Vintage Sweatshops and Fraud Meet the Law

Fast Times at Textile High –Vintage Sweatshops and Fraud Meet the Law:

She sat by the streamside plaiting sinew and intestines from skinned animals her mate had discarded to make body coverings for her family. Nearby, her sister was weaving lighter coverings from wild grasses. Neither could fathom progress beyond that moment, not even that life in the stone age would get better. They knew no other life but as captives and making cloth for their pharaoh from dawn to dusk.

What they were weaving would have no equal in modern times, linen 540 threads to the inch. There was no pay; their limbs were misshapen from squatting before a loom. Of course this was 2640 B.C Egypt. But man progresses and things will get better, right?

Wattling –thought to be the most primitive form of weaving. Reeds used for clothing and utensils; sticks and twigs for housing.
– Textiles, 1926


An old print of ancient Egyptians spinning and weaving.
– Story of Textiles, 1912

Ancient Egyptians spinning and weaving

¨The six year old cried silently but continued spinning her linen as the guild matron high in her pulpit rang a bell to signal a whipping for the young friend beside her who was charged with being neglectful. Of course this was 1677 Germany. But man progresses and things will get better, right?”

The street smelled continuously as it was the only place for refuse of any kind. In shoddy factory town housing, families were packed together in unhealthy, filthy living conditions, forced to eat from one plate and sleep in the same bed, work long hours spinning for almost no pay. Of course this was 1788 England. But man progresses and things will get better, right?

¨Across the sea at a mill young girls with flax fastened to their waists spun with both hands as younger children turned the wheels for them 10 hours every day but Sunday. Of course this was 1789 New England. But man progresses and things will get better, right?

¨She screamed but to no avail as she was stampeded to death by the onrush of several hundred seamstresses racing to escape the engulfing flames. Of course this was 1911 New York City’s lower east, the great Triangle Shirtwaist Co. fire, a tragedy where 150 lives were lost due to burning or jumping out of windows, all because exits on the upper floors of the loft building had been locked to prevent “loss of materials.” But man progress and things will get better, right?

¨And of modern times? Sweatshops and backstreet operations still exist anywhere on this globe under conditions which rival the worst of the past. But man progresses and things will get better, right?

And How Was Your Day at Work, Dear?

Since the beginning of time man has commandeered fellowmen, women, children and slaves into service with little or no regard for their welfare. The textile industry was no exception in its rise to power.

From cave clans to tribal communities to feudal home systems to guilds to village mills, just about everyone not hunting, fishing or farming were pressed into spinning and weaving by local decrees of one type or another. And regardless of the passage of time, workers for the most part were underpaid, overworked and poorly trained and had to contend with technology threatening their jobs or depriving them of employment.

Here’s a couple of old prints of German domestic flax wheel and Hindus spinning and weaving.
– Story of Textiles, 1912

German domestic flax whee

To their credit, some employers did attempt to establish model workplaces but they were the rare exception. One benevolent mill owner was Samuel Slater who owned the Old Slater Mill in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. In 1791 he paid his older skilled laborers $1.30 a week, a very handsome sum compared $1.20 for a 16-hour-day week at another mill in 1811.

However, it took the industrial revolution and the creation of a middle class beginning in the 19th century to slowly reverse working conditions. Charles Dickens in a visit to America in 1836 was impressed with the Lowell Mills in Lowell, Massachusetts, noting the healthy appearance of workers, clean living quarters and a healthy diet and that few children were employed.

Here’s a photo of carding, drawing and roving at Slater’s Mill. Note on this print, and other prints in this article, how ideal artist’s renderings tend to be– too bad aroma can’t be captured by the brush. Charles Dickens called it a model workplace on a tour in 1836.
– Story of Textiles, 1912

Carding, drawing and roving at Slater's Mil

By the 20th century special buildings were needed to house the new larger and more sophisticated machinery. This forever changed the workplace from a cottage industry to a factory setting. Despite improved production methods and some labor concessions, textile workers still saw little improvement in wages, hours and working conditions.

Here’s a photo of a modern mule spinning room in 1912 at Potomasha Mills, New Bedford, Mass.
– Story of Textiles, 1912

modern mule spinning room

Here’s a moment in time — a modern weave room in 1912 at Chicopee Mfg. Co., Mass. Commercial photos of these two mills want you to believe these are ideal workplaces; possibly they were as the author was very particular about employer practices.
– Story of Textiles, 1912

Modern weave room in 1912

A strong push by Samuel Gompers in the 1880s for worker reform and organization for labor in all sectors resulted in the newly reorganized Federation of Organized Trade and Labor Unions in 1884, later to become the powerful AFL. In 1900 the Women’s Trade League was formed to educate women about the advantages of union membership. In 1909 women from the needle trades (garment and textile workers) struck under the banner of Ladies Garment Workers. Known as the Uprising of 20,000, they fought against shirtwaist and dress manufactures and won a 52-hour week plus wage increases.

Two years later the tragic fire at New York’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory (p.1) paved the way for industrial safety and fire prevention measures. Radicals in 1912 defied employers at a mill in Lawrence, Massachusetts. The Industrial Workers of the World, called Wobblies, struck against a 3-1/2 percent pay decrease and an increase of two hours to a 54-hour work week. The strike restored pay and hours.

But so pitiful were conditions that in 1916 author Laura Baldt decried in her book on sewing and clothing that it was “highly important that the purchaser should know of conditions which attend the laborers engaged in the preparation of fibers, the manufacturer of fabrics and wearing apparel, so that they may aid the growing endeavor to better these conditions through investigation, the enactment and enforcement of laws and the education of the individual buyer.”

She cited the plight of woman and children who had been “forced to huddle in overcrowded, badly lighted, poorly ventilated tenement houses where long hours, little pay and ill heath are the common lot of all. The evils they face are unprotected machinery, firetrap buildings and bad sanitary conditions.”

Her narrative points out that some states had passed laws regulating hours, compulsory school attendance and no employment of children under the age of 14, and that some factories and department stores were beginning to provide good lunch and restrooms and working conditions.

In all likelihood, she concluded, this probably resulted from the efforts of the National Consumers League established in 1914 to improve garment workers lives.

The League published a white list containing names of compliers who had earned the right to display the League’s label by meeting League requirements.

The League also urged consumers not to buy unless its label was displayed.

This portrait is of crusader Florence Kelly, head of the National Consumer League.  She  recognized that tenement garment factories bred diptheria and measles which infected workers, products and ultimately consumers. To reduce such epidemics, the League vigorously campaigned for legislation to improve working conditions.
-Pictorial Review, May 1914

Crusader Florence Kelly, head of the National Consumer League

The National Consumers League label was affixed to ready-made articles that were manufactured in factories under sanitary conditions and displayed in departments stores where employees received fair treatment. Consumers felt secure in giving their patronage where label was displayed.
-Textiles & Clothing, 1919

National Consumers League label

A sign that times were changing for the better was noted by textile educators Mary S.Woolman and Ellen Beers McGowan in a 1926 revision of their 1913 book Textiles.

“The Great War raised the price of all textiles and brought about conditions which made necessary for an entire reorganization of textile industries. Textile study, as a part of education for teaching Home Economics, now touches fields of scientific, sociological and economic interest. Departments of the government are working with women in the standardization of textiles. The industries are seeking the cooperation of the woman consumer. Honest advertising, the training of the sales force, truth in statement and research in all textile fields are movements which have risen since this book first appeared.”

“To interpret these new conditions, to meet the needs of the women who have been brought into new and vital relations with the industrial world, to keep pace with the widespread strengthening of the Home Economics Movement and the awakened interest in textiles of three million consumers in the General Federation of Women’s Clubs……….have made necessary a complete revision of this book.”

It is not within the scope of this column to cite all the gradual and hard-won advancements gained by laborers, but it is from their early unrest and strikes that many laws were passed locally and nationally to protect them. As a matter of national policy, the Taft -Harley Act of 1947 gave legal status and protection to unions and named them the collective bargaining agent.

Ironically, the birth of unions was their ultimate demise. The 1970s marked a low point as textile and other industries headed overseas. Sadly, few mills remain in the US and we now look overseas for some of the finest in fabrics.

Thoroughly Mix Glue and Starch and Add a Pinch of Goat Hair
At the same time workers were fighting substandard labor practices and low wages, they were caught in the middle by the increased output enabled by new technology. By the 1920s there was great demand for cheap and novelty fabrics. Rather than investing in research and development manufacturers bowed to the prospects of increased profits.

Weavers, dyers, designers, spinners, finishers and others worked at neckbreak speed with little or no training and supervision to meet the burgeoning orders from retailers and other end users. These inferior goods produced of untested, poorly dyed fibers coupled with untried new weaves, mostly rayon and rayon blends, caused considerable damage to the industry’s reputation here and abroad. American mills became noted for their untrustworthy and adulterated materials.

One cause of consumer outcry: black sulfur, an extremely fast black coloring, was used in dyeing cotton goods and hosiery. If fabric was stored for any length of time in storehouses or retail shelves, especially in warm weather, free sulfur oxidized forming sulfuric acid and attacked dyed yarns. When fabric was laundered, tendered yarns washed away.
– Textile Fabrics, 1927

Black Sulpher

Poor-grade cottons were heavily sized and starched or otherwise disguised to resemble quality woven, highly mercerized goods. Often seconds and damaged fabrics were passed off as perfect. To their chagrin, both sewers and buyers would often find after laundering that their garments would be in shreds, misshapen and gauzy or discolored from loss of sizing and dye runs.

Bellmanizing (Bellman Brook Bleachery Co.) and Sabel (Kendall Mills) were starching finishes for adding crispness to cottons. Their labels assured that finish would not wash out and that garment or fabric was top quality.
– Textile Fibers and Their Use, 1948

Bellmanizing and Sabel

Sanforizing (Cluett, Peabody & Co.) assured consumers that shrinkage was guaranteed to be not more than 1%. Without this label, buyers could expect a typical fabric or garment shrinkage between 3% to 5%.
– Textile Fibers and Their Use, 1948 


While manufacturers of quality goods tried to protect their names by giving trade marks and brand names to their fabrics and identifying them with selvage stampings to denote quality products, less scrupulous manufacturers produced imitations, misleading the consumer with names which implied fibers were genuine silk, wool or linen – linene, linette, butcher linen, silkene, silkette, artificial silk (rayon). Gradually these names were outlawed.

Consumers had every confidence when they bought fabrics with selvages stamped with these three respected brand names and trademarks. Indianhead was a sturdy quality muslin. Flaxon (Federated Textiles) and Cloth of Gold (Warren Featherbone Co.) were high-quality lawns, nainsnooks, batistes, longcloths and dimities and other fine cottons. Here are some samples.

Flaxcogin HD

The production output was so bad that in the early 1900s and into the 1920s and 30s many authors of textile reference and sewing books, such as Laura Baldt mentioned earlier, departed from educational narrative to devote several chapters to consumer education and berating the industry, urging industry-wide reforms both in production methods and quality of employee training. And if the industry could not or would not heal itself, then government should pass laws to protect the the buying public.

The first regulatory action to protect consumers and regulate commerce was the creation of the Federal Trade Commission in 1914. It had jurisdiction over commerce between states and foreign nations and broad powers to investigate and prevent unfair methods of competition. In 1918 the American Standards Association was formed to provide specification guidelines to the industry. Silk, cotton, wool and the overall textile trade industries as well as a number other textile-related groups each formed associations to aid in the raising of production standards and promoting quality control.

Here are some notable actions as a result of their collaboration and leadership:

1921: Federal Specification Board, organized under the Bureau of Budget – bidders to supply government with fabrics or garments had to meet specifications for fiber content, type of construction, color, weight and, freshness as tested at Bureau of Standards.

1924: Artificial silk was legally changed to rayon.  Imitators of fabrics such as Viyella’s patented 55% virgin wool/45% cotton blend washable flannel had to state their fiber percentages and choose brand names that could not be confused with Viyella. Clydella, containing less than 25% wool, was an example of a worthy competitor.

Two fabrics whose labels guaranteed product was genuine in name and fiber content. Because of patents, imitators had to use different fiber percentages.
– Textiles: Fiber to Fabric, 1967


1938: National Consumer Retailers Council – established to stimulate adequate standards for consumer goods and informative labeling. However, as late as 1948 labels were more advertising than educational.

1939:  Wool Products Labeling Act of 1939 [effective1941] — presence of substitutes and mixtures in spun, woven, knitted, felted in wool products had to be stated. Specific definitions were given for wool fiber of sheep, goat and other specialty fiber animals, reprocessed wool, reused wool and wool product. Illegal transportation of misbranded products was punishable.

1948:  Specifications released by ASA for muslin and percale bleached cotton bedding weight, size and thread count.

1949 (1953):  Specifications released by ASA for minimum requirements for rayon and acetate fabrics; named 51 end uses and tests to determine if fabric suitable for specified end use. Color tags or sewn-in in labels were recommended:

  •     Red = dry cleanable
  •     Yellow = wash at hand temperature of 195 degrees F
  •     Green = wash up to 160 degrees F

1951 (52):  Fur Products Labeling Act — protects consumers and others against misbranding, false advertising and false invoicing of fur products and furs.

1953 (54):  Flammable Fabrics Act — prohibits introduction or movement in interstate commerce of articles of wearing apparel and fabrics which are so highly flammable as to be dangerous when worn by individuals.

1958 (60):  Textile Fiber Products Identification Act protects producers and consumers against misbranding and false advertising of fiber content or textile fiber products.

Labels are required for generic name and percentages of all fibers present in amounts more than 50%; label must disclose name of person and firm marketing products and source of imported fiber produce. Provides specific definitions of silk, wool, linen, cotton and 16 generic manufactured fibers. Trademarks have to be linked with generic names of fiber (65% Dacronä polyester, 35% cotton, for example).  If there is no trademark then labeling such as 80% rabbit, 20 nylon is acceptable.

1962:  Government uses ASA standards for purchasing bedding for military services and agencies.

While the cut-off date for this column is 1960 it is imporatant to note that from the 1960s onward many consumer protection laws were enacted and existing ones amended.  One important one was the US Federal Trade Commission Care Labeling Rule of 1972 specifying labels to carry information about washing, dry cleaning and pressing.

Post-1960 labels were necessary with the proliferation of new man-made fibers.  However most labels were more promotional than informational up until the more rigid specifications of the 1972 Label Information Act.
– United Piece Dye Works, 1964

Unifast Labels

As new health, environmental and safety measures are required and new synthetics are produced, more than ever detailed label information is a necessity for the consumer. This is particularly important for sewers who mostly have to rely on minimum manufacturer information printed on the bolt. So often we take fabric for granted without realizing its backbreaking heritage and the enormity of bringing it to the retail counter.

The next time you see a ball of cotton or some shorn wool, reflect on all the money, persons, equipment and specialized skills that it has taken and all the struggles and tragedies endured to turn them into cloth.


  • The Story of Textiles, Perry Walton 1912
  • Pictorial Review, Passing of the Hired Girl May 1914
  • Textiles & Clothing, Ellen Beers McGowan and Charlotte Waite 1919
  • Lippincotts Home Manual, Laura Baldt 1922
  • Grace Denny, Fabrics 1923, 1928, 1962
  • Textiles, Woolman and McGowan 1926
  • Textile Fabrics, George Johnson 1927
  • Textile Fabrics and Their Use, 4th edition, Katherine Paddock Hess 1948
  • Guidebook to Man-made Textile Fibers, United Piece Dye Works 1964
  • Textiles:  Fiber to Fabric, Potter-Corbman 1967
  • AFL-CIO American Federationist, UAW Local 1866 March 1981
  • Fabric Reference, 2nd edition, Mary Humphries 1999

More auction goofies:

♣ This fabric would make a gorgeous dress with a full skirt of lovely sheer curtains
♣ Vintage sheer vicuous

The arbitrary cut-off date for this Vintage Fabric column is 1960.  To stay within the scope of this timeframe, reference materials published up to that date are the prime source of information to more accurately capture actual thoughts of the time.

One Response to “Vintage Sweatshops and Fraud Meet the Law”

  1. Gokakmills says:

    Fabric Manufacturers
    Gokak Mills places a high premium on employee welfare. The company hospital, residential complex, educational institutions are one of the best in the region. More than half the company’s employees were born and educated at these facilities.