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.


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

  1. I love how Victorian, even interwar bedroom suites still tell a tale of few clothes: a single wardrobe & a chest of drawers for all a couple’s clothes, their bedlinen and probably the baby’s clothes too. Now a wall of in-built wardrobes or American-style walk-in closets are all the rage and anything less is considered ‘abject poverty’. Of course, I am still doing perfectly well with a handful of clothes, one “posh frock” and a few well-worn “muck clothes”, i.e. not fit for public wear but perfectly suitable for cleaning days & digging the vegetable beds…

    • Over the past years I’ve been slowly thinninig out my clothing. I’ve gone from a large, 3-sided, walk-in closet in a modern house to a little 1948 bungalow where my closet is 5 feet wide and 2.5 feet deep. (And painted dark purple inside, who knows why, so I can’t find what little is in there.) Granted, it’s still plenty of space for a single person. But it was meant to service a couple, so having more than just a few items wasn’t going to work. For decades I was completely gaga with the romantic notion of a free-standing wardrobe (well, I saw it as romantic), yet completely oblivious to what it said about how people used to live. It really gets me thinking of how “normal” and “average” are defined and re-defined through time.

      PS – am now following your blog. 🙂

  2. This is fascinating, and I understand the feminist implications completely, but I can’t help but wish that we valued our material goods more. If things were made with more hand work and integrity, perhaps we would have less of better quality, wear until they can not be worn anymore, re-make them into other things, and yes, make paper from the cotton rag.

    • I couldn’t agree more. I mend my clothes whenever I can. I donate things I either can’t or don’t want to wear anymore. I’ll look for used clothing before I buy new, whenever feasible. And if the rag man still made rounds I’d certainly have things for him, too.

      Something that really galls me – things today are made with a nod to planned obsolescence. A few years ago I bought a washer and dryer. There were some odd size restrictions (long story) so I ended up with a choice between “A” and “B” – but both brands cost over $1000.00. I was asked if I wanted to purchase an extended warranty for an additional two years of coverage, since the manufacturer’s warranty only covered 18 months. I was appalled.

  3. Interesting article, but I am not sure about some of the spinning stuff. For a start, in medieval times it would not be cotton, but linen, for a shirt. Now I’ve never tried spinning linen, it is not an easy fibre to spin, so that figure might be OK. But wool I am sure spins faster than 4 yards in an hour, especially on a wheel. I think the wheel start to appear in late medieval times, before that, and for people who couldn’t afford one, it would be spindles. These are very portable, so women, and children and probably old or injured men would spin when they weren’t doing anything else that needed their hands. But they could spin while walking about, while watching cattle, at any spare moment (multitasking is not a new thing!) and with wool I’m sure a good spindler can manage more than 4 yards in an hour, though I don’t have the figures. I’ve only done a little myself, though I’ve read books and blogs on the subject. I’m sure someone claimed they could spin (on a wheel) the wool for a sweater in a few hours, maybe a day, or was if 4 days? Still a lot faster than 480 hours. Of course weaving produces flat fabric which gives waste when clothes are cut out, unlike knitting, so the yarn would need to be longer, and possibly finer.

    Still a lot of work of course!

    • When I was growing up I’d read history books and stories that mentioned girls working on their trousseau at a very young age. As soon as they could knit a sock or sew a handkerchief filling that trousseau that would be their ever-lurking task until they married. I never understood why it took so long, nor did I comprehend the economic impact the work of completely hand-made clothing had on families. Eventually I figured out the time component (a basic understanding) but the financial factors eluded me completely until I came across Eve Fisher’s article.

      She revised her calculations based on a flood of input she received from spinners after the original article was posted, so I think those numbers are a pretty reliable baseline and a good place to start. Of course, there is a lot of variation amongst individual spinners. Linen (the fiber available in medieval times) is harder to spin than cotton. Looms varied in type, size and complexity (although the basic elements are the same). One can spin fiber into yarn or thread with wheels or spindles, but the different production rates are quite different. There is indeed documentation of women using drop spindles while herding livestock – in a number of cultures they still do it today. And girls learned how to spin at a very early age since it was both a productive and relatively safe chore.

      The origins of knitting are lost to time. A fragment originally thought to have been knit ca. 200 – 256 AD (before the Byzantine Era) turned out to have been produced by a process called nålbinding, which looks nearly identical to knitting but only uses one needle to splice and knot string together. (Makes plain ol’ knitting sound like a relative breeze to me.)

      But while older and/or injured men would have been physically able to spin or knit, I don’t know that their ascribed gender roles would have allowed them to do so. As I understand it, historically speaking, men contributed to clothing by working with animals – raising/hunting, killing, skinning and tannning the hides. But I’m far from an expert on what was acceptable when, and cultural traditions vary widely throughout time and geography.

      I’m just thankful that when I look out my window I see a garden and not an enormous field of flax. 😉

    • While you can spin faster on a wheel than a drop spindle, it is still time consuming, and spinning wheels are a relatively new invention. They are definitely post-medieval. The start of the Industrial Revolution was the “Spinning Jenny” which was the first automatic spinning wheel. It was invented because the inventor was appalled by the amount of time his wife and daughters had to spend spinning.

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