The Sweating System – The Employer’s Point of View

(see  for details of the conference at which this talk was presented)

This talk deals with some of the problems and the opportunities of an employer in the London Clothing Trade in the later 19th century.

Notes from a talk by Madelaine Ginsburg.

‘The Sweater’ In the Clothing Trade is regarded as:

  1. One who grinds the face of the poor
  2. One without skills or capital who makes a living out of others
  3. A middle man

There is a great deal of prejudice against the employers of the past.

Many investigations interviewed employees but not their employer.  However, they were people.  Few personal papers are in existence, and no account books have been kept.

All tailors had first to be apprentices, then journeymen, before being masters.  As soon as they employed others they were suspect as oppressors, especially if they employed outworkers.

There were many outworkers making garments for slopshops or showshops (cheap clothes).  Masters could not afford space for workers as accommodation prices went up.  Outworkers increased as the century went on, supplemented by women workers.

Tailoring unions from 1880s, but the trade not easy to unionise.

Men did not welcome women in Trade Unions, and women did not take to Unions.

Many outworkers were Jewish immigrants barred from Unions.  Many employers discharged Union members.

Jews hoped to be employers (even when young) so tended not to join Unions.

The late 19th century saw increased demand through increased population and rising standards of living.  Therefore there was more work.  White collar workers were growing in number and needed smarter clothes.  Production rose 500% between 1861 and 1911.  Prices dropped.

Many garments were exported across the British Empire.

There was great demand for uniforms (non-seasonable work) – much of these made with female outworker labour.

The Sewing machine speeded work.  By 1870, ½ million machines in use in tailoring trade.  These could be £7 to £8 by 1888, with several months to pay.

Cutting machines came in in the 1890s.

The Industry was labour intensive and took up a lot of room.  People were cheaper than new machines, and employers were slow to bring in machines for this reason.

Transport was expensive, as was travel for workers.  Overcrowding of areas where tailoring was principle industry – i.e. East of London and Leeds (but never as bad as London).

Various factory acts during the 2nd half of the 19th century were designed to better the lot of employees.

Many employees were paid piece work and resented the restrictions of shorter hours.

Various waves of immigrants from Europe formed the source of the workers in the clothing trade – mostly Jews.

The peak was 1881-2

By 1891 restrictions on immigrants were in progress.  Subsequent rise of anti-Semitism as Jews rose up through the social classes.

Jews were a close knit community.  They set up their own systems of welfare and assistance.

Most employers were Jews, employing Jews.  The Garment Trade was dominated by them by the end of the century.

In men’s tailoring the non-Jewish workers were gradually pushed out.  Any hand, who could save a £1 as capital, could rise to be an employer and a sweater.

Madelaine Ginsburg was assistant keeper (dress) at the Victoria and Albert Museum.  Mrs Ginsburg is the author of many articles on the clothing trade, and her books include ‘Victorian Dress in Photographs’, An Introduction to Fashion Plates’ and (with Prudence Glyn) ‘In Fashion.’  She also contributed to the V&A’s publication ‘Four Hundred Years of Fashion’, edited by Natalie Rothstein.

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