Clothing Technology

Figure 1.--.

HBC believes that some basic material on clothing technology, provoding infoprmation on the history and production of fabrics and garments is important to understand children's clothing. While this material does not specifically deal with chilldren's clothes exclusively, it does provide some useful bavkground information. The care of washing of clothing is another important topic. This is not an area that HBC has been able to devote adequate attention to, but we hope to eventually focus more on these important topics.

Animal Skins

The earliest humans in the hunter-gather stage made clothing out of animal skins. Animal skinsand furs presumably provided the eatliest human clothing as they reqquired the last fabrication to be used. Of course precisely how and when this occurred is lost in the mist of pre-history. Animals were presumably first hunted or perhaps more likely scavenged for food. Eventually the use of the skins was preceived. Animal skins offered badly needed waterproofing and and protection for early humans. There are still people who make clothes our of animal skins, most people of the Arctic, Native Americans in Alaska and Canada and the Lapps in Scandinavia. Here the animals targeted are primarily caribou, reindeer and sealskin. The bestv known garments are hooded coats and boots. Modern garments have derived from the garmebts made by these people. Anorak is a term used in Greenland and parka comes from the Alaskan Aleutian Islands. Interestingly, primitive people wore fur clothing made for warmth facing inwards. The modern convention of wearing the fur facing outward dates from the 19th century when the fashion aspect ofv the garments exceeded the utilitarian importance. The increasing wealth of Europe as a result of the Industrial Revolutiomn and rising population created such a demand for fur that the intensive hunting began to threten many species.

Leaves and Grass

The clothing worn by the Ice Man found in the Alps show us that eraly man used leaves and grasses as materials for clothing. Appaently humans began using plant materials for clothing before the cultivation of plant fiber began. Effectively using these materials involved sophisticated technologies such as spinning and weaving.


Felt is believed to have been one of the first fabricated materials, probably appearing before the sophisticated weaving of agrcultural fibers. Felt requires no weaving. It is produced by processing various mixtures of wool, hair or fur. Anthropologists have discovered felt caps and other garments in Bronze Age sites in peat bogs in Denmark and Germany. For the most part clothing perishes and what we know of Bronze age people is durable items like their tools. The peat bog discoveries are important because the chemistry of the bogs preserved textoiles. Felt was extensively used by the Greeks to produce caps and cloaks.

Spinning Threads

As civilization developed, human began to develop weaving and more sophisticated clothing production methods. Weaving necesitated the production of thread. Using fibers both animal and plant to create textiles necesitated the conversion of those fibers into actual threads. The production of threads and yarns was a major step in the development of civilization. Twisting fibers to produce threads is known as spinning. It is a necessary step before further operations such as sewing, weaving, and knitting can proceed. Primnitive man probably first use rocks for spinning thread. Archaeologists theorize that rocks were commonly use by primitive peoples for spinning thread, but can not conclusively prove it. As the first humans to spin thread were nomadic pre-agrarian peoples, there is little archeological evidence. No one knows when man first began to refine spinning technology. It appears to have been independently developed in several different civilizations. Historians estimate that humans first began spinning threads about 10,000 years ago. Through much of history the only spinning device used was the dropspindle. Medieval European spinners often used a distaff to hold their fibers while they were spun on to spindle. This was commonly done at home by the women and children. The term “distaff side” today has come to mean the maternal side of one's family. Wool and flax in Europe were most commonly spun materials with a distaff and dropspindle. The distaff was a forked stick or staff around which a a bundle of cotton, flax, silk, flax, or other raw fiber was placed. The distaff was either held in one hand or secured in a waistbelt. The spindle was a tappering rod which was rotated by hand and twisted the raw fiber into a usable fiber. This dropspindle was the primary device used to spin threads for clothing and other textiles for most of European histopry from Egyptian mummy wrappings to the fabulous tapestries of Medieval Europe. It was effective, but was labor intensive, requiring an enonrmous amount of labor. This and the equally labor intensive weaving process made clothing in the ancient and Medieval era exceedingly expensive. Archeologists in the Middle East have found hand spindle whorls dating to 5000 BC in Middle Eastern excavation sites. One historian suggests that since the wheel does not appear until about 3500 BC, the use of dropspindles may have lead primitive man to discover the wheel. Perhaps during the endless hours of spinning fiber, man may have realized that the rotation of a spindle whorl of a spindle, man may have experimented perhaps by accident with that rotation, by dropping or placing it on a vertical instead of a horizontal plane--creating the wheel. [Hochberg]

The Spinning Wheel

Using fibers both animal and plant to create textiles necesitated the conversion of those fibers into actual threads. The enormous length of silk threads created a huge need for some kind of winding device. Silk in China may date from the 27th century BC, although some authors give more conservative estimates, most agrree it was before the 14th century BC. No one knows when the Chinese first fiber winding machines, but they appear to have been developed out of a need to form silk treads out of silk fibers. There is mention of silk fiber winding devices in Chinese dictionaries by the 2nd century AD. The initial devices were quilling machines which may date to the 1st century BC. Actual spinning wheels. No one knows when they first appeared in China. It is known that spinning wheels were being widely used in China by the 11th century. By that time, cotton culture had developed in China and spinning wheels appear to have been a way of adapting silk winders so that cotton fibers could be created. Historians believe that the the spinning wheel was one of the devices that Marco Polo brought back to Italy from China. While this is conjecture, there is no evidence of spinning wheels being used in Europe until the late 13th century. [Temple, pp. 120-121.]


Weaving is the interlacing of threads, yarns, strips or other fiberous material. It is primarily associated with the production of fabric for clothing, but other items are also woven such as baskets. Weaving is well established in aiciet socities where it was generally relegated to women. While weaving has pre-historic orgins, many technical developments over a long period have led to modern industrial weaving mills.

Cloth and Fabric

The information on cloth does not relate specifcally to boys clothing. An understanding of cloth and textiles, however, is important in assessing clothing developments. As a result, some basic information is provided on fibers, cloth, fabrics, dyes, and textiles.


HBC is often unaware of the origins of many clothing items. Many fashion inovations were the brain child of unknown individuals. In most cases the identity the individuals or companies have been lost. Some devices, sweing procedures, and fashions are known. White the list is rather limited, it does prvide some basic information on individuals or companies which have played a role in children's fashions. The list ranges from individuals such as Amelia Bloomer to staid companies like B.F. Goodrich.


The origin of buttons is seemingly lost in the fog of the middle ageThe most important clothening fastener is certainly the humble button. Other important closeners are more recent in origin. Some basic information on these devices and conventions associated with them are as fllows.

Sewing Machine

Some inventions have proven so important that we can scaresly imagine what life was like before its appearance. The sewing machine is one of the key inventions that have helped to shape our modern world. Not many inventions have proved as important as the sewing machine. It appears on virtually every list of great inventions and helped freed the homemaker from drudgery faced by 19th century mother. "Next to the plough" wrote Louis Antoine Godey in 1856, "this sewing machine is perhaps humanity's most blessed instrument." Before the sewing machine appeared, making clothes was the chief occupation of a substantial part of the labor force. Since this work had to be done by hand, it was both time consuming and eyestraining. Mothers varied greatly in their abilities. The wealthy could afford to have it done. More modestly endowed families had to depend on mother's skills. The 19th century was an age of invention. It is certainly not surprising given the labor expened in making clothes that inventors turned their attention to the development of devices for making stitches mechanically. Elias Howe is often credited with inventing the sewing machine--utilizing an eye-pointed needle and shuttle. The machine in which he won fame, however, was hardly practical and many of the principals which it embodied had been in the inventions of others years earlier. It sewed only straight seams and only a few inches at a time. It was several years before a practical machine was perfected at an affordable price. prive that

Readymade Clothes

Ready-made, cheaply-produced clothes were invented in the middle of the 19th century. Of course tailors and seamstresses could make wonderfully designed and tailored clothing. Most people, however, could not afford to buy tailored clothing. There clothing was made at home. Without sewing machinmes and greaded patterns, however, these home made clothes were often formless and poorly ftting. The developments mentioned here helped even the inexperienced home sewer create a quality product. In addition, by the 1860s, ready made clothing was beginning to come on the market. There were factories making ready made clothes as early as the 1830s, but production increased substatially during the 1860s. Commercial ready-made clothing began to appear in the 1830s. It was the American Civil War that gave the ready-made clothing industry a significan boost. The demand to equip huge armies with uniforms resulted in larger orders and expanded production. After the War when manufactures began targetting civilian markets the concept of standardized sizing helped to promore sales. This innovation was one of the key developments expalaining the growth of the ready-made clothing industry. The appearnce of increasing quantities of well-made, reatively inepensive ready-made clothes in the 1860s was possible because of a series of technical improvements in te garment industry. One of course was the sewing machine. These developments helped make well madeand fashionable clothing less expensive and more readily available.


HBC has wanted to begin a section on patterns for some time. Very little information is available at this time. Patterns are, however, an important topic. Many 19th-century fashions were not avialable as ready-made clothes, but rather as patterns. I believe that mass-market patterns were first added to the fashion magazines that became so popular in the late 19th century. I believe the first magazine to dothis was The Delineator. Soon they were a regular feature of fashion magazines. Soon the pages were full of illustrations for patterns which could be purchased. I'm not sure just when companies like Buternick began marketing them. Patterns for boys' clothes were never as common as for girls and women. After the turn of the century ready made clothes became more common then patterns. Many mothers sewed in the first half of the 20th century, but it was more common to sew for their daughters than sons. Patterns for younger boys were popular, but clothes for older boys were mostly bought in stores.

Home Sewing

I don't know what proportion of garments were home-made versus store-bought. This of course varied significantly over time. In looking at historical images, there are a lot of boys wearing clothing that was not sewn to the standards that we expect to find these days. This ws not apparent in paintings wherethe clothes could be improved upon or debot wealthy people who could afford well-tailored clothes. It is apparent in early photograhs. Today people around the world can buy high quality ready-made clothing at very cheap prices, but that wasn't always the case. I get the impression that ready-made clothing was widely available in the United States earlier than in many other countries. This may have been because the United States had a large middle class earlier than some other countries. The middle class wanted more clothing than the homemaker could produce for her family, but couldn't afford to buy their clothing made-to-order as the wealthy could. The mass-market apparel industry filled that need. I think that the change from home-made clothing to ready-made clothing had a significant effect on styles.

Washing Clothes

Today we give little attention to washing clothes. It is also so simple with modern blended easy to care for fabrics, washing machines, and an array of detrgents, bleaches, fabric softners and much more. Often teenagers, including boys are now involved with washing clotyhes. This was not always the case. The family laundry used to be an arduous, back breaking effort perforned only by mothers and daughters. It is thus understandable that children once wore their clothes longer than is the case today and why so much care was taken to pritect clothes.


A HBC reader asks about computers. He writes, "I am trying to learn about the various ways in which clothing changed since the 1960s as a result of computer-automated manufacturing. There are some examples of this. 1. The cost of manufacturing decreased and with it the price of clothes fell and so people bought more clothes, building larger wardrobes and replacing rather than repairing old clothes. 2. The manufacturing process became more flexible with faster turnaround, so the number of styles and fashions and the number of style seasons increased." David Gerber

Vintage Clothing

Vinatage clothing is actual histotorical clothing from different historical periods. These garments are wonderful historical pieces offering information on materials, sewing and manufacturing techniqies, dyes and colors, styles, sewing and manufacturing techniques, trims, and much more. For this reason, we have included many vintage garments along with period photographs on our HBC pages. Vintage clothing is usually used garments, but some garments were never worn. Colecting vintage clothing has become a popular hobby in recent years. Many collectors like the fact that they can actually wear the items in their collection. There are of course many fascinating museum collections. Several firms offer vintage clothing over the internet.

Time Line

A simple time line is helpful to understand the developments in clothing manufacture over time as well a the modern developments in children's clothing.


Hochberg, Bette. Handspindles (Santa Cruz: Bette & Bernard Hochberg).

Temple, Robert. The Genius of China: 3,000 Years of Science, Discovery, and Invention (Simon and Schuster: New York, 1986), 254p.


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Created: November 4, 2000
Last updated: 12:51 AM 8/20/2005