The History Of Out Working.
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Derrys association with shirt making.
Who founded the shirt industry in Derry?
The advent of shirt making in factories.

When William Scott introduced shirt making to the north west of Ireland it was natural that he would follow the well established practice of the embroidery trade and have his shirts sewn by women in their own homes. William Scott found an extremely eager supply of workers if we are to believe this description from the Londerry Standard of the system employed by him:

'At the time there were no country stations as ther are now, where agents get work done; but all the sewers had to come for - and with - their work to Derry, and such was the eagerness of the people to get shirts to make that they came distances of 10 and 12 miles upwards from Claudy, Carndonagh, Redcastle and Strabane, etc. They used to remain in front of Mr. Scott's doors all night, patiently waiting to get in in the mornings, and such were the crowds of workers, that it was necessary to make an arrangement by which each individual got a ticket, with a number on it, which after the doors were closed in the evenings, they dropped into a letterbox, as they came forward, and when the place was open on the following morning, the contents of the letterbox were turned upside down, so the workers who had waited the longest, and whose ticket would be at the bottom, were called forward and attended to first. Some of the workers, however, more knowing than the rest, devised a plan by which they, for sometime, got themselves attended to before others who had waited much longer. This was by means of putting a crooked wire into the letterbox, lifting up the tickets that had been put in before theirs, and slipping their own down underneath. This trick, however, was soon discovered and willing sentries kept watch at the letterbox'

As the demand for shirts increased, Scott and the other early manufacturers had to look further afield for stichers. Country stations were established where women in rural areas could collect and return their work.

This is a portrait of outworkers making shirts in the parlour of their own home.
This is a portrait of outworkers making shirts in the parlour of their own home.
The method of organising outwork changed little over the years. Shirts were cut in the factory and the bundled in dozens, each bundle bearing a ticket showing instructions for making-up and the rates of payment. The finished shirts were the returned to the factory to be laundered and packed.
Sometimes, stitchers were expected to provide their own buttons, needles and thread, but more usually these were supplied by the manufacturer. In the early years sewing was done entirely by hand but by the 1860's some outworkers were sewing shirts by machine. The sewing machine was the first domestic appliance to be sold on hire purchase and by the 1890's many factories sold machines at cost price and some provided them free of charge to outworkers for use at home.
While shirtmakers in the city collected their work directly from the factory, rural workers received their bundles by one of three methods.
Most of the bigger Derry factories built or rented outstations where a paid employee of the firm took charge of distributing and collecting work. She examined the completed shirts and, if they were satisfactory, she paid the stitcher and gave her more work to do. If the work was not correctly done the stitcher was given no more work and if her faulty sewing had to be altered she had to pay the cost of the alteration. Payment was often stopped when work was late even though an old linen act stated that an outworker was allowed eight days to finish work after the specified time.
Sometimes, work was distributed by a factory employee driving a cart who simply met the women stitchers at regular meeting places. The third method of distribution was through agents who were also shopkeepers. This was the most commonly used method and was increasingly criticised because it was open to the abuse of trucking, i.e. payment in goods instead of money.This advertisement appeared in the Londonderry Standard in October 1851:

Notice to shirtmakers.

The subscriber begs leave to state that, in consequence of the increased employment given to shirt-makers in and around Derry, he will open shirt-making establishments at or near Claudy, Donemana, Newton-Limavady and Moville and will require, at each place, a young woman who is capable of giving out and taking in the work; and also of young men from sixteen to twenty years of age, as clerks.

James Scott, Bennett's Lane, Londonderry, 7 October,1851.


It was not unusual for a shopkeeper/agent to pay his clients partly in merchandise from his shop or to give them credit on his overpriced goods. Even when stitchers were not actually obliged to accept his truck, it was difficult to refuse it when their employment depended on his goodwill. Several governments attempted to legislate against this abuse.
Below is an article that was printed in the Londonderry Standard, 19 November 1912:

Nothing has been of greater benefit to the small tenant farmer in this district than the shirt and underclothing work; his woman can always earn something when they have time at their disposal, the money thus earned being often the only cash he sees for months at a time.It has helped to stave off emigration, and also keeps the people in the country instead of bringing them into the cities where neither the health or moral conditions are as good. One can only regret that the homework industry is a dying one.

The advent of the ailways throughout County Donegal had strengthened the viability of the rural outwork system. In March 1897, for example, ten tons of shirts were carried on the Londonderry and Lough Swilly Railway and the number of outworkers in Donegal actually rose in the 1880's. But in general, as technology advanced, outwork declined and by 1912 the domestic industry was, indeed, dying.
As the world shirt trade became more competitive at the end of the nineteenth century Derry shirt manufacturers were forced to adopt new technology. By this time, most stages of the shirt-making process could be done more efficiently by steam driven equipment, and the introduction of twin needle machines around 1902 signaled the end of the outwork system.
Outworkers, or shirtmakers, as they were officially known in the trade, continued to be used but only when trade was buoyant and skilled labour was in emand. In the twentieth century, as legislation and trade union activity increasingly controlled conditions of work in factories, some employers used outworkers as a convenient source of casual and unprotected labour.
Outwork became part of what we now call the 'black economy'. A typical outworker was likely to be a mother of young children, obliged to earn money but unable to work outside the home. She did specific tasks on small pieces such as turning-out or patent-turning collars and cuffs. Many mothers rocked cradles with their feet while turning-out collars by hand. Older children often carried work to and from the factory, filled in tickets or did part of the work at home.

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