The Advent Of Shirt Making In Factories.
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This takes you to a page that contains memories of those who worked in shirt factories in Derry.
Derrys association with shirt making.
Who founded the shirt industry in Derry?
The history of outworking.
From the earliest days Derry's shirt-industry faced competition from other centres and the city's manufacturers continually sought ways to make their organisations more streamlined and efficient. William Tillie is said to have brought the first sewing-machine to Derry in the 1850s. Steam power was available by the 1870s. Although outworking continued to be an important part of the shirt making trade it was gradually replaced by factory production. By the turn of the century many firms had their own laundering and boxing departments and no longer had to send shirts to Glasgow, Manchester or London to be finished and boxed. The great, early twentieth century factories such as the Star (1899), Rosemount (1904) and Wilkinsons (1921), and the smaller ones in outlying centres like Buncranna, Letterkenny and Ballybofey, were built not because the shirt trade was expanding but because outworking was becoming a thing of the past. Increasingly, shirts were being made entirely in factories.
The new factories gradually adopted the assembly line system with each worker concentrating on a particular stage in the production process. Over the years various skilled trades developed, some with names that sound strange to anyone not involved in the shirt trade. There were stoppers and stampers, patent turners and turners out, putters up and layers up. A shirt factory worker was never a mere machinist. When she had learned a particular trade she kept it throughout her working life, even if she were moving to another factory or signing on at the employment bureau.When a young girl went into a factory, sometimes under age with 'forged lines', she became a message girl or a runner and was said to be 'on the mans time'. After some weeks, or sometimes months, she would be put 'sitting by Nellie' to learn her trade and then she would begin to be paid on piece rate.
The many stages in the making of a shirt varied little from one factory to another. Webs of cloth came to the factory, usually from Lancashire, and were taken by lift to the stock room, generally on the top of the building. From here the cutting room manager drew his supply of fabric, and the stock room clerk kept the cutters ticket as a record of the fabric being used.
A photograph of shirt makers in W J Littles factory in Distillery Brae circa 1925. (This factory is now known as Fitright).
A photograph of shirt makers in W J Littles factory in Distillery Brae circa 1925. (This factory is now known as Fitright).
W J Littles Factory - 1925 (Distillery Brae)
W J Littles Factory - 1925 (Distillery Brae)
In the cutting room several depths of material were laid on the cutting table by the layer up. A pattern, previously cut by a pattern cutter, was laid on the cloth. The cloth was penciled by the penciler and cut by the cutter using a mechanical knife. The putter up next bundled the various pieces into dozens - fronts, sleeve vents, collars, bands, cuffs and interlinnings - and she attached to each bundle a perforated ticket listing the stages the pieces would go through on their way to becoming finished shirts. Work was always organised and calculated in dozens, and a single piece or a single shirt was often referred to as a 'twelth'. The puter up also stamped the size on the tail of each shirt. Stamping the size on the collar, however, was a more precise operation and was done seperately by a stamper. Cutting was always a 'mans work' but some cutting room jobs were done by women - laying up, putting up and stamping, for example - although there were sometimes disputes as to whether women were fit for the strenous job of laying up.
From the cutting the bundles were taken downstairs to the shirt room and collar room where the making up began. In the shirt room a message girl first brought the shirts to the hemmer who hemmed the front and back of each shirt. She tore off the bottom portion of the ticket indicating that the hemming was completed and sent the bundle back to the counter. She placed the torn off portion of the ticket in a box which she kept by her machine; each ticket represented a dozen shirts hemmed.
Then, front stitchers turned back and sewed the front opening of the shirt. The sloper used a zinc pattern piece to cut the slope of the neck opening. Because this had to fit the neckband exactly each slope was individually cut - a task too precise for the cutting room table.
Each bundle was then taken by a buttoner and a buttonholer, afitter (who joined the front and back and yokes at the shoulder), a sleever and a side seamer.
Meanwhile, cuffs and neckbands were being made. A cuff runner sewed the two cuff pieces on the inside and the cuffs were turned out by a turner out using a sharp instrument like a knitting needle to neaten the corners. They were completed by a cuff stitcher, a buttonholer and a buttoner.
Neckbands were always made of calico and needed three buttonholes, two at the front and one at the back to accomodate front and back studs. Marshall Tillie invented a machine which could make these three perfectly spaced stud holes simultaneously
This is a photograph of the Atlantic shirt factory in Carlisle Road circa 1930.
This is a photograph of the City factory circa 1919.
Atlantic Factory - 1930 (Carlisle Road)
City Factory - 1919 (Sewing Room)
Cuffs were also made by the method known as patent turning. The three cuff pieces, outside, inside and interlining, were carefully aligned. Then the patent turner placed a zinc shape on the pieces and turned in the edges with an iron. They were then stitched on the outside by a cuff stitcher. This method of patent turning by hand was later replaced by the patent turning machine.
Patent turners also performed an important unofficial function as toasters of bread. A sandwich done on a patent turners iron was tastier than any modern 'cheese toastie'. A fastidious operator might cover the apparatus with a piece of cloth to keep it free of crumbs and butter stains!
Collars were usually made in a seperate collar room and in the old days of collar detached shirts, collar making was almost a distinct industry. Collars were made in the same way as cuffs. They could be turned out or patent turned (although turning collars was a more skilled and better paid trade than cuff turning). Detached collars were then stitched and buttonholed with the same care taken to space the stud holes precisely.
As the shirt was assembled in various stages each worker tore off the bottommost portion of the attached ticket and passed the bundle to the next stage. As the bundles of shirts neared completion the attached tickets became shorter. Meanwhile, each worker kept her tickets carefully in a box. These were her record of the number of pieces she had worked and she later handed them to the wages clerk who used them to calculate her pay.
Sometimes, if a machinist had not done enough bundles to make her normal wages she might, towards the end of the week, hand in some tickets for work which she had not completed. She would then have to stay in at dinner time to complete these bundles or perhaps take home and finish them at the weekend. Many an evening at home was spent stitching or turning the bundles of so called 'dead horses' before taking them back to the factory.
This is a photograph of the City factory circa 1919.
This is a photograph of the City factory circa 1919.
City Factory - 1919 (Cutting Room)
City Factory - 1919 (Smoothing Room)

When the sewing was completed, stray ends of thread were removed by a clipper and when the examiner was satisfied that all the work was perfectly done the completed shirts and collars went to the laundry. Finally, shirts and collars were boxed and sent to the packing shed to await dispatch.
Each factory had its mechanics, fitters, supervisors, cleaners, office staff and in later years canteen staff and tea ladies. Larger firms even had a factory nurse. The method of making a shirt evolved continuously as the shirt industry modernised its production processes.
Conveyor belts, or 'speed benches', have come and gone. Increased use of sophisticated and heavy machinery means that the idel plant nowadays has a single storey and firms operating in old, high buildings work at a disadvantage. Computerisation of pattern laying has cut down on wastage of cloth but also demands new skills and great adaptability from cutters.
Almost all factories now have training departments where new workers are trained in a more structered and less haphazard way than before and are awarded a certificate upon completion of training. Machinists, like cutters, are expected to be more adaptable. No longer does a girl continue to work in the trade throughout her life. She is often expected to switch to a different operation if the work 'going through' demands it.
But the modern factory is essentially not very different from its predecessor of seventy years ago. Shirt making is still a labour intensive industry and the quality and appearance of the finished garment still depend on the skills of the people involved in making it.


  • Derry's Shirt Tale - Geraldine Mc Carter
  • Siege City - Brian Lacy
  • In Sunshine Or In Shadow - David Bigger & Terence Mc Donald
  • 100 Years Of Derry - Roy Hamilton
  • Derry, A City Invincible - Brian Mitchell
  • The Derry Journal - Lawerence Moore & Erin Hutcheon

This site is by no means complete.I hope in the coming weeks and months to add to it.
If you have any information, stories or photographs that will enhance this site then please contact me below.I would be most grateful.

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