Not Sure if the Industrial Revolution was Worth It? Let’s do the Math.

I don’t know about you, but when I was a kid we had “school” clothes, “play” clothes  and “Sunday” clothes. How my mother managed all that laundry and got everything else done I’ll never know. (Cue the washing machine.)

The size of the average wardrobe has expanded and contracted through the millenia, reflecting the political, economic, religious, and social ideals of the time. In this time of First World wealth and prosperity, I sometimes forget just how good I’ve got it.

Not too long ago, I was researching 17th century clothing. I wanted to forgo the upper classes because 1) the materials are expensive, 2) there are a lot of pieces that require a lot of work, and 3) I’m just too lazy to commit to 1300 hours of hand embroidering with metallic thread just to make a bodice sparkle (and some aristocrat drool).

Hand-made clothing (and I’m talking 100% made by hand from the ground up – literally) takes a long time to make. A very long time. Making clothing by hand had, and always has had, an enormous impact on women’s lives, and not because they ended up with tons of pretty dress to wear.

The following is an article, written by Eve Fisher and used with her permission, that appeared on It is the single best discussion about the value of labor I’ve ever run across. I’ve included her updated mathematical calculations, otherwise it is the original article as written. Yes, it’s history + math + economics, but you’ll manage just fine. Enjoy (and appreciate)!


The $3500 Shirt – A History Lesson in Economics

by Eve Fisher

One of the great advantages of being a historian is that you don’t get your knickers in as much of a twist over how bad things are today. If you think this year is bad, try 1347, when the Black Death covered most of Europe, one-third of the world had died, and (to add insult to injury) there was also (in Europe) the little matter of the Hundred Years’ War and the Babylonian Captivity of the Church (where the pope had moved to Avignon, France, and basically the Church was being transformed into a subsidiary of the French regime). Things are looking up already, aren’t they?Another thing is economics. Everyone complains about taxes, prices, and how expensive it is to live any more. I’m not going to go into taxes – that way lies madness. But I can tell you that living has never been cheaper. We live in a country awash in stuff – food, clothing, appliances, machines, cheap crap from China – but it’s never enough. $4 t-shirts? Please. We want five for $10, and even then, can we get them on sale? And yet, compared to a world where everything is made by hand – we’re talking barely 200 years ago – everything is cheap and plentiful, and we are appallingly ungrateful.

Let’s talk clothing. When the Industrial Revolution began, it started with factories making cloth. Why? Because clothing used to be frighteningly expensive. Back in my teaching days I gave a standard lecture, which is about to follow, on the $3,500 shirt, or why peasants owned so little clothing. Here’s the way it worked:See this guy below, front left dancing? He’s wearing a standard medieval shirt. It has a yoke, a bit of smocking and gathering around the neck, armholes, and the wrists would be banded, so he could tie or button them close.

File:Pieter Bruegel de Oude - De bruiloft dans (Firenze).jpg

Oh, and in the middle ages, it would be expected that all of the inside sleeves would be finished. This was all done by hand. A practiced seamstress could probably sew it in 7 hours. But that’s not all that would go into the making. There’s the cloth. A shirt like this would take about 4 yards of cloth, and it would be a fine weave: the Knoxville Museum of Art estimates two inches an hour. So 4(yards) x 36(inches)/2 = 72 hours. (I’m a weaver – or at least I used to be – so this sounds accurate to me.) Okay, so hand weaving and hand sewing would take 79 hours. Now the estimate for spinning has always been complex, so stick with me for a minute: Yardage of thread for 4 yards of cloth, one yard wide (although old looms often only wove about 24″ wide cloth), and requires 12 threads per inch, so:

12 threads x 36″ wide x (4 yards + 2 yards for tie-up = 6 yards, or 72″) x 72 = 31,004 inches, or 864 yards of thread for the warp. And you’d need about the same for a weft, or a total of about 1600 yards of thread for one shirt.

1600 yards would take a while to spin. At a Dark Ages recreation site, they figured out a good spinner could do 4 yards in an hour, so that would be 400 hours to make the thread for the weaving.

So, 7 hours for sewing, 72 for weaving, 400 for spinning, or 479 hours total to make one shirt. At minimum wage – $7.25 an hour – that shirt would cost $3,472.75 [added note: that’s in today’s dollars].
And that’s just a standard shirt.
And that’s not counting the work that goes into raising sheep or growing cotton and then making the fiber fit for weaving. Or making the thread for the sewing.
And you’d still need pants (tights or breeches) or a skirt, a bodice or vest, a jacket or cloak, stockings, and, if at all possible, but a rare luxury, shoes.

  • Updated math, as of 1/30/15:
  • To make a shirt entirely by hand – and we’re going to go with 25 gauge for a decent, but coarse shirt – we start with the spinning. 25 ÷ threads per inch × 36 inches wide × 8 yards (shirts were longer then) = 7200 warp yards, plus about the same for weft = 14,400 yards of thread; divided by 30 yards per hour = 480 hours. The weaving requires about 20 hours including 10 hours minimum for set up – stretching the warp, setting up and threading the loom – and then another 8-10 for weaving. And the sewing, which I still say would take 7 hours, including finishing all the seams. So the new figures are:
  • Spinning – 480 hours
  • Weaving – 20 hours
  • Sewing – 8 hours
  • Total: 508 hours of labor to make a shirt.
  • This still doesn’t include things like buttons, or the needle and thread to sew the shirt, nor the labor that went into raising/processing the linen, cotton, or wool.

Imagine spending 480 hours to make enough thread to weave a shirt. No wonder Ellen Rollins said “The moaning of the big [spinning] wheel was the saddest sound of my childhood. It was like a low wail from out of the lengthened monotony of the spinner’s life.” (Jack Larkin, The Reshaping of Everyday Life, p. 26) And that would be 480 hours “fitted in”, because almost no woman could spend an entire working week (72 hours in pre-Industrial times) doing nothing but weaving. She had chores to do, like cooking, cleaning, dairying, weeding, minding children, etc. No matter what price she got for that yarn, she would undoubtedly have felt it was a pretty small sum for that much work.

NOTE: Back in the pre-industrial days, the making of thread, cloth, and clothing ate up all the time that a woman wasn’t spending cooking and cleaning and raising the children. That’s why single women were called “spinsters” – spinning thread was their primary job. “I somehow or somewhere got the idea,” wrote Lucy Larcom in the 18th century, “when I was a small child, that the chief end of woman was to make clothing for mankind.” Ellen Rollins: “The moaning of the big [spinning] wheel was the saddest sound of my childhood. It was like a low wail from out of the lengthened monotony of the spinner’s life.” (Jack Larkin, The Reshaping of Everyday Life, p. 26)

Anyway, with clothing that expensive and hard to make, every item was something you wore until it literally disintegrated. Even in 1800, a farm woman would be lucky to own three dresses – one for best and the other two for daily living. Heck, my mother, in 1930, went to college with that exact number of dresses to her name… This is why old clothing is rare: even the wealthy passed their old clothes on to the next generation or the poorer classes. The poor wore theirs until it could be worn no more, and then it was cut down for their children, and then used for rags of all kinds, and then, finally, sold to the rag and bone man who would transport it off to be made into (among other things) paper.


Vieille Landaise filant au Rouet 1952 (This was taken in rural France the year before I was born. Gasp!)
Taken in rural France the year before I was born. Gasp!

I would be a spinster, with calloused fingers and a muscle-bound leg. I get dizzy just thinking about it.