Cheap Clothes: Musing on the Luxury of Modern Life

While picking up something at Le Mart du Wal (as we refer to it around Redquarters), I started thinking about the price of clothing, comparing now to history. The short version? Incredibly, unimaginably inexpensive to cheap in terms of time needed to make it, labor needed to make it, and the amount that can be produced. When it comes to textiles, Earth has never been so fabulously wealthy. How we got here is a fascinating story.

The history of clothing and textiles is long and intriguing. Tanning has been around for thousands of years if not tens of thousands, and people learned how to weave around 12,000 years ago. Humans had been making string and twine for a lot longer, but how to turn twine into cloth took some experimenting. Making a device that would hold some string steady enough to allow the weaver to work more string back and forth across it required ingenuity and experimentation. The back-strap loom and strip looms were probably the first, with a vertical loom, where the warp threads hang vertically and the weaver works while standing and moving the weft back and forth came next. None of these require much large equipment and can be portable. But they do not make large pieces of cloth, either. At some point multiple individuals invented roller bars, allowing longer and longer pieces of cloth to be made. However, it was not until the Middle Ages that complicated mechanical looms developed in Europe.

Width is a problem, as you can tell.

Preparing thread took time. Wool and cotton are relatively simple to make into thread, requiring only cleaning, combing, and spinning. Linen and silk are more complicated, with linen requiring the growing of flax, which is harvested, soaked in water and allowed to rot a little to soften the hard stems, hackled and retted to break off the hard bits and comb the fibers into straightness, then spun and woven. Flax ponds in summer were rather smelly, as you can imagine. Turning the thread into cloth took more time, making clothing quite expensive. There was also felt, made by wetting fur or wool fibers, then compressing them until the fibers locked together into a mass, called “felting.”

Wool felt is “felt”. Felted wool is slightly different and less dense. Boiled wool is different again, but shares some qualities with felt.

Typically, spinning and weaving were women’s tasks, because women could do other things while working, and because weaving tended to be sedentary. Thus the old term for an older unwed woman: spin-ster. This wasn’t universal, and shepherds and other men often spun, while in Europe master weavers were generally male. Making clothing varied as well, with women making family clothes and master tailors working with jewelers to make royal garments. Even so, sewing and mending was women’s work.

Keep in mind too that cloth was needed for sacks, sails, bedding (for the wealthy), and other utility uses. Jute and hemp were industrial fibers, although you could make clothes out of hemp after some additional processing. Bast, or the inner bark of some trees, could be used and was in a few places.

In Europe, and most of the world, clothing cost a great deal of time and labor, meaning that most people did not own that many garments at any one time. Most people owned a long knee or ankle-length shirt-like garment, and things to go over or under it, like trousers or trews, a kirtle, protective aprons, and similar. If the weather were nice enough, people sometimes worked in the near buff, especially men doing dirty jobs that did not call for spark protection (for example). Garments would be handed down and remade, and some traditional women’s clothes such as the Russian overdress were made specifically for that. They could be taken up and let out, embroidered or un-embroidered as pregnancy, inheritance, and changing styles required. Such dresses were passed down for several generations.

Pregnant? Gain weight? Lose weight? No worries.

The under shirt served as a basic garment and protection for nice things worn on top. After all, you could wash linen. You can’t wash cloth-of-gold with seed-pearls and silk embroidery. Very wealthy people had multiple under and over garments, but unless you were, oh, Queen Elizabeth the First, or Lorenzo de Medici, your wardrobe would be mighty sparse compared to even a relatively poor individual today. Servants’ contracts specified certain rights to used garments and to material to make their own clothes, and used clothes passed through many hands before finally going to the paper maker. Very few people bought new-new clothes on a regular basis. In a way, Pres. Bill Clinton donating used underwear to charity would have been quite generous and praiseworthy – five hundred years ago. In the 1990s? Not so much.

Wool was the basic fiber in Europe, with some linen and a little cotton and nettle-fibers for the truly poor. Remember the fairy tale of the girl who had to make shirts of nettles to free her brothers from enchantment? She was making nettle-cloth and then weaving and sewing the shirts. Wool required sheep, and England became the wool-super-producer, sending fleeces to the Low Countries to be woven and dyed, then returned as cloth. That is why the Prime Minister sits on a sack of wool to this day, as a reminder of the foundation of the economy. It also is why a sheep-disease could wipe out the entire economy, as happened in the early 1300s with the onset of the Little Ice Age and three wet years that allowed a murrain and hoof-rot to spread.

Not until the 1700s did people come up with ways to make weaving faster, and then spinning faster, and then mechanizing knitting as well. The price of clothing plummeted, relatively speaking, although rights to used clothing remained hotly contested and desirable. Chemical dyes, mechanical looms, mechanical cotton picking machines, and electric sheep shears dropped the cost of the raw materials, as did the discovery of petroleum-based fibers such as rayon, nylon, and polyester. Even so, cloth could remain expensive, like in the case of England after WWII, when all the sales of wool went to pay off the war debt. Clothing remained rationed until 1956, and French fashion magazines were banned for a while in order to keep women from trying to copy the “wasteful” New Look styles coming from France, with their full skirts.

Tsk, tsk, look at that wasted fabric.

Today in the west we have unimagined amounts of clothing. The cost ranges from “you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me-how-much-for-that?” to incredibly inexpensive. I buy expensive socks – wool that range from $12 – $16 per pair and that last me for several years. I could get cheap fashion socks, or basic white-cotton work socks for a buck a pair, less if I get remainders. We wear things out and toss them, or mend them depending on how much they cost and where the hole is. Some people clean out their wardrobes every year as fashion trends change, others of us hold onto good pieces forever. I have 25-year-old blazers that I dearly love and wear on a regular basis. We have used-clothing stores that overflow with an enormous range of things, and high-end vintage shops, or special charities that collect business wear for needy students. Clothing is cheap and easy. Not always inexpensive, and you still get what you pay for in terms of durability, but everyone with a job can afford new underwear. That’s rich, when you look at the long run of history.


12 thoughts on “Cheap Clothes: Musing on the Luxury of Modern Life

  1. The limited clothing held true up through the early 1900s in the South and West. Also hand-me-downs. My grandmother said she had TWO dresses growing up, one Sunday-go-to-meeting, and another everyday dress. She got a bath on Sunday, put the good dress on, went to church, came home and washed her everyday dress. Otherwise she wore hand-me-down jeans/shirts from her older brothers. She said her daddy had three changes of clothes, Sunday and two work sets. And two union suits.

    • Yes, it did. I suspect Mom’s mother was eternally grateful that she was 1) the oldest and 2) a girl, at least when it came to clothes. Her 5 younger brothers passed things down the line. Southeast Texas, 1900-1920s. And then along came the Depression, but she and Papa both had good jobs, so that helped after ’33.

      One difficulty we have today is that fabrics are lighter and thinner than they used to be, so many things truly do not wear as well as they used to.

    • Much later than that. My mother wasn’t born until after the mid-1900’s, and she noted how lucky she was to be a girl; because she had 8 brothers (five older) and she would have never gotten any new clothes if she had been a boy.

    • My mom was born in ’49 and still remembers her first “Store Bought” dress which she earned the money for picking tobacco as a teenager on the family farm. She was the youngest of three girls, so nothing new for her.

    • Started with Mom’s father who called the store with the red concentric circle logo as “Tar-zhey” (think French). Not sure why we do that, aside from being Odd.

  2. A very neat article – yet another way that life is easier now than it used to be.
    I think it is a very good point about the light fabrics in use these days – I’ve heard stories of my parents and others about clothes lasting for decades, but mine sure don’t unless they are used sparingly.

    • Thank you. I had not thought about it until I read an article by a Victorian-era re-enactor and docent discussing why modern replicas of period clothes often don’t look quite right. Apparently central heating made the heavier weaves unneeded, so mills stopped making most of them. I have one period-correct twill skirt and it is about three times the weight of identical garments made with more modern fabric, and much stiffer.

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