The Slaves of the Needle reveals the health and social issues faced by women and girls in the needlework trade – be they dress-makers and embroiders, who created tailored, specially commissioned pieces, or milliners, who made hats, or slop-workers, who sewed cheap, ready-to-wear items such as undergarments.
The 1840s saw a rise in numbers of women, including those from middle-class backgrounds, turning to needlework to support themselves and their families. The Slaves of the Needle was written in 1845, two years after the Second Report of the Children’s Employment Commission shocked the public by revealing the needleworker’s dire working and living conditions.
Its author, Ralph Barnes Grindrod, sets out to persuade its readers to help these ‘unfortunate and helpless victims of a cruel and oppressive system’. Grindrod was a surgeon; he takes a particular interest in the physical impact of needlework, such as its connection to spinal deformities (see pp. 22-23), but also incorporates findings and quotes from the official report, which detail the excessive working hours without rest and deplorable pay.