Clothing is one of humanity's basic needs; its primary function is to protect the body from the elements. Clothing styles, however, are diverse, having been influenced by well-known people, religion, tradition, art, science, and more recently, the media.
Archaeologists have found no clothing from early periods before the Stone Age. This may be because of the fragility of the garments; even if they were buried, they didn't survive the weathering of the centuries. It is assumed that prehistoric people made clothing for warmth from the skins of animals killed for food. The clothes may have been unfitted and tied or wrapped around the body.
Toward the end of the Stone Age (about 10,000 years ago), the first sewn clothing was made in the southern regions of Europe with needles carved from bone. In the northern regions, people used leather straps to sew together skins. Holes were made in the garments and hooks were used to pull leather thongs through the skins.
From pottery and wall paintings, archaeologists have clues to the clothing of the ancient Egyptians. Material was woven from spun thread. The thread was spun on a spindle, a long smooth stick with a notch at one end for catching the thread or yarn. Spinning the spindle against a bowl, called a whorl, produced a fairly even, continuous fiber. These fibers were formed into fabric by weaving.
The first clothing Egyptian men wore was a band around the waist, with pendants and religious objects hanging from the band. The first clothing worn by Egyptian women was a white linen skirt that reached down to the ankles. The first pair of trousers was worn in Persia around the sixth century B.C.
The type of clothing worn in any location often was influenced by the climate. In warmer climates, both men and women tended to wear dresses and other loose fitting apparel that was open at the bottom. Those in colder climates were more likely to wear pants.
Religious customs also influenced the type of apparel worn. For example, in the 12th century when the Muslims conquered northern and central India, dramatic changes were made in the dress code to conform to Muslim practice. Until the conquest, the warm climate had dictated that dress styles leave some of the body uncovered, but the Muslim practice of covering as much of the body as possible led to a change. For women, this meant covering the arms, legs, and in many areas, the head and most of the face.
It was also in the 12th century that the spinning wheel came into use, although its origin is unknown. The spinning wheel increased the speed at which threads and yarns could be produced. The two-bar loom was invented at about the same time, increasing the speed at which the threads could be woven. Advances in fabric making resulted in more beautiful and widely available clothing.
The next wave of inventions to assist fabric makers in their art came during the 18th century. The spinning jenny, a machine that spun more than one thread at a time, was invented by James Hargreaves in about 1764. The water-frame, cotton-spinning machine invented by Richard Arkwright made hard, twisted thread from cotton rather than linen, the fiber used until then. In 1785, Edmund Cartwright developed a power loom that ran on steam. He opened a factory in England that used the machine for rapid production of fabric. In 1793, Eli Whitney, an American inventor, developed the cotton gin, which reduced the amount of time and manpower necessary to pull the seeds from cotton.
In 1830, Barthelemy Thimonnier patented a sewing machine in Paris. The same fate befell Thimonnier and Cartwright: In fear of losing their livelihood, weavers and tailors destroyed their factories, leading to many instances of destruction and violence across Europe.
In 1846, Elias Howe of the United States developed a sewing machine. The machine was quick and used two threads in a lockstitch pattern, as sewing machines use today. Howe's sewing machine was no more accepted by tailors 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 the sewing machine that would survive the objections of the tailors. The machine made only simple stitches, and although it sped production of the basic elements of garments, tailors still were needed for much of the manufacturing process. These early 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, which was invented in the United States at the Reece Machinery Company. Factories began to replace craft shops.
In the early 20th century, New York City's Lower East Side became the largest clothing-production zone in the world. This was due to the city's large population of immigrant garment workers and its easy access to both New England's woolen mills and the South's cotton mills.
The small garment factories 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 was used to describe these early businesses.
On March 25, 1911, in New York City, a disastrous fire swept through the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, killing 146 people, most of them young girls. The building had only one fire escape, and the exit doors were blocked. The factory had just been approved by the city inspectors for fire safety. As a direct result of the tragedy, the city was forced to revise its building codes and labor laws, and membership in garment industry unions 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.
The era of the sweatshop was coming to an end in the United States. The World Wars increased the need for clothing production and helped maintain the United States' leadership position in the apparel-producing industry. Like many other fields, the apparel industry was starting to specialize and departmentalize. Jobbers bought raw materials, such as cotton, and sold it to contractors. Contractors made materials—fabrics, threads, or even garments. Manufacturers bought materials and threads and made clothes to sell to wholesalers or to distributors who owned their own stores. Wholesalers sold finished products to retail stores. However, shops that produced finished garments from raw materials still existed; they were called vertical mills and vertical mill distributors.
During the first half of the 20th century, the garment industry was concentrated in the United States and Great Britain. By the 1950s, many other countries, including Canada, Belgium, the Netherlands, South Africa, the Scandinavian countries, Australia, and Japan, began to expand their garment industries. In the 1960s, the garment industry grew rapidly worldwide, expanding greatly in the Far East, especially in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore.
The greatest change in the apparel industry in the last 50 years has been the migration of manufacturing jobs to Asia. A substantial number of garments are made abroad because of the reduced cost of labor and taxes as well as technologically advanced, well-engineered factories. The quantity of clothing imported increased by more than 300 percent in the late 20th century.
Because of the limited investment required to cut and sew garments and the tendency of firms to specialize in one operation, such as cutting, small companies can enter this industry. Most manufacturers have small factories, which employ fewer than 100 workers. However, employment is concentrated in mills with 50 or more employees.