Vintage book: The Clothing Trades Industry

poole_sewing_machine_smIn fits and starts I’m reading The clothing trades industry by B.W. Poole, published circa 1920.  I’d seen the title bandied about here and there but hadn’t been motivated to pick it up until recently. As far as I can tell, it’s the first readily accessible and widely published book about apparel manufacturing. I can’t speak for you but being that this industry is so mature and in that it changes so little -it doesn’t you know, we’re pretty much doing things as we have for 100 years, only the styles change- I thought that a survey of practices in manufacturing would be illustrative of the core practices that anyone should follow even today. So I settled in to read what I anticipated to be a rather dry recitation of processes and procedures with only a stray illustration of an archaic sewing machine to punch up the material.

What I did not, could not have anticipated was the author’s wry and witty sense  of humor. With respect to his description of commercial tailors he says:

In such trades, and their number is legion, the owner is not a practical man, and it is a singular fact and true, that the less he knows about the trade, the quicker he gets rich. He is a man probably with some capital who bought a going concern, and retained the practical staff until he got the hang of things.

Lest you think he’s deprecating of what amounts to today’s average manufacturer, he continues:

It is not suggested that such trades are gulling the public with their cheap trousers and cheaper suits, of course, there are dodges in it, and it requires smartness, but for what the public pays it gets as good a value as it can rightly expect, and oftentimes better than it deserves.

There’s lovely tidbits on every page, one trips over them constantly:

  • The cutter has to handle many duties, his artistic soul (if he has one) atrophies;
  • Sometimes a customer will persist in being fitted on, which is superintended by the shopman, who knows as much about it as a cat does about a dairy.
  • As usual, it is an American invention [in reference to advanced machinery]
  • So appalling was the effect of cheap divisional labour upon the trade that it acquired a reputation beneath contempt… A person occupied in the clothing industry had to carry about a Chinese Praying Wheel, perpetually muttering imprecations and apologies for ever daring to be engaged in the covering-up of Nature’s nakedness

[Note: a cutter is now known as a pattern maker. A shopman is a production manager. Divisional labour is piece work. ]

cutting_quantities_sizes_pooleWhile charm abounds, there is also utility, consider this example chart at right listing the number of suits per size that is a typical production run as it relates to order quantities  and the most efficient use of materials.  I modified the image to add the size ratios which is how we typically order goods these days.

The consequence of the book’s hilarity means I’m finding it difficult to read through for a want of note taking or the unbridled compulsion to read passages aloud to whichever hapless person is unfortunate enough to find themselves nearby. I have become -en toto- more annoying than usual.

Summary: you need not buy this book to enjoy it, it has been archived online and is available for download.  Being that I prefer hard copy for my collection, I bought a reprint. I’m on the fence as to advise you if you are also a hard copy collector in that the scan quality of the reprint is a little dicey. From a stand point of comfort, the text is not comfortable reading for stretches of time. It’s not difficult to discern the copy mind you, just uncomfortable for long passages. But then again, I’m not reading it for long passages anyway being that it is so funny. I am thoroughly enjoying this book.

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4 comments

  1. Brina says:

    I think the term cutter, in regard to men’s clothing, (and costumes) would mean some one that draws the pattern on the fabric and cuts it. So yes they are a pattern maker in that they do make patterns, but they also cut the cloth. They might also supervise the construction of garments. So they do more than just patterns.

    thanx for mentioning the book though–it sounds fun to read.

  2. Kathleen says:

    Absolutely. In those days (and still in some places) pattern making and cutting was the same job. These days -in the UK where this was written, cutter is appended to pattern cutter. They don’t use the term pattern maker at all.

  3. Victoria says:

    Glad I’m not the only one’s who loves to read pre-1930’s non-fiction literature (and read the funny parts to anyone within earshot)! I love that they had were able to write more candidly, with more feeling, than today’s authoratative authors. I guess that’s why I like your book so much Kathleen, you have the same strain of candor!

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