Working in Clothing Factories

Original Airdates: December 14, 15, 17 (2010)

This is Living Stories, featuring voices from the collections of the Baylor University Institute for Oral History. I'm Kim Patterson.

The clothing industry in the United States was at its peak in the mid-1900s. Reports show that by 1957, Americans were spending more than $25 billion annually on clothes, nearly twice the amount spent
on automobile purchases and eight times the figure spent on private education. Waco was home to several clothing factories during this time that employed many women—companies like Hawk & Buck and
J. M. Wood.

Estelle Pederson, who moved to Waco in the early 1940s, worked for nearly forty-five years in the clothing industry, much of that time as an inspector. She describes the demands of the work:

"They wanted you to make production, and that's for sure. And you really had to work hard to make production because if you didn't make production they would lay you off sure as the world. And, well, I was lucky all those years. I made production most of the time. But I mean it wasn't fooling around. I mean you had to work. And they inspected your work, and if they find a repair they throw it back at you. They'd get on to you. You had to do the best you could, and they sure didn't like for you to let some repairs go through, but it is hard to catch everything. But I tried to do the best I could and fast as I could, and it wasn't easy. Then they'd time you right there and see how fast you—if you was just playing over. And if you could do so-and-so, well, you could do it all the time. And they'd stand behind you, and you wouldn't know they was timing you, and so they'd catch you. (laughs) So that was kind of—if I knew they was looking—watching you, it makes you nervous."

Pederson explains one way the industry changed over the years:

"Seem like they wasn't quite as strict when we first went to work. We could get by. Sometimes we run out of work, we'd sit around a little bit. But there at last, it had changed quite a bit. They was really strict. And you had to keep busy, or they'd send you home. (laughs) Well, you did learn to do different things so when you did run out of work—I even learned to press and steam press. (laughs) Oh, that was when you sure had to watch your fingers so you didn't press your fingers."

Long-time Waco resident Louise Murphy worked as a seamstress in the forties. She recalls when her employer introduced an assembly line into the factory:

"Now, when we first went to work, our work was one machine to the other, one machine to the other. And we were on army khaki pants. Well, they put these pants up on conveyor, and it went from one—that keeps you from having to reach back and get your work because that conveyer brought your work to you. And they thought it would save time. That's whenever we began to have trouble because if one stop and does repair, the whole line is affected, see."

In the 1970s, the clothing industry began to fade in America, as it became more cost effective to import clothing from countries such as China, South Korea, and Taiwan. But in recent years the industry has seen a boost from American retailers who want to restock and respond to fads quickly, as well as have more control over inventory and quality.

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