Was your ancestor a Tailor?

Painting of the interior of a Tailor's Shop, c. 1780

Traditionally ‘Tailors’ – from the French ‘Tailler’, to Cut - were highly skilled workers who produced ‘made-to-measure’ clothing for the rich; who were the only ones who could afford their services. Some travelled around the country, residing for a time with a particular family while they produced clothing for the whole household. All work was done by hand and a Tailor’s methods remained jealously guarded secrets, to be passed down only to his Apprentices who were usually family members. At a time when clothes were worn much tighter to the body than today, repeated fittings were necessary but the results were often highly impressive.

For the labouring poor, clothes were cast offs or self-made by the women of the household; no self-respecting wife would consider herself complete without a well-filled sewing bag or basket. Most poor people wore the same items day-in-day-out and continued to wear them until they literally wore out. Tailors who were unable to break into the ‘high-end’ market would make loose-fitting ‘ready-to-wear’ clothing at relatively cheap prices by using low-cost materials and keeping designs simple, but even these were beyond the pockets of most people. In rural areas Tailors made most of their money by taking in contract work from Tailoring Businesses established in the local Town or City.

Tailoring Shops were owned and run by a Master Tailor, who dealt with Customers and set his ‘signature’ on the clothes that the shop produced. Working for him were Journeymen Tailors – from the French ‘Journee’ indicating that were paid by the day – who did the bulk of the cutting and sewing work. At the bottom of the hierarchy were the Apprentices, who did the fetching-and-carrying and the cleaning, all the while that they were learning the business.

Tailors tended to work sitting on the floor, cross-legged and with the garment they were working on draped across their lap. In French, the cross-legged pose is still called ‘Assis en Tailleur’ or ‘sitting in a Tailor’s way’. This often led to two physical characteristics often associated with Tailors – the round-shouldered ‘Tailor’s Stoop’ caused by sitting bent forwards for long periods, and the ‘Tailor’s Bunion’ caused by prolonged pressure on the joint of the small toe. When working in buildings which were poorly lit, Tailors would sit on tables rather than on the floor and position these beneath a window. This gave them the opportunity for ‘watching the world go by’ and probably led to the Tailor’s reputation for knowing everyone else’s business!

All this changed during the first half of the 1800’s when technical advances – such as the measuring tape, proportional cutting templates and the sewing machine – allowed mass-produced ‘off-the-peg’ clothing to be manufactured for the first time. Master Tailors remained at the top of the profession, still producing made-to-measure clothing for the well off, but beneath them were many less-skilled (or less well-connected) Tailors who became employed on low pay in Workshops or took material home to work against set patterns. At the bottom of the industry were the Seamstresses, who performed such tasks as sewing together pre-cut cloth, stitching on buttons or adding pockets, in what were ‘sweat-shop’ conditions; working cripplingly long hours for barely subsistence level pay. Many of these workers were immigrants – members of the Jewish faith were particularly well represented – who had to take

what work they could get in a new land in which they had no reputation or connections. Some immigrant Tailors had been considered highly-skilled in their homeland but were unable to break-in to the closed shop imposed by local Trade Guilds or Societies.

The fashion for looser fitting men and children’s clothing during the 1800’s helped the growth of such mass production, and only really women’s clothing, which remained stubbornly very close fitting, bucked the trend. Even then, however, garments could be manufactured with sufficiently ‘loose’ seams to allow final fitting to be made at home or entrusted to a local Dressmaker.

Though apprentice-style teaching remained the standard for Tailors, the first ‘how-to’ books also appeared at this time. ‘Taylor’s Complete Guide’ was first published as early as 1796 while a number of hugely influential works appeared in the latter half of the 1800’s.

It’s probably no coincidence that it was the town of Leeds – which had no history of Tailoring and therefore no traditionally-imposed restrictions on employment in the industry – which emerged as the centre of the wholesale clothing industry in the 1850’s. Leeds lay at the centre of an extensive cloth-making industry and had access to good transport networks for shipping completed garments around the country. The wholesale industry quickly spread to Manchester and Liverpool and became a major source of employment for immigrants; at the time of the 1891 Census, 72% of Jewish adults living in Leeds were making their living from tailoring.

The appearance of a reliable and easy-to-work sewing machine designed by the Singer Company in the 1860’s hastened the movement towards mass-production of wholesale clothing. In 1888 it was calculated that there were over 1,000 tailoring workshops operating in the Whitechapel district of London alone. Most were set-up in family homes

and employed only a handful of people. Such businesses sprang up and disappeared with bewildering regularity and were notoriously difficult to monitor. The Factory and Workshops Act of 1878 attempted to eliminate the worst of the abuses in the industry, but many of the measures suggested by the Committee behind the Act were simply unworkable. It was illegal, for example, for Inspectors to enter a private residence – which was the location for many workshops – to enforce its regulations. Real change only came with the development of the Trades Union movement in the early 1900’s.

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