THE SEWING MACHINE IN GLASGOW AND ITS EFFECTS ON PRODUCTION, PRICES AND WAGES
by the BRITISH ASSOCIATION at Leeds
Dr. Strang read the following paper, in the Statistical Section, on Saturday last: The use of sewing machines throughout Europe and America, during the last few years, has increased to such an extent as not only to attract the attention of the mechanist towards their improvement, but likewise the economist as to their results. While the imperfections of these novel instruments for curtailing labour and lessening expense are gradually being removed, we find the usual cry of their interference with the ill-paid sempstress being at the same time raised. The first sewing machines publicly exhibited in Great Britain were one by Mr. Blodget of America and another by Mr. Judkins, an Englishman, who, however, had imported his from the United States. Both were shown in action in the Hide Park Exhibition of 1851 and were regarded as objects of great curiosity. During the short interval which took place between the close of the Crystal Palace and the opening of the Paris Exhibition, a great advance had taken place towards the improvement and variety of sewing machines; for we find that, in the Industrial Palace of the Champs Elysees, no fewer than fourteen different persons exhibited sewing machines, which were not there shown as novelties, but as articles in common use and for sale. In short, to use the words of the Rev. A. Willis, in his able Report on Machinery for Woven Fabrics, "its appeared as if this implement had sprung into industrial life and taken its place as an established and universally recognised member of the series of manufacturing machines".
The machines exhibited in Paris consisted of four classes:
1st, Embroidering machines.
2nd, Chain-stitch machines.
3d, Shuttle-stitch sewing machines.
4th, Compound chain-stitch sewing machines.
Patents for all those different kinds and several more have been from time to time taken in Great Britain, France and the United States of America. The fact is, since the period of their first introduction till the present time, many changes have been made and many new appliances have been added to these implements, both for improving the quality and adding to the quantity of the work done by them and even at this hour there are mechanicians busying themselves with new improvements. The cost of the various machines now in use varies greatly, the best ranging from £25 to £30 each, and some being produced of an inferior kind in America so low as ten dollars each. The better class of machines at present used are calculated to make almost everything formerly executed by the needle or even awl, viz., upper and under male and female clothing, caps, boot and shoe closing, saddlery, harness, carriage furniture, hats, trunks, carpet, bags, sacks, sails, mitts and gloves. In short, an ordinary shuttle machine will stitch equally well either a shirt collar or a leather trace for harness and can be applied to every sort of tailoring or shoe-work. The advantages derived from using a sewing machine in comparison to hand labour, depends much on the quality of the work to be done, but it is affirmed that the finer and more difficult advantageous work the machine is equal to six persons and in many kinds of work it is equal to ten or twelve. One of the latest improved machines will complete a thousand stitches in a minute. The stitch, too, can be altered from four to forty in a inch in a moment, while seams of every desired curve or angle can be sewed with perfect facility. In a word, the instrument has of late been so greatly improved, that its adoption is becoming more and more general throughout the great manufacturing marts of the world. The important question then arises, has the introduction of sewing machines interfered with hand labour and if so, to what extent.
Limiting our inquiries in the meantime to Glasgow, where the introduction of sewing machines has been recent and their adoption rapid, it may be stated that, looking to all the sources likely to furnish correct information on the subject, the following results have been obtained and may be relied on:
1st. The number of machines at work in Glasgow at present is about 900.
2nd. Each machine on an average does the work of six or eight women, but it requires one to work it and from three to four to prepare the work for it and to fasten the ends. They are chiefly wrought by the foot, but a few are driven by the steam-engine. The latter power does not diminish the cost but it leaves the attendant at greater liberty to use her hands, while it lessens her physical labour.
3d. These 900 machines are chiefly employed on portions of shirts, chemises, stays and other underclothing; on caps, on shoes and boots and on portions of menand women's outer garments; but no article of dress of any kind is wholly executed by the machine, the remainder being done by the hands-needle, or other hand-labour and which remainder is the largest portion.
4th. The superior style or character of the work, combined with the lessened cost of the production, has greatly increased the demand for those articles for home consumption, but more particularly for shipment to all parts of the world. The machine has also increased the ornamental work put upon articles of dress, such as double instead of single stitching upon chemises and shirts and extra ornamental stitching on the breast of coats and other upper-clothing.
5th. The wages of a handy female attending each machine are from 7s. to 10s. per week, whereas a mere sempstress can scarcely earn half this sum and that, too, through long protracted labour. Those however, who are employed in boot and shoe closing with the machine, of whom there are a considerable number in Glasgow, gain even fully higher wages and work only nine hours a-day. This work has lately been done to such an extent and the saving thereon has been so considerable, as to make it probable that ere long no other method will be pursued. There is a saving on this labour of nearly 50 per cent and from 10 to 15 per cent on the finished article.
6th. On the introduction of the sewing machine into certain of the tailoring establishments, considerable hostility to their use was manifested by the journeymen and as yet the generality of the tailors working for first-class or fashionable parties do not patronise them, but they are being used by those making clothes for exportation and coarser garments for the labouring classes. The chief difficulty, in fact, arises from the labour being of two kinds, the machine attendant and the journeyman tailor, the latter objecting to finish any work which the other partly executes. It may be remarked, however, that the only parts of the coat which cannot yet be sewed by the machine are the button holes and sewing on the buttons.
From the foregoing statement it is pretty plain that the introduction of the sewing machine, while it has increased the power and the facility of production and consequently lowered the price of the manufactured article, has at the same time been rather beneficial than hurtful to those dependent on their needle. No doubt, like all new inventions for the saving of manual labour, the introduction of the sewing machine has produced several isolated cases of difficulty, but this soon clears away and in the long run tends rather to raise than to lower the status of those connected with such labour. One thing, however, is certain, that those working or connected with sewing machines are making higher wages than they did by their former labour and also, that while the machine may tend to displace a portion of male labour, it is at the same time calls into existence female labour and that, too, at an enhanced value. The introduction of the power-loom, it may be remembered, at once removed persons from the hand-loom to the factory and ere long raised the income and diminished the labour of those working in the latter and present indications tend to show that the same result will attend the metamorphosis of the ill-paid and hard-workers sempstress into that of the sewing machine attendant. Scarcely anything can aggravate the condition of her who depends on plain sewing for her support and if machinery could only absorb the labour of those now wholly dependent on their needle, it might perhaps render the "Song of the Shirt" a picture only of the past and confer a blessing on thousands of the worst requited daughters of labour in our country.
In conclusion, we need scarcely recall the fact that, when the railway system was inaugurated, it was feared that horses would in a great measure be thrown out of employment, but the event has long since shown that more horses are required and that their money value has much increased since that great era in locomotion and it may be truly said that, as the railways did, so have the sewing machines created a trade for themselves; that they have only displaced the most unprofitable portion of hand needlework and have indeed tended rather to increase than to diminish the wage of those engaged in this species of labour.
A short discussion ensued, in the course of which it was stated that results similar to those which Dr. Strang had mentioned had followed from the employment of sewing machines in London, Manchester and Norwich.
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