Inventions that Changed the World of Fashion
INVENTIONS THAT CHANGED THE WORLD OF FASHION
The Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had a direct effect on how clothing materials were made. Four innovations in particular helped change fashion: the cotton gin, spinning jenny, sewing machine, and artificial dye.
For most of the eighteenth century, cotton was an exotic commodity because it was difficult to process—it took one slave ten hours to separate one pound of cotton lint from its seeds. In 1793, a Yale University graduate named Eli Whitney (1765–1825) visited a plantation in Savannah, Georgia, and designed a machine to remove cotton seeds from lint. His cotton gin worked by placing cotton into a hopper, where the cotton would be held back while a rotating drum with wires would pull the cotton away. As a result of Whitney's invention, cotton became the American South's leading cash crop, supplying Great Britain with most of its cotton. Where the South had once produced little more than sixty tons of cotton a year, by 1840 the South was generating a million tons of cotton a year. Indirectly, the cotton gin meant that more slaves would be needed to pick cotton. Within thirty years of Whitney's invention, the number of American slaves had tripled.
The spinning jenny was an eighteenth century modification of the familiar spinning wheel. One day in the 1750s, English carpenter James Hargreaves (1720–1778) inadvertently knocked over his spinning wheel in his Lancashire, England, home and was startled to see it, on its side, still spinning. He instantly envisioned a series of spinning wheels similarly aligned; such a device, he realized, could approximate the rhythm of human fingers. Following a decade of fits and starts Hargreaves completed his spinning jenny in 1768. The population of existing spinners saw Hargreaves's invention as a threat to their livelihood, because one jenny could do the work of several men. The spinners turned violent. A group of them formed a vigilante mob, stormed into Hargreaves's home, and destroyed his inventions. He moved his family to neighboring Nottingham, and opened a mill where he manufactured yarn until his death. However, he was unsuccessful in obtaining a patent for his invention.
The most significant fashion-related invention of the 1800s, the sewing machine, was the work of several men. French tailor Barthelemy Thimmonier (1793–1859) invented a machine in 1830 which used a hooked needle to make chain stitches. Threatened by the efficiency of Thimmonier's machine, local tailors formed a mob and attacked Thimmonier and destroyed his invention. In 1846, American inventor Elias Howe (1819–1867) patented a sewing machine which made lock stitches with an eye-pointed needle. Howe's invention did not sell well, but with the addition of Isaac Singer (1811–1875) and Allen Wilson's (1824–1888) modifications, which made Howe's invention work more easily and efficiently, the sewing machine became quite popular when the first home sewing machine was sold in 1889.
From biblical times through the mid-nineteenth century, people derived dyes from solely natural resources, such as the indigo or sumac plant or the shellfish. The first synthetic, or man-made, dye was only created in 1856, when an eighteen-year-old British chemist named William Henry Perkin (1838–1907) was attempting to synthesize quinine when he mixed aniline together with a solution of alcohol and potassium dichromate. The unexpected result was mauveine, a purple dye that became very popular in Great Britain. Queen Victoria (1819–1901) wore mauve to her daughter's wedding, and even British postage stamps were dyed with mauveine. Perkin's mentor, German scientist August Wilhelm von Hofmann (1818–1892), was inspired by his student's discovery to develop his own dyes, and within a few years Hofmann created rosaniline, a reddish-brown dye made from aniline and carbon tertrachloride. Within only a few years, in 1868, German chemist Carl Graebe (1841–1927) created alizarin, a synthetic vegetable dye.
Each of these inventions, in their own way, made clothing faster, easier, and cheaper to make. The result continues to be felt in the ever changing fashions marketed each new season throughout the world.