Boston’s Fashion Apparel and Technology Innovations — a Tour

Shirley Willett
5 min readJul 27, 2021

My history is the garment industry history

My designs in the 1960s, 70s and 80s — and the sewing machine mid 1800s

The inspiration for this article was Scott Kirsner’s “Innovation Economy”, Boston Globe July 6, 2021. He listed the many technologies started in Boston, one of which was the sewing machine.

Sewing Machine

The sewing machine, invented by Elias Howe in 1845, Boston Mass, was one of our first technologies — and began the industrial revolution.

When the sewing machine became industrialized around the end of the 19th century, it was the first step toward building the garment industry. The second step was when Jewish tailors in Boston first engineered the same patterns for many different customers, and enabled speed with quality for stitchers — and mass-production was born. I cry when I reflect on how the pattern technologies have lost so much respect in the fashion apparel industry today.

My life started with the sewing machine in 1940, Boston Mass, when I sneaked to sew on my mother’s old treadle machine.

Manufacturing and Production Technologies

My work later (1940s, 50s) as a garment stitcher in mass-production factories enabled me to know how patterns must be engineered for stitchers to maintain high quality with speed. Just as the first Jewish tailors learned how to engineer patterns for many different customers, I learned by starting a business in custom design with many customers — after graduating Massachusetts College of Art & Design, 1955. I was therefore well experienced in both creative design and fitting for consumers, and in creating production technologies, and built a small and successful design and manufacturing corporation in the 1960s to 1980s, producing high fashion clothing affordably — all from a beginning with the sewing machine.

There were many other small garment manufacturers in Boston at that time. Most of them had been workers as pressers, stitchers or pattern designers. None of those small businesses that trained as apprentices exist today in Boston.

Creative Styling and Innovative Pattern Engineering

In New York City, 1955, my first jobs were in design rooms and I discovered that fashion schools were teaching creative design only, leaving out the great garment industry technologies. The teachers were all primarily dressmakers and romanticized the 19th century couture and dressmaking techniques of handwork that took hundreds of hours per garment. Their promotion of creativity was great, however. There was a wall dividing designers and manufacturers . But, there was no such division in my work and business.

My 1989 grant award showing wide divides in expertise, knowledge and activity

Coming back to Boston in 1957, as a designer for a dress manufacturer here, it was assumed that I knew nothing about pattern engineering. However, I made clothes for myself, and a pattern designer, for their moderate priced dress market, interpreted them. At that time the Boston garment industry was centered around Kneeland Street. It was also a great area for getting supplies, tools and trims like pleating and covered buttons — which I used for developing my own business. It was a great time in Boston, as I later set up my own factory.

As my successful business kept growing, it was difficult to find experienced stitchers, so I hired some recent graduates, and taught them my industrial methods. But attitudes were changing. There was a great deal of misinformation floating around about the garment industry: “They are dirty old sweatshops taking advantage of workers” — which was absolutely not true from my history and my business. There was also talk of garment manufacturers going overseas. They said for cheaper labor, but I knew it as not getting experienced workers here in Boston.

My workers never complained about money, but the misinformation affected them. Piecework for my cutters (in leather) and stitchers enabled good wages and their satisfaction. I also designed some great production technologies that enabled my high fashion garments to be of equal quality but much less expensive than the designer clothes that hung next to them in retail stores.

Famous Suede Evening Gown and the innovative production system of “Sew by Numbers”

An example of “Creative styling and innovative pattern engineering” is my suede evening gown, explained in my book, “Past, Present & Future, A Fashion Memoir…”: “The gown had swirling curves, which was great for cutting in suede with sharp points, which fit nicely into skins. The seams were overlapped for a soft and thin result, which required stitchers to learn special skills. No one was doing this kind of careful stitching, and required careful cutting and an innovative production system that required creative pattern engineering — opposing the traditional production. The 3rd sketch is the drawing that was given to each stitcher on their machines. The cutters were given patterns that highlighted the top edges that must be cut carefully. Each piece was lettered on the under side, and every edge had a number to match with its coordinated seam. The stitchers put together the pieces in each of five sections first — then sew the sections together. They could put the shell together in 15 minutes, had a lot of fun, and called it “Sew By Numbers”. I had to sell the gown at market price, not the low price of production — so I made a 60% profit! And it sold so very well.”

Another production innovation: “As we kept growing I hired some young cutters, paid by piecework, and set up a unique intraprenurial system — their own business within my business. First I established exactly how much suede each style would take, by cutting the first sample myself. Then, when a pack of suede came in I gave it to the cutters on memo. That is, they owned the suede and were responsible for how many garments the pack would make. If they used less, the extra was their profit — but I benefited by stabilizing my material costs, and my profits. The stitchers checked quality. If they cut damages stitchers gave it back for a recut, taking more suede — so they were careful.”

Oh! There should be some intraprenurial systems today for all workers to take more responsibility and gain their benefits. Instead we have increasing divisions between workers and the business, markets separate from making, and young fashion designers not taught the garment industry history.

There were many attempts I made, as a teacher, as a small business consultant, and in winning a series of grant awards from the National Science Foundation on engineering design in apparel manufacturing. Academia loved them, but the fashion industry did not recognize anything worthwhile from a woman and from Boston. I was too ahead of time in the 1990s, and too late to help Boston’s Fashion Apparel Industry.



Shirley Willett

Book: “Past, Present, Future: Fashion Memoir, 70 Years, Design, Engineering, Education, Manufacturing & Technology”