badges for a vast array of different services and forces. She explains in the news article how the work available to her had dropped significantly in the previous five years, and that she was becoming concerned that soon there would not be a sufficient income to keep her. This was to become worse when, in 1854, the military suggested the removal of gold embroidery from their epaulettes and collars, a ‘threat’ which threw the livelihoods of military embroideresses into turmoil. Throughout September, the Morning Post posted letters written by these women:[2]

Fetch (2)

By the 1870s the occupation of embroideress was certainly not so common as it had once been – but to lay the blame purely at the feet of the military would be unfair. As with everything else in Victorian Britain, embroidery was becoming industrialised. Machines were now able to do much of the work that the skilled women of the mid century had once done, but they were still very much needed, to the extent that ‘white work’ – the beautiful embroidery carried out on white linen with white silk – was suggested as a skill to be taught to destitute girls and women in need of an occupation in order to make a living by organisations such as the Charity Organisation Society in 1899.

By the turn of the century embroidery was still such a significant source of income that it is one of the named occupations examined by the Women’s Industrial Council for their survey of married women’s work. It is here that we can see quite how far though the availability of work, and more importantly the wages, had fallen since the heyday of the mid 1840s.  Whereas the embroideress interviewed for The Morning Chronicle had earnt as much as 29s a week, and regularly could earn 12s a week in 1850, by 1910 the women were now earning only 8-9s making policemen’s armlets or worsted lettering for railway uniform collars.  Women working on decorated garments were also paid a low rate, but for these there was also the cost of the silks:

No. 7 (the WIC did not name the women they interviewed) was an able and superior woman who, with her daughter, embroidered children’s garments, making their own designs. She did not begin to work until she was 40 years old, when the family circumstances became impoverished. She designed her own patterns, and made samples which she sent to her employers, assigning a rate for each. The manufacturers generally gave her an order for the pattern they preferred, and usually accepted her rate. Rates varied from 2/- a dozen for small collars, to 18/- a dozen for pelisses. No. 7 provided the embroidering silk, which she bought from her employers by the pound, at a cost of 1½d for a skein for 14 threads. She showed the investigator a cape embroidered from a design of hers by her daughter. It had taken two hours, and just over two skeins of silk. The payment was to be 9/- a dozen, and the deduction of 3d for silk leaves a net total of 6d per cape. The mother thought her takings, which varied from 5/- to 20/- a week – averaged about 12/-, taking the year through. Fares were a heavy item; she lived far from the centre. She said there was a great competition even for work so skilled and responsible as hers, and that the garments were sold so cheaply as to produce underpayment.[3]  

Although work for embroideresses declined throughout the Victorian period, for women who were facing destitution it was an attractive alternative to other ‘female’ occupations such as charring and washing. For the women who had served their apprenticeships, the reduction in work, and the increase in industrial embroidery (which they all considered inferior and very poor in quality) was heartbreaking – the feeling coming through the remaining letters and documents is one of hopelessness and fear. For some, particularly those working on gold embroidery at the turn of the century, however, the news was not so bad. Black refers to a woman known as No.8 who earned in excess of 30/- a week, on occasion £2 – her trade? –  making an apron for ‘an Eastern potentate which had three pounds of god upon it’, and making ‘all kinds of elaborate things for the Freemasons.’[4] Maybe it was a case not so much of what you knew and how skilled you were, as who you knew….


[1] LABOUR AND THE POOR IN THE METROPOLITAN, RURAL, AND MANUFACTURING DISTRICTS OF ENGLAND AND WALES .
The Morning Chronicle (London, England), Tuesday, January 8, 1850; Issue 25029.

[2] MILITARY EMBROIDERY . The Morning Post (London, England), Friday, September 08, 1854; pg. 4; Issue 25174. 19th Century British Library Newspapers: Part II.

[3] C. Black, Married Women’s Work, (London, Virago, 1984), p.102

[4] C. Black, Married Women’s Work, (London, Virago, 1984), p.103

The post E is for Embroideress appeared first on Amanda Wilkinson’s Victorian Occupations.

E is for Embroideress

This post was originally published on this site

This post was originally featured on , on . You can read the original article here at http://victorianoccupations.co.uk/uncategorized/e-is-for-embroideress/

When deciding which predominantly female occupation to write about for the E in our alphabet I had to make a difficult decision between Envelope Folder and Embroideress. There are, of course, a surprisingly large number of other ‘E’s in the census – Errand girls were frequently recorded, Eating House Keepers, a couple of Electric Primer Testers in 1901 in Camberwell, Enamel Painters and even an Electrical Fitter (a surprising occupation for a woman), but in the end, after careful consideration and reading around the various occupations, it seemed that the embroideresses had an interesting story to tell, although I must confess, had I managed to get more information on that Electrical Fitter and the Electric Primer Testers they may well  have made the A-Z!

Embroideresses were everywhere in Victorian England. Most towns and villages had at least one working in the community, and when you consider the extent to which the clothes of the rich and the uniforms of service personnel at all levels were richly embroidered in the nineteenth-century, it is unsurprising that they made up such a significant part of the workforce.

court dress

Court Dress, 1860-65 c Victorian and Albert Museum, London

They were skilled women – although, in the homes of the middle and upper-classes embroidery was a skill taught to all young ladies – the actual work of embroidering on an industrial scale, with the perfection required to produce piece after identical piece, each to an extremely high standard, required the dexterity and skill of a top needlewoman.

In the  image here of this beautiful court dress dating from 1860-65 the detail is staggering. The edge of the train is worked on a machine, but the roses and morning glories covering the skirt, bodice and train are each worked by hand.
The most skilful of these women served anything from a four to seven year apprenticeship, however their work was far from guaranteed.image here of this beautiful court dress dating from 1860-65 the detail is staggering. The edge of the train is worked on a machine, but the roses and morning glories covering the skirt, bodice and train are each worked by hand.  The most skilful of these women served anything from a four to seven year apprenticeship, however their work was far from guaranteed.

In the mid nineteenth-century many women worked, not on the glorious dresses shown here, but on the collars and uniforms of the services. What is forgotten in our days of mass produced garments and materials, is that every single badge, every stripe, every motif, every collar on every military uniform, every police uniform, every service garment, every clerical robe, had to be hand embroidered.

In an article written in The Morning Chronicle, in January 1850, an embroideress described the type of work she was doing.[1]

embroideress

This particular woman, who had worked for many years as an embroideress having served a seven year apprenticeship, was preparing collars and badges for a vast array of different services and forces. She explains in the news article how the work available to her had dropped significantly in the previous five years, and that she was becoming concerned that soon there would not be a sufficient income to keep her. This was to become worse when, in 1854, the military suggested the removal of gold embroidery from their epaulettes and collars, a ‘threat’ which threw the livelihoods of military embroideresses into turmoil. Throughout September, the Morning Post posted letters written by these women:[2]

Fetch (2)

By the 1870s the occupation of embroideress was certainly not so common as it had once been – but to lay the blame purely at the feet of the military would be unfair. As with everything else in Victorian Britain, embroidery was becoming industrialised. Machines were now able to do much of the work that the skilled women of the mid century had once done, but they were still very much needed, to the extent that ‘white work’ – the beautiful embroidery carried out on white linen with white silk – was suggested as a skill to be taught to destitute girls and women in need of an occupation in order to make a living by organisations such as the Charity Organisation Society in 1899.

By the turn of the century embroidery was still such a significant source of income that it is one of the named occupations examined by the Women’s Industrial Council for their survey of married women’s work. It is here that we can see quite how far though the availability of work, and more importantly the wages, had fallen since the heyday of the mid 1840s.  Whereas the embroideress interviewed for The Morning Chronicle had earnt as much as 29s a week, and regularly could earn 12s a week in 1850, by 1910 the women were now earning only 8-9s making policemen’s armlets or worsted lettering for railway uniform collars.  Women working on decorated garments were also paid a low rate, but for these there was also the cost of the silks:

No. 7 (the WIC did not name the women they interviewed) was an able and superior woman who, with her daughter, embroidered children’s garments, making their own designs. She did not begin to work until she was 40 years old, when the family circumstances became impoverished. She designed her own patterns, and made samples which she sent to her employers, assigning a rate for each. The manufacturers generally gave her an order for the pattern they preferred, and usually accepted her rate. Rates varied from 2/- a dozen for small collars, to 18/- a dozen for pelisses. No. 7 provided the embroidering silk, which she bought from her employers by the pound, at a cost of 1½d for a skein for 14 threads. She showed the investigator a cape embroidered from a design of hers by her daughter. It had taken two hours, and just over two skeins of silk. The payment was to be 9/- a dozen, and the deduction of 3d for silk leaves a net total of 6d per cape. The mother thought her takings, which varied from 5/- to 20/- a week – averaged about 12/-, taking the year through. Fares were a heavy item; she lived far from the centre. She said there was a great competition even for work so skilled and responsible as hers, and that the garments were sold so cheaply as to produce underpayment.[3]  

Although work for embroideresses declined throughout the Victorian period, for women who were facing destitution it was an attractive alternative to other ‘female’ occupations such as charring and washing. For the women who had served their apprenticeships, the reduction in work, and the increase in industrial embroidery (which they all considered inferior and very poor in quality) was heartbreaking – the feeling coming through the remaining letters and documents is one of hopelessness and fear. For some, particularly those working on gold embroidery at the turn of the century, however, the news was not so bad. Black refers to a woman known as No.8 who earned in excess of 30/- a week, on occasion £2 – her trade? –  making an apron for ‘an Eastern potentate which had three pounds of god upon it’, and making ‘all kinds of elaborate things for the Freemasons.’[4] Maybe it was a case not so much of what you knew and how skilled you were, as who you knew….


[1] LABOUR AND THE POOR IN THE METROPOLITAN, RURAL, AND MANUFACTURING DISTRICTS OF ENGLAND AND WALES .
The Morning Chronicle (London, England), Tuesday, January 8, 1850; Issue 25029.

[2] MILITARY EMBROIDERY . The Morning Post (London, England), Friday, September 08, 1854; pg. 4; Issue 25174. 19th Century British Library Newspapers: Part II.

[3] C. Black, Married Women’s Work, (London, Virago, 1984), p.102

[4] C. Black, Married Women’s Work, (London, Virago, 1984), p.103

D is for Dressmaker

This post was originally published on this site

This post was originally featured on , on . You can read the original article here at http://victorianoccupations.co.uk/d/d-is-for-dressmaker/

Wherever you look in the Victorian censuses, whether it be the urban metropolis of London, or the sleepiest villages in deepest Norfolk you will always find women recorded as either ‘dressmaker’, ‘tailoress’, ‘shirt maker/sewer’ or ‘needlewoman’. Mid-century, estimate placed the number of dressmakers in London alone as being in the region of 15-17,000 women. In most communities, certainly those the size of an average village and above, you will find all four occupations. This may at first seem confusing; that women are giving themselves a range of different title for the same basic occupation, but in Victorian England this was not the case – a dressmaker is not a tailoress, and a tailoress is most definitely not a shirt maker or, insult of insults, a buttonholer.  In this post, I will consider the role and experiences of the tailoresses and the more lowly shirt makers under their own letter of the alphabet, but here want to focus on the dressmaker – arguably one of the most ubiquitous of the Victorian occupations carried out by women.

Ballgown

Dress, 1861-63 Victoria and Albert Museum, London

At a time when the racks of clothes we are used to viewing in stores was unheard of, dressmakers were responsible for the creation of the stunningly beautiful dresses of the age and each tuck, each pleat, each minute piece of decoration on a garment that would be made of several metres of material had to be done by a dressmaker, in later years using a rudimentary sewing machine, but with much of the work being carried out by hand. It goes without saying that the work was very skilled, even a basic day gown would involve many hours of work cutting and sewing the panels, fitting the bodice,  hemming and finishing the garment.  Dressmakers would normally serve a two year apprenticeship, for which they were unpaid, prior to becoming ‘improvers’ and then, finally, being able to call themselves ‘dressmaker’. Such a skilled profession, it would be thought, would carry a high premium and a salary to match the skill needed for  the work, but, as you may suppose, this was not the case for the majority of women.

Dressmakers were normally employed in one of two ways:

  • As young women they would, if they were fortunate enough, find work in a fashion ‘houses’ (glorified factories, frequently set up in grand locations) where they would have board and lodging, or a placement in the homes of the wealthy employer where a dressmaker would be a member of the domestic staff.
  • For the majority, and certainly for the married women, the option was only that of having day work – working at home on a piecework basis, working independently for themselves, or working in ‘houses’ as out-workers.

In 1863, in ‘The Sanitary Circumstances of Dressmakers and other Needlewomen in London’; 6th Report of the Medical Officer of the Privy Council,  Dr William Ord described how dressmakers in all situations would be expected to work from around 8.30 in the morning, until eight or nine at night out of season, and during the season – March-July and November-December, when the society ladies were ‘in town’ and wishing to wear new ball gowns, the hours would be even greater.  For out-door workers Dr Ord complained how their hours were ‘limited’ to only 12 or 13 a day and were paid a shocked 3d an hour for extra work. The standard wage for most of the married dressmakers, and the single out-door dressmakers was around 9s a week in 1863 – an amount which Dr Ord condemns as shockingly low.

With these nine shillings they have to find dress, lodging, fire, and food. Girls who live with their parents or friends, casting their earnings into a common stock, and girls who club together, can manage fairly upon this wage; but for those who live alone the amount is not sufficient to provide proper food after dress and lodging are paid for. They must pay 2s. 6d. or 3s a week for lodging, and out of the remaining 6s. or 6s. 6d. find dress and food…  My conclusion, after careful inquiry, is that girls living alone and without other means of support, cannot obtain proper nourishment upon 9s. a week. Many without doubt find means of increasing their earnings, mostly by taking work home, or by taking in work on their own account, or by less praiseworthy means, but in all cases by en­croaching upon their hours of rest.  The position of girls going home late at night, say, 9, 10, or 11 p.m., to cold garrets, is full of discomfort. If they can afford fuel they light their fire, and cook what is often the only real meal of the day, and after that they have their own needlework to do, so that they have to stay up till 12 or t o’clock. But if, as has more than once been described to me, they do not or cannot light a fire, they must go to bed, even in the nights of winter, cold, supperless, and often imperfectly clothed. That under such circumstances many girls should be tempted to habits of dissipation and prostitution is not surprising.

As with all professions, some dressmakers did enjoy a better income, the most skilled of the fitters at times earning as much as £250 a year, or so Arthur Sherwell in Life in West London suggested. But these were few and far between, the majority of the women earning less than 8s a week, a very lucky few 18-20s a week during the height of the season, with minimal income during the quieter months of the year.

So a dressmaker’s lot frequently was not a happy one. Beyond the financial hardship which many of them faced, there was the added concern addressed in many pamphlets of the time, newspaper reports and reports to government, of their health being seriously affected by their working conditions.  C. Turner Thackrah in the snappily titled ‘The Effects of Arts, Trades, and Professions, and of Civic States and Habits of Living on Health and Longevity, with Suggestions for the Removal of Many of the Agents which Produce Disease and Shorten the Duration of Life,’ 1832  explained how:

Their ordinary hours are ten or twelve in the day, but they are confined not infrequently from five or six in the morning till twelve at night! The bent posture in which they sit tends to injure the digestive organs, as well as the circulation and the breathing. Their diet consists too much of slops, and too little of solid and nutritive food. From these causes collectively we find that girls from the country, fresh-looking and robust, soon become pale and thin. Pains in the chest, palpitation, affections of the spinal and ganglionic nerves, and defect of action in the abdominal viscera, are very general. The constant direction of the eyes also to minute work, affects these organs. Sometimes it induces slight ophthalmia, and sometimes at length a much more serious disease, palsy of the optic nerve. The remedies are obvious,–ventilation, reduction of the hours of work, and brisk exercise in the open air. The great cause of the ill-health of females who make ladies’ dresses is the lowness of their wages. To obtain a livelihood they are obliged to work in excess. Two very respectable Dress makers, who charge more than the generality, state that they earn but 12s. each per week, though they sew, on the average, fifteen hours per day. The sempstress who goes out to her work rarely receives more than a shilling a day, in addition to her board. 

This concern about the health implications of working as a dressmaker was spread widely and social activists of the time worked hard to encourage women to not use their ‘sisters’ so readily, and to understand how much work was involved in their dresses. In 1842, James Grant in Light and Shadows of London Life, described how women could work for 72 hours with no break other than to quickly eat, in order to fulfil the request of their upper-class patron’s desire for a ball gown to be completed.

The Broken Contract1

Mary Ellen Edwards, The Broken Contract, (ca1885), for ‘The Girls’ Own Paper’

He condemns the way in which dressmakers, the most skilled of the ‘needlewomen’ were pushed to the point of hysteria and serious ill health to meet the demands of the ‘mistress’.   He describes how, in the West End of London in particular, the mistress dressmakers lived in great splendour, renting and furnishing properties in ‘great magnificence’ to match that of the aristocratic families using their services. Of course, this was not the case for the women they employed.

Many of the dressmakers living in the villages and provincial towns had been trained in the large towns and cities of their area. Most of the social commentators of the time discuss how girls would come up from the countryside to be apprenticed in a fashion house, leaving after serving their time and perfecting their skills, to return home to their families. Many of the married dressmakers in rural communities were well trained women, extremely skilled and dexterous, and able to possibly even earn better money than those subject to the vagaries of the season in the cities, and London in particular.  At this time all women, even the poor, were expected to wear long, fitted dresses, and somebody needed to make them. Of course, many had learnt to sew in their youth and could use a machine or just a needle and cotton, but still, from the sheer number of dressmakers found in villages, it would appear that they would buy their clothes, or pay to have them altered, by a ‘professional’.  The middle and upper-classes were encouraged by commentators in the press to patronise the working-class dressmakers and to not impoverish them further by removing their custom. In December 1888, in an edition of ‘The Queen, The Lady’s Newspaper,’ a correspondent described how women of the higher classes were ‘sacrificing others, driving others to starvation and to perhaps sin in the mere pursuit of personal vanity [learning to sew and making their own dresses], whilst at the same time squandering God’s own gifts of time and intellect on one of the least of enobling tastes.’[1]

Dressmaking was an essential service in Victorian Britain, no community could really be without a dressmaker, and those who were trained and skilled had a job for life. They could work in ‘houses’ as young women, and continue to work well into their old age until their eyes or hands gave out, either self employed, working from home, or as an out-door pieceworker. As such, it could be suggested, dressmaking was a worthwhile occupation for a girl to follow, but, it can also be seen, it was a job, like many of the others we will look at, which was rife with exploitation, stress, and doing little to alleviate the poverty of those women needing to earn those extra pence with their needle.


[1] Thanks to Worcester Cathedral Library and Archive Blog – 23 September 2013

The post D is for Dressmaker appeared first on Amanda Wilkinson’s Victorian Occupations.

D is for Dressmaker

This post was originally published on this site

This post was originally featured on , on . You can read the original article here at http://victorianoccupations.co.uk/uncategorized/d-is-for-dressmaker/

Wherever you look in the Victorian censuses, whether it be the urban metropolis of London, or the sleepiest villages in deepest Norfolk you will always find women recorded as either ‘dressmaker’, ‘tailoress’, ‘shirt maker/sewer’ or ‘needlewoman’. Mid-century, estimate placed the number of dressmakers in London alone as being in the region of 15-17,000 women. In most communities, certainly those the size of an average village and above, you will find all four occupations. This may at first seem confusing; that women are giving themselves a range of different title for the same basic occupation, but in Victorian England this was not the case – a dressmaker is not a tailoress, and a tailoress is most definitely not a shirt maker or, insult of insults, a buttonholer.  In this post, I will consider the role and experiences of the tailoresses and the more lowly shirt makers under their own letter of the alphabet, but here want to focus on the dressmaker – arguably one of the most ubiquitous of the Victorian occupations carried out by women.

Ballgown

Dress, 1861-63 Victoria and Albert Museum, London

At a time when the racks of clothes we are used to viewing in stores was unheard of, dressmakers were responsible for the creation of the stunningly beautiful dresses of the age and each tuck, each pleat, each minute piece of decoration on a garment that would be made of several metres of material had to be done by a dressmaker, in later years using a rudimentary sewing machine, but with much of the work being carried out by hand. It goes without saying that the work was very skilled, even a basic day gown would involve many hours of work cutting and sewing the panels, fitting the bodice,  hemming and finishing the garment.  Dressmakers would normally serve a two year apprenticeship, for which they were unpaid, prior to becoming ‘improvers’ and then, finally, being able to call themselves ‘dressmaker’. Such a skilled profession, it would be thought, would carry a high premium and a salary to match the skill needed for  the work, but, as you may suppose, this was not the case for the majority of women.

Dressmakers were normally employed in one of two ways:

  • As young women they would, if they were fortunate enough, find work in a fashion ‘houses’ (glorified factories, frequently set up in grand locations) where they would have board and lodging, or a placement in the homes of the wealthy employer where a dressmaker would be a member of the domestic staff.
  • For the majority, and certainly for the married women, the option was only that of having day work – working at home on a piecework basis, working independently for themselves, or working in ‘houses’ as out-workers.

In 1863, in ‘The Sanitary Circumstances of Dressmakers and other Needlewomen in London’; 6th Report of the Medical Officer of the Privy Council,  Dr William Ord described how dressmakers in all situations would be expected to work from around 8.30 in the morning, until eight or nine at night out of season, and during the season – March-July and November-December, when the society ladies were ‘in town’ and wishing to wear new ball gowns, the hours would be even greater.  For out-door workers Dr Ord complained how their hours were ‘limited’ to only 12 or 13 a day and were paid a shocked 3d an hour for extra work. The standard wage for most of the married dressmakers, and the single out-door dressmakers was around 9s a week in 1863 – an amount which Dr Ord condemns as shockingly low.

With these nine shillings they have to find dress, lodging, fire, and food. Girls who live with their parents or friends, casting their earnings into a common stock, and girls who club together, can manage fairly upon this wage; but for those who live alone the amount is not sufficient to provide proper food after dress and lodging are paid for. They must pay 2s. 6d. or 3s a week for lodging, and out of the remaining 6s. or 6s. 6d. find dress and food…  My conclusion, after careful inquiry, is that girls living alone and without other means of support, cannot obtain proper nourishment upon 9s. a week. Many without doubt find means of increasing their earnings, mostly by taking work home, or by taking in work on their own account, or by less praiseworthy means, but in all cases by en­croaching upon their hours of rest.  The position of girls going home late at night, say, 9, 10, or 11 p.m., to cold garrets, is full of discomfort. If they can afford fuel they light their fire, and cook what is often the only real meal of the day, and after that they have their own needlework to do, so that they have to stay up till 12 or t o’clock. But if, as has more than once been described to me, they do not or cannot light a fire, they must go to bed, even in the nights of winter, cold, supperless, and often imperfectly clothed. That under such circumstances many girls should be tempted to habits of dissipation and prostitution is not surprising.

As with all professions, some dressmakers did enjoy a better income, the most skilled of the fitters at times earning as much as £250 a year, or so Arthur Sherwell in Life in West London suggested. But these were few and far between, the majority of the women earning less than 8s a week, a very lucky few 18-20s a week during the height of the season, with minimal income during the quieter months of the year.

So a dressmaker’s lot frequently was not a happy one. Beyond the financial hardship which many of them faced, there was the added concern addressed in many pamphlets of the time, newspaper reports and reports to government, of their health being seriously affected by their working conditions.  C. Turner Thackrah in the snappily titled ‘The Effects of Arts, Trades, and Professions, and of Civic States and Habits of Living on Health and Longevity, with Suggestions for the Removal of Many of the Agents which Produce Disease and Shorten the Duration of Life,’ 1832  explained how:

Their ordinary hours are ten or twelve in the day, but they are confined not infrequently from five or six in the morning till twelve at night! The bent posture in which they sit tends to injure the digestive organs, as well as the circulation and the breathing. Their diet consists too much of slops, and too little of solid and nutritive food. From these causes collectively we find that girls from the country, fresh-looking and robust, soon become pale and thin. Pains in the chest, palpitation, affections of the spinal and ganglionic nerves, and defect of action in the abdominal viscera, are very general. The constant direction of the eyes also to minute work, affects these organs. Sometimes it induces slight ophthalmia, and sometimes at length a much more serious disease, palsy of the optic nerve. The remedies are obvious,–ventilation, reduction of the hours of work, and brisk exercise in the open air. The great cause of the ill-health of females who make ladies’ dresses is the lowness of their wages. To obtain a livelihood they are obliged to work in excess. Two very respectable Dress makers, who charge more than the generality, state that they earn but 12s. each per week, though they sew, on the average, fifteen hours per day. The sempstress who goes out to her work rarely receives more than a shilling a day, in addition to her board. 

This concern about the health implications of working as a dressmaker was spread widely and social activists of the time worked hard to encourage women to not use their ‘sisters’ so readily, and to understand how much work was involved in their dresses. In 1842, James Grant in Light and Shadows of London Life, described how women could work for 72 hours with no break other than to quickly eat, in order to fulfil the request of their upper-class patron’s desire for a ball gown to be completed.

The Broken Contract1

Mary Ellen Edwards, The Broken Contract, (ca1885), for ‘The Girls’ Own Paper’

He condemns the way in which dressmakers, the most skilled of the ‘needlewomen’ were pushed to the point of hysteria and serious ill health to meet the demands of the ‘mistress’.   He describes how, in the West End of London in particular, the mistress dressmakers lived in great splendour, renting and furnishing properties in ‘great magnificence’ to match that of the aristocratic families using their services. Of course, this was not the case for the women they employed.

Many of the dressmakers living in the villages and provincial towns had been trained in the large towns and cities of their area. Most of the social commentators of the time discuss how girls would come up from the countryside to be apprenticed in a fashion house, leaving after serving their time and perfecting their skills, to return home to their families. Many of the married dressmakers in rural communities were well trained women, extremely skilled and dexterous, and able to possibly even earn better money than those subject to the vagaries of the season in the cities, and London in particular.  At this time all women, even the poor, were expected to wear long, fitted dresses, and somebody needed to make them. Of course, many had learnt to sew in their youth and could use a machine or just a needle and cotton, but still, from the sheer number of dressmakers found in villages, it would appear that they would buy their clothes, or pay to have them altered, by a ‘professional’.  The middle and upper-classes were encouraged by commentators in the press to patronise the working-class dressmakers and to not impoverish them further by removing their custom. In December 1888, in an edition of ‘The Queen, The Lady’s Newspaper,’ a correspondent described how women of the higher classes were ‘sacrificing others, driving others to starvation and to perhaps sin in the mere pursuit of personal vanity [learning to sew and making their own dresses], whilst at the same time squandering God’s own gifts of time and intellect on one of the least of enobling tastes.’[1]

Dressmaking was an essential service in Victorian Britain, no community could really be without a dressmaker, and those who were trained and skilled had a job for life. They could work in ‘houses’ as young women, and continue to work well into their old age until their eyes or hands gave out, either self employed, working from home, or as an out-door pieceworker. As such, it could be suggested, dressmaking was a worthwhile occupation for a girl to follow, but, it can also be seen, it was a job, like many of the others we will look at, which was rife with exploitation, stress, and doing little to alleviate the poverty of those women needing to earn those extra pence with their needle.


[1] Thanks to Worcester Cathedral Library and Archive Blog – 23 September 2013