Sunday, March 4, 2018

How Many Hours to Stitch a Woman's Gown in 1775?

Sunday, March 4, 2018
Susan reporting,

For an 18thc mantua-maker (dressmaker), time truly was money. Unlike today, when we put the premium on the labor and skill that goes into creating something by hand, the most valuable part by far of a garment in 1775 was the fabric.

In an era when nearly all new clothing was custom made to order, the fabric was selected, the design was chosen, and a price agreed upon, including the cost of cutting, sewing, and fitting the garment. That last part - the actual creation of the garment - was the smallest part of the overall cost, and it wouldn't change whether the sewing was done by one woman, or three. Labor was charged by the garment, not by the hour. The mantua-maker and her seamstresses had to be able to work fast. Keep in mind, too, that sewing machines had yet to be invented, and every stitch was done by hand.

According to advertisements in English newspapers of the time, the cost for making up a "common gown" or "English gown", a relatively plain dress worn for everyday, was 2-3 shillings. That same sum was also the daily wages for a journey-woman mantua-maker: a woman who had completed her apprenticeship, but was still comparatively new to the trade. In other words, to make a profit, that journey-woman had to make that gown in less than a day.

How long was that workday? For most 18thc tradespeople, the workday was measured by daylight. Therefore a workday in the summer would be much longer than one in the depths of December, averaging to about a twelve to thirteen hour workday. Although work could be done by candlelight or firelight, the cost of those candles or firewood would eat into the already-slender profit. Sunlight, however meager, was free, and every minute treasured.

Could a modern mantua-maker work this fast as well? Janea Whitacre, mistress of the trade in the Margaret Hunter shop, Colonial Williamsburg, recently conducted a time-study of how quickly she could create a 1775 common gown. The gown was made of cotton, a reproduction of a block-printed cotton in Colonial Williamsburg's collection, and complete with the slightly misaligned pattern typical of 18thc printed textiles. About five yards of fabric was used; the fabric's width of 42"-45", still the most common width today, was also the standard English ell in use in 1775.

The petticoat (underskirt) was not included in the trial. Gowns of this style were often worn with a contrasting petticoat - consider this 18thc "mix and match" separates - and it's likely that a woman would already have a petticoat in her wardrobe to wear with the gown. The gown's customer would have been a woman of the middling sort, who would have worn this style for "undress," or informal daily wear.

Janea kept track of her time by a stop-watch instead of the sun, and unlike her 18thc counterparts, she periodically paused in her sewing to interact with CW visitors to the shop. Although speed was Janea's goal, she wanted to please her fictitious customer as well. She took care to incorporate the fabric's stripes with the gown's design with inverted back pleats towards the center, and added contrasting cherry-red bows to the bodice and skirt.

High fashion for her customer, and a profit for her as well. Janea's final start-to-finish time for this gown was ten hours, seven minutes: well within that standard twelve-thirteen hour workday. Best of all, her customer (here represented by apprentice Rebecca Starkins ) looks most pleased with the final result.

Many thanks to Janea Whitacre and Rebecca Starkins for their assistance with this post. For an example of a more elaborate (and therefore more expensive) 18thc dress made by the Margaret Hunter mantua-makers in a day, see my earlier post here.

Photographs ©2017 Susan Holloway Scott


Joanna Maitland said...

Fascinating detail, Susan. Thanks so much. I was recently blogging on a similar subject, the polonaise gown of the 1780s, and although I covered quite a lot about how it was made, including the cutting pattern, I wasn't able to estimate how long it would have taken. So your piece completes the pattern (if you'll forgive the rotten pun).

You can find my piece on the polonaise here
It shows pictures of how the underneath worked and how the garment was worn. As you said, it would often be worn over a petticoat that the woman already had.

BTW I'd congratulate your modern-day seamstress. She must be very skilled indeed to have done all that in just over 10 hours.

KarenAnne said...

Lovely dress. Once again, I realize I was born in the wrong era.

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