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Clothing Rationing

The Board of Trade introduced the immediate rationing of clothing and footwear on the 1st June in 1941. Clothing rationing saved much needed shipping space, labour and material and therefore supported the war effort. Materials had to be directed away from civilian production to ensure demand could be met for uniforms and other military items such as tarpaulins and parachutes.

To reduce the likelihood of panic buying and hoarding, the announcement was made on a Sunday while shops were closed, and ration books weren’t issued in advance. While they waited for their clothing ration book to arrive, the public were instructed to use the margarine coupons in the back of their food rationing book when buying clothing and fabric.

Each person initially had 66 clothing coupons to last for twelve months. This was later reduced to 48 coupons the following year. Coupons had to be surrendered for clothing, footwear and cloth. The more fabric and labour needed to produce a piece of clothing, the more points it required. Children’s clothing required fewer points.

Clothing ration book which belonged to Mary Claire Sherlock.
Clothing ration book which belonged to Mary Claire Sherlock.


Second-hand clothing, boiler suits, work wear, hats, caps, boot laces, black-out cloth and braces could be purchased coupon free. The Women’s Voluntary Service set up clothing exchanges and the Ministry of Information’s Make do and Mend campaign encouraged people to repurpose and repair unused clothing at sewing classes and mending groups, rather than buy new. Even knitting wool was rationed (one coupon required for two ounces of wool) so people were encouraged to unpick and knit again!

In 1942 and 1943, the Board of Trade introduced the Making-up of Civilian Clothing (Restrictions) Orders to make further savings of labour and materials and minimise manufacturing costs. These orders, often known as the 'austerity regulations' forced dressmakers to restrict the number of buttons, pockets and pleats they included in garments. Some of the most unpopular austerity regulations included lapels having to be within a certain size and trouser turn-ups being abolished. It is estimated that these measures saved about 4 million square yards (approximately 5 million square metres) of cotton per year.

Original Rationing of Clothing and Footwear Information Leaflet which is included in a wartime scrapbook which was created by John Potter who was 16 at the time.
Original Rationing of Clothing and Footwear Information Leaflet which is included in a wartime scrapbook which was created by John Potter who was 16 at the time.

Our Oral History Project has captured stories about clothing rationing and it seems cross border smuggling was rife. Many remember uncomfortable train journeys back from Éire (as it was then known) with new shoes held tightly under each armpit and yards of fabric wrapped around each leg. Trips were often taken to Dublin and Bundoran dressed in old worn clothes with the sole purpose of buying a new outfit and disposing of the old before the return journey. Families’ often pooled their coupons to allow a happy couple to be suitably dressed for their wedding, and parachute silk was highly sought after as it could be used to make dresses and nightwear.

If you have a family story relating to clothing rationing, please get in touch with our Oral History Collection Project Coordinator: https://www.niwarmemorial.org/collections/oral-history-collection.

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