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Apparel Industry Workers


The first sewing machine was patented in Paris in 1830 by Barthelemy Thimonnier. But weavers and tailors, fearful of being driven out of business by the mass production machines, destroyed the factories where the work was taking place, causing instances of violence across Europe.

The history of apparel workers in the United States is intertwined with the history of the early American labor movement. In 1846 Elias Howe patented a sewing machine in the United States that used two threads in a lock-stitch pattern, as sewing machines use today. However, the Howe sewing machine was no more accepted in the United States than Thimonnier's invention had been in Paris, and Howe sold part of the patent rights in England.

In 1851 Isaac Singer built a sewing machine that survived the objections of the tailors. The machine only made simple stitches, and tailors were still in great demand for finer, skilled work on clothing. The sewing machine would speed production of the basic elements of garments. Workers were required to purchase their own sewing machines.

As the Industrial Revolution progressed, the sewing machine was joined in 1860 by a band-knife cutting machine, invented by John Barran of Leeds, England, that cut several layers of fabric. In the 1890s, the first spreading machine was put to use in garment making, as was the first buttonhole machine, invented in the United States at the Reece Machinery Company. Factories replaced craft shops.

In the early 20th century, New York City became the largest producer of clothing in the world. The small factories that sprang up during these early decades were poorly lit and ventilated, unsafe, and unsanitary. The rooms were packed with workers who labored 12 or 14 hours a day for meager wages. The term "sweatshop" came into being as a description of the apparel factories. On March 25, 1911, in New York City, a disastrous fire swept through the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, killing 145 people, most of them young girls employed in the factory.

As a direct result of the tragedy, the city was forced to revise its building codes and labor laws, and membership in unions working in the apparel industry increased dramatically. The International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, founded in 1900, developed enough support after the fire to lobby for labor laws to be enacted and enforced. The Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America was established in 1914 and soon became one of the largest unions in the apparel industry.

In 1995 the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union and the Amalgamated Clothing and Textiles Union combined to form UNITE (Union of Needle Trades Industrial and Textile Employees), located in New York City.

In early clothing factories each worker assembled and finished an entire garment. Since the 1940s, workers in the ready-to-wear apparel industry have operated in an assembly-line fashion with strict divisions of labor among employees. However, apparel manufacturing firms are increasingly using modular manufacturing systems in which operators work together in a module or group.

The biggest trend in the U.S. apparel industry has been the migration of manufacturing jobs to Asia and other foreign markets. A substantial number of garments are made abroad because of the reduced cost of labor and taxes and technologically advanced, well-engineered factories. The quantity of clothing imported increased steadily in the late 20th and early 21st century.

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