The Seamstresses

The Book of Trades, 23 Oct. 1804 : Ladies Dress Maker, anonymous, 1804, owner:

Most of the women who made a living by sewing in Christiania at the beginning of the 1800s seem to have been either unmarried women or widows. Of those who were listed with the occupation of seamstress in the 1801 census, the majority were in their 30s/40s or older. They were often lodgers, i.e. rented a room or a bed, in one of the poorer suburbs.1 Several of the seamstresses, including the unmarried ones, had small children.

The French Revolution revolutionised fashion. It became unfashionable to wear extravagant dresses of the rococo fashion, lace bodices and skirts with complex cuts sewn in expensive fabrics, which only the wealthiest could afford. Now it was a matter of not looking like an aristocrat, if you wanted to avoid the guillotine. 

The regency fashion that took over was democratising. The new dress cut made it much easier to sew and most women were able to sew a simple regency dress, but they still went to seamstresses, when they needed gowns for balls or special occasions.

Sewing for sale vs sewing for personal use

Since there was less work with each individual dress, and the requirement for special skills was lower, the price of the sewing probably also fell. Thus a larger group of people had the opportunity to get more modern clothes, which they either sewed themselves, or employed someone do it for them.

Sewing for sale was long reserved for the tailors in Christiania, and only men were allowed to be tailors. Nevertheless, this did not mean that women did not sew for sale. Starting in 1800, women could get a permit to sew women’s clothes and several took this opportunity in order to keep themselves out of poverty. Some sewed without permission, and others were employed in the workshop of a tailor.2

In 1866 unmarried women were allowed to run their own businesses, but in Christiania they had already been sewing for sale since 1819.3 This made it possible for more women to have an income, and thus they became less of a burden on the city.

Naturally it was allowed to sew clothes for personal use and for the household. Girls learned sewing from an early age and made clothing for themselves and their siblings, as well as other household necessities. Sewing as a skill was highly regarded, and job advertisements in the newspapers reveal that maids with sewing skills were often in demand.

Woman sewing. Artist: J. C. Dahl. Owner: Nasjonalmuseet

The Fabrics

Drawn on the Spot by I. Clark. / London, Published by Smith, Elder & Co,, 65, Cornhill, 1825.

Norway was one of many countries that received textiles from England at the beginning of the 1800s. There were no textile factories in Norway in 1820. Spinning and weaving took place at home, primarily for personal use, but many had also switched to buying textiles rather than making them.

There were exceptions where home production was more organised. Some women paid rent by spinning and weaving. The yarn and fabric were then collected and sold at local and regional markets. These were often wool and linen fabrics that people used in everyday clothing.

Finer fabric was primarily bought from a merchant. They had the privilege of importing goods from abroad, including cloth from England. There was silk, wool, linen and mixtures of these in bright colours and often with patterns. 

Cotton was also popular because it was light, held colour and print well and was easy to wash. Cotton fabric also became noticeably cheaper between the 1700s and the 1800s. 

This was in part due to heavy investments into the cotton production in the southern states of the former North American colonies, starting at the end of the 1700s, which increased mechanisation in the harvest. This increased the supply of cotton as a raw material enormously. Because the Americans used slave labour on the plantations, the costs of the cotton production were very low and the business therefore extremely profitable.

Fabric became cheaper from the latter part of the 1700s into the first part of the 1800s. This was primarily due to the mechanisation of spinning and weaving, and a more efficient organisation of fabric production.

It was England that took the lead in mechanisation. There, high wages meant that machines were introduced to replace spinners and weavers. The machines were faster, and needed fewer and less skilled people.

The work was also organised differently – previously being carried out at the home of the individual spinner or weaver, these individual workers were now gathered under one roof, called a manufactory. This made the English textiles cheap and available in large quantities, leading to them being exported to Europe and other parts of the world.

Abbey Life / Life in England in Aquatint and Lithography 1770-1860 from the Library of J.R. Abbey (212.16)

1 Syersker i Christiania og Aker, 1801-folketellingen

2 Larsen, E.: «Næringsfrihet som likestilling»,

3 Mort, G.: Kvinner og næringsrett, Kvinneparagrafen i håndtverksloven av 1839 og handelsloven av 1842, Tingbokprosjektet, Oslo, 1993, p. 77