The History of Clothes Manufacturing in the UK
The UK textile manufacturing industry was a key participant in the industrial growth of the nation. A simple definition of industrialisation comes from Hopkins (2000) as ‘a change from an economy based on agriculture to one based on industry and commerce.’
Old Clothing Trade
Before the nineteenth century, people wore clothes until they fell apart and new clothes were a luxury of the upper classes. The book Dress, Culture and Commerce by Beverly Lemire describes the place of clothing within British society from the years 1660 to 1800. She states,
“A needle and thread was the constant companion of the working woman, used to mend things torn, to make things whole or to create from cloth.”
Clothing was very much a commodity in this era, as Lemire depicts through her tales of thefts and illegal second-hand clothes stalls. The author says that such trade was not well documented and therefore research is difficult, however, she has gathered enough information to paint a picture of a society in which clothes had great value. A record from 1769 of one woman, Elizabeth Ranwell, describes that she ‘deals in old cloaths for sale’ from a small shop in Woolwich, while her husband worked locally as a shipwright. In contrast, Lemire describes the unlicensed, second-hand clothes dealing that many woman partook in. Labelled by the authorities as ‘brogers or pledge women’ or even ‘evill persons’, they wandered the streets trading goods and selling clothes which they had mended. Records show that in urban districts from 1620 to 1680, clothing and linen constituted 27% of all thefts.
There was an insufficient quantity of cheap, new clothing to meet demand in England. The second-hand clothes trade did not require an apprenticeship or creation of new goods from raw materials; it involved making use of garments that were already in the system, and therefore, it was a trade open to all. This industry fuelled a steady level of theft and exchange.
With the industrial revolution in the eighteenth century came technological advances and new machinery which made garment production faster and clothing more widely available. At a time when it was the norm to be self-sufficient (as shown by the make-and-mend culture of previous years), production and consumption were closely linked, as people produced for their own consumption. However, during the industrial revolution, a binary way of thinking emerged between production and consumption as society started to desire more material goods than they could make themselves, and so more people started shopping regularly.
The process of garment manufacture changed dramatically during the industrial revolution. As explained before, most fabric and garments were produced by families at home in what was known as a ‘cottage industry’. Cotton was the main textile industry in the UK in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Spinning cotton was mainly done by women, and weaving by men, with the equipment (a spinning wheel and loom) made inexpensively by a local craftsperson.
The first sign of technological advancement in the sector came in 1733 with John Kay’s ‘fly shuttle’ which increased the ease and speed of weaving. This created an even greater shortage of yarn because yarn was being weaved faster than new fibres could be spun. This prompted the invention of the first spinning machine by Wyatt and Lewis Paul and in 1765 Hargreaves improved on this by unveiling the famous ‘spinning jenny’. The spinning jenny enabled one person to spin several threads at once, producing five times as much yarn as previously. However, much textile production was still being carried out in the cottage industry until the late 1700s when Arkwright’s ‘water frame’ and Kelly’s automatic ‘water-powered mule’ pushed spinning into the factory. These machines were linked to a water wheel and turned by the power of moving water. This development helped to move cotton production into mills and set the scene for industrial mass production.
These days we barely give a second though to where our garments come from, but for previous generations the throw away culture we have today would have been unimaginable.
Emma Waight is a geography researcher and freelance fashion writer for www.clothes.org.uk. Follow Clothes for advice on clothing shops and fashion news.