I recently discovered that my Great, Great Grandmother was a seamstress in the 1860’s in the little village that i live in now and i’ve always wanted to know how hard they used to work and feel it for myself. I found this quote on the old internet from the ‘Children’s employment commision’, which wasn’t very encouraging..
EVIDENCE TAKEN BY Children’s Employment Commission
Miss — has been for several years in the dress-making business…The common hours of business are from 8 a.m. til 11 P.M in the winters; in the summer from 6 or half-past 6 A.M. til 12 at night. During the fashionable season, that is from April til the latter end of July, it frequently happens that the ordinary hours are greatly exceeded; if there is a drawing-room or grand fete, or mourning to be made, it often happens that the work goes on for 20 hours out of the 24, occasionally all night….The general result of the long hours and sedentary occupation is to impair seriously and very frequently to destroy the health of the young women. The digestion especially suffers, and also the lungs: pain to the side is very common, and the hands and feet die away from want of circulation and exercise, “never seeing the outside of the door from Sunday to Sunday.” [One cause] is the short time which is allowed by ladies to have their dresses made. Miss is sure that there are some thousands of young women employed in the business in London and in the country. If one vacancy were to occur now there would be 20 applicants for it. The wages generally are very low…Thinks that no men could endure the work enforced from the dress-makers.
Sounds pretty awful really, can’t have been long before they were crippled by back pain, my Great, Great Grandmother only did it for about three or four years before she got married, i can imagine that it must have been a relief for her to get married.
I also read somewhere else, lost it now, that they only took three breaks throughout the day and lunch was about 20 minutes, though i imagine it would have varied depending on who they worked for.
I also wrote down a quote from the BBC period drama The Paradise, the older dressmaker who is being put out of business by the blossoming department store remembers “times in the old days when we had to produce a dress overnight… a real dressmaker is an artist, he needs to know flawless stitching, to cut finely and have a delicate eye, but more than anything else we need to know people, a women will love a dress because it was made to fit her character, not just her body” “a secret beauty”. I thought this was really lovely and encourages me to keep going and learn as much as i can.
So, i’m going to try and complete a day as a seamstress, all 20 hours of it and see how much i can achieve.