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Shoddy Clothing And Materials

Volume 496: debated on Wednesday 20 February 1952

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[ Mr. Butcher.]

11.20 p.m.

I wish to raise tonight a matter of the greatest importance to all of us in an endeavour to ginger up the forces in a war which will have the support of the vast majority of people, the war against waste, and I will restrict myself to the narrow field in which shoddy clothing and materials is to be found in ever-increasing quantities.

I want to make it clear before I make my specific complaints that I think there is ample evidence to indicate that this country still produces the finest textiles in the world, but if we are not careful there is a danger that some of the smart alecks who have crept into the industry will filch away the good name which this trade has built up. I am anxious on this occasion to avoid any disposition to party politics or setting one set of merchants against another. The subject is far too important for that.

Basically, the allocation of raw materials has caused the increase in the production of shoddy materials, because it has enabled some manufacturers and makers up, who have not the high respect for the traditions of this industry to get into it. Even in the utility scheme, which has been of great benefit to a vast number of people with limited purses, there are some weak links, and that largely arises from increased costs of production as well as labour costs, and the fact that because of the wide gap between minimum and maximum in the specification the general tendency has been to make the minimum the general specification.

There is legislation on the Statute Book to enable action to be taken, and most people feel that immediate action should be taken. Whatever the causes, I think the effects have been far reaching in the clothing, household linen and furnishing fabric trades, and there seems to be an attitude all to prevalent among producers that they have no responsibility whatever for problems of the home wash, cleaners and laundries. To illustrate what I mean, I would refer to the public outcry against shrinkage, particularly in rainwear. In the weaving of textile fabrics threads are strained, and unless there is a degree of pre-shrinkage there is a danger of some shrinkage occurring on contact with water or in the dry cleaning process. The two best known systems of pre-shrinkage are Rigmel and Sanforized, and one of the difficulties is that the get-rich quick merchants do not like these processes which considerably reduces the yardage of material available for sale.

I do not think there is much doubt that there is a great need for Government action to deal with those who do not observe what is ordinary fair play in dealing with the public. I quote a few lines from the "Sunday Chronicle" of 10th February. It says:
"The sales director of a well known firm producing 200,000 dresses a year declares fortunes are being made by people who omit to pre-shrink their products. To pre-shrink an article takes anything up to 7 or 8 per cent. more material and that means less profit."
The serious repercussions of this problem were put to the Board of Trade by the Retail Sales Trading Association several months ago. I quote from the "News Chronicle" of 30th August, 1951. It is headed:
"Move to end swindle of shoddy raincoats,"
and states:
"The Board of Trade have started a drive to stamp out production by some manufacturers of shoddy utility raincoats."
It goes on:
"A Board of Trade spokesman said that during the months when prices have been rising there has been naturally a tendency for people to try and cash in on the situation. We are now considering what safeguards can be applied against the unscrupulous manufacturers."
I ask the Minister from the Board of Trade to say if anything has happened from that date in August. I have it from a most authoritative source—one of the biggest textile testing houses in this country—that some ranges of cotton gabardine rainwear have a shrinkage of 10 per cent. Seldom is it less than 6 per cent. This is a serious problem because it can mean two-way shrinkage of three to four inches. I have seen examples of raincoats which, were a perfect fit when taken from the shop but which in a relatively short space of time made the owners look like skinned rabbits.

I have a letter from one of the biggest wholesale firms in Britain which states:
"My Board have caused inquiries to be made and much of the criticism levelled at the standard of production of gaberdine raincoats in certain utility schedules can be substantiated—No. 223A, for instance."
One of the largest wholesale houses in Scotland says:
"Deliveries of materials, especially 223A, coming in Spring, 1951, were much poorer in quality than hitherto. The market is flooded with this material and even at low prices it cannot be sold."
This firm sent to the testing house—the City of Bradford Conditioning House—some of this material and after being laid flat in water for two hours and then dried on a flat surface in a temperature between 60 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit shrinkage was 5 per cent.

I think there will be general agreement on both sides of this House that with the economic situation such as it is today it is essential that in the spending of foreign currency on the raw materials we bring into this country there is a great need that they should have fair serviceability, and I think it is up to all who are interested in this problem to give support to anything which will help to see that the public get a fair deal when they buy this material.

I have a long list provided by a textile house of the alarming shrinkage found in dress wear and children's wear of cotton fabrics recently treated for shrinkage. Here are a few examples: Printed plains—shrinkage 10 per cent.; ginghams, 13 per cent. or 4½ inches every yard; printed haircord, 7 per cent., and linen 8 per cent.

Unfortunately, shrinkage is not confined to clothing. It is rampant in mixtures of rayon and cotton for furnishing fabrics. I have a sample here of what I mean. Here are two bits of material. One has not had the process of pre-shrinkage and the other has. One of the troubles with this is that the housewife, who is unaware of this particular problem, will take, in many cases, that which has not been through the pre-shrinkage process because the process of pre-shrinkage, as can be clearly seen, has taken off some of the sheen and has left a cockling effect, which does not seem so attractive as that which has not been pre-shrunk.

But the excuse, as the testing house makes it in this case, is that about 8 per cent. is lost in the process of pre-shrinkage. This material, which is absolute tripe, looks attractive, but the looseness of the weave and the fact that it has not gone through any process of pre-shrinkage means that any person buying it will find very little serviceability of any kind. I have here a most wonderful bit of material, which is a rayon called a "viscose rayon." It is a dress material, in which the attractive design is produced by steam pressure on the rayon material.

If it is an acetate rayon, it can be depended upon to have a fairly long life, but as this is a viscose rayon, then a drop of rain will take the pat tern out. To send it to the cleaners means the complete disappearance of the attractive pattern, which means the ragbag at an early date.

I must turn to some dress effects introduced by makers-up. There is great use these days of a rubber adhesive instead of a sewing thread. When the articles are new, they look quite well. For instance, here is a green dress with which, when it was new, was a waist of imitation Italian quilting. On the arms it had the same effect. This effect was produced by two layers of material and in between a heavy thick thread. It was stuck on with a rubber adhesive, giving the imitation effect.

Once the material is sent to the cleaners, the rubber adhesive disappears and down come the bits of thread, so that once again it is only fit for the rag-bag. I have here, too, an imitation Italian Seersucker dress, in which the quilting effect is obtained by a rubber adhesive which is stuck on a thin material giving the puckered design of a seersucker dress. Once it goes to the cleaners, part of the dress comes back as a plain floral dress, as in this particular case. In other parts of the dress, one can see the puckered pattern.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware there are various forms of dry cleaning? There are some forms which use petrol, some spirit, and some which use neither of these. If the third process is adopted, the hon. Gentleman's wife will not lose the floral pattern which she so much admires.

I am glad the hon. Gentleman put that point, but it does not alter my case.

This rubber adhesive is used in the production of buckles and belts instead of sewing thread. Once they go to the cleaners, the rubber solution dissolves and there is a ragged edge, which is the end of the business.

Here is a ladies' jacket in which the pockets have been stuck with a rubber adhesive. It went to the cleaners and was returned revealing a backing of cardboard and the pockets hanging from the garment. There is a widespread use of polyvinyl chloride plastic sheeting as an interlining for coats. Until going to the cleaners the material is pliable, but some of the properties of the sheeting are removed in the cleaning process and the garments go out of shape. In this child's overcoat there is a crinkling noise after cleaning which is enough to send a child to a mental home.

The industry has some of the finest testing houses available for consultation. There is no reason why this state of affairs should continue, and I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will give us some hope of active steps being taken to deal with it. Finally in my chamber of horrors, here are plastic buttons which are found to be dyed with fugitive dyes or to soften in cleaning. The dyes are transferred to the garment's surface at the cleaners. I wish I had the time to delve into the question of nylon stockings. There have been protests from all over the country about the way the quality of these stockings has deteriorated over the past 18 or 20 months. I have been asked by many of the ladies who have written to me on this matter to say that highly desirable as these articles are unless there is some attempt to improve the standard there may be a revolt, and the goose that lays the golden egg will be killed.

There is great support for some action in the trade. In an editorial in the "Drapers Record" on 2nd February it states:
"Unfortunately voluntary agreement by organized employers could not be relied upon to achieve the object mentioned. Experience has demonstrated that time and time again. There are always some backsliders and not every firm belongs to a trade association. Consequently, the maintenance of minimum standard could be effected only by legislation with appropriate penalties for defaulters."
In regard to quality I should mention one point from the male aspect. I am wearing a suit made in 1935. Despite the fact that I have swollen visibly, and there is a terrific strain on the seams, it is as good as when I bought it in 1935.

I wish I could get another suit which could stand me in as good stead. I suggest to the Board of Trade that there is a great need in this direction to help the housewives, the people in the shops, the laundries and the cleaners. I am hoping there will be some informative labelling which will distinguish some of these garments—for example between viscose and acetate rayon. I understand that a Committee of the Clothing Industry Development Council has been considering this matter for some time, and I would like to ask what has happened in connection with that. I hope, too, that eventually there will be introduced some Government standard marks that will guarantee such things as colour fastness, pre-shrinkage, and a reasonable degree of shower proofing.

Finally, I hope there will be set up a small professional body, under the wing of the Minister, which will deal with the many problems that will arise, particularly of informing the public, and also of research work. I hope this will be treated as a matter of some seriousness at a time when every effort is being made to deal with the question of waste. I hope that the Minister will say something about the Merchandise Sales Act, which is complicated and difficult to understand, and which will have to be simplified if it is to be of any value.

It is important to realise that these delinquents producing shoddy goods are only a small proportion of the trade. On the whole the textile industry is an extremely good one, and its standards are comparable with those of any other country. I should like to ask if it is possible for the Board of Trade to bring in some form of regulation whereby goods bear the names of the manufacturer or retailer, so that shoddy merchandise can be traced back.

11.41 p.m.

The hon. Member for Dartford (Mr. Dodds) has raised a number of questions, and has given me very little time to reply, but at the outset I must repudiate the statement that there has been an ever-increasing quantity of shoddy goods in recent years. We know of no evidence of that. On the contrary, we believe that the general standard of clothing has improved in the last 10 years, in spite of all the difficulties of the industry.

I am not going to deny that bad textiles and bad clothing exist. There is no industry in any country where there are not some bad examples, but the British reputation for textiles at home and abroad is very high, and it does a disservice to the industry and the other export industries to make an untrue allegation that there is an ever-increasing proportion of shoddy goods.

I regret even more that there has been so much publicity given to the statements of the hon. Member before there has been any opportunity to reply. This debate was originally to have taken place on 7th February. There was no debate in the House on that day. Notwithstanding that, in at least three papers I have seen reports of the speech delivered by the hon. Member in that non-existent debate. Well knowing, as the House does, his loathing of every form of publicity, we know what pain that must have caused him.

The Board of Trade is directly responsible for the quality of utility goods only, and on that subject the Douglas Report will be published tomorrow afternoon and hon. Members will be able to study it. The hon. Member referred to the relaxation of certain specifications. It is true that the previous Government did add the so-called flexible specifications to the rigid specifications to which utility goods were previously subject. Obviously our predecessors were moved to that course by powerful reasons.

Those reasons, briefly, were the barrier that the rigid specifications imposed against the introduction of new cloths and the consequent injury to our export trade. Even so, the old rigid specifications did not give any close guarantee of performance in such matters as shrinkage; in fact, the only utility specifications where pre-shrinkage was compulsory were drill cloths for overalls.

In the brief time available I can take only a few of the points made by the hon. Member, but let me take some about shrinkage. To hear the hon. Member speak tonight one would have thought that nothing except the malevolence of traders prevented all cloths being adequately pre-shrunk. Of course nothing could be further from the truth. This is a highly technical problem to which research is constantly being applied. The textile industry is fortunate in having some admirable research institutions in the Shirley Institute, the Wool Textile Research Council and the British Rayon Research Association.

Let me give some of the reasons why all cloth is not pre-shrunk. First the machinery capacity for applying the process, though it has been increasing substantially for several years, would not be sufficient to shrink all cloth, even if that were desirable. In fact, of course, it is not desirable. Take heavy curtain cloths as an example. In heavy curtain cloths pre-shrinking might even be harmful. A heavy curtain tends to extend its length in hanging and if it were pre-shrunk it would tend to pull away at the top. For that reason such curtains are generally sent to the cleaner and not washed.

Take again the effect on cost if all cloth were pre-shrunk. The price would be sent up both by the amount of the reduction in length caused in the process of pre-shrinking and by the expense of that process itself. Many housewives would certainly prefer to save themselves that expense and to buy cloth that could shrink—buying a little more of it to allow for the shrinking.

Much depends, of course, on the purpose for which the cloth is required in considering whether the process of pre-shrinking should be applied. I have mentioned drill cloths for overalls where it certainly is applied. Then there is the question, familiar I suppose to all hon. Members or at any rate to their wives, that whether or not shrinking takes place in washing may depend on whether one washes well or badly. All those considerations apparently escaped the notice of the hon. Member.

The hon. Member spoke of cotton gabardine rainwear. Well, after a complaint about shrinkage in the autumn of last year, the Board of Trade asked the Cotton Board to make a special inquiry. The Cotton Board called a meeting of all the sections concerned. I will not give the entire list because of the short time available. Intensive research is being carried out. No solution has yet been found, but the Cotton Board is convinced that we are as far advanced towards a solution as any country in the world. I may say that the Board of Trade has received no complaint of a shrinkage of as much as the 10 per cent. to which the hon. Member referred.

Fugitive dyes were another matter that the hon. Member mentioned. Again the quality of the dye should be appropriate for the use to which the cloth or garment will be put. It would be completely wasteful to use a faster and a more expensive dye than is necessary in such goods, for example, as linings. What is wanted—and here I agree with the hon. Member—is informed buying; that is to say, the purchaser should know as far as possible what are the qualities of what he or she is buying.

As to the remedies—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'Clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Ten Minutes to Twelve o'Clock.