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Story: Clothing and footwear manufacturing

Clothing was hard to get in early colonial New Zealand, and settlers were told to bring plenty. By 1880 there were about 4,000 self-employed tailors and seamstresses. The local clothing industry boomed, protected for many years by import licensing and tariffs – but in the 2000s, most clothing was produced offshore.

Story by Jane Tolerton
Main image: Graeme McKinlay with size-23 shoes

Story Summary

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Māori clothes-making

Māori made skirts and cloaks from scraped flax and cabbage-tree leaves, sometimes with feathers and dog hair. Some Māori used bone needles to sew clothes from dog, seal and weka skins.

Colonial clothing

The first European colonists were told to bring plenty of garments, as clothing was hard to get. From the 1850s clothes were sold in general stores, and draperies sold fabric and other items for home sewing. Dressmakers and tailors made suits, dresses and hats.

Clothing and fabric were New Zealand’s biggest import in the late 19th century. Many women made clothes for themselves and their children.

First clothing factory

The New Zealand Clothing Factory was set up by Bendix Hallenstein in Dunedin in 1873, to make basic clothing for men and boys. In 1876 the factory opened clothing shops around the country.

Clothing-factory work

Most factory employees were young women, who were paid much less than men. In 1873 a law was passed to improve working conditions for women in factories. But women who did sewing work at home were still paid very badly. A government inquiry in 1890 looked into sweating (work in poor conditions for low pay). The Tailoresses’ Union, formed in 1889, was the first women’s trade union in New Zealand.

Colonial footwear

In colonial days people needed boots. Bootmakers set up small businesses. In the 1870s boot and shoe factories were set up, but large numbers of boots and shoes were still imported.

Boom and bust

The government protected New Zealand’s clothing and footwear industries by limiting imports and charging a tariff on them. The industries boomed in the 20th century, and many clothing and footwear factories were set up. One company, Skellerup, became well-known for its rubber gumboots and jandals.

When import licensing ended and tariffs were lowered in the 1980s, it became difficult for local manufacturers to compete with factories in countries where wages were lower. Most closed down. In 2008 more than 95% of footwear was imported, mostly from China.

Local clothing and footwear companies in the 2000s were mostly small and innovative.

How to cite this page:

Jane Tolerton, 'Clothing and footwear manufacturing', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/clothing-and-footwear-manufacturing (accessed 20 May 2018)

Story by Jane Tolerton, published 11 Mar 2010