Hosiery in Wartime and Post-war Austerity
Throughout the Spring and Summer of 1939 the British public became ever more certain that war was inevitable.
Memories of the war that had ended twenty-one years before were still clear, the shortages of everyday essentials particularly so. The prudent housewife began to lay down stocks of those things that would keep a while, e.g. sugar, tea, and tinned foods, despite the extortion "Do not hoard!".
The hosiery manufacturer also remembered the lessons learned in that war and looked to his stock of spares. Knitting and sewing machines need to have broken and worn parts replaced to stay in production. Manufacturers therefore checked the quantity of needles that had been used in the previous two years and bought in at least that quantity. Most manufacturers ensured that there was in The Yarn Cellar, a small weight of the yarns, such as pure silk, that would not be available in wartime.
When war against Germany was declared on September 3rd 1939, the unions and the employers met to discuss the best way to tackle the problems that were certain to arise, both sides wished to preserve their own best interests. It was agreed .."that in each district a Joint Committee consisting of one representative or his deputy from each side be appointed to operate and deal with local conditions as they arise". This was done in Hinckley.
In 1939 the trade was working at full capacity. War Office orders for military socks and underwear were easy to get. A Militia Act conscripting young men for six months military training had started in April 1939. There were plans to recruit women into the uniformed armed services. The big warehousing firms were buying to ensure that they had a good stock of all lines that would later be sold without difficulty at inflated prices.
The Hinckley Local Committee agreed on changes to pre-war working practices. Women and juveniles could replace recruited men on knitting machines and in the warehouse, on condition that no other male adult labour was available, provided they were paid the same rates as men.
An extension to the working hours was agreed, the overtime rate being paid on all the extra hours. In Europe hostilities began with a five month period of so- called "phoney war", when all the fighting was done by the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force. The Government had by January 1940 taken emergency powers to fully control all aspects of civilian and military life, one being to transfer surplus labour to work in munitions factories. Gradually the mechanism to regulate the hosiery trade was implemented.
In March 1940 a Hosiery Rationing Committee for England (together with a similar one for Scotland) was established to distribute the bulk allocations of the woollen and worsted yarn that would be made to the trade by a Wool Controller. This gave each firm a percentage of its consumption of yarn during the previous year. For the first time manufacturers now had to make monthly returns of their production, by types of garments produced. In March 1941 emergency powers were taken to reduce the number of people employed in the hosiery trade, whilst maintaining output for the services, and meeting the minimum needs of the civilian population. Firms were concentrated into small units, one of each unit could remain in production. Each producing unit had its production of the so called "luxury" products cut by 60%, these included fully fashioned stockings, outerwear, and all the "fancy" types of hosiery. Essentials like children's and infant's underwear and socks were cut by only 20%, the output of seamless hose, half hose, gloves and underwear by 33%. To the credit of the industry the closure of the required number of firms was arranged by the manufacturers themselves, it was not necessary for the Government to nominate.
The next stage was the rationing of civilian hosiery in June 1941. This was followed in September 1941 by "Utility" garments. These to be made to exacting specifications, introduced by stages but eventually to cover everything. Maximum prices were enforced, as were maximum profits. By March 1942 67% of hosiery production was Utility; by August 1942 it was 90%; by the end of 1943 it was 99% of women’s stockings and 96% of all other garments.
In 1939 the industry was working many types of knitting machines. To accommodate this, the number of specifications exceeded 400. It must be recorded that the specification produced, in a few cases, a better quality of stocking than had been made and sold before 1939. Unshrinkable finishes on all wool underwear was obligatory, as was the size marking of all socks and stockings.
The task of yarn allocation was taken from the Rationing Committee in March 1942 and given to a Director of Civilian Hosiery, based in Leicester. From then to the end of the war the criterion for the allocation of yarn was not passed performance, but the national need, Every four months directions were sent out to each firm setting out the maximum quantity of each specification number it could knit during that period, production returns were required every two months. These strict controls meant that our armed forces and the public had available an adequate supply of good quality garments during the war years, and afterwards during the years of austerity when Britain had to survive some harsh economic times.