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England Occupations, Millinery, Quilting, Patchwork, Smock Making, Staymaking, Tailoring (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 (cont.)[edit | edit source]

Millinery[edit | edit source]

Millinery is concerned with making caps, bonnets, scarves, cloaks and all ladies’ outer clothing except dresses. Milliners were overwhelmingly female and came from a very wide range of societal levels, including ‘daughters of clergymen, military and naval officers, surgeons, farmers and tradesmen of all descriptions’ (Thompson and Yeo).

A girl would first be apprenticed probably in her local town, then either work as an assistant (either living in or as a day-worker), or if she wanted to eventually establish her own business she would go to London as an improver, there to learn the latest fashionable skills. She could work her way up to third-, second- then first-hand with increasing responsibilities in a large millinery house, and usually lodged and boarded in.

Lower class millinery houses abound as well, as do wardrobe shops where secondhand clothes were mended or remade for resale. Hurley (The Book of Trades or Library of the Useful Arts. Vol I. Wiltshire Family History Society, 1991) describes the intricacies of the trade, Mayhew has a section on the life and conditions of milliners (Thompson and Yeo) and Clabburn (Shawls. Shire Publications, 2002) has a specialist publication on shawls.

Quilting and Patchwork[edit | edit source]

Quilting is another home craft that developed into a salable commodity by the Middle Ages, the height of popularity of hand-made quilts being in the 17th-18th centuries. After this it declined into a cottage industry when mechanically produced articles were introduced. The bed quilt made of patches was the staple product, but other articles such as tea cosies, cushion covers and warm clothing were also traditional. Usually handed down from mother to daughter rather than by an apprenticeship system, the craft has enjoyed a revival for the luxury market through the Women’s Institutes, especially in Durham. Arnold (The Shell Book of Country Crafts. John Baker,1968 and All Made by Hand. John Baker, London, 1970), and Wymer (English Country Crafts. A Survey of Their Development from Early Times to Present Day. Batsford, London, 1946) offer descriptions and a quilters index exists.

Smock making[edit | edit source]

The smock or smock-frock was the standard everyday outerwear for countrymen in the 18th- early 20th centuries. In some places it was known as a slop, a term also used for poor quality or secondhand clothing. The terminology is also confused by the fact that until the 18th century a smock was a woman’s linen under-garment, later called a shift or chemise. A frock was the name given to the full-skirted coat worn by men in the 18th century, and in the early and mid 20th century the English called a woman’s dress a frock.

The countryman’s smock was a long full shirt with gathering (smocking) on the chest and elsewhere to control the fullness but allow freedom of movement. It was made of tough linen twill or drabbet, typically beige or fawn with self-coloured embroidery, and worn over the shirt and trousers. The garment was held in high esteem and men would have a special, beautifully embroidered one for Sunday-best. The making and embroidering of smocks was a country craft and has been described by Arnold (All Made by Hand. John Baker, London, 1970), and in more detail by Filbee (Cottage Industries. David and Charles, Newton Abbot, Devon, 1982) and in the well-illustrated Shire book by Maggie Hall.

Staymaking[edit | edit source]

Stays, corsets made with whalebone, were a remarkable form of female torture, about which little has been written. They were in fashion from the 18th century until about 1905 varying in style with the current dress fashions (Rowland-Warne), and one finds frequent references to staymakers in the censuses.

Tailoring[edit | edit source]

Tailors made clothes for men and boys as well as riding habits for ladies and there were two kinds of employment. Outworkers were part of the ‘sweated trades’ who worked at home and were paid by the piece, often restricted to performing only one part of the process. These can be found as felling hands, trouser hands, buttonholers etc. on censuses, and would receive their work from the foreman tailor. This man had a shop where he took the customer’s measurements, cut the cloth, parcelled out the work and arranged for the delivery of the finished garment. Ready-made clothes would be sold in slop shops, some of which also sold secondhand clothing. The higher class workers were employed as bespoke tailors and were more likely to have served a formal apprenticeship, knew all parts of the trade and had their own business premises.

The three 19th century factors mentioned under dressmaking also applied to the tailors’ trade and better quality ready-made clothing for men became more prevalent. In 1841 tailoring was London’s fourth commonest occupation, after domestic service, labouring and boot-and shoe-making, and after them came milliners and dressmakers then commercial clerks. The practical details are described by Hurley (The Book of Trades or Library of the Useful Arts. Vol II. Wiltshire Family History Society, 1991), and Mayhew (Mayhew’s London, [a condensation of volumes I-III of London Labour and the London Poor]. Bracken Books, London. FHL bok 942.1/L1 E6m) devotes a chapter to the conditions of tailors in various parts of London (Thompson and Yeo).


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

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.