For much of my working life I was a museum curator working with collections of ‘applied arts’ – ceramics, furniture, silver, costume and textiles, glass, objects d’art. My particular interest was in costume and I became aware that when we exhibited a piece of ceramics or furniture, the label gave details of the maker or decorator – ‘Royal Doulton, decorated by Florence Barlow’, ‘Chippendale chair, made for the Earl of Little-Snoddington-under-the-Wold’ and so on. However, a dress was likely to be described simply as ‘Silk day dress, c. 1835’ or ‘Wedding dress worn by Elizabeth Smith on her marriage to Henry Robinson in January, 1872’ – in other words, we knew virtually nothing about the people who made the garments. As a needlewoman myself, I was aware that the rag trade makers of some of the items in our collections were extremely skilled – just as skilled as the furniture makers and potters whose names we knew. I decided to do something about it.

‘Fashions for October’ in Cassell’s Magazine, 1891. The figure on the left wears the sort of tailored costume Adolph Kushner would have helped make. The figure on the right wears the softer sort of garments Mrs Pattinson would have made for Mrs Fenton, and they both wear elaborate hats like the one described in Mrs Fenton’s letter. (c. The Rag Trade, Amberley Publishing)

In 2000 I submitted a thesis to De Montfort University for which I received a PhD. It was entitled ‘English provincial dressmakers in the 19th century’ (and, for those of you who don’t get out enough, it is available through the British Library).

I’m interested in people: in people’s lives, interests, families, triumphs and tragedies as well as their work. In the course of my research I found some wonderful sources of information about dressmakers. Record Offices up and down the country are stuffed with fascinating documents if only we go and look. With the PhD out of the way I wondered whether some of these resources would make a book – and the result is ‘The Rag Trade: The People Who Made Our Clothes’, eleven single-chapter biographies of workers in the clothing trades. Here are some tasters:

The dressmaker and the widow

‘Could you send me another bottle of whiskey in a little box like last time and perhaps it would do with cloak so that Mrs P need only have one parcel and a little 6d needle book …’

Old Mrs Fenton wrote to her dressmaker at regular intervals. She was a widow, a nervous lady who believed herself to be an invalid, and she hated travelling. Even the short distance into Ulverston where she had been born and where her good friend, Mrs Pattinson the dressmaker, lived. It was so much easier to order goods on approval, and Mrs Pattinson was always so obliging about buying her whisky – for medicinal purposes of course – packing it in corset boxes and wrapping it in bundles of clothes. She was sure the carrier never suspected for a moment what he was delivering.

Sketches of country folk by William Johnstone White, showing the sort of garments John Evens made for his poorer clients. (c. The Rag Trade, Amberley Publishing)

The smuggling tailor

John Evens had a flourishing business in the little village of Holbeton in Devon. He was a tailor, making suits and ‘everlasting breeches’ and smockfrocks for his neighbours, as well as bed curtains, tarpaulin covers for their carts, banners for the local pageant – in fact anything they asked him for. He also farmed the family smallholding, tended his orchards of cider apples and acted as ‘parish constable’ – a sort of unpaid policeman. But he had another, much less respectable source of income. John Evens was a ‘venturer’ organising local gangs of smugglers to bring tubs of spirits and parcels of tobacco across the Channel from France. He spent many a night on the clifftops watching for incoming vessels and organising the gangs of men who unloaded them. He borrowed carts from his neighbours and wrapped rags round their wheels and round the horses’ hooves to muffle the sound they would make in the narrow, twisting lanes of south-west Devon. It was young Mr Evens who took orders, delivered goods to buyers – and had his fair share of skirmishes and near misses with the excise men.

Ida Allen at the door of her lace shop in the 1930s. (Courtesy of Norman Lambert, The Rag Trade, Amberley Publishing)

Lacemaker to royalty

Ida Allen was no stranger to the royals. Princes and princesses visited her little shop in Beer, bought handkerchiefs and veils of Honiton lace and placed orders for more. They sent precious items to her for cleaning and repair and were, it would appear, very happy with the results. What they did not know was that Ida’s house had no water supply. The valuable laces were washed in water from the water butt out back – once the algae and dead leaves were cleaned out. She used lethal combinations of cleaning fluids – neat gin or chlorine bleach and salt. But worst of all, her house was infested by rats, attracted by the rotting meat in the orchard next door in which her neighbour grew the maggots he sold to fishermen.

Learn more about these 19th century characters and many more in:


Pam Inder's new book The Rag Trade: The People Who Made Our Clothes is available for purchase now.