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Making a Shirt

How Long does it take to make a shirt?

This "project" started with a question we get from time to time at our demonstrations. The question usually comes when someone connects what they know with what some of our people are doing. The watch the drop spinner at work and realize that what is being made is "thread" the same stuff they buy by the hundreds of yards on a spool at the store for $0.99. Or that after spending an hour watching the weaving it clicks that this is fabric being made (saving a whole $1.99 a yard....).

It is at this point that they ask the question "How long does it take to make a shirt?"

I don't think we've ever tried to figure that out before.

This page will break the process down by listing all of the steps involved. We will be applying a combination of our guesses and data from our own work to attempt to answer the question. Check back from time to time as we add more information.

Anyone wishing to add their own numbers to this experiment is welcome to email Neil who will collect some numbers.

What do we need?

To begin we must determine what is necessary to construct a shirt. Then we reason backwards to figure out the intermediate steps and apply timings to those steps.

What do we need? About 2.5m of 1m wide fabric, and some extra thread. Some sort of cutting tool to cut the fabric & thread. A Needle to sew it together. To answer the question we'll assume that each household already has scissors and needles.

Now to make the thread requires a drop spindle, combs, and wool sheers. To make the fabric we'll need thread, a loom, with beater, pick, weights, heddles, and shuttle. Again lets assume that drop spindles, combs, sheers, a loom and its accessories are a normal part of each household. We'll also assume that any breakage that occurs to these items is instantly fixed. The obvious question to begin with then is "how much thread"?

That's actually a tricky question.

Based on Kaðlín's first weaving project (see here) if we start with 25' warp threads we will finish with just over 9' of fabric. Now this relationship is probably not linear (in that going to 50' warps will probably not make 18' of fabric). This is likely to be true because some of the difference in length comes of the wastage at the top and bottom of the fabric. That wastage isn't likely to change. In addition there are probably other factors that impact the relationship between length of warp and length of finished project.

I remember a thread count of 25/cm being common but we need to go research that before you should assume it is correct. Assuming, however, that it is then to produce 1 meter (2 Ells) of fabric width will require 1250 warps each 7.6 meters long (25'). Although Kaðlín's first weaving project shrank in width her second is much more stable so we will assume that we can stick with just 1250 warps rather than needing to add 25% for shrinkage. This means we need 9500 meters of warp.

Of course the warp should be plied. I am making an unsupported GUESS that plying will cause a 10% loss in length. We'll have to look into that number. That being the case we need 20900 meters of thread to make the warp.

Now we need the weft. According to Karen's first weaving the 14" wide project used 1.5 balls of yarn (about 308 meters). Scaling up from 14" width to 39" width means we need about 858 meters for weft. Brining the total thread required to 21758 m. (Over 21 Km! [13.5 mi])

We recently timed Kaðlín's spinning. After 265 minutes of spinning (no not in one sitting) she spun 242 feet of thread. To make my life a bit easier in numbers play I'm going to assume she is going to get 10% faster so she is spinning 30cm a minute. This means that to spin 21758m she needs a lot of friends or 72526.6 minutes (1208.7 hours). For those without a calculator handy that makes 30.2 work weeks or 7 months of "normal" working hours with no vacation or sick time.

Or to put it into children's terms a school day is 350 minutes [not counting lunch]. A school year is 188 days long so you would need all of grade four, and September in grade five to spin that much.

And of course that isn't counting the time to take it off the spindle, and set the spin, and do the plying.

But before we can spin the wool it has to be prepared. In this context that means raising the sheep, shearing them (how many sheep are needed?), cleaning and sorting the fleece, washing the wool, dyeing the wool [including picking & preparing the plants, chopping the firewood, drawing the water, boiling the mess, rinsing the dyed wool, and cleanup after, and production of the pot, tripod, spoons, if we were tracking those numbers], and combing the wool.

Now that we have the thread we need to warp the loom, set up the heddles (ick!), and weave. The only number we have for that is that to warp each heddle rod on Kaðlín's second project (294 warps) took us four hours. Therefore 17 hours will be needed for the full fabric if we were doing a tabby (1 heddle rod) but since twill (3 heddle rods) is more common lets assume 51 hours.

Now that we have the fabric we need to cut it to shape (say around 0.5 hours) and sew it together into the appropriate arrangement (by hand of course). Woops we need some sewing thread! This would then give us a basic tunic with no pretty embroidery (you need things like embroidery to keep you busy during the long winter nights right?).

Task Time for this task Total Time so far (minutes)
Sheer Sheep
Clean and Sort Fleece
Wash Fleece
Grow Dye plants
Pick & prepare Dye plants
Draw Water
Heat Water
Dye Fleece
Rinse Fleece
Dye Cleanup
Comb Fleece
Spinning Thread 72526.6 minutes
Winding Thread
Plying Thread
Cutting Warps
Warp Loom
Tie Heddles 1020 minutes
Remove Fabric From Loom
Cut Fabric

30 minutes

Sew Tunic
Total Time (minutes) 73576.6
Total Time (hours) 1226.3
Total Time (months of school) 1 year and 1.2 months
Total Cost ($10/hr) $12263.00

      Updated: August 26 2017 19:21:19.
Text © Neil Peterson, 2017
Photographs © Individual artists
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