Factory & Sales Pocket

by Martha Gowans,1904


  • NAMEMartha Gowans
  • PATENTGB190305835A
  • DATEJanuary 14, 1904
  • LOCATIONPatented in the UK – inventor residing in Dundee, Scotland
  • INVENTION“Improvements in and Relating to the Construction and Use of Counter, Office, or Factory Pockets”
  • THEMEWorking

Martha Gowans was a milliner [hat maker] living in Dundee, Scotland in 1904. Census records tell us she was born around 1873 in Stirling, which makes her 30 years old at the time she filed her patent. She worked at a large department store in central Dundee called D.M. Browns. It started as a draper store in the 1890s and rapidly expanded until it transformed into an arcade in 1908 (and kept growing until it was acquired by House of Fraser in the 1950s).

Textile industries were the primary site of work for local women. Over a third worked in the mills. Some, like Gowans, worked in related sectors such as retail and as expert makers. Millinery offered a respectable site of women’s work. They worked hard but could enjoy independence and economic security. Some were able to own and run their businesses. The millinery industry thrived at this time, as hats were a staple of everyday wear as well as special events for people in all social classes.



Despite being a milliner by trade, Gowans doesn’t patent a hat. Rather the problem she identifies relates to broader practical issues facing workers in similar vocations. She has in mind the “smart, up to date saleswomen, clerkesses, and the like” who work “in mantle [raincoat], or millinery saloons, offices or factories”. Few of these jobs were standard desk jobs. Gowans imagined a mobile worker, on her feet, always moving or sharing workspaces. They likely also needed to own and supply their own costly and precious tools.


Gowans invented a châtelaine-style tool-pocket that provided tools at hand. She calls it a “suspensory pocket” with a “suitable hook for engaging with the waist belt” and a visible “series of pockets”. It was designed to be customised for the user’s needs with each pocket taking “the width and depth suitable for the tool which is to be carried”. This “detachable appliance” was “convenient and inobtrusive” for “holding and carrying implements necessary to the wearers calling or occupation”. Her patent drawing reveals essential tools of the time – a seam ripper, pencil, scissors, and cotton reel.

“Smart, up to date saleswomen, clerkesses, and the like, engaged at counters, in mantle, or milliner saloons, offices, or factories require a convenient and obtrusive appliance to hold pencils, scissors, pincushion, knife or other necessary tools.”
— Martha Gowans, inventor
More great quotes from Gowans's patent

“This invention relates to improvements in the construction and use of counter, office or factory pockets for personal wear, the object being to provide a detachable appliance for holding or carrying implements necessary to the wearer’s calling or occupation.”

Martha Gowans1904

“For example, most saleswomen in drapery establishments wear their scissors suspended by mean of an elastic band, a most dangerous proceeding, as accidents frequently occur, owing to the scissors becoming momentarily entangled striking the wearer when released.”

Martha Gowans1904

“Pencils again are usually placed in the waist belt or in the hair with the result that they are frequently lost, or their points become broken.”

Martha Gowans1904

“In carrying out my invention, I make a suspensory pocket of suede, linen, American cloth, velvet, Italian cloth, sateen, silk, satin, leather, metal, or the like and provide its upper extremity with a suitable hook for engaging with the wait belt, or attach it to a belt which forms part of the appliance.”

Martha Gowans1904
Speculatively Sewing Martha Gowans's Invention

We reconstructed Gowans’s invention multiple times in the research office, for a short film and a theatre piece performed at Glastonbury, the Being Human Festival in London and the Mayven Festival in Cornwall. We made it in calico, coloured cotton and hard-wearing denim. Gowans is very flexible about materials to use. She lists “suede, linen, American cloth, velvet, italian cloth, sateen, silk, satin, leather, metal, or the like”.

In every iteration, researchers, audience members, performers and visitors to the studio declared they wanted one for their own use. We got to know the invention well and appreciated many aspects of her drawing and instructions, which made clear she was a skilled multi-dimensional designer. Firstly, the patent drawing itself was very detailed and precise. It could actually be scaled up to become the sewing pattern. While detailed drawings were the norm in patents during this period, this was unique and useful for reconstruction purposes.

Gowans was also specific about its scale and site of use. It should hang mid-thigh, so “the wearer’s hand can quite readily obtain any of the tools carried, without having to stop”. The working wearer should be able to move efficiently and fluidly around the busy shop floor, attending to the needs of her customers, creating hats and dressing windows amongst other tasks. Her châtelaine became a mobile tool belt and workspace.

“A portable pocket that left a woman’s hands free was also essential to those with itinerant occupations”

— Barbara Burman and Ariane Fennetaux (2019) Pocket, A Hidden History of Women’s Lives, p169.

Burman and Fennetaux refer to women in market stalls here, but these kinds of transportable devices remained just as critical for women in more formal sites of work. They may have lacked conventional resources such as access to pockets and spaces, but as Gowans’s invention shows, having everything you need on your body may well just have been liberating.

I, Martha Gowans – short film

POP collaborated with COPIM’s (Community-Led Open Publishing Infrastructures for Monographs Project) Julien McHardy and sound maker Nahuel Canu on a short film, in which we set out to listen to the archive.

The film is called “I, Martha Gowans” – as this is how the patent text starts…

Based on Martha Gowans’s invention, we translated the patent into a sewing pattern and read it experimentally as a musical score. Together, we performed the score with sewing machines, a sampler and via voice. We spent two days on the project – one in rehearsal and one performing and filming. The piece was directed by Julien, with Nahuel live composing, along with voice artist Margo van Der Linde and two sewers, Emma Hoette and Kat Jungnickel, and filmmaker Juan Fernández Gebauer.

We hired two industrial sewing machines which were treated like musical instruments. Everyone experimented with “reading” the patent and sewing pattern as a musical score, responding to each other’s interpretation and working together as players. Throughout this process, we listened to the invention and inventor emerging in these different media.

See below for photos and snippets of the film. We wrote more about this experiment on the POPBlog.

Watch the full film here.

More writing about Gowans's invention