A Stitch in Time

on Tuesday, 30 August 2016. Posted in Archives

Did you watch this year’s series of the Great British Sewing Bee? Sewing has become a popular hobby again, thanks to a renaissance in crafts and resurgence in interest in the handmade.

The famous proverb ‘a stitch in time...’ was first recorded in Thomas Fuller's Gnomologia, Adagies and Proverbs, Wise Sentences and Witty Sayings, Ancient and Modern, Foreign and British, 1732 but is likely to be much older. The virtues of hard work, prudence and associated with this adage have long been affiliated with sewing and been seen as desirable attributes, particularly for women.

A traditionally female pursuit, sewing has been a source of enjoyment, income and protest for women over the centuries. As one of the few respectable trades women, particularly poor women, could engage in, it could provide an albeit low level of income. Most of this work was piece work completed at home by women and children. The below show receipted bills for sewing services:

2664/3/2D/2/179 No 78 Bills for Shakespear and Davenport families, Lacock Archive

The pay was not only low, but a deposit had to the paid to the overseer for the materials, which was repayable on completion of the work. The ‘Song of the Shirt’, published in Punch in 1843, took this as its subject and helped draw attention to the working conditions of the poor.

'Stitch! Stitch! Stitch! In poverty, hunger, and dirt, And still with a voice of dolorous pitch She sang ‘The Song of the Shirt!’

Aside from the principal cloth and woollen industries, both gloving and lace making have been important industries for Wiltshire. A prohibition on imported lace created a strong lace industry in Salisbury in the 18th century which continued after the prohibition was withdrawn. Nearby Downton was a lace-making centre with many of its cottagers engaged in it with some manufacturing continuing into the early 20th century. It also established in Malmesbury and was one of the principal occupations there in the late 18th century.

P44392 image of close-up of lacework being woven by Mrs Annie Goodfield, one of the town's last lacemaker's, Malmesbury, Wiltshire, 1960-1970's

Inevitably the industry was by the competition of machine-made lace and the census records show the decline in lace-making occupations with 391 in 1850, 35 in 1871 and only 6 in 1900.

Gloving employed a large proportion of female outworkers and based on the number of references to it, it seemingly expanded in the 16th and 17th centuries. It has continued into the 20th century with both continuing and new firms. The oldest firm with surviving records is J. & T. Beavan Ltd. at Holt. Many of the cutters worked in the Great House (formerly the Spa Hotel) but outworkers living at Holt, Atworth, Melksham, Somerset and the Cotswolds completed the sewing work.

Ref 1700/45/3 Colour publicity mount advertising ‘Gloves of Distinction’ by Holman Byfield & Co. Ltd., a glove manufacturing company based in Warminster.

We see women being prepared for sewing (whether domestic or as an occupation) in schools and even dedicated training colleges. Many of our school log books mention sewing lessons for the girls, and in Corsley for example, in the mid-19th century around 80 children were taught in one large room by a master and sewing mistress, with some help from the rector.

We hold two volumes of "Simple directions in needlework and cutting out intended for the use of the National Female Schools of Ireland to which are added specimens of work" with samples of needlework by Salisbury students from 1854 in the archives of the College of Sarum St. Michael. 

Ref 1585/148

As well as employment opportunities, sewing provided women with a chance to take some ownership in their lives. The relatively ephemeral and low value nature of sewing tools meant that despite the Married Women’s Property Act of 1870, women could informally bequeath such items to daughters, sisters, or friends. Sewing could challenge the social order in more direct ways too – women created clothing such as divided cycling skirts (trousers to all intents and purposes!) and suffrage or trade union protest banners could be manufactured.

Of course, sewing was also a source of recreation; the below image shows a child’s pictorial sewing card from the mid-later 19th century. I remember completing similar cards with wool as a child – they obviously have a longer history than I realised at the time!

Ref 946/194
While it has predominantly feminine and domestic history, there is a long history of men sewing. A tailor is an obvious example of the male sewer, and sailors and soldiers often made and mended their clothing. Historically, often the result of necessity (either for employment or because there was no other option), The Great British Sewing Bee has revealed there are plenty of talented men out there sewing for pleasure!
Naomi Sackett, Community History Advisor


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