When shirts cost $3,500

An eye-popping parable about the benefits of automation: 200 years ago, it took 479 hours worth of labor to make a shirt (spinning, weaving, sewing), or $3,472.75 at $7.25/hour.

It's one thing to heart that the automatic loom brought about a huge economic boom, it's another thing to contemplate just how difficult material objects were to produce before industrialisation. As we contemplate a future where all the dividends of automation accrue to investors, rather than being divided with laborers (instead of higher wages for increased productivity, workers are laid off, deskilled and made increasingly interchangeable as the productivity gains are diverted to dividends), it's worth pondering which of today's labor-intensive goods will be "too cheap to meter" by technological change, and what will happen to our wealth distribution as a result.

This is also an important part of understanding Cost Disease. When the cost of goods drops sharply due to automation, the cost of services becomes increasingly high. A wage that would buy the labor embodied in a shirt 200 years ago will buy enough labor to make 100 shirts today. However, the number of hours it takes to teach calculus, play a symphony, or palpate a swollen gland has remained largely constant over that period. That means that the cost of health care and education will rise whenever the cost of manufacturing falls — not because health care is getting more expensive, but because everything else is getting cheaper.

practiced seamstress could probably sew it in 7 hours. But that's not all that would go into the making. There's the cloth. A shirt like this would take about 4 yards of cloth, and it would be a fine weave: the Knoxville Museum of Art estimates two inches an hour. So 4(yards)*36(inches)/2 = 72 hours. (I'm a weaver – or at least I used to be – so this sounds accurate to me.) Okay, so hand weaving and hand sewing would take 79 hours. Now the estimate for spinning has always been complex, so stick with me for a minute: Yardage of thread for 4 yards of cloth, one yard wide (although old looms often only wove about 24" wide cloth), and requires 12 threads per inch, so:

12 threads * 36" wide * (4 yards + 2 yards for tie-up = 6 yards, or 72") * 72 = 31,004 inches, or 864 yards of thread for the warp. And you'd need about the same for a weft, or a total of about 1600 yards of thread for one shirt.

1600 yards would take a while to spin. At a Dark Ages recreation site, they figured out a good spinner could do 4 yards in an hour, so that would be 400 hours to make the thread for the weaving.

So, 7 hours for sewing, 72 for weaving, 400 for spinning, or 479 hours total to make one shirt. At minimum wage – $7.25 an hour – that shirt would cost $3,472.75.

And that's just a standard shirt.

And that's not counting the work that goes into raising sheep or growing cotton and then making the fiber fit for weaving. Or making the thread for the sewing.

And you'd still need pants (tights or breeches) or a skirt, a bodice or vest, a jacket or cloak, stockings, and, if at all possible, but a rare luxury, shoes.

The $3500 Shirt – A History Lesson in Economics [Eve Fisher/Sleuthsayers]

(via Hacker News)