Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/The needlewoman: her health

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If my readers were at this moment to tell their thoughts, we should find them ready to turn away from the disagreeable and well-worn subject of Distressed Needlewomen, that class which has been the grief and shame of society from the day when Hood published the “Song of the Shirt.” We all grow weary of any hopeless prospect; and we may well think that everything that can be said about the poor needlewomen has been said many times over, through many years. But perhaps I am not going to say much of poor sempstresses; and perhaps, also, their condition is not the desperate and hopeless thing it was. Perhaps the topic of the health of women who sew may have some interest of another kind than that which makes us miserable.

Who are the needlewomen of our country? I wish I could reply, all the women in the country. I should be heartily glad if there were no women, from the palace to the cottage, who were unable to cut out and make clothes, and to amuse their minds and gratify their taste by ornamental needlework. It is the unequal distribution of the art which causes so much misery in many ways among us, and which causes the art itself to deteriorate as it does.

Here it may be objected that the very reason of the depression of the needlewomen as a class is that sewing is a universal feminine employment, so that professional sempstresses are reduced to the very lowest rate of pay by the competition of the whole sex; whereas, in other occupations, the competition arises from some restricted rivalry in their own trade. This is partly true. It is true, no doubt, in regard to the shirts and petticoats, and the children’s clothes in ordinary domestic use. Middle-class families make these things at home, by the hands of mothers, daughters, and maids; and throughout that order of society it would be thought strange to spend money in paying sempstresses liberally for work which can be done at home. Thus, when plain-work is given out at all by household managers, it is at a rate so low that one wonders how it answers to the sempstress; but here again comes in the peculiarity of the case. The sempstress is, nine times in ten, a wife or mother engaged in a home of her own, and wishing to earn something in the hours when she can sew. In short, sewing both is and is not a professional occupation; and the consequence is that it is the worst paid, because every private needlewoman helps to reduce the pay of the professional sempstress. But it does not follow from this that all domestic women can sew.

If girls had fair play in education, I believe that all would be needlewomen, from natural liking. I have seen many bad needlewomen, and some who could hardly sew at all; but I never saw one who might not, I believe, have enjoyed the satisfactions of the art, if there had not been neglect and mismanagement. One would think that girls of the labouring class, whose lives are not overfull of pleasures, might be provided with this simple and pleasant occupation, which would be profitable to them in every way: yet how many are there of that very large class who are skilful in the art? Here we come upon the unequal distribution. I know a rural neighbourhood where the great lady, a countess, had such a passion for plain needlework, that she employed nearly all her time in making shirts and shifts; while the cottagers’ wives for miles round used their needles like skewers, or let their husbands and sons go in rags. The countess gave away fine linen shirts by dozens among her friends, while her husband’s labourers rarely got a cotton shirt to fit. One consequence of this incapacity in poor women is, that the professional class of slop-workers has grown to what we have seen it. Besides the army and navy, there is almost the whole range of our labouring classes to be supplied with cheap garments, ready made; and thus, while the wives and daughters, who ought to be making the shirts, are unable to do it, there are thousands of needlewomen slaving at it day and night, for a hire which does not give them bread.

Even so, there is more good needlework done in cottages than in the homes of factory workers. That is a sad story, the inability of factory “hands” to sew, or cook, or clean a floor; but my topic now is the health of needlewomen; and factory women are in no way concerned in that.

I have spoken of the poor sempstresses as a class that was; and of their troubles as of something past. I trust we may consider their position as already ameliorated by the introduction of the sewing-machine, loud as would be the outcry from some of them, if they were to hear this said. The truth is, they were reduced to be themselves sewing machines of an imperfect sort, whose work was sure to be superseded by a machine which cannot suffer, and pine, and grow blind, and drop stitches, and spoil fastenings. It must be a mercy to stop the working of human machines, driven by the force of hunger, and disordered by misery. If the work can be done by an inanimate machine, it ought to be so done; and if the poor women ask what is to become of them, the answer is, that their lot really could not be made worse; while, for a large proportion of them, the new machine is an actual redemption. Their work had become too bad to be endured; while their lot was too hard to be endured. Now, there is good work again, more perfect work than was ever before seen; and the machine-workers get, as women’s wages go, good pay. The transition stage, during which women’s labour must be turned towards other occupations, is a very hard one. Last spring, an association was formed in London for the purpose of bringing the needlewomen and their proper employers, the outfitters, face to face, and ousting the middle-men, the contractors; who, giving security for the materials in a way impossible to the workers, are charged with the whole business of providing the garments, and secure their profits by enforcing the extremity of cheapness in the article of pay.

This society, known as that which abides at 26, Lamb’s Conduit Street, must have done good, and may yet have time to do more, while the operation of the sewing-machine is getting settled; but it is the machine which must put an end to the straining of eyes over the single candle, and the fearful irritation which attends the exhaustion of certain muscles, while the rest of the frame is left unexercised. There are thousands of the lowest order of needlewomen who would be better in the workhouse than in their actual condition; and there is some comfort—though a melancholy one enough—in perceiving that in a little while that lowest class will have disappeared. In another generation there will be no call for such a class. They have, poor souls! caused such a decline of good needlework in the country, that some radical remedy was sure to be found. While we were hearing of the woes of their class from overcrowding, it was the universal complaint of housewives that they could get no needlework well done. It was whipstitch, and fastenings that gave way, and buttonholes that burst, and hemming that you might pull out from end to end by a tug at the thread. A young friend of mine, of German extraction, about to be married, had made, with family assistance, most of her new clothes: but some having to be put out, a sewing-school of considerable credit was selected, and patterns were sent. The answer to the application was that the commission would be executed, but that the lady must not expect work like her own; that such work was, in fact, not known in our country. I wished the authorities of the school could have seen how fast the work went off under fingers and eyes trained as they are trained in Germany. We shall now have the option of good work, on the one hand; and, on the other, a clearance made of the murderous competition which has reduced the physique and the morale of our poor needlewomen to the lowest condition. What the change will be we may judge, not only by what we see in walking through the streets of London, but by attending to the results of the sewing-machine in the United States, where it was invented.

The annual money value of the sewing required by the American nation that can be done by the machine is estimated at fifty-eight millions of pounds sterling; and a large proportion of the saving is already made. In the city of New York alone, the annual saving is a million and a half on the clothing of men and boys. The same amount is saved in Massachusetts on shoes and boots alone. The machine has revolutionised about forty distinct branches of manufacture, besides creating new ones. Here lies the solace of the poor needlewomen. A multitude of them will sooner or later be employed in these fresh areas of industry; and not a few are already tasting a degree of comfort they never knew before. As slaves of the contractors for the outfitters they may have earned three or four shillings a week, at the expense of eyesight and health. Those among them who can adapt themselves to the new circumstances will earn more than twice as much, with little fatigue. We may then decline going further into the consideration of the health of this class of needlewomen, in the hope that the causes of their miseries are about to be removed.

There is nothing in the introduction of the sewing-machine which need affect the object of training girls to be good sempstresses. Some of my readers may have seen the Report (1855) of the Rev. J. P. Norris, one of the Inspectors of Schools, in which he gives his view of the importance of needlework in the education of girls. He thinks that, apart from the value of the art, it would be worth while to spend half the school hours in sewing, for the sake of the effect on the girls’ characters. He speaks of the order, quiet, cleanliness, and cheerful repose with activity, which prevail in afternoon school hours devoted to sewing,—a real training for the home, while the occupation also tends to impress the intellectual lessons of the morning. Looking forward a few years, the sense of the fitness of the training to make good wives and mothers must be very strong; for one may almost divide into sheep and goats the cottage households in which the wife and mother is a capable needlewoman or not one at all. The sewing mother, with her children round her, makes the husband proud of his home, while dirty brats, playing out of doors in rags and tatters, with an idle or a muddling mother within, are more likely to deter a man from coming home than to tempt him from the public-house. I, for one, feel obliged to Mr. Norris for what he has said on behalf of the girls, whose education is so deplorably perverted or neglected in the classes of which he speaks. I think, moreover, that it would be well if needlework were thoroughly taught, as formerly, to girls who, when wives, will not be the heads of cottage households.

There would be no occasion to make growing children sit on hard seats, without backs, or rests for the feet, as I have elsewhere complained, on the part of a past generation. Due care should be taken to vary the posture sufficiently often, to afford a sufficiency of light, and to let the spirit of enterprise enter into a girl’s project of work. Such points being duly attended to, there will be no difficulty in getting the children interested in the employment. For one that twirls her thimble on her finger, and looks at the clock, there will be scores who will be unwilling to leave their job for play or dinner. In their own drawing-rooms, in after life, the difference will be seen between those who have been trained to the needle and those who have not. The ease and mastery of a thorough needlewoman, who works out her thought on her material, and produces something perfect in its way, are perceptible to the veriest old bachelor who calls sewing “working,” and working “sewing;” while there is something annoying to “real ladies” (as their maids say), as well as to gentlemen, in the awkwardness of unskilful hands, which tangle the thread, and pull the stitches, and break the needle, and leave the skein of cotton or silk on the floor, and produce something ugly, after all their toil.

These last are apt to discourse of the unhealthiness of needlework. To them it is no doubt laborious. They stoop, and put themselves in a constrained posture: they pore over their work, and set their muscles to work expressly and consciously with every drawing of the thread. There must be much fatigue in this. It cannot be denied, either, that prolonged sewing is very hurtful, and constant sewing probably fatal. Any mechanical action which employs a few muscles almost exclusively must be bad; and any diligent needlewoman can describe the sensation between the shoulders, and the nervous irritability which constitute real suffering when the needle has been plied too long. Young wives, preparing the infant wardrobe for the first time, have often done themselves harm by getting into this over-wrought condition over their enchanting employment. They are very wrong. They should stop before they feel irritable or weary, and they should at once go for a walk, or pass to some active employment. It is nonsense, too, in these days of marking inks, to strain their precious eyesight over the pedantic marking methods of our grandmothers, who made a great point of marking fine cambric as true as coarse linen. But needlework is not to be condemned because some women still pursue it without moderation or good sense.

Some months since I was petitioned to speak up for fancywork as a solace to invalids and sorrowful people. I certainly can do it with a safe conscience; for my needle has been an inestimable blessing to me during years of ill health. It is sometimes said that the needle is to a woman what the cigar is to the man—a tranquillising, equalising influence, conservative and restorative. It is at least this; and I should imagine more. We are apt to underrate the positive pleasure there is in mechanical employment, pursued with aptness and skill. Mr. Chadwick is fond of telling of a man in a chalk-pit who admitted to him that, during years spent in simply cutting square blocks of chalk, he had never, he believed, failed to enjoy an actual relish, on each occasion, of the act of producing his block of chalk. I can well believe this from the perpetual pleasantness of setting stitches, when it is effectually done. But in fancywork—the elaborate fancywork of invalids—there is much more. If I say that it is somewhat like the gratification of the artist, I shall be told that it is infinitely better to paint or draw; that better effects are far more speedily produced, and so on. It is true that any good drawing is of a higher quality than the best needlework; but then the work is of a totally different kind. Needlework is a solace for women far too ill to draw well, or to commit themselves to the excitements of art. Each is good in its own place; and, in its own place, I claim for the much abused fancywork (I include woolwork) of the drawing-room some respect, over and above mere toleration. I mean, if it is good of its kind. Bad fancy-work no more deserves toleration than bad pictures or bad music.

My readers may perhaps have no idea how many professional needlewomen there are in Great Britain; and they may not have considered into how many classes the whole may be divided. There is no branch of industry in which it is so difficult to ascertain the numbers, because, as I said before, there are so many women who take in work to employ some spare hours profitably. They take pay, but are not professional sempstresses. Again, there are about 100,000 shoemakers’ wives, most of whom, no doubt, help to support the family by shoebinding. Drawing the line as well as they could, the Census Commissioners of 1851 returned the number of sewing women in Great Britain as being (without the shoemakers’ wives) 388,302.

These are divided into five classes; and a sixth head includes the miscellaneous sorts of needlework which cannot be classed.

The dressmakers and milliners make up consderably more than half of the total, their numbers being 202,448. The shirtmakers and other plain sewers come next, being 60,588. Then come the glovers and hosiers (40,766), the hat and bonnetmakers (27,176), the shoebinders and sewers (22,657), and the staymakers (10,383). Nearly 25,000 come under the head of “miscellaneous.” If the same rules of arrangement are employed next spring, we shall be able to learn by the Census of 1861 whether the sewing machine has dismissed more needlewomen than the increase of national numbers and wealth has brought into the business. It should be remembered in this connection that the opening of new and remunerative employments to women must operate in increasing the business, and therefore in time the number of professional needlewomen, while it tends to raise their pay. Women employed as compositors or accountants now put out their sewing, or some of it; whereas before, they not only made all their own clothes, but probably trenched upon the professional needlewomen by taking in more. The better occupied other women are, the more will the needlewomen prosper; and the coming Census cannot but show some expansion in the field of female industry.

Next to the shirtmakers, the dressmakers and milliners move most compassion in the rest of society. I wish that means could be found to move those whose fault it is that these women work long hours—hours murderously long. The shirtmaker works long hours because she cannot otherwise earn her three or four shillings a week. The dressmaker works long hours in London because ladies all rush to give their orders at the same time, and are all in a hurry to have them executed. So much has been said about this—the sinfulness of such thoughtlessness and selfishess has been so plainly exposed at public meetings, and through the press, that it is inconceivable that the evil should be now what it once was. I had occasion to know something of the way of going on twenty years ago. I knew the story of reduced widow lady whose daughter was apprenticed to a great dressmaker at the West End. The girl drooped and became ill; and at last it was necessary to sacrifice her prospects, and the premium paid, if brain or life was to be saved. During the throng of orders in the London season, the girl left the workroom only every two or three days or nights. The room was kept hot and light; the workers were fed with prime beef and porter, and well plied at night with strong green tea. When any one fainted (as this girl did) she was laid on the floor to revive, and as soon as she could sit up again, she had more tea, or more porter, and was set to work again. She repeatedly went on for three days and two nights, with mere snatches of sleep in her chair. It is needless to say that her eyes were strained, her brain was dizzy, her liver was disordered, and she was fearfully nervous. Her mother shrank from the feel of her hands. Remonstrance with the employer was of no avail. She said her customers left her no option: and those who entered her concern must conform to circumstances. She was herself driven, and she must drive others while the season lasted. When the season was over they could all rest.

Since that time there have been houses which observe reasonable hours. But there will be no cure for the evil till the customers attend to their duty in the case. The most thoughtless fine ladies must know long before what dresses they will be likely to want during the season; and they might order at least all the plainer sorts, if not the whole, at a sufficiently long interval to enable the business to be better distributed than it can be under the ordinary pressure which precedes a drawing-room. There is something childish in the haste which unemployed women put into their little affairs, sufficiently mortifying to the wiser part of their sex; but the feeling of contempt rises into strong indignation when the habit of haste inflicts such mortal injury as it does among the dressmakers. It is a child’s “way” to fidget and fret for its food while it is cooling on the plate before its eyes. It is the “way” of certain imperious young men in Batavia, effeminate to excess, to cry like babies if kept waiting for their tea. It is a pity to be obliged to add that it is the “way” of not a few ladies in England to be in such a hurry for a new dress as to inflict torture on the makers, in spite of all warning and remonstrance.

It is a common observation that blind persons are apt to hurry those who serve them. Not seeing how any work gets on, they are always fancying it more advanced than it can possibly be, and make their own observations on the slowness into which mankind are falling,—so different from the activity in their young day. The letter would have been written—the cap would have been made—in half the time, or they would have rued it. Fine ladies who never tried to make a dress themselves have no excuse for criticising the workers in the same way. Before they dare to do it they should enter a workroom, and see how long it takes to flounce a skirt, even amidst the feverish and trembling haste of the overwrought workers. An hour so spent would be salutary to all parties. But there are even more ladies who do not consider the subject at all. They buy a dress, and then only know that they long to see it home—want to have it and wear it—and use all the power of employer over employed to get the toy brought home at the earliest possible moment. Such women may be soft-hearted in their way about human suffering. They may give money freely to charitable institutions, or to cases of individual distress. If so, there should be some one to tell them that, while giving a sovereign or two to a hospital, and another sovereign or two for the relief of some reduced gentlewomen who have pawned their last shawl or gown, they have themselves blinded one or two apprentices, thrown another into a brain fever, or compelled others to throw up their apprenticeship, and be the reduced gentlewoman who has to pawn her last gown. Such things as these she has done in the course of showing how childish a woman can be who passes for sane. If any such woman, or any other kind of woman, supposes me romancing, let her look at the evidence given before the Select Committee of the Lords, in 1855, on the condition of Needlewomen. There was an earlier report on the case of the milliners which made such an impression on the highest lady in the land, that she inquired of those about her who were most likely to know, whether such things could be true. No one so impressed could ever hurry her dressmaker again.

The dressmaker ought to understand her liabilities, before she pledges herself to the employment. If this were properly attended to, there would be fewer dressmakers, and they would make a better stand for their health. I should be sorry to have a hand in inducing any girl to apprentice herself to the business, within the range of the London season. In provincial towns it is another affair.

The workwoman should make certain stipulations, which nothing should induce her to surrender. If she is lodged in the establishment, she should insist on being allowed to air her room. The collective workers should take care that their day-room is kept cool and airy, and the fire and lights properly managed. Each should ensure a daily walk,—either by being sent out on business, or by the work being so arranged as to admit of an hour’s exercise, morning or evening. Every encroachment on moderate hours of work should be resisted, except on special occasions, such as a large order for mourning, when all must accommodate. In London, at times of extreme pressure, the meals are bolted in the smallest number of minutes. Then the cutter-out and the attendants in the show-room are glad to sit down; and the sewers are equally glad to get up; and they may be seen swallowing their meals standing. In the dressmaker’s ordinary life, the meals should be comfortably put on table in a fresh room, and a sufficient time allowed for leisurely eating,—to say nothing of some little time being allowed for rest after the dinner. It is a substantial gain when the worker lives in a home or a lodging of her own; for then she can make arrangements for counteracting much of the mischief of her occupation. A bedroom to herself, quiet and airy; an early morning walk; and a change of scene and associates every twenty-four hours, may improve a woman’s chances of health incalculably.

The dressmaker’s and milliner’s aspect is familiar to doctors, and all other observers of countenances. The eyes have a dead look; the complexion is not clear, and usually more or less yellow; the frown shows that there is a tight band round the forehead; the carriage betokens a chill down the back; the movements show that the feet are cold: the respiration is not free, and the only doubt is whether the mischief is in the lungs or the liver; and, above all, the anxiety of the countenance tells the tale of an unnatural mode of life. On inquiry, it appears that the appetite is not good,—that the sleep is not good,—that the spirits are not good. It would be a wonder if they were; for the sight is failing. Oculists tell us that they have always many needlewomen on their lists, and that they always expect more after a general mourning. It is quite right to recommend, as they do, that the workwomen should change the colours on which they are employed very frequently; and also, that there should be green furniture,—curtains at least,—in the workrooms, as is the frequent practice among lacemakers, and the constant usage among embroiderers in China.

There is no use in preaching against tea to needlewomen. They cannot do without it, and ought not to be asked; for it is a genuine medicine to sedentary persons. When taken—strong, green, and hot—to keep people awake when they ought to be asleep, it is poison: but black tea is a medicine for a delicate liver, when taken in moderation, at breakfast and teatime. There is much more need of warning about the porter and ale and mutton three times a day, with which overwrought dressmakers and shopwomen (and shopmen too) are kept up to the calls upon them.

On the whole, it is best, even now, when so few occupations are open to women, to sacrifice much, where there is any option, rather than enter on an occupation so injurious as that of incessant needlework. Where the necessity is imperative, it is a duty to take every possible precaution against the dangers of the case. There are hundreds now among us, blind, consumptive, or suffering under spinal disease, who might by timely care have been saved. How many more are in their graves, who shall tell us?

In Ireland there is a class different from any yet mentioned. The “hand-sewing,” paid for by Glasgow merchants chiefly, employs 400,000 women and girls in their own cabins. The work is embroidery on muslin,—the patterns being stamped by men in the great houses in Glasgow and Belfast, from which the work is given out. It was a great thing for Ireland, after the famine, that the women and girls earned in this way between eighty and ninety thousand pounds per week; but the growing children pay dear for the honour of helping to support the family. They earned only sixpence a day, poor things! and it was sad to see them leaning their weary backs against the door-posts, or growing crooked in their unchanging and constrained position. Now that times have improved, and are improving, in their country, we should be glad to hear of fewer “hand-sewers” and of more women being engaged in the linen manufacture, from the flax-growing process up to the final act of finishing the packages of beautiful damasks, linens, and muslins.

The sewing-machine may intervene here, as in almost every department of needlework. It can embroider beautifully already. Some may imagine that it will preclude human sewing altogether; but this need not be believed, any more than it can at present be wished. It seems as if there must always be parts of the work (whatever its kind) which must be done by hand; and those parts will always be best done by hands which are skilful in the whole process. Thus we need not fear that the graceful and pleasant arts of the needle will die out, within any assignable time, but may apply ourselves to stop the sacrifice of life and health which is the barbarous feature of the art, and retain and refine whatever in it is serviceable and elegant. We must not stop in our improvements till needlewomen are indistinguishable from the rest of the world on the ground of health.

Harriet Martineau.