This week Tricia and I are going to talk a bit about clothing and fashion in the 1800s. Clothing is a huge topic and we can’t even begin to cover it all in just five posts this week. But we’ll at least give you an introduction into the world of fashions from 1800-1899. Today’s post will give you some background on “cloth” and how it was made and the effect factories had on cloth that would forever change the world of clothing.
From Sheep to Finished Dress
The 1800s was a time of growth and prosperity in the United States and clothing was no exception to the change. The biggest change in clothing in the 1800s wasn’t fashion but where the fabric came from and how people got their clothes. Fashion, or style, has constantly changed through the decades. After all, in the early 1800s corsets were in and Prada, Gucci and Hilfiger were still a century away. But people still wore the same kind of clothes we wear today—pants, shirts, skirts and dresses. The biggest change in clothing would come in the early 1800s with the growth of textile production. The transition from home to factory produced would come to affect people’s everyday lives in many ways.
Before the 1840’s a yard of store bought cloth cost about a dollar. The average farmer earned less than a dollar a day and couldn’t afford to buy cloth, so most cloth was homemade. The process of getting from raw product to finished cloth was a laborious one, requiring the work of men, women and children. First, fiber had to be gathered or harvested before any work could begin. Wool was the most common among rural families, but cotton, fibers that came from the seed pod of a plant; flax, the woody inner stem of a plant; and silk, an animal fiber from a silkworm cocoon were also used. Next, the fibers had to be carded. Carding is the brushing and untangling of wool fibers to prepare them for spinning. Before carding machines women used two wide handheld brushed in which they would pull in opposite directions brushing the wool through them and in the processes untangle it. Carding by hand took enormous amounts of time and effort. Once carded, the fibers were spun. Spinning was simply the process of strengthening fibers by twisting them into yarn or threads and could be easily done with a spinning wheel. The thread was then woven into cloth on a loom. The loom was a rather simple but extremely useful tool. It worked by allowing one set of threads, called warp threads, to run the length of the loom. A second set, called the weft threads, jumped over and under the warp threads to bind them together.
From there, the finished cloth had to be made into clothing and other goods. Sewing was a job every woman in a household did. Girls started to learn to sew as young as four or five. Women made all of the cloth items in the household, from clothing, sheets, blankets and towels, to tablecloths and carpets. For as much time that was spent on sewing, even more time was spent on darning and repairing worn clothes, since making cloth for new ones was so labor intensive. Knitting was also important to the rural family. Without central heating, warm knitted clothes were worn in the winter. Knitting was work even children could do, and with practice it could even be done with almost no light—making it a popular evening pastime when families still relied on candles and gas and used them sparingly.
In the second half of the 18th century, carding was mechanized by several British inventors. By the late 1780s carding machines were being built throughout America, and by the early 1800s most towns had a carding mill where farm families could bring their wool and pay to have it carded. In five minutes the carding machines could card as much wool as it took a woman to hand-card in five hours. With carding mills all throughout the New England countryside, supplying cloth factories with the needed raw material became a simple matter. With readily available carded wool, factories could mass produce cloth and sell it at an affordable price. Between 1790 and 1840, the cost of cloth fell from a dollar a yard to just five cents—all because of the ease with which factories could mass produce cloth. Factories changed weaving forever. Not only were they able to produce more cloth, they could easily make more patterns than a woman had the time for at home. This variety, along with the affordable cost, led to the abandonment of home weaving. The loom, once a wonderful invention that saved women great amounts of time, was no longer valued.
Factories were also instrumental in cotton clothing becoming more widespread. Before factories started spinning cotton, most New Englanders wore clothes made from home spun wool or linen (made from flaxseed). While factories had very little direct effect on fashion, the new affordability and availability of cloth led to the lower class and rural townsfolk being able to own more than two outfits, allowing them to keep up—to an extent—with the current fashions found in the big cities. Everyday life—how people lived, dressed, decorated and worked—was changed forever. The growth of the New England mills and factories vaulted the country forward into the age of textile production.
Continue on to Men: From Shoulder to Ankle 1800-1849
Enjoy an example of weaving on the loom.