History of Manufacturing Clothing in Sydney

Clothing weaves through Sydney’s manufacturing history, with some key events in and around the city reflecting changes to clothing manufacturing across the country.

These days, clothing manufacturing in Sydney is a small industry, supported by independent companies and designers, as well as ethical consumers who want to give back to the local community.

Much of the work is outsourced to individuals or small businesses, rather than mass-produced in factories, and 100% Australian-made clothing often passes through many hands before making it into stores.

But that wasn’t always the case: clothing manufacturing in Sydney (and in Australia in general) has seen many ups and downs throughout history that have shaped where the industry is today.

The Early Days: Creating Clothing In Colonial Sydney

The current, in-house or outsourced processes that are typical of small businesses making clothes in Sydney today is actually similar to those of pre-Federation Sydney.

Dr Sally A. Weller – an Economic Geographer and ARC Future Fellow at Monash University – says that during the 19th century dressmakers and tailors made clothing at home or in small-scale workshops.

While colonies in Australia created clothing independent of each other, Dr Weller says there was still a lot of reliance on resources from the UK.

“The dressmakers would get patterns and fabrics from the UK and make up the clothing locally,” she says. “High value clothing was imported from the UK.”

But clothing manufacturing in Sydney grew as the years went by, with most of the work concentrated in the Surry Hills.

Historians Chris Keating and Harry Wotherspoon have written for the Dictionary of Sydney project that the clothing and rag trade in Surry Hills during the 19th century was still mainly based on the outwork and piecework systems outlined above.

For some tailors and dressmakers this was their primary source of income, but Keating and Wotherspoon show another side to the story of clothing manufacturing in the area, writing that “in the houses off the narrow lanes of Surry Hills women ran up slop garments for Dawson’s of Brickfield Hill or Cohen Brothers of Goulburn Street, in an effort to supplement often inadequate family incomes.”

Sydney’s Oxford Street was also an area where clothing factories were cropping up around the same time, with the rise of department stores bolstering demand for locally made clothes.

The growth of these stores also brought more work to clothing manufacturers in Surry Hills, with David Jones opening its Marlborough Street factory in the area around the turn of the century.

According to the department store, this factory was the largest of its kind in Australia and manufactured “a huge variety of goods from clothing to cabin trunks”, influencing other companies to do the same.

In 1917 Bonds began clothing manufacturing at its pilot plant in Redfern and expanded quickly from there, with a spinning mill and additional factory set up in Wentworthville in 1923. Competitor Pacific Dunlop set up its factory in Alexandria in 1930 and others followed suit as demand for clothing manufacturing increased.

Changing Clothing Manufacturing Methods

The development of electric sewing machines sped up the clothing manufacturing process in the 20th century but it wasn’t until after World War I that the industry really began to expand.

“There were policies to encourage the expansion of the textiles industry, especially in rural areas where the idea was to…create work for returned soldiers and an expanding rural population,” Dr Weller explains, noting that much of the growth was focused on wool-based manufacturing.

“Clothing manufacturing was expanding but in that time married women were not usually in the labour force, so there was a limit to the expansion,” she says.

The development of more specialised electric machines, such as overlockers and buttonholers, also helped change the way clothing was made. While previously workers had created whole clothing items, these new tools meant that factories could be arranged in a process line.

Weller describes the system as one where each worker would have “one (or few) specialised tasks and each finished item passing through multiple pairs of hands.”

“As specialisation continued, some parts of the process (pleating, buttonholes) would be contracted out to specialist firms,” she says. This trend of outsourcing and piecework continued into the mid-20th century and reached a peak in the 1960s, when 26% of all Australian employment was in the manufacturing sector.

But as globalisation advanced and Australia’s economic policies changed, so too did the manufacturing process.

“Firms started arranging for less complex sewing to be done offshore, partially finished goods imported, and more highly skilled tasks finished here,” Dr Weller explains.

Closing Down Clothing Factories In Australia

The rise and fall of large-scale local clothing manufactures in Sydney and surrounding areas follows the same path as other manufacturing trades in Australia.

According to Professor Phillip O’Neill of the Urban Research Centre at the University of Western Sydney, the protected economic surrounding the textiles and clothing industries “began to be dismantled” on the 18th of July 1973.

“This was the day when Labor prime minister Gough Whitlam announced a 25 per cent cut to tariffs across-the-board,” he writes in an article for the Newcastle Herald.

“An astonishing 34,000 textiles, clothing and footwear jobs were lost across Australia in the next 24 months.”

The decline of clothing factories in and around Sydney continued into the 1980s as policies focused more on trade and the advantages of globalisation.

Dr Weller says by the 1990s clothing manufacturing had been scaled back down to much smaller operations, with a rapid expansion of outworker and home-based worker jobs.

“This production model was at that time much cheaper than factory based production because firms could avoid the costs associated with running a factory,” Dr Weller explains.

“But many firms exploited their workers, which led to much more stringent regulation of the outwork-based production sector in the 2000s.”

So where does that leave clothing manufacturing in today?

“The web of regulation now in place around outwork impels firms to follow ethical production standards,” Dr Weller explains, adding that “new entrants since the regulations were in place understand that ethical production is important to brand identity.”

These companies show that local clothing manufacturing has a future in Australia despite higher costs of production.

As consumers gain more awareness of the standards and processes involved in creating clothing, a growing number of people are choosing to buy locally made clothing – and supporting the industry in Sydney and other parts of Australia as a result.