History: A push for mass production

How often have you stopped to think about the clothes you are wearing, not from the perspective of style or comfort but rather how they were made or even how they arrived at the store you purchased them from?  Not often, if ever would be my response, the exception being when Nike makes the news because of its labor practices abroad or lack of labor practices (“Nike’s New Game Plan for Sweatshops,” 2004).  It’s 2010 and as consumers we respond to our immediate need for clothing by focusing on where we can buy the clothing item we want, by the designer we like and at the right price.  Rarely do we ever wonder how the product was made and brought to market.  We don’t think about the innovators that introduced and applied new technology to the production of clothing items and how the change in production impacted society and the clothes we wear.  

The truth is that the procurement of clothing hasn’t always been easy.  Prior to the 1800’s and the power-loom, two-tread sewing machine, size/grade patterns, automobiles, movies, wars and digital technology, clothing items were made at home or on demand by placing a custom order with a local tailor or seamstress.  Specifically, our story of ready-made clothing starts with two technological innovations, the power-loom and the mass production of textiles.

Francis C. Lowell introduced the power-loom to the in New England cotton industry, in 1813, after a visit to Manchester, England, where he studied the English loom so that he could bring it back to America.  At the time of its introduction in England “the power loom…was kept very secret, and after many failures, public opinion was not favorable to its success” (Appleton, et al, 1969).  Fully aware of the need for improvement and quantity in textile production, Lowell worked on his loom and finally shared his first version of the Lowell power-loom with fellow investor, Nathan Appleton in the fall of 1814.  Mr. Appleton’s personal recounting of first seeing the Lowell power-loom operated was to recall “the state of admiration and satisfaction with which…[they] sat by the hour, watching the beautiful movement of this new and wonderful machine, destined as it evidently was, to change the character of all textile industry” (Appleton, et al, 1969). 

Although it would take a number of additional improvements, to increase the speed and accuracy of the power-loom, Lowell’s power-loom did produced cotton cloth of good quality.  Yet, the quality alone was not enough and Lowell had a hard time selling the product as most material was still being produced by handlooms. The slow adoption of the power-loom is our first example of the innovation-decision process as described in the book, Diffusion of innovations (Rogers, 1995).  Lowell had awareness-knowledge that the general public did not and because of this they didn’t have a reason to require mass amounts of textiles and no need for the power-loom.  Thus, although the power-loom technology was successful, it would not be accepted by the popular commercial market for some time.  Based on “…statistical analysis of invention and innovation by John L. Enos,…[it has been suggested] that it took an average of about thirteen years for an invention to receive popular commercial acceptance during this era” and the power-loom was no exception (Mohanty, 1989). 

During the 13 years that it took for the commercial acceptance of the power-loom to grow, textile manufactures continued to developed the ‘handloom outwork’ model where the spinning mills would “issue warps to individual part-time weavers” (Mohanty, 1989).  Almost foreshadowing the future of ready-made clothes production, the part-time weavers were compromised of “widows, single independent women, young adults, and other who wanted to supplement their family’s income” (Mohanty, 1989).

“By 1820, sixteen percent of the cotton textile companies in…[Massachusetts and Rhode Island] owned power-weaving machinery” (Mohanty, 1989). And in 1915, the textile industry continued to develop as designers such as Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel started to introduce clothes made of a mixture of wool, spun silk and cotton.  This initial introduction of rayon was unsuccessful, due to the unpleasant feel of the material.  It would only take a few more scientific advancements before rayon became an accepted material in the clothing industry.  And as the power-loom increase the variety and volume of textile production, the sewing machine would usher in an increase in the variety and volume of clothing items.

The sewing machine as a usable product was a much desired technology that inventors in Austria, England, and Germany had been working on since 1755.  However, it was French tailor Barthelemy Thimonnier who patented the first workable sewing machine in 1830.  Thimonnier’s chain-stitch, one-thread machine was first purchased and used to manufacture uniforms, as the mass production of clothing at this time was for military use.  Even so, the sewing machine was not well received by Parisian tailors, who felt that the sewing machine would put them out of business.  In fact, ‘two hundred [tailors]…stormed the Petit establishment [where the uniforms were being made] and destroyed all of the machines. Thimonnier was nearly stoned to death” (Ley, 1975).  This near death experience didn’t stop Thimonnier and in 1848 he patented his second model.  By this time Thimonnier had already been surpassed by American Elias Howe.  Howe had improved on the two-thread machine invent by fellow American Walter Hunt. 

Similar to Lowell’s experience with the power-loom, Howe’s invention was unproven and not well received.  “Nobody in America was interested in the machine…[and]…Howe…[had to] persuaded William F. Thomas of Cheapside, London to buy the English license” (Ley, 1975).  Two years later when Howe returned to America, having been fired by Thomas with no compensation, he found that three different firms had been making improvements and manufacturing his sewing machine.  Singer, Wheeler & Wilson, and Grower & Baker, were all successful taken to court by Howe and he was awarded a five dollar royalty for each machine sold. 

Ten years later, around 1860, the clothing manufacturers started using sewing machines and the trend of slowing accepting the innovations continued.  “The public had a very negative attitude toward machine-sewn clothes…[and]…early manufactures of ready-made clothes depended largely on the homework method of working.  Similar to the power-loom industry and their ‘handloom outwork’ model, most homeworkers were women who collected the work to be done at the factory and then took it home to do the actual hand sewing.  Going to the factory to get the work very often took half a day of the workers’ time, which they could ill afford to waste.  The homeworker also had to pay her own rent, heating, and lighting, and was expected to pay for her own thread, needles, machine (if it was used), and any trimmings required by the clothing.  This ‘sweating system’ as it was first called by the London press in the 1850’s, prevailed in American, England, Belgium, and Germany until the end of the nineteenth century” (Ley, 1975).  It wouldn’t be until the mid-1800 that a new invention, size or graded, pattern would further change the production of clothing.

Unlike Lowell, Thimonnier, and Howe, the introduction of graded paper pattern in 1863 by Ebenezer Butterick and his wife, was quickly accepted and adopted by individuals and the garment industry.  Intended for use by individuals, to facilitate the making of clothes at home by women and dressmakers, grade paper quickly replaced the copied garment method or rough shaping out of muslin.  What this meant to the apparel industry is that rather than having to create an original garment to provide as a copy or making a rough shape of the garment out of muslin, that required cutting and adjusting it before the expensive fabric would be cut, you could used the grade paper to serve as an inexpensive model.  Because the paper pattern inexpensive and easy to use it was quickly adopted by the ready-made clothing manufacturers as it also allowed for standardization of sizes and simplified the process of producing clothes.

It should also be noted that although the graded paper pattern allowed for some standardization “the actual measurements of…size categories vary greatly across firms and even within firms across different product lines. Each firm uses its own “ideal figure” to create patterns based on a fit model. So, one firm’s size 6 could be another firm’s size 10. This is especially true for the women’s wear category, where some businesses label their clothing with smaller sizes than measurements warrant, often known as vanity sizes” (Cornell, 2008).  Following on the heels of size or graded, pattern, the clothing industry was also shaped by two inventions that increase the amount of information the public was receiving on clothing.  These inventions were the automobile and the movies.

Initially, automobiles and movies appear to be somewhat out of the scope of the garment industry.  However, upon closure examination they both introduced a new sphere of influence on society and how fashion was perceived and worn by the American population.  For example, “eight thousand cars [were] registered in the United States in 1900…and by 1926 that number had risen to twenty-eight million (Ley, 1975).  During that time, special clothes were made for driving to protect the driver and female passenger.  Everything from a special coat to hats and goggles were designed for the specific use of riding in an automobile.  The automobile also increased the access people had to larger towns, by decreasing the time it took to travel.  Even though trains were used during this time, they were city to city direct and didn’t connect to small towns that were not on the railroad line.  Thus automobiles made it easy of access to friends and family that lived at a distance, but not on the railroad line, and increased the number of visits that one could make.  It was no longer a huge effort or time commitment to visit and celebrate a variety of occasions.  The more social visits you could make, the more clothes you were required to have.  Also, by increasing the easy to which you could access small towns and larger cities, the automobile increased access to new fashion and shops where you could buy the latest fashion. 

Similar to the automobile, the ‘neighborhood movie house’ is another example of increased access to fashion.  As the movie industry grew, more people had access to see what their favorite actor was wearing. And as we see in today’s society, people started to wear and model clothing based on what they saw their favorite actor was wearing.  The fashion industry also intentionally branched out to Hollywood and as the fashion changed in the movies, so did fashion for the average person.  Besides technological inventions a larger political change also reinforced the need for mass production of clothing.  This political change was war and its impact on the American workforce.

The War of 1812, World War I and World War II introduced women in Europe and America to work outside of the home.  “In addition to work directly related to the war, such as nursing, women were needed to take the place of the fighting men in offices and factories.  The direct effect of this was that women’s clothes began to make [practical] sense for the first time” (Ley, 1975).  During each war, there was a marked changing in Women’s clothes that is best summarized as simplification.  Women’s clothes were simplified and made to work within the requirements of working in an office or factory.  Hoops and corsets were removed and as the simplification of clothes increased, so did the easy to which they could be mass produced. Another byproduct of wars was that every time women were introduced to work outside the home, fewer went back to working just within the home.  Thus decreasing their time and ability to make clothes at home and further supported the developing garment industry by buying ready made clothes.

Pieced together the introduction of the power-loom, sewing machine, graded paper patterns, automobiles, movies and war, changed American culture and the production of ready-made clothing.  Although graded paper patterns were quickly accepted, the power-loom and sewing machine were not.  Lowell and Howe had to lead their respective inventions through an innovation-decision process, using their knowledge of the technology to persuade others to decide on the implementation of the technology.  They also had to wait for confirmation that the technology was sound before it was eventually accepted by their respective industries. By the time the power-loom and sewing machine had been adopted by the masses, they had also undergone additional improvements. These improvements, as was the case with the sewing machine also made it possible to introduce a new way of speeding up the mass production of clothing.

In 1880, “in order to speed the making of the clothes, a division of labor was introduced in England…  [which was then brought by immigrants to]…Boston, and…adopted by New York manufacturers who called it the “Boston system.”  It became the practice to divide a garment into sections and assign each separate section to an individual worker.  In order to pay for this method of manufacture, piece-rates were set up” (Ley, 1975). In essence the production of clothes became an assemble line.  Along with the simplification of fashion styles and the increase in the number of women who worked outside the home, by 1910, the industry of ready-made clothing was well established in America. 

From World War II to the present, the lasting effect of the established ready-made clothing industry is still seen in New York.  “Manufacturers and contractors that produced apparel [now] defined themselves by their products – e.g., dresses, men’s wear, or sportswear businesses. [Which]…is logical because the machinery and layout of the factory floor is determined by the production steps that are determined by product type” (Cornell, 2008).  In addition to the factory floor layout, technology continues to change the garment industry in a variety of ways.  “Computer software is available to help…plan and organize…production to reduce inventory costs of materials and finished goods” (Cornell, 2008).   By introducing software, manufacturers are hoping to lowering inventory and to create a larger profit margin by decrease the number of clothing items that are not sold. And as the garment industry lowers inventory and delivers end products to consumers, digital technology is playing a role in this movement and returning the element of customization that was lost when Lowell introduced the power-loom.

Digital technology has also opened up the possibility of involving the consumer  in product design.  “Instead of mass-producing generic objects to somewhat satisfy a lot of people, internet distribution enables designers to target custom-designed products to communities and individuals.  Following the ‘long tail’ model of internet music distribution, where many unique musicians can find their small audiences, on-line sale services allow on-demand manufacturing of small batches of products…and direct-to-consumer sale of craft items…  These types of sale promote individualized design, including fitted products and functions that more closely match the desires of a group of people” (Bonanni, et al, 2008).

The truth is that the procurement of clothing hasn’t always been easy and it won’t be any easier in the future.  Prior to the 1800’s and the power-loom, two-tread sewing machine, size/grade patterns, automobiles, movies, wars and digital technology, clothing items were made at home or on demand by placing a custom order with a local tailor or seamstress.  Now, because of digital technology and its’ application in the mass production of clothing, we are facing a new future.  A future where customers want a product to be personalized and business want to continue making a profit by expanding their market.  As a new approach to mass customization depends on the consumer and manufacturer interaction, we are only at the being of their developing interaction.  What remains to be see is how flexible the consumer and manufacture have to be to make mass production and customization work together. 


Appleton, N., & Batchelder, S. (1969). The Early development of the American cotton textile industry. New York: Harper & Row.

Bonanni L., Parkes A., & Ishii H. (2008). Future craft: How digital media is transforming product design. Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems – Proceedings. 2553-2564.

Business Week. (2004). Nike’s New Game Plan for Sweatshops. Retrieved on February 14, 2010, from http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/04_38/b3900011_mz001.htm

Cornell: the cutting edge apparel business guide. (2008). Retrieved on February 4, 2010, from http://courses.cit.cornell.edu/cuttingedge/index2.html  

Fashion incubator; lessons from the sustainable factory floor. Retrieved on February 2, 2010, from http://www.fashion-incubator.com/archive/history_of_apparel_manufacturing/

Kamali, N. & Loker, S. (2002). Mass customization: On-line consumer involvement in product design. Journal of Computer Mediated Communication, 7(4). Retrieved on February 4, 2010, from http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol7/issue4/loker.html            

Ley, S. (1975). Fashion for everyone: The story of ready-to-wear, 1870’s-1970’s. New York: Scribner.

Makerbot industries: robots that make things. Retrieved on January 28, 2010, from http://www.makerbot.com/

Mohanty, G. F. (1989). Putting up with Putting-Out: Power-Loom Diffusion and Outwork for Rhode Island Mills, 1821-1829. Journal of the Early Republic. 9 (2), 191-216. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3123203

Negroponte, N. (1995). Being digital. New York: Knopf.

National Institute of Standards and Technology virtual museum. (Updated: 2004, October 8). Retrieved on February 2, 2010, from http://museum.nist.gov/exhibits/apparel/index.htI

Rogers, E. M. (1995). Diffusion of innovations. New York: Free Press.

Published on March 17, 2010 at 5:28 pm  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. your work is good

  2. Hello everyone, it’s my first pay a visit at this website, and piece of writing is really fruitful in favor of me, keep up posting these types of articles.

  3. this is amazing! I need this as a gcse fashion design project and it’s like…so awesome!!!!! Thx – you must do more of this

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