If you’re anything like me, you obtain most of your clothing by going to a store and buying something off the rack. Even if you sew your own garments, you’re probably buying ready-made cloth and thread (and possibly also patterns), so the labor investment, while moderate, isn’t as high as it might be. And even if you’re the sort of knitter who spins your own thread, you still probably didn’t raise and shear the sheep yourself, or grow and harvest the cotton, then process it to get a mass of fiber to spin your thread from.
Prior to industrialization, making clothes was a huge amount of work.
And it was done largely within the context of a household. We have the term “homespun” because it used to be literal: the thread was spun at home, woven at home, sewn into clothing at home, rather than being outsourced to a factory or other external business. Spinning and weaving and sewing show up again and again in folktales all over the world because they were major jobs, right up there with farming or raising livestock. And unlike the latter two, it was relatively easy even for the infirm to do, especially spinning — which is why “spinster” became the accepted term for a single woman past the usual age of marriage, as such a woman could bring in small amounts of money by spinning thread for other households.
Such work has often been the province of women, but not always. My understanding is that among the Hopi, men used to be the weavers, even though other groups in the region (e.g. the Navajo) mostly assigned that task to women. But although women’s labor has often been devalued, we shouldn’t let that fool us into underestimating how important textile work was to the pre-industrial economy — nor how important the people at the time recognized it as being. Part of the reason you see so much of it in folktales is because a woman who could spin and weave and sew well had economic cachet as a marriage prospect, just like a man with land or other wealth.
That’s true even when you’re talking about basic textiles, but when you get into specialized work, it can be even more true. One of my grad school professors, Henry Glassie, gave a lecture at one point on Turkish carpet-weavers. The trousseaus of carpets they assembled were the wealth they brought into their marriage, and the carpets they wove after that made up a large enough percentage of the household income that husbands often had to beg their wives for pocket money to buy cigarettes. Sometimes the main breadwinner in the family was the one with the spindle or the shuttle.
With the amount of time and effort that goes into turning a sheep or a cotton plant into a shirt, it isn’t surprising that people were much more thrifty with their clothing than we are today. When a child outgrew a garment, it got passed on to a younger sibling or cousin or neighbor — and the practice of putting infants and toddlers in loose dresses regardless of sex is a practical concession to the reality of their rapid growth. Where clothes are more fitted, it wouldn’t be uncommon for a kid to wear things that are a bit too big until they get a bit too small, squeezing as much use out of them as possible.
Of course clothing doesn’t last forever; it gets worn and frayed and stained. When that happens, you cut it down, removing the damaged bits and remaking the usable bits into something smaller for another person, or repurposing them as an apron or other accessory or decoration on a new piece of clothing. And when something finally becomes unwearable, then it has its final life as a rag — and possibly even an after-life as paper, which used to be made of rags more often than wood pulp.
Nor does this happen entirely within a household. Nowadays having to buy your clothing at a thrift store carries a fair bit of social stigma, but things like that used to be far more widespread, with entire streets in major cities given over to selling used dresses, shirts, trousers, hats, corsets, shoes, gloves, and more. In fact, hocking used clothing — while not hugely lucrative — was profitable enough that there are entire types of historical criminal defined by the types of garment they stole and how they stole them.
The expense of making clothing and value of old items also affects the speed of fashion. If you’ve ever read a Jane Austen novel or one of her imitators, you’ve probably come across a reference to someone “making over” their outfit to suit the new fashion; this was most often a matter of tweaking details, like changing out trim or adjusting the pleating of a bodice, rather than making something wholly unlike last year’s style. The rapid cycle we have these days, where one year wrap dresses are all the rage and then two years later it’s pencil skirts as far as the eye can see, is a product of industrialized production, where most clothes are cheaply made and the designers would like you to be throwing out your wardrobe every year or so to make room for new purchases.
Mind you, most of what I’ve describe above focuses on the lives of ordinary people. For the rich, it might be an entirely different game. (Though not necessarily. When Henry VIII was in the process of setting aside Katharine of Aragon for Anne Boleyn, Katharine insisted on continuing to sew her husband’s shirts, rather than relinquishing that task to his mistress. It’s unclear whether “sewing” in this context means embroidering or actually making the shirts entire, but either way, the work was clearly not beneath her station.) The rich did much less in the way of their own spinning and weaving, and discarded their garments much more readily, sometimes giving them as gifts to their inferiors — which could be a rich gift indeed, when silks or velvets or embroidery were involved.
People with money to burn could afford to change their fashion more rapidly than ordinary folk. Whether it was colors going in and out of favor due to political associations, specialized embroidery in response to some great military victory, or simply the monarch starting a new fad, reflecting those trends in your own appearance was a significant matter of politics. The expense remained high, though, and so it isn’t surprising that so many nobles were in debt . . . but such was the price to pay for looking like you belonged among the elite.
More on that next week!