Chapter 6: 18th Century Tailoring Techniques and Apprenticeship
Although there were attempts at the time to produce a workable sewing-machine, they were not in common use until the 1850’s, so tailoring in the 1770’s meant that everything was hand-sewn. After measurements had been made of the client, the master tailor or cutter drafted the paper patterns or ‘gods’, which is probably the most skilled job in the trade. These patterns were then used by the cutters to cut out all of the pieces of cloth, which were then ‘basted’ or ‘tacked’ together. The loose basting stitches were then snipped and the remnants of threads used as markers for sewing the seams. The term ‘basting’ was also used to describe the rough tacking together of the pieces of a garment for fitting. The journeyman tailors and their assistants would sit cross-legged on ‘boards’, i.e., large tables, close to as much natural light as was available. Louis’ workshops in Lower Grosvenor Street were equipped with large windows for this purpose. The boards supported not only the tailors but also the large pieces of material, which helped to keep them clean. There are many tailors even today who sit in this time-honoured way if they have hand sewing to do. This working position is used in many crafts where detailed work is required. It is said that it reduces blood-flow to the legs which means more goes to the brain and that this also aids concentration.
Forty years ago the author knew a young watchmaker who would place his lathe-box on a chair in front of the bench and sit on it tailor-wise in order to carry out such exacting tasks as hand-turning a balance-staff for an antique verge watch. The watchmaker’s working position was not ideal though, because he had to lean forward over the bench, but at least he did not have to hold that posture all day. The tailor can hold the work close to his body and thus keep his back mostly straight, which helps to reduce neck-aches. The strain on the tailors’ eyes meant failing sight for many by their forties. The sewing of military uniforms or indeed any brightly-coloured garments (such as those favoured by the Prince of Wales) was especially hard on the eyes. In contrast, black or very dark fabrics were also a strain to sew, unless the light was very good. Tailors also suffered from other ailments that go with a sedentary occupation, and in addition the so-called tailor’s bunion, an inflammation of the toe-joints caused by pressure on them from their cross-legged working position. Lung disease was also common, from breathing in the lint particles. Charles Dickens in All The Year Round observed that:
As to the unhealthy conduct of indoor work, not in itself injurious, by the overcrowding and bad ventilation, that breeds lung disease, by working without necessary rest or otherwise – three branches of industry noted for frequent sins of this sort are investigated: the occupations of the dressmakers and needlewomen, tailors and the printers. Dressmakers suffer by overcrowding and deficient ventilation less than printers, printers less than tailors. Tailors work in their close rooms for twelve and thirteen hours a day, sometimes for fifteen or sixteen hours a day; printers have lighter work upon a weekly average, though there may be great strain at one part of the week, especially in the printing offices of weekly newspapers. In printers and tailors, consumption and other lung diseases are in vast excess, and form two thirds of all causes of death. [Charles Dickens: All The Year Round, Vol XII, 1864]
The 18th century tailor did not use a tape measure marked in inches, although this was apparently invented by George Atkinson in 1799. He used a ‘measure’ – a long strip of paper or parchment – to measure his client, marking each dimension on the measure with a small snip of the scissors. He would presumably write by each snip what the dimension was. Although tailors used a yardstick, and could by checking the measure against it record the number of inches in each dimension, the measure was often just placed straight upon the paper pattern in order to mark it, without the use of inches at all.
To make a frock coat the tailor noted as many as fourteen measurements. Each tailor had his own particular way of marking his measure, and thus one tailor would have found it difficult to understand another tailor’s marks. Since he himself may not have always done the cutting, it is possible that Louis did record measurements as well, or used a system that his cutter would understand.
The cutter kept master paper patterns (or ‘gods’) which suited the dimensions of the customer. Although tailors’ dummies were not apparently in common use at the time, they did exist, and the author feels it is quite likely that Louis used one or more for the Prince, not least because he had to produce so many garments at such short notice that many personal fittings would have been impracticable. Existing eighteenth century dummies were made usually from wood, with padding added to give the precise size and shape. When preparing to cut a garment for a customer the tailor selected a pattern of the right size, laid it on the doubled fabric on the cutting table and traced around it lightly with chalk. Next, using the customer’s measure, he checked the dimensions of the outline, marking the necessary corrections in chalk and redrawing the draft accordingly. The master tailor or cutter then cut the material.
A frock coat in the traditional French style, as Diderot and d’Alembert tell us in their Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire Raisonné des Sciences, des Arts et des Métiers, was made in this manner: Once all the pieces had been cut out the first task was to stiffen the foreparts of the coat with buckram, which was linen treated with gum arabic or a thick glue size and then dried. The buckram was cut about four inches wide at the shoulders, reducing to about two inches near the armholes and then running all the way down the fronts to the bottom, only a little wider than the space needed for the buttonholes. This layer of buckram was tacked to the back of the coat material. Then the buttonholes were marked out, about two inches apart for a coat and an inch and a half for a waistcoat. A second piece of buckram was then added, not extending so far down as the first, and then the edges were strengthened with a further strip of buckram, whereupon the three layers of stiffening were whip-stitched to the edges of the coat.
The pocket holes were then cut, the pockets attached inside and the pocket flaps stitched on. The back pieces were joined together by back-stitching on the wrong side and fine-drawing on the right side, working from the skirt-opening upwards. ‘Fine drawing’ is a technique similar to darning, also used in invisible mending. This combination of back-stitch and fine-drawing was known in England at the time as ‘rantering’. Before joining the foreparts to the back, they were pinned together and the fit was checked on the customer if possible. The seams from the armholes (also known as armscyes) to the start of the pleats, and the shoulder seams, were then sewn using the same stitches as were used for joining the back. Then the neck-edging was sewn in. The side-pleats of the frock were then made, and firmly secured at the top. The sleeves were fashioned and set into the armholes. The coat would then be pressed to ensure that the shoulders in particular were correct and the seams flat. The heat of the iron would soften the size in the buckram so that it could be moulded, stiffening again as it cooled. With the main tailoring completed, the silk lining would be made and sewn in and then the coat would be passed to the finishers, who would sew the buttonholes, add the buttons and collar and apply any edgings or other decorations.
“The Taylor’s Complete Guide, or A Comprehensive Analysis of Beauty and Elegance in Dress, 1796” was the seminal English publication on tailoring, and here describes how to make a pair of stocking breeches. ‘Stocking’ (now known as stockinet) could be made of any type of yarn and was made on a stocking frame, a form of knitting machine which looped the fabric rather than weaving it, so of course the cloth would stretch and cling much more than a woven cloth.
When at your cutting-board and having your stocking-piece before you, observe the following maxim, which entirely results from the stretch or elasticity that there is in all frame-work of this nature, and requires that the breeches must be three inches longer than the measure. Lay your measure upon the piece within one inch and a half at the top, then extend it to the intended place for the knee, and mark it and cut it longer an inch and a half below at the knee; then for the width, lay on the measure at the bottom of the knee, and mark for cutting one inch narrower than the measure upon the stuff in the double, and one inch less in gradation all the way up the thigh, and be sure to abide by the following example for the stride:– First make a deep fall down, and having laid your finger upon the measure at the bottom of the knee, with the other hand extend the measure to the fork, and make the stride within three inches of the length of the measure, this will give proper room for the elasticity of the materials, and ease and freedom to the wearer. Next cut your leg seam very straight, and not hollow as is the common practice, and let your side seams be likewise straight from the knee up to within four inches of the hip; and observe that you put in a gusset piece from that place on the outside of the hip, two inches and a half wide at the top, and cut taper or bevelled to a point five inches long both of the outside and the inside. When this done and your breeches are put on, you will find that the ribs go straight down the thighs, which will avoid and provide against an abominable error in the trade, of twisting the ribs across the thighs, making them appear crooked, inwardly inclining, which seems to the spectator (according to the old vulgar adage) as if people were ill shap’d or knap knee’d. When you have got so far, cut your seat at the joining of the waistband, less by two inches double; and in making, let your knee-band be cut one inch longer than your measure, and back it on lining, and set it with the knee-band to the breeches; this will keep them to the full size at the bottom, and make them lie agreeably, and rise to the springing of the calf of the leg if required. Let both the knee-band and the waist-band be beared on according to your length of them (both) and not the breeches, which though diametrically opposite to the common practice in use, we do affirm is positively right, and the true justified by and proved by long experience, and which will convince every practitioner on his first essay, if he does but adhere to the rule.
Charles Booth’s description of the tailor’s work in Life and Labour of the People in London was written towards the end of the nineteenth century, but traditions in such crafts being what they were, it is unlikely that much had changed since Louis’ time:-
Few workpeople in what are termed the organized trades of the West End spend more time in their workshops than the journeyman tailor. He ordinarily begins work at 8 AM, although many start at 5 and 6 o’clock, and scarcely leaves the workroom until 8 PM, thus usually putting in fully 12 hours continuous work in the day which is often stretched to 14 and 15 hours in busy times. His food, which is generally partaken of in the workroom, may be put down as follows: Breakfast at 8 or half past, consisting of tea or coffee, bread and butter with an occasional rasher of bacon, bloater, haddock or couple of eggs. Luncheon at 11 AM: beer bread and cheese. Dinner at 1 o’clock: beef or mutton, vegetables, pudding and beer. Tea at 4 o’clock with bun or bread and butter. This, with an occasional glass or two of beer, constitutes his day’s food and is nearly always taken by the tailor sitting on the board with his work lying at his side and the newspaper in front of him…
Coatmaking, which is considered to be the principal branch of the trade, is usually carried on by two men working together as partners; one makes the left and the other the right fore part. The left man is the captain of the job; he is responsible for seeing the work put fairly together; he marks with cotton thread all the outlets left on the job by the cutter, cuts all the pockets and linings, makes the left side of the coat, makes and puts on the collar and gives the work the final press off. The right man makes the right side of the coat, both sleeves, and joins the halves together. Partners generally take rights and lefts alternately. Vests and trousers are made by separate and single individual workmen. The foreman who cuts and gives out the work has a great deal to do with making a shop good or bad for the workers. Some are petty tyrants who never get on well with their workmen; others the reverse but in nearly all instances where the employer is himself the cutter the men are better treated and more considered. In all firms the garments are fitted on at least once, but some cutters require their work fitted on the customer three or four times, while in other cases the customer himself insists on having his clothes tried on again and again, and when finished is never pleased until they have been altered and re-altered times out of number.
A large and busy tailoring establishment like that owned by Louis Bazalgette in Mayfair would have had to take on at least two or three apprentices a year. This was not only to train them in the trade but also to ensure a steady supply of lads who would perform the essential but menial tasks which were required to keep the shop running smoothly. This work would also acquaint them with the proper functioning of the shop and business. The apprentices would be indentured at about fifteen years of age and would probably have to do general work for at least the first year until being ‘put to the needle’ or allowed to start learning to sew. Tailors started work as early as six a.m., depending on the shop, but the apprentices would have to arrive at least an hour before this to do the jobs which would allow the tailors to work. Their chores would begin with cleaning the grates and bringing up coal for the fires, which were used not only in winter, at least one fire or oven being needed all year round for heating the goose-irons. Then the bench would have to be tidied and any of the work-in-progress hung up on pegs. Bolts of cloth needed to be put away, and then all ‘droppings’ under the tailors’ bench and the cutting table were picked up and put in their places. Any usable pieces of cloth or twist had to be saved for possible re-use. After this tidying the benches were wiped down and the floors sprinkled with water before being carefully swept to reduce dust and lint. This cleaning might have to be repeated during the day.
New garments should be put upon the clothes-horse, or wherever else it may be the master’s custom to have them placed, and great care should be taken to fold them so that they be not creased, or otherwise be made to look rough and un-finished. They should, moreover, before the room is swept, be covered with wrappers, so as to keep them free from dust, or otherwise soiled. Such garments as may have been cut out, and have not yet been given to the journeyman, are commonly tied up and laid on the cutting-board till wanted; care should also be taken of these that they be not untied, so as to become intermingled; and if the master or foreman have left a garment on the board only partly cut out, it should be the care of the apprentice, after having removed it for the purpose of cleaning the board, to replace it in the same position as that in which he found it; and, also, to put the measures-book, measuring-tape, rule, or yard-wand, marking-chalk, and shears, or scissors, in such places as that they may be conveniently ready for use whenever they are wanted. [The Tailor: Anon, c.1801]
The work that the apprentices had to do during the working day, apart from the usual fetching and carrying, included dividing parcels of thread, silk and twist into separate skeins and then storing them away carefully. Finished clothes usually needed some cleaning and brushing and were then packed, ready to be ‘sent home’ (i.e., delivered to the client). They would often have to deliver them personally, if the client lived close by, or if not, they would have to take them to the packet office and have them booked for dispatch.
Only when the apprentice was judged to be keen and competent enough to be ‘put to the needle’, i.e., allowed up on to the bench, would he begin his true training. The first thing that he had to learn was how to sit properly in the traditional cross-legged ‘tailor-wise’ position. This could cause him great pain at first, but with perseverence over the days he would become used to sitting in this way for longer and longer periods. Tailors at this time worked at least a twelve-hour day, so a lad who was unable to sustain this position for long periods would go no further in becoming a tailor. Small cushions would be placed under each ankle-joint to help to prevent them from becoming sore and swollen. The stitches in use at the end of the eighteenth-century, and which the apprentice would have to learn, were the basting-stitch, the back-and-fore-stitch, the back-stitch, the side-stitch, the fore-stitch, the back-pricking stitch, the fore-pricking stitch, the serging-stitch, the cross-stitch and the button-hole stitch. In addition there were special sorts of stitch for hemming, filling, stotting, rantering, fine-drawing, prick-drawing and over-casting.