Hilda Swettenham (b. ~1907): Life & Labour

In a memoir entitled ‘‘Early Working Life from 1921 to 1936’ and other autobiographical fragments’, it is unsurprising to discover the central themes of labour and industry. Exploring a resumé of positions within the sewing trade, Hilda Swettenham’s autobiographical writing catalogues her experiences as a seamstress, mapping her movement between various workplaces and factories across Collyhurst. After obtaining ‘a job at “Aykroyd & Sons Shirt [F]actory”’ (2), the author moved to ‘“Blonds” [making] garments for Marks & Spencer’ (5), later relocating to ‘a small firm [in Ancoats] making (above all things) children’s wear’ (7), before returning to Aykroyd’s once more. This occupational back-and-forth allowed Hilda to observe a broad scope of the skills and practices of such a profession, providing readers with an insight into the trials and tribulations of working-class women in the textile industry.

Following the heavy industrialisation of Britain in the nineteenth century, many industries of commercial manufacturing and mass production saw a rise in demand. By the early-twentieth century, the sewing trade was thriving in Hilda’s hometown, yet it is important to acknowledge the turbulent years which led to Collyhurst’s booming textile industry. The memoir touches upon the impact of the ‘[C]otton [C]risis’ (11) in an anecdote, in which Hilda describes how her ‘maternal grandmother’ (11) charitably offered her sewing skills to help the ‘people of Collyhurst’ (12). This refers to the Lancashire Cotton Famine (1861-65) which affected several industrial towns in North-West England, caused by the overproduction and subsequent depression of the textile industry. It is important to contextualise this in relation to Hilda’s own life and labour, as a similar incident of overproduction initiated a ‘slump in the cotton industry in the 1930s[, causing] the prosperity of the mills [to] declin[e] steadily’ (Artware Fine Art). As a result, Collyhurst experienced an increase in other avenues of the textile market, including ‘clothes manufactur[ing]’ (Artware Fine Art).

The memoir reflects on ‘the industrial and organi[s]ed North, with its accelerated upheavals and mechani[s]ation’ (Gagnier, 1987, 350), exploring the means of production and manufacturing processes of the sewing trade. She describes the practices of a factory seamstress, going into great detail about ‘the advent of machines’ (10) and the intricate mechanisms of the industrial sewing machines she knew all too well. The sewing machine meant that ‘a seamstress could assemble a shirt in an hour with neater results’ (Perkin, 2002, 35) than hand-sewn work, allowing them to produce ‘more and more complicated clothes’ (Perkin, 2002, 36). Hilda comments on the sheer scale of such machines, portraying them as being ‘heavy and like traction engines [and had] one huge motor’ (2), with ‘big revolving wheels underneath (the Benches)’ (3). The invention of the sewing machine ‘stimulated competitive factory production[, allowing] unskilled labour, mainly female, to take their places at greatly reduced wages’ (Burnett, 1994, 174). This seemed to ‘happe[n] all over in the sewing trade’ (7).

Hilda makes some interesting observations of the textile industry and fashion in the early-twentieth century, littering her memoir with allusions to particular materials and trends associated with the sewing trade. She makes reference to ‘cord […] (corduroy now)’ (18), ‘red-flannel hessian and calico’ (19), tough fabrics which became popular in the aftermath of the First World War. During the interwar period, the ‘machine production of garments transformed the social meaning of clothing […], making stylish clothing available to almost everyone’ (Perkin, 2002, 37). The insider knowledge that Hilda provides about her area of expertise allows readers to further understand the consumer demand at the time.

Through its exploration of job mobility within the sewing trade and the historical context of the textile industry in Collyhurst, Hilda’s memoir is an interesting insight into the skills and struggles of a seamstress in the 1920-30s. Her fascinating descriptions of machinery are indicative of the working conditions of machinists like herself, and it is interesting to gauge a working-class woman’s perspective on ‘this trade [which] was a happy place then’ (4).


Primary Sources

Swettenham, Hilda. ”Early Working Life from 1921 to 1936′, and other autobiographical fragments’. The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography, 1790-1945 (3 volumes). John Burnett, David Vincent, David Mayall (eds.). Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989. 2:0750. Available: http://www.writinglives.org/uncategorized/hilda-swettenham-b-1907-biographical-entry

Secondary Sources

‘Ancoats Mill, Manchester, October 15th 1931: Notes’. Artware Fine Art. Web. Accessed: 15th April 2021. Available: https://www.artwarefineart.com/gallery/ancoats-mill-manchester-october-15th-1931

Burnett, John. Idle Hands: The Experience of Unemployment, 1790-1990. London: Routledge, 1994. Available: https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ljmu/detail.action?docID=179927&pq-origsite=primo

Gagnier, Regenia. ‘Social Atoms: Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender’. Victorian Studies 30:3 (Spring 1987), 335-363. Available: https://www.jstor.org/stable/3828397?sid=primo&seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents

Perkin, Joan. ‘Sewing Machines: Liberation or Drudgery for Women?’ History Today 52:12 (December 2002), 35-41. Available: https://search.proquest.com/docview/202815009/fulltextPDF/F81649FD713B4D48PQ/1?accountid=12118


Fig. 1: Everett Collection. (1923). Women working at sewing machines in factory in Leicester, England, 1923. Available: https://www.alamy.com/stock-photo-women-working-at-sewing-machines-in-factory-in-leicester-england-1923-50051537.html?pv=1&stamp=2&imageid=D21541D7-C46C-4447-9A0C-

Fig. 2: A Singer Treadle sewing machine. Available: https://witness2fashion.wordpress.com/tag/sewing-machine-attachments-1930s-1920s/

If you enjoyed this, you might be interested in Olivia Parr’s blog post about Life and Labour in Mrs. Yates’ fascinating memoir, where she explores the experiences of working-class women in the textile industry during the nineteenth century. Available: http://www.writinglives.org/life-and-labour/mrs-yates-b-1882-life-labour

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