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England Occupations, Clothing, Needlecraft, Dress Making, Embroidery (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Occupation Records-Professions and Trades and English: Occupations-Military & Services  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Clothing and Needlecraft[edit | edit source]

Dress making[edit | edit source]

The craft of dressmaking grew out of the older one of tailoring, particularly as lighter and finer materials came into vogue. Before the 19th century garments were usually made at home from supplies of material and haberdashery purchased from local markets and fairs or travelling pedlars. They were expensive to produce, worn a long time, mended, unpicked and turned inside out to ensure the best material showed. They were never thrown away but sold secondhand further down the social scale, when they were known as slops, or the better parts cut out to make children’s clothes. Amongst the poor and middle class this thrifty attitude certainly continued, tiding them through two World Wars and the 1930s Depression.

Three significant factors came together during the 19th century:

  • Better communications, especially the railways from the 1830s, meant that it was possible to mass produce garments and sell them far away.
  • The development of the sewing machine by Singer in the 1850s from earlier prototypes.
  • Manufacturing and retailing in tailoring and dressmaking were much enhanced by the poor but skilled Jews fleeing Tsarist oppression in Eastern Europe during the 19th century.

Workers[edit | edit source]

The middle classes were able to afford the new mass-produced, off-the-peg clothing but at a price to the women employed to make them. There were two main types of workers:

  • Garment out-workers, who were part of the ‘sweated trades’, could turn up in the census as slop workers, slop maker, waistcoat makers, shirt workers, needlewomen or even female/male operatives. They received their work from a piece-master or piece-mistress who obtained it from a warehouse. All were desperately poorly paid; Mayhew devoted much effort to describing the life and conditions of the slop workers, and needle-women of London (Thompson and Yeo). He found that nearly every one was forced into prostitution to simply buy enough food. Mayhew’s (Mayhew’s London, [a condensation of volumes I-III of London Labour and the London Poor]. Bracken Books, London. FHL book 942.1/L1 E6m description of the social conditions is well worth reading.
  • Dressmakers, mantua-makers, or seamstresses/sempstresses, (and sometimes also called needle-women as were the lower class workers), were those catering to the upper classes and learned their trade through an apprenticeship. This kind of needlework was one of the few respectable avenues to earn a living open to women, and for those families who could afford the premium it was certainly a better occupation than domestic service. The pay was better than the slop-workers, although the long hours of hard work and eye-strain were similar. A skilled woman would set up a business near to the source of her supplies, (silk and textile merchants and haberdashers), with a brass plate advertising her business at the front door. She employed journey-women and apprentices in a workroom. Other employees might work from home, fitting in with other household tasks. A sewing machine was often bought on the installment plan known as hire purchase. Some set up one-room dressmaking shops in their homes where clients could be measured and fitted, and might take on apprentices.

Descriptions of dressmaking can be found in Hurley (The Book of Trades or Library of the Useful Arts. Vol II. Wiltshire Family History Society, 1991) and Bond (Old Occupations: The Dressmaker. Family Tree Magazine Vol 14 #10, page 57-58, 1998).

Embroidery[edit | edit source]

Embroidery was well established in England by 1562 when the Broderers’ Company, mainly men, received their charter. Their surviving apprenticeships 1679-1713 and 1763-1800 have been indexed by Webb (London Apprentices Volume 6. Broderers’ Company 1679-1713, 1763-1800; Combmakers’ Company 1744-50; Fanmakers Company 1775-1805; Frameworkknitters’ Company 1727-30; Fruiterers’ Company 1750-1815; Gardeners’ Company 1764-1850; Horners’ Company 1731-1800. Society of Genealogists, 1997). Huge tapestries kept the chill from castle walls, churches were resplendent with wall hangings, altar cloths, kneelers (see a modern project described by Dixon, A Heritage of Anglian Crafts. Minimax Books, Peterborough, Northamptonshire, 1981), and the clergy’s vestments.

The upper classes preferred richly embroidered gowns and waistcoats whilst heralds and noblemen paraded in their elaborately decorated robes. A great variety of styles of embroidery was also carried out by ordinary town and country women to decorate clothing and household articles. Girls learned the art very young and produced samplers usually containing their name and the date plus examples of the various stitches which was used as a reference later on.

In this category Shire books have so far produced books on Ayrshire and other whitework and embroidered Georgian pictures (both by Swain), and beadwork and samplers (both by Clabburn).


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses English: Occupation Records-Professions and Trades and English: Occupations-Military and Services offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at