Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Toilers in London; or Inquiries concerning Female Labour in the Metropolis, [Anon] 1889 - Chapter 22 - Sempstresses - West End Tailoresses

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WHAT is a sempstress?
    Before Mr. Walter Besant called attention to working girls by his creation of Melenda, the sempstress was the only female worker who interested the public. Poets wrote about her, and she was quoted as a person much to be pitied, working in a garret, and living on next to nothing.
    So far as we can make out, she is Jill of all trades and mistress of none. Dressmakers abuse her for taking work out of their hands, and upholsteresses say that she intrudes where she is not wanted. We shall class her here as the maker of underclothing ; not only as an unskilled hand in her own home, but as a skilled machinist working for her daily bread in metropolitan factories.
    The woman who makes shirts or waistcoats for men calls herself a sempstress, and certainly the [-237-] women who work at collars and cuffs for ladies and gentlemen are sempstresses ; while the same name is given to the maker of babies' robes and such garments! But the large number of women engaged in making underclothing are all we mean to notice here under the title of "sempstresses."
    Mr. Lakeman, H.M. Chief Inspector, tells us in his last report on the " Social Condition of Female Operatives in the Factories and Workshops of the Central Metropolitan District," that the trade of female underclothing includes the manufacturing of sundry articles; and as it is a light and clean business, girls of a superior class are found at work, evidently the daughters of parents who set them good examples.
    The best quality carries as much as 25 per cent. of cost of article in manufacturing, and quickest machine hands earn 20s. to 22s. per week; but hand-workers, who must be neat sewers, range from 12s. to 17s., piecework. The seasons do not affect this industry, and the workers can generally reckon on steady, continuous employment, whereby the class mentioned are drawn to it. The price of labour has decreased here owing to the development of domestic workshops, wherein cheap goods are made, and where no restriction on labour exists.
    The sewing machine, whilst cheapening the [-238-] cost of production, has increased the wage of operative machine hands, but hand-workers remain much under the old system of payment.
    Mr. Lakeman gives the wages of learners in this trade at 2s. 6d. per week, young hands at 5s. to 10s. per week, experienced workers at 15s. per week, and extra clever workers at 20s. to  22s. per week.
    Here, again, we find the wives and daughters of clerks and tradesmen competing sub rosa for work which can be done at home, underselling their poorer sisters.
    We have been told by at least half-a-dozen employers that ladies send their servants to fetch this work and carry it back, and that ladies will undertake it at lower prices than are given to ordinary sempstresses.
    Miss Clementina Black, the excellent secretary of the Women's Trades Union and Provident League, has written an interesting article on sempstresses in the Women's World entitled "Something about Needlewornen."
    She takes for her text the factory of Messrs. Stapley & Smith, in London Wall and Fore Street. She tells us that the workrooms there are above the average, and says of the workers:-
    As we go round and watch the work being done, we perceive that these girls can do things [-239-] almost miraculous. Children's frocks and pinafores are being made - little delicate garments with tiny tucks and lace edgings, and minute runners of fine tape in the top hem. And these tape-runners the girls do not slip in with a bodkin; no, they like to go a quicker way they stitch the hem, which is perhaps a quarter of an inch wide, with the tape in it. To do that and never fix it is a feat indeed. One girl I saw stitching on lace ; the lace was frilled, and she frilled it with her fingers as she stitched. Nothing is tacked, and yet the exactitude and delicacy of the work are faultless. . . . And this work is done with very great rapidity. The whizz of the machines seems deafening to a newcomer; but the workers talk through it with no raising of the voice. One corner of the room is noisiest of all; it is the corner where the button-hole machines stand. The button-hole is made in a fraction of a minute; and when a garment has all its buttonholes made, it is tossed to a young girl at a table to cut, for the machine does not cut. She has a little instrument with a blade precisely the right length, and laying the garment on the table, makes incision after incision. There is, of course, a certain danger of cutting the sewn edge, but with the proper instrument this danger is slight. Another young girl takes the garment, gives it a [-240-] sharp shake, lays it flat on the deal table, and folds it in the twinkling of an eye.
    "And now, what is the pay of these accomplished machinists? Their working hours in this house are from half-past eight to six, with an hour for dinner and half an hour for tea. On Saturdays they stop at one. No overtime is allowed ; great care is taken never to keep them waiting unoccupied ; and the work is absolutely constant, because, when the demand is slack, stock can be accumulated to meet its recurrence. . . I was allowed to look into any I pleased of the pile of wages-books. I found that the average earnings were about 15s. a week the best workers would make 1 ; while the very worst among them averaged scarcely 8s. or 9s. . . . Buttonholers make more-as much perhaps as 23s. a week, which is reckoned opulence for a working woman. . . . And these, remember, are the highest wages earned under the most favourable circumstances. . . . For every woman working in the light, clean, and airy rooms of Messrs. Stapley & Smith, there are ten working with insufficient space, imperfect sanitary arrangements, and the harassing of a constant sense of unjust treatment; and of these ten, not five, perhaps, will earn, on a yearly average, more than 10s. a week, even though they work nine or ten hours a day."



    We have had a good deal of conversation about these women with a man who has collected information for what he called "The Lords' Committee, about the foreign tailors in Soho and the neighbourhood of Regent Street. Fifteen years ago the foreigners congregated in two or three streets; now they are spreading, and are taking the work out of the hands of Englishmen, although they give employment to large numbers of Englishwomen. They are chiefly Swedes. They work harder and live cheaper than our own countrymen, and they are more popular with employers, because they will do work at any hour, and sit up night after night to get it finished. Some of these foreign tailors live in wretched houses, and in order to find their workrooms it is necessary to climb up filthy staircases ; but the workrooms are, as a rule, large and well ventilated. A great deal of work is done on Sunday, and overtime is much practised. The workers, however, are well paid, and the work is regular.
    Here, as in the East End, we find women helping to make coats, basting, sewing on buttons, putting in lining, and making button-holes. Good machinists earn from 20s. to 28s. a week, and some take as much as 30s. Trousers are generally [-242-] made in the workshops; but a good deal of slop work is done at home, and not a little of the best work is taken home to finish. This is piece-work, and paid as follows :-plain trousers, 1s. 3d.; better, 1s. 6d.; best, 1s. 9d. per pair. A woman can make three pairs of plain trousers in a day if she is a quick worker, and two pairs of better or best trousers. These she makes by herself, with no assistance from the tailor further than the pressing and the cutting out. Waistcoats are generally fetched by the workers straight from the shops, and paid at the rate of 2s. 6d., 3s. 6d., and 4s.6d. per vest. A good worker can make two waistcoats in a day, but she must work hard to do this, especially if she makes first-class waistcoats. Few West End tailoresses earn less than 1 a week, and some earn 30s. We have met with several who earn as much as 36s. The men complain that the women and the foreigners are taking all the trade; but as women will never be able to make a coat right out, and the Swedes are now calling in young men of their own nation to take the place of Englishwomen, we may expect to see the whole of the West End tailoring in the hands of foreigners before the end of the century.
    Errand-girls, or strikers, fetch the work and carry it back to the shops. Some people say that these girls are allowed a percentage on the [-243-] work they bring to their employers, and that consequently the fast girls make great profits. But we have not been able to trace a single case of this. Neither have we seen the workrooms in which the strikers are said to live by day and sleep by night, together with their master and mistress. Strikers earn 5s. a week, and "pick up" the business.
    The worst workroom that has come under our notice is built out of a house and reached by a ladder. This room is attached to a tumble-down house at the back of Regent Street. Passing through a court, and mounting the ladder, we came into a room about eight feet by ten feet, without any window. A large table filled the place, having space at the further end for a woman who was finishing, and the little striker who was waiting for orders. On the table squatted four tailors, busy with work for a well-known house. The heat was terrific, for a large fire burnt at the back of the woman who was finishing, and the door could not be left open on account of the draught. Presently a smartly-dressed young man came in with a black bag, out of which he produced "Lord ------'s coat," which must be done. he said, at once.
    He came from a house which professes to have all its work done on the premises; and having [-244-] emptied the contents of his bag, he departed, with instructions that the coat should be sent home without fail the following morning. If the owner of the coat could see the den in which his garment was made he might feel a little uncomfortable, for the place was very dirty, and not free from vermin. The striker was sent to fetch some beer, as the men said that they would be obliged to work late. They could not stretch their legs without going down the ladder, and when the presser wanted to use his irons, the finisher was obliged to move away, for the place was so crowded. They were all making good money, they said, and seemed quite contented.
    We have heard no complaints about work among West End tailoresses, but they strongly object to the legislation which forbids them to  work the same hours as men, and they say that the Factory Act is "very hard on us poor women."