The $3,500 Shirt
March 1, 2015 7:21 AM   Subscribe

 
And you'd still need pants

Well there's your first mistake.
posted by phunniemee at 7:25 AM on March 1, 2015 [7 favorites]


Dammit, phunniemee! Great elves think alike and all that.
posted by arcticseal at 7:31 AM on March 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


Good article, the problem is that clothing is now deemed disposable. The emphasis is not on clothing lasting longer than a season or two and repair is not viewed as an option by a lot of people. Same applies to footwear.
posted by arcticseal at 7:33 AM on March 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


Hmmm. If you look at the comments, you'll see there are numerous issues with the historians calculations. also, if cloth was so incredibly expensive, why was leather (as comparatively expensive to produce but literally hundreds of times longer wearing as a clothing material) not more prominent in the medieval peasants wardrobe?
posted by Chrischris at 7:42 AM on March 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


That's a cool article, and one I want to send to anyone who ever casually asks a fiber arts person to make them something.

However, the spinning numbers are pretty far off, I think, even taking fiber processing into account. On the type of spindle that could easily be made at the time, I can spin about 40 yards of weaveable thread in an hour, and I am a slow soft urban person who learned to spin as an adult (I've heard 100-200 yards per hour being typical for people who spend their lives doing it, and I've also heard numbers from the era saying that one needs three spinners per weaver if everyone is keeping up with each other).

It's still not a cheap shirt, and it's still some good starting numbers when someone admires my husband's handspun handknit sweater and bets that someone might be willing to pay 100$ for it. (If I charged for my time it'd be about 1000, so same order of magnitude as her estimate.)
posted by tchemgrrl at 7:45 AM on March 1, 2015 [5 favorites]


Is she under the impression that the people who make our clothes now are getting paid $7.50 an hour? Nobody was paying $35,000 for a shirt then because nobody thought peasant women's labor was worth that much, including peasant women. Nobody is paying $35,000 for a shirt now in part because of technological advances, but also in part because nobody thinks that women in developing countries' labor is worth that much. And, for that matter, nobody is paying thousands of dollars a year for my house to be clean or my food to be made, because I do all that stuff for free, because we as a society take for granted that the labor that goes into making a household function is not labor that should be compensated.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 7:48 AM on March 1, 2015 [27 favorites]


Hmmm. If you look at the comments, you'll see there are numerous issues with the historians calculations.

That seems to rather casually assume that everyone griping in the comments is right and the historian is wrong. She links, in the piece, to a column where she's updated the math after more consultation with weavers, spinners etc. and determines that there are actually more person-hours involved in making the shirt than she'd originally calculated.
posted by yoink at 7:49 AM on March 1, 2015 [6 favorites]


Is she under the impression that the people who make our clothes now are getting paid $7.50 an hour?

No, she's using US minimum wage to give us a sense of how much labor is involved in the shirt. (And there are, in fact, clothes being made and sold in the US by workers who are being paid US minimum wage. American Apparel, for just one example.)
posted by yoink at 7:51 AM on March 1, 2015 [4 favorites]


I think the takeaway should be, rather than picking at whether the blogger's calculations are exactly correct, that hand-making things from "first principles" is really time-consuming and, therefore, expensive. That "I was naked, and you clothed me" bit from Matthew in the New Testament wasn't just picked at random; keeping yourself and your family clothed was a took a lot of effort for the poor, even in the ancient Mediterranean, where the weather was on the warm side. In the chilly Europe of the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period, it must have been a constant worry for the poor. (Imagine living through the the current winter in New England when you can't afford a coat or boots.)

So, while the shirt didn't literally cost $3500, peasants didn't make $30K/year, either. A new shirt was a significant outlay that required planning, saving, or, maybe, lucky largesse (there's a lot of giving of clothing in fealty rituals).

I guess this is why so much of the magic in fairy tales revolves around getting clothes and enough to eat; if you are going to dream, you might as well dream big.
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:15 AM on March 1, 2015 [25 favorites]


you'll see there are numerous issues with the historians calculations.

Well, many of them point to the shirt ending up even more expensive in terms of labor, so..Historians can kibitz about this stuff forever, and they will.

In general, It's a very fraught endeavor to try to frame past economies in today's terms, but I think this piece is quite successful at offering some perspective on the preciousness of handmade products, the intense labor they represented, and their relative worth, and that's the central point.
posted by Miko at 8:20 AM on March 1, 2015 [3 favorites]


No, she's using US minimum wage to give us a sense of how much labor is involved in the shirt.
That's sort of not a very useful comparison, since the people reading the thing have no idea how much labor goes into making the clothes that they buy and how much those clothes would cost if the people making them were being paid a living wage.
(And there are, in fact, clothes being made and sold in the US by workers who are being paid US minimum wage. American Apparel, for just one example.)
That's true and entirely relevant if you're a slim 19-year-old who either doesn't have a job or works in an extremely casual industry. The rest of us are probably not buying our clothes exclusively from American Apparel and are buying clothes with significantly more complex construction, which are typically not made in the US. Unless you've tried sewing or otherwise making your own clothes, you probably have no idea how much time and work goes into making various kinds of garments, and even then you probably know next to nothing about the work that goes into producing the fabric.

I think there could be more useful calculations. For instance, we could compare the time and effort it took to launder clothes in the past to the time it takes to launder clothes now, since that is a chore that most of us actually do for ourselves. But the production of clothes seems like a weird comparison, since that continues to be an industry that involves a ton of exploitation that is pretty invisible to the average consumer.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 8:28 AM on March 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


I wonder how much people were paid to pick and nits back then?
posted by maxsparber at 8:40 AM on March 1, 2015 [7 favorites]


I wonder how much people were paid to pick and nits back then?

Picking nits was daily grooming labor because, lack of washing. Getting those lice and other parasites was (and still is) a happy part of the "salt of the earth" existence of the poor.
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:48 AM on March 1, 2015 [6 favorites]


I should probably take a break from commenting from this for a bit; I don't want to appear to be shirt-threading.
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:50 AM on March 1, 2015 [13 favorites]


also, if cloth was so incredibly expensive, why was leather (as comparatively expensive to produce but literally hundreds of times longer wearing as a clothing material) not more prominent in the medieval peasants wardrobe?

The cost of women's labor (edit: at home) was 0.

A tanner's job was stinky (dog shit was used in tanning up to the XIXth century, dyers used urine as a mordant) and hard, but at least it was a paid job and there was a tanners' guild to count on.
posted by sukeban at 8:51 AM on March 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


Here's a discussion on the spinning values at Ravelry (registration required).
posted by liet at 8:57 AM on March 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


Leather is not especially comfortable or washable or warm relative to wool.
posted by congen at 9:03 AM on March 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


My god yes, tanning was nearly a biohazard.

Many people have acquaintance with the time investment of making clothing. Most women of my mothers generation made clothing to wear. Many younger people still know how to sew and knit because of home ec classes and the resurgence in popularity in home crafts. That's why homemade items are now highly prized as gifts - instead of signalling a lack of access to money, they signal a significant investment in time.

But that laundry comparison sounds really interesting too! I think you should write that article.
posted by bq at 9:05 AM on March 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


Thinking about leather, I suspect that it was just much more in demand for industrial uses - like riding tackle, hinges in mechanical systems and in vehicles, buckets, and protective clothing for metalworkers - as well as for shoes. I suspect that these uses took precedence and that leather was probably more expensive than fabric. Also, there was much less beef around (it was resource-intensive in modern Europe and only for the wealthy), so there was less leather around, too.

As for warmth: early in my career when I was working as an environmental educator I had to deliver an [extremely problematic] winter workshop on Native technologies, and part of that involved my wearing buckskin leggings and dress and hanging around in tipis in February. The buckskins were the warmest, most comfortable thing I have ever worn. Maybe because it's skin, it warms up and holds heat like skin, and is a hell of a wind-stopper. Also great for being around open flame because it's not very flammable - you could just brush off any stray sparks or cinders, no problem. The only knock I had against it was that it was pretty heavy and stiff. Other than that, though, there's no question why people who had a lot of access to deer skin wore it throughout the winter and survived nicely.

A lot of why one culture used wool and one used leather/skin is about the resources available in the environment and the nature of the landscape. Sheep like to graze on rocky, poor soil without a lot of trees, so people who lived there, Hey:wool! Deer like forested environments with a lot of cover, so, hey, skins.
posted by Miko at 9:11 AM on March 1, 2015 [8 favorites]


I was reading a book about 14th century England that was organized as if you were a traveler who was going to visit that time much like you'd visit a foreign country. When it came to giving conversion rates the author points out that you can't just give a single rate, because what's cheap and what's expensive is very different than today. Comparatively, human labor is dirt cheap and material goods are expensive, even more so if they're not locally sourced, where "locally" is like 20-30 miles.

So the author is right that "time is time", and 479 hours is an awful lot of time for one shirt. Even if she's off by a factor of 10, 48 hours is still a lot. But when she converts it to dollars the statements get iffy.
posted by benito.strauss at 9:17 AM on March 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


I have been contemplating the issue of what we really need, rather than "the big sell" of the last 80 years or so. Flax grws east of the city, and I was recently imagining how much one would have to harvest, rett, and process to make linen thread, then spin and weave.

I have a skirt I bought 30 years ago. I still wear it. It is black, of course, the dark matter of fashion. This skirt is some sort of object lesson in permanence.

I like the idea of life slowed down, with the theory that all things being equal, stretched time /compressed time we can make and value things, or we can make and let what we make, run in the background. Either way having less, using less, valuing what we have, feels better to me.

My grandmothers made dresses from flour sacks, back in the day when women baked everythig their families ate. Flour came in cotton sacks with pretty prints, so a woman could buy three fifty pound bags of flour in the same print and have enough cloth to make a little girl's dress. Hand me downs were a substantial saving of time and energy, not such a bad thing if one girl always wanted a dress of some particular cloth pattern.
posted by Oyéah at 9:22 AM on March 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


I don't see any particular problem with using dollar figures to give an idea of relative value of items produced by hand -- we're more used to thinking about value in money than in time.

The most valuable item I own is probably a lace shawl I spent over a hundred hours crocheting. I can compare the investment that went into it to other items I own only if I convert that investment to currency, since I didn't pay for them in time by making them myself. Since the point of this blog post is showing the relative value of clothing now and then, using minimum wage to do it makes sense.
posted by asperity at 9:27 AM on March 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


This post is totally making me want to break out my spindle for the first time in a few years. I've got a bag of roving right here...
posted by asperity at 9:28 AM on March 1, 2015


You think that's unreasonable you should see what a PT Cruiser cost back then.
posted by 7segment at 9:44 AM on March 1, 2015 [5 favorites]


Another reflection on the value of clothing comes from Samuel Johnson's contemporary, the penny and pound foolish poet Samuel Boyse, who was more or less regularly forced to pawn his clothing.

Which suggests that the clothing carried enough value on the second hand market to be worth pawning in the first place.

According to this site, a tailor-made shirt ca. 1800 (the mechanical loom was in its infancy just then) went for about a guinea and a half. Hard to compare value at this remove, but bear in mind that a guinea (named for the country where the metal was mined) was a 1/4 ounce gold piece. You do the math. (And bear in mind that Turnbull and Asser starts bespoke shirts at $US 425.)
posted by BWA at 9:57 AM on March 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


My god yes, tanning was nearly a biohazard.

Not even nearly. Laws about where tanneries could be located (out of town, downwind, and away from water sources used downstream by people or cattle) were some of Europe's earliest environmental regulations.

I've made garments by hand starting from first principles; raw fleece, washed and scoured, then processed (combed, carded, or flicked locks depending), spun (wheel or spindle, again depending), plied, washed and dressed, and then knit or woven. I've made socks, gloves, shawls, and a woven scarf this way. Her numbers check out to me. At the wheel or spindle I can produce way more than 4 yards of singles per hour, but when you roll in the time spent prepping the fleece for spinning, plying (a traditional gansey is made from 5-ply yarn!), etc, skeining and washing the yarn, dyeing, etc. it sounds about right.

I had someone try to buy one of my hand-spun hand-knit shawls once. I had made it for a gift for a friend, so if I had sold it, I would have had to replace it. She said "Any price, just name it, it's beautiful!" I thought for a minute about the 1500 hours of labor in that shawl and quoted her a price of $20,000. I don't know if I've ever seen someone physically blanch so abruptly before.
posted by KathrynT at 10:18 AM on March 1, 2015 [28 favorites]


A lot of fiber arts societies and museums put on "sheep to shawl" workshops, where you can see the raw materials from shearing end up in the finished product. So that might be a place you quantify at least the hours in that form of production, though spinning/knitting is much more efficient than spinning/weaving.

Since the point of this blog post is showing the relative value of clothing now and then, using minimum wage to do it makes sense.

It's informative, but another thing to factor in is opportunity cost. Since so much of the economy wasn't cash, you have to think about what the woman who made the cloth would have been able to do with the same amount of time - in terms of food production or other labor.

Some of the essays in Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's The Age of Homespun touch on these issues.
posted by Miko at 10:43 AM on March 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


Spinner here. Her spinning numbers are absurdly wrong. The rest of it is interesting, but I just can't get past how wrong she is.
posted by bitter-girl.com at 10:43 AM on March 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


The update she did ups the spinning thoroughput to 30 yards per hour, if I'm reading it right.
posted by asperity at 10:48 AM on March 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


Comparatively, human labor is dirt cheap and material goods are expensive, even more so if they're not locally sourced, where "locally" is like 20-30 miles.

Yeah, that's the problem with trying to put it in dollar terms using minimum wage as a conversion factor; back then the wage for 8 hours of unskilled labor would buy you a lot less than $58 would today, even when you put it in terms of goods like food that would have been available in both time periods. There aren't really any other methods that don't have comparable problems, though - gold, for instance, would have been subject to totally different supply and demand conditions, and its price has fluctuated widely even within the last few decades.

I don't know that, regardless of how tight you get the estimates of the labor inputs, there would ever be a way to put it in 2014 dollar terms that would be more than a vague swag. In any case, though, clothes were clearly expensive as hell relative to now.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 10:56 AM on March 1, 2015


That's why the soldiers in the Gospels threw dice for Jesus ' cloak, and why people in Roman Egypt, around the same time, bequeathed their clothes in their wills.
posted by bad grammar at 11:09 AM on March 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


And that's also why the Roman army made its tents from leather (despite leather being much heavier).
posted by bad grammar at 11:12 AM on March 1, 2015


I've been interested to follow the link to the Samuel Boyse anecdote.
IT was about the year 1740 that Mr. Boyse, reduced to the last extremity of human wretchedness, had not a shirt, a coat, or any kind of apparel to put on; the sheets in which he lay were carried to the pawnbroker's, and he was obliged to be confined to bed, with no other covering than a blanket. He had little support but what he got by writing letters to his friends in the most abject style.
Which really points up the difference in cost between materials and labour at that time, because to send his letters and complete the few commissions that he had, he must have been able to pay someone to take messages.
posted by glasseyes at 11:32 AM on March 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


Is it a Gordon Gartrell?
posted by dry white toast at 12:05 PM on March 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


he must have been able to pay someone to take messages.

Ah! You raise an interesting point. Here's the ancillary Fun Fact to Know and Tell, though. Back in the day, all mail in England was paid for (or rejected by) the recipient. The wretched Boyse would have been responsible only for the acquisition of paper, pen, and ink.

(No doubt the long suffering landlord would be willing to drop a begging letter or two or twelve at the PO if doing so improved the chance of being paid next week's rent.)
posted by BWA at 12:34 PM on March 1, 2015 [7 favorites]


Yay, time to plug one of my favourite books! Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years - Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times which goes into how much textiles drove economies and societies, and is just a great read. The value of clothing was insanely high pre-mechanization.

I wrote a paper for my english classes on the Odyssey about the textiles in the story, and it was just delightful going through with a new perspective on all Homer's descriptions of clothing and textiles. The river scene with Nausicaa becomes weighted with enormous wealth and power - she's brought so much wealth down and is in charge of so much wealth in textiles, and he is naked before her. Plus Penelope's weaving!
posted by viggorlijah at 1:03 PM on March 1, 2015 [16 favorites]


I've been reading a selection of translated letters from Mesopotamia (you know, like you do), cuneiform correspondence on clay tablets from the third to the first millennium BC. You could be forgiven for imagining that writing was invented so that people could demand that their family members send them things -- and especially clothing.

Tell the Lady Zinu: Iddin-Sin sends the following message:
May the gods Shamash, Marduk, and Ilabrat keep you forever in good health for my sake.
From year to year, the clothes of the (young) gentlemen here become better, but you let my clothes get worse from year to year. Indeed, you persisted(?) in making my clothes poorer and more scanty. At a time when in our house wool is used up like bread, you have made me poor clothes. The son of Adad-iddinam, whose father is only an assistant of my father, (has) two new sets of clothes [break] while you fuss even about a single set of clothes for me. In spite of the fact that you bore me and his mother only adopted him, his mother loves him, while you, you do not love me!
[p. 94-95]

Tell Uzalum: Your son Adad-abum sends the following message: May the gods Shamash and Wer keep you forever in good health. I have never before written to you for something precious I wanted. But if you want to be like a father to me, get me a fine string full of beads, to be worn around the head. Seal it with your seal and give it to the carrier of this tablet so that he can bring it to me. If you have none at hand, dig it out of the ground wherever (such objects) are (found) and send it to me. I want it very much; do not withhold it from me. In this I will see whether you love me as a real father does. Of course, establish its price for me, write it down, and send me the tablet. The young man who is coming to you must not see the string of beads. Seal it (in a package) and give it to him. He must not see the string, the one to be worn around the head, which you are sending. It should be full (of beads) and should be beautiful. If I see it and dislike(?) it, I shall send it back!
Also send the cloak, of which I spoke to you.
[p.86-87]

These were not small requests. I imagine that family arguments in those times involved a lot of shouting and gesticulating.

Whenever you watch a period piece and see some pompous character get splashed with a bucket of mud, or even just water, remember that until we invented clothes that were easy to wash and easy to replace, that was an act of real property damage, more like keying a car or stabbing a tire.
posted by Countess Elena at 1:33 PM on March 1, 2015 [26 favorites]


bq: "But that laundry comparison sounds really interesting too! I think you should write that article."

In "1900 House" they had to wash the clothes Victorian fashion. It drove the mother and all involved children to literally sobbing despair, and the mom in particular was quite game for all the difficulties of Victorian life (except corsets). And that was with relatively modern conveniences ... it was just such heavy, hot, exhausting work.

Historically, in the US, the very first chore an immigrant woman hired out to newer immigrants, as soon as she was established enough to afford to, was laundry. Laundresses were always on the bottom of the "newest, poorest immigrants" ladder. Because laundry sucked.

As for making shirts, anyone can pick up some cheap fabric and make a simple T-shirt or circle skirt by hand. It probably won't end up wearable on your first try, but it'll be instructive as to low long it takes and how many stitches it requires to stitch up a very simple-shaped garment with finished seams by hand. It's not an unbearable task -- I hand-stitch old-timey baby clothes so I've done more than my share -- and you can finish it in reasonable amounts of time, while chatting or listening to podcasts.

But now you have to do it with less-sturdy, less-even fabric. And thicker, less-even, relatively delicate, unmercerized thread. And a shitty, fat, expensive needle that was valuable enough to wear in a special case on your belt because they were really expensive to replace! Now you can buy 100 of them in various sizes for 50 cents and they're easily replaceable, but that was a highly-specialized tool, smaller than your little finger and therefore very easy to lose.

Now back it up and make the fabric. And then the thread. And you can see how the time and money and fancy tools involved all really start to add up, before you even get to acquiring the raw material to make the thread.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:21 PM on March 1, 2015 [6 favorites]


In the 16th century, shirts were expensive enough to be itemised in wills and probate accounts (a list of a deceased persons moveable goods). By the end of the 17th century, shirts had gone down in value and so were not specified. But dresses and more expensive garments would be, and there was always a category of "linen" (which included sheets, towels but also possibly shirts) which was relatively quite valuable.

I really wish we could find a nice medium place: clothing which is cheaper because we have mechanised so much production, but also well-made and study.
posted by jb at 2:33 PM on March 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


Well, it is a lot cheaper because we've mechanized some parts of production, but it's never going to be as cheap as we'd like because so far there's no way to mechanize it all. We save on clothing costs by foregoing quality and complexity on the design end, and decent working conditions and pay on the production end.
posted by asperity at 2:40 PM on March 1, 2015


Chief among my household treasures are some linen towels and table linen, made entirely by my female forebears, from growing the flax, to sewing the seams. They are gorgeous, far nicer than anything I've ever seen available for sale.

But I don't know how to take these sorts of 'a shirt cost the same as a car!' things, because those households would typically have had a decent number of women living in them, who literally did nothing but cooking/cleaning/making stuff, they weren't squeezing in "make shirts" in between working 8 hours outside the home, going to the gym, amusing soft modern children, wasting time on the internet. I reckon when your whole day was work, you get a lot done, especially if you've been doing it since you were a child. I don't mean to say they were disposable, like sweatshop clothes are now, and I agree they were valued possessions, but I think there are other reasons people only generally owned a few garments; and I don't think it's very fair to compare historical production speeds to modern hobbyists.
posted by mythical anthropomorphic amphibian at 2:49 PM on March 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


man, this really is quite incredible. I'm working on making leather journal covers right now, for fieldnotes and moleskines. it's super simple, all I have to do is cut out a rectangle, punch in some holes, tie in some elastic, and add coconut oil. But even something as simple as that, with cost of materials, ends up being about 4 or 5 times more expensive than similar-looking, factory products.

I think that this is emblematic of most DIY hobbies - it's rare these days that you truly can save money by doing it yourself. Or make money while competing with economy of scale.

I believe that the only way I can make a profit is if I somehow build a brand, generate loyal customers, etc. The whole thing I wanted to avoid by making something myself.
posted by rebent at 3:47 PM on March 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


I reckon when your whole day was work, you get a lot done

The Ulrich book I mentioned above includes a lot of quotations from diary and account-book entries. Women would mark the day by noting how much they had spun or woven that day. So you can reconstruct output (and she does). It varied, mainly because of everything else they had to get done, but also because of illness, weather, special events, the Sabbath, etc.
posted by Miko at 5:34 PM on March 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


Whenever you watch a period piece and see some pompous character get splashed with a bucket of mud, or even just water, remember that until we invented clothes that were easy to wash and easy to replace, that was an act of real property damage, more like keying a car or stabbing a tire.

This also gives more weight to the old literary device of rending one's garments as an expression of anguish.
posted by ogooglebar at 6:36 PM on March 1, 2015 [5 favorites]


I thought for a minute about the 1500 hours of labor in that shawl and quoted her a price of $20,000. I don't know if I've ever seen someone physically blanch so abruptly before.

We have incredibly expensive hobbies. What crazy luxury we have that this sort of thing is a hobby.

I'm vaguely debating having some kind of "fire sale" to get rid of some of my projects and just say "pay what you think it's worth and want to pay for it" because if I actually charged for my money and time even at minimum wage, no human could ever afford it. I probably won't get off the stick about it, but that's be the only way to ever make money off of stuff I make that's bigger than a piece of jewelry.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:54 PM on March 1, 2015


This also gives more weight to the old literary device of rending one's garments as an expression of anguish.

Not just a literary tradition - a specifically Jewish mourning custom called Keriah.
posted by gingerest at 7:42 PM on March 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


What a fantastic thread. Incidentally I was brought up washing clothes by hand, including household linen, and when I go home I usually wash my own stuff, and sheets, so as not to overburden the house girl*. I was going to say it's not that hard, and you don't do anything close to washing things that have only been worn once, apart from underwear; though of course in the tropics you don't have very heavy fabrics like wool to launder. If I were busy with an actual salaried job when I'm at home I would pay someone to do my laundry.

I asked the girl if she would help me wring out a towel once (two people each take one end of the item and twist, for the extra force) she looked at me pityingly and said "No, I will do it, you will just waste your power." She hooks them round a pole and rings them out that way.

From year to year, the clothes of the (young) gentlemen here become better, but you let my clothes get worse from year to year. Indeed, you persisted(?) in making my clothes poorer and more scanty.
I just knew that young man was writing to his mother.

I was wondering if it is possible to infer that an unmarried medieval man of average status, without a mother living, would be poorly supplied with clothes? In fact, poorly supplied with lots of things?

*Local term and a difficult phrase (like 'boy's quarters') but to me 'the help' is too much of a euphemism.
posted by glasseyes at 2:46 AM on March 2, 2015 [2 favorites]


I was wondering if it is possible to infer that an unmarried medieval man of average status, without a mother living, would be poorly supplied with clothes? In fact, poorly supplied with lots of things?

I'm not a medievalist, I'm much better on the 18th-19th centuries, but yes. This is why it was so incredibly rare for people to live alone and in small households prior to the industrial era. You really needed everyone's help to keep the system running and amass enough resources. It wasn't just sentiment that made families large. "Spinsters" remained attached to families as unmarried women, but they obviously didn't hang around mooning about their fate - they spun, in essence earning their bread by producing goods for the household. In a non-elite family, everybody worked, children as well, and their material wealth was the sum total of what they could amass together. The dormitory system for students (with meals provided and cleaning and washing services for hire) evolved from religious order life. Single men by the 18th century either attached themselves to households as hired men or lived in boardinghouses. Those who lost their incomes could become beggars and end up in workhouses (at least in the period I'm talking about - I'm not sure when they got going, but it seems like a lot of this is just preindustrial social organization that would hold true earlier as well).
posted by Miko at 4:40 AM on March 2, 2015 [3 favorites]


Considering that Lucy Larcom was not born until 1824 there's no way that she could have written anything in the eighteenth century.
posted by mareli at 5:25 AM on March 2, 2015


I'm not a medievalist, I'm much better on the 18th-19th centuries, but yes. This is why it was so incredibly rare for people to live alone

Based on the sagas and other medieval writings, I think most medieval Europeans had an intense horror of solitude except, perhaps, of the most transient kind. The sentence of outlawry in Iceland was a combination of exile and death sentence -- if you did not flee the country quickly, either your enemies would kill you (you didn't become an outlaw without enemies) or you would die from lack of resources, since, if you had resources, you would flee for one of the Scandinavian countries to rely on distant kin to help you weather the sentence. There are a few sagas dealing with the lives of outlaws, and they are mostly strange, uncanny people, able to live on their own and comfortable with violence and privation and, as often as not, reliant on the chancy kindnesses of strangers.

No one wanted to be alone.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:48 AM on March 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


Considering that Lucy Larcom was not born until 1824 there's no way that she could have written anything in the eighteenth century.

Yeah, she wrote that in 1889, in A New England Girlhood, Outlined from Memory (Peter Smith, Gloucester, MA, 1973, pp. 121-122, but I patched it together from various online sources):
My father had always strongly emphasized his wish that all his children, girls as well as boys, should have some independent means of self-support by the labor of their hands; that every one should, as was the general custom, "learn a trade." Tailor's work - the finishing of men's outside garments - was the "trade" learned most frequently by women in those days, and one or more of my older sisters worked at it; I think it must have been at home, for I somehow or somewhere got the idea, while I was a small child, that the chief end of woman was to make clothing for mankind. his thought came over me with a sudden dread one Sabbath morning when I was a toddling thing, led along by my sister, behind my father and mother. As they walked arm in arm before me, I lifted my eyes from my father's heels to his head and mused; "How tall he is! and how long his coat looks! and how many thousand, thousand stiches there must be in his coat and pantaloons! and I suppose I have got to grow up and have a husband and put all those little stitches into his coat and pantaloons. Oh, I never, never can do it!" A shiver of utter discouragement went through me. With that task before me it hardly seemed as if life were worth living.
So clearly this isn't a pre-industrial perspective, given that Larcom's memoir is famous for being the account of an ordinary Lowell mill girl. But it does capture the notion that making a shirt from scratch is a daunting undertaking, and it makes the point that while she quailed at doing so on her own by hand, she made her living from age 11 as a machine operator in a mill.
posted by gingerest at 6:05 PM on March 2, 2015 [4 favorites]


Mill work was different from sewing, though - it was machine weaving, and didn't turn out full garments (usally, if we're talking about Lowell), just bolts of cloth. So people still had to sew their own clothes, or pay someone to. Until about the turn of the 20th century the only people who wore "slops" were working-class people. Slops were clothes made and sold on spec, generically sized, not to the measurements of any individual person - and so they looked sloppy. Dungarees, work shirts, and aprons could be bought as slops. Clothing made for no one in particular and sold in shops pre-sized was really a twentieth-century phenomenon. Even my grandmothers grew up making their own clothes and clothes for their families.
posted by Miko at 7:05 PM on March 2, 2015


No one wanted to be alone.

Oh, there are always people who want to be alone.
posted by BWA at 10:44 AM on March 3, 2015


(Late back but) hence, I suppose:
10 Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price [is] far above rubies.
11 The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her, so that he shall have no need of spoil.
12 She will do him good and not evil all the days of her life.
13 She seeketh wool, and flax, and worketh willingly with her hands.
14 She is like the merchants' ships; she bringeth her food from afar.
15 She riseth also while it is yet night, and giveth meat to her household, and a portion to her maidens.
16 She considereth a field, and buyeth it: with the fruit of her hands she planteth a vineyard.
17 She girdeth her loins with strength, and strengtheneth her arms.
18 She perceiveth that her merchandise [is] good: her candle goeth not out by night.
19 She layeth her hands to the spindle, and her hands hold the distaff.
20 She stretcheth out her hand to the poor; yea, she reacheth forth her hands to the needy.
21 She is not afraid of the snow for her household: for all her household [are] clothed with scarlet.
22 She maketh herself coverings of tapestry; her clothing [is] silk and purple.
23 Her husband is known in the gates, when he sitteth among the elders of the land.
24 She maketh fine linen, and selleth [it]; and delivereth girdles unto the merchant.
25 Strength and honour [are] her clothing; and she shall rejoice in time to come.
26 She openeth her mouth with wisdom; and in her tongue [is] the law of kindness.
27 She looketh well to the ways of her household, and eateth not the bread of idleness.
28 Her children arise up, and call her blessed; her husband [also], and he praiseth her.

posted by glasseyes at 3:28 AM on March 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


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