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:
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imported lace created a strong lace industry in Salisbury in the 18th century which continued after the prohibition was withdrawn.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.
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.