When the Polynesian ancestors of Māori arrived in New Zealand they found that the paper mulberry tree (aute), from which they would have made tapa cloth, was difficult to grow in the cooler climate. Instead, they scraped flax and cabbage-tree leaves and made them into skirts and cloaks, which often also included bird feathers and kurī (dog) hair. Māori in some areas used bone needles to sew together animal skins, including those of dogs, seals and weka.
Clothing was hard to get in early colonial New Zealand. Colonists were advised to bring plentiful supplies. The 1849 Hand-book for intending emigrants to the southern settlements of New Zealand advised bachelor cabin passengers to bring 48 shirts, 18 waistcoats and 60 pairs of socks as well as numerous jackets, trousers and blouses for summer wear. It suggested emigrants ask friends for their half-worn clothes, as these would be good enough for the colonies.
From the 1850s general stores sold basic, ready-to-wear clothing. Draperies stocked fabric and haberdashery for home sewing as well as some clothes. Suits, dresses and hats were usually made for individual customers by dressmakers and tailors.
Made-to-measure clothing generated a lot of employment. In 1880 there were some 4,000 self-employed tailors and seamstresses in New Zealand. In 1901 about one-quarter of women in business were dressmakers or tailoresses.
A Manawatū farmer’s wife, Emily Mildon, left an account of her clothes shopping, by keeping all of her receipts. She bought some clothes at Palmerston North’s most upmarket department store, C. M. Ross, but she also had garments made at Madame de Luen – the business of dressmaker Elizabeth de Luen, whose husband Arthur had a tailor’s shop nearby.
In 1893, Palmerston North – a town of about 4,500 people – had 100 people working in clothing businesses. Among the men were 21 tailors, 21 drapers, 15 general storekeepers, a clothier, a hatter, a hosiery manufacturer and a maker of braids and decorations for military uniforms. There were 57 women in the industry – 41 dressmakers and tailoresses, seven milliners (making women’s hats), five storekeepers–drapers, two machinists (one working for a tailor), a seamstress and a corsetmaker.
Drapery, mainly clothing and fabric for making clothes, was New Zealand’s biggest import in the late 19th century. In 1880 the country spent almost as much on drapery and clothing as it earned from gold exports. There were large importing firms, such as Wellington’s Levin & Co., established in 1852, and Bing Harris & Co., from 1853 – but many storekeepers imported their own supplies.
By the early 20th century, men’s clothes were mainly bought off-the-rack from shops stocking factory-made rather than tailor-made clothes.
Women usually made their own clothes, and their children’s. Draperies and department stores sold material and paper patterns. Home sewing became easier with the availability of sewing machines and the simpler fashion styles of the 20th century. Department stores sold ready-made women’s clothes and had dressmaking services, and individual dressmakers stayed in business, mainly catering to wealthier clients.
The New Zealand Clothing Factory was set up in Dunedin in 1873 by Bendix Hallenstein. He had found it difficult to import clothes for his general stores in Invercargill and Queenstown, partly because of transport difficulties, and also because imported clothes didn’t necessarily suit local needs.
The New Zealand Clothing Factory made basic, hard-wearing clothing for men and boys – initially in Dunedin, and then in many towns and cities. In 1876 Bendix Hallenstein opened shops as a sales outlet for the factories; by 1900 there were 34 Hallenstein Bros shops around the country.
Most clothing-factory employees were young women working between leaving school and getting married. In Dunedin in 1901, 27% of the workforce was employed in the clothing industry. 80% were women.
While men did the heavier work of cutting and pressing, women did the machining and finishing. They were paid according to the skill level required for their particular job, but were paid much less than men.
The Employment of Females Act 1873 restricted women’s work in factories to eight hours per day, and prohibited work after 6 p.m. on weekdays and 2 p.m. on Saturdays. The Act applied to clothing workers in factories and workshops, even those with just one employee.
Although it was not well enforced, the act did improve conditions for women in factories, and more parents were prepared to let their daughters work there. Even so, in the early 1890s an Auckland factory manager was said to have commented that he ‘thought no more of the girls than the machines they worked, and that it was his duty to make the very last shilling out of them’.1
The Employment of Females Act did not cover outwork – when women were given work to do in their homes, such as sewing on buttons. Sometimes women did a day’s work in a factory or workshop and also took work home. In other cases, warehousemen gave work to women to do at home and paid them very low rates.
In 1888 the low pay and bad conditions for women working in the clothing industry came to national attention when a Dunedin Presbyterian minister, Rutherford Waddell, preached a sermon on sweating, ‘The sin of cheapness’. Otago Daily Times reporter Silas Spragg investigated and wrote articles exposing the problem.
As a result, the government set up an enquiry in 1890. Known as the Sweating Commission, it looked not only at outwork and the clothing industry, but at conditions in factories and workrooms in a variety of industries. This led to the Factories Act 1891, which set up a system of factory inspection resulting in improved working conditions.
The Tailoresses’ Union, the first women’s trade union in New Zealand, was formed in late 1889, just before the Sweating Commission began its work. Tailoress Harriet Morison became the first vice president (and shortly afterwards, secretary), while Rutherford Waddell was the first president. In 1906 Morison was appointed a government inspector of factories.
The government put a 15% customs duty on clothing in 1866 as a way of gathering revenue. The tariff, which was raised to 20% in 1888, also offered some protection to local producers.
From 1938 the government used import licences to restrict the amount of clothing brought into New Zealand. It also increased tariffs – customs duties charged to importers, who paid the government a percentage of a garment’s price. Tariffs varied, but were as high as 65% on some clothing items in the following decades.
Protected by high tariffs, the New Zealand clothing industry boomed. In the 1950s it employed about 80,000 people. Many clothing factories were set up in lower North Island towns, including Foxton, which had been the centre of the flax industry and already had the necessary infrastructure and skills.
In the protected environment from the late 1930s to the 1980s, clothing firms proliferated, and some grew very large. In the late 1970s, for example, Prestige Holeproof made suits, men’s shirts, knitwear, underwear, socks and hosiery, as well as woollen and synthetic fabrics and knitting wool, in factories in Auckland, Hamilton, Te Awamutu, Whanganui, Palmerston North, Shannon and Wellington.
In the early 1980s the Industry Development Commission examined the clothing industry and decided there were too many factories making small quantities of too many different things. It encouraged firms to combine and merge to make the industry more efficient.
Some argued against protecting the clothing industry. Federated Farmers president Sir Peter Elworthy said that protection was ‘a burden on every New Zealander’ and that the clothing industry should be put to the test of competition. ‘If they want to maintain the industry as a social employment service, the onus is on them to say how much taxpayers’ money they need to subsidise them, then let the consumer decide.’1
In 1992 import licences were removed so that anyone could import clothing. The high tariffs were gradually lowered. By 2009 the tariff was 10%, and was due to be gone completely by the mid-2010s.
After import restrictions were lifted and tariffs lowered, the amount of clothing imported rose dramatically, from $129 million in 1989 to more than $600 million (in 1989 terms) in 1999. The price of clothing fell.
By the early 2000s most of New Zealand’s clothing factories had closed as locally made clothing was much more expensive than imported clothing, mostly from China. In 2009 New Zealand’s two largest clothing manufacturers, Pacific Brands and Lane Walker Rudkin, ceased production – a sign of the demise of mass-market clothing manufacturing in New Zealand.
When Palmerston North firm Everest Fashions closed in 2008, owner Courtenay Darby told a newspaper reporter: ‘Our staff deserved to be paid much more than we were able to pay them. They are skilled workers and they were paid an unskilled wage … but even then it is too much of a gap between our labour costs and China.’2 Everest Fashions had been a ‘cut, make and trim’ manufacturer, making up garments for other firms. It was employing 28 people when it closed.
New Zealand’s 21st-century clothing industry was characterised by small companies that have found a particular niche in the market. Some firms design in New Zealand, but have the clothes made in Asia.
Most develop a brand, focus on design and aim for the top end of the market. Many, including Untouched World and Icebreaker, have specialised in fine merino knitwear. Others, such as Swanndri, Norsewear and Swazi, have concentrated on making rugged outdoors clothes for New Zealand conditions.
Textile innovation has been a feature of the clothing industry in the 2000s – seen in the development of fine merino wool fabrics and the combination of possum fur and wool. Fine merino wool has become an important fibre in New Zealand clothing manufacture. Icebreaker gives its clothes a ‘baacode’ – which tells the customer where the sheep that grew the wool lived.
High-end fashion designers who produced ready-to-wear collections included Karen Walker, Zambesi, Nom*D, World and Kate Sylvester.
Those making clothes in New Zealand often use this as a selling point. One example is Swazi Apparel of Levin. When the firm lost a contract to supply gear to the army in 2009, founder Davey Hughes spoke of the need for New Zealand to keep its clothing trade skills: ‘When the expertise of these people is gone, it won’t come back.’3
Fashion Industry New Zealand (FINZ) represents and supports the fashion sector and wider apparel industry. Members include manufacturers, importers, retailers and designers.
A good pair of boots was necessary in colonial days as people walked or rode horses. Imported boots cost about £1 in the 1850s (more than $100 in 2009 terms).
Individual bootmakers, many of whom had done cobbler’s apprenticeships before emigrating, set up small businesses to meet local needs. Some sold imported boots and shoes as well. An advertisement for M. Whitehead, Boot & Shoe Maker & Importer, who set up his business in Thames in 1868, promised ‘every description of men’s, women’s and children’s boots made to order, and orders by post promptly attended to’.1
Boot and shoe factories were set up in the 1870s. The government put a duty of one shilling a pair on imported boots from the 1860s, making them more expensive and therefore helping to encourage the local industry. But more boots were still imported than made locally – in 1880 about 500,000 compared with 280,000. New Zealand boots and shoes were generally rougher than imported ones, and were made for the lower end of the market.
Hannahs is New Zealand’s best-known footwear firm. Robert Hannah trained as a cobbler in Northern Ireland and opened a footwear shop in Wellington in 1870, and a factory shortly afterwards. By 1893 he had 10 shops and a factory employing more than 250 people. In the 2000s Hannahs had dozens of shops, but no longer made shoes in New Zealand.
By 1895 New Zealand had 65 boot and shoe factories, producing more than a million pairs annually. In 1910, 74 factories made 1.5 million pairs.
Men usually did the heavier work like cutting, while women made uppers and did thread work. Women made up about one-third of the workforce in many footwear factories in the 19th and early 20th centuries. They were paid from five to 25 shillings a week depending on the skill required of their job, compared with 25 to 55 shillings for men.
The heavy treadle sewing machines were difficult and dangerous to handle until the 1890s, when power-driven machines made work easier. Long periods of standing and the chemicals used in leather treatment and other processes were also detrimental to workers’ health, especially in overcrowded and badly ventilated factories. One factory inspector put the ‘rowdy behaviour’ of women bootmakers down to the fact that they worked with men in crowded workrooms.2
The government restricted footwear imports from 1938, and increased tariffs on imports to protect the local footwear industry.
Footwear factories flourished after the Second World War, and to the late 1980s about 95% of footwear sold in New Zealand was made locally. In the late 1970s New Zealand made about 8.25 million pairs of footwear a year. There were six footwear firms making more than 4,000 pairs a week, about 20 making more than 2,000 pairs, and another 20 making smaller quantities.
George Skellerup set up the Marathon Rubber Footwear company in Christchurch in 1939 to make canvas tennis shoes. The company made its first rubber gumboot in 1943. Its best known brand is Red Band – shorter, more rugged gumboots designed for New Zealand farmers. Skellerup also made jandals (rubber thongs), owning the trademark name Jandal for several decades.
Import restrictions on footwear were removed in the late 1980s. Tariffs were lowered – to 10% by 2009, and due to be removed entirely by the mid-2010s. In 2008 more than 95% of the footwear sold in New Zealand was imported, mainly from China. Many local firms closed down or began to have their products made in Asia.
Firms making boots and shoes in New Zealand in the 2000s were small and specialised. They included McKinlay’s, Paraflex, Bobux and Kumfs.
McKinlay’s, the largest footwear manufacturer making all of its product in New Zealand, began in Dunedin in 1879 and has remained in family ownership. In 2009 it was making high-quality (stitched, not glued) boots and shoes, and one-off pairs for those with foot injuries.
Paraflex, making safety footwear for those in heavy industry and the services, started in Christchurch in 1984.
Bobux makes leather infants’ shoes, and exports most of them. It started in 1991 when Chris Bennett designed shoes with an elastic ankle for his daughter. He also developed an eco-friendly leather tanning process.
In 2009 Sandy Cooper, who began women’s footwear firm Minnie Cooper in 1989, decided to promote the fact she made her boots and shoes in New Zealand when she realised she was one of the few to do so. She added the slogan ‘still made here’ to her advertisements. In her view customers were pleased to buy locally made products and were willing to pay a bit extra.
Kumfs was set up in the 1940s by podiatrists Mervyn Adams and David Robertson, who saw that many New Zealanders were having problems fitting European shoes made for narrow feet and decided to make wider shoes. Still family-owned and run, the firm had a factory in Māngere, Auckland, in 2009, but made most of its shoes in Asia.
The New Zealand Footwear Industry Association represents footwear manufacturers and suppliers.
Hunter, Ian. Age of enterprise: rediscovering the New Zealand entrepreneur, 1880–1910. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2007.
Labrum, Bronwyn, and others, eds. Looking flash: clothing in Aotearoa New Zealand. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2007.
Price, Felicity. Lane Walker Rudkin: 100 years in the making. Christchurch: Hazard, 2005.