The history of tailoring: The Industrial Revolution

16 September 2017

"The Industrial Revolution seems like a bygone era, but the methods implemented then have led to the technological advancement we accept as commonplace today"

We owe a lot of tailoring to history, a craft honed over centuries to how we know it today. Never before was a century more influential than the Eighteenth and its Industrial Revolution inventions. British tailoring history changed irrevocably—and for the better—with the mechanisation of textile manufacturing processes. In fact, the textile revolution simultaneously instigated the Industrial Revolution and created greater opportunity for sartorial advancement.

Today we take for granted the ability to buy readymade cloth and transform it into magnificent works of art in suit form, yet tailors in the Middle Ages didn’t have the availability of materials, nor the technical prowess we’ve come to expect of tailors today. Upon the revolution, quality cloths became more readily available, and most importantly, faster to produce. Modern production methods hailed from those defined in the British Industrial Revolution, many of which were inspired by those in existence in India, China and greater Europe through colonisation and trade.

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Like our current technological revolution, the Industrial Revolution sought to increase productivity by redefining processes that were largely manual. It might seem simple, yet by mechanising cotton spinning by steam or water increased cloth production by 500 times—an increase of productivity that was, dare we say it, revolutionary. The invention of the spinning jerry by James Hargreaves of Lancashire in 1770 turned the spinning wheel into a machine of sophistication. The wooden frame combined multiple spindles and clamped the fibres then twisted them in one motion. Being only suitable for weft, not warp; and used largely by home spinners it was the first step towards automation of thread weaving. Later the spinning frame was usurped by the water frame, a water-powered machine that could spin 128 threads simultaneously. Producing stronger yarn it led to further developments in industrialisation.

The natural progression was the power loom, a steam or water-powered contraption that allowed cloths to be spun quickly and with accuracy previously unseen. Soon to follow were the cotton gin—a sophisticated looming device—and carding machines, which removed seeds from cloth and replaced the largely manual efforts impeding cloth production. All in all, the most tedious parts of textile production became automated and gave way to the ready manufacture of tailored clothing.

Today, the Industrial Revolution seems like a bygone era, but the methods implemented then have led to the technological advancement we accept as commonplace today. Modern tailoring has experienced its own second wave of innovation; from water-repellent cloth to laser cutting of suit components. By looking into the past we should appreciate what lies ahead in the future of tailoring.

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