Fashion and Dress Design — Jan.1949

I started work at the factory in 1949. I was sixteen and unprepared for factory life. A simple lass, nervous of the big wide world, shy and totally naive. I knew little about the world of clothing manufacture. I had spent barely one and a half terms at college, but at least, I was attending evening classes. But this was a factory and I had memories of what happened to my sister when she worked as a machinist for a local manufacturer. She began to swear. My dad (a prolific swearer himself but could not abide it coming from a woman’s mouth) said,
‘If another daughter of mine goes into a factory and starts swearing, I’ll cut her throat!’
Oo — he didn’t mean it but my dad could be fearsome and I hated to be around when he was angry.

What I did not bargain for was wolf-whistles. I blushed easily. The first time I entered the canteen a barrage of whistling met me. The workers’ union lady dealt with that. But whistling was not needed to make me blush. The male junior managers soon found out that staring at me had the same effect. Working at the cutting bench, I would sense someone there and look up at a grinning male. Laughter followed. When I took no notice they gave up but it was not easy — my cheeks were hot with embarrassment.

I soon heard plenty of sexy jokes. I was not sure what most of them meant but better to laugh or smile than look ignorant. The girls were generally a friendly lot. It was a difficult situation for me: I was on the staff payroll but working on the factory floor learning about factory methods while waiting for the designer to need assistance. To break me in I was given lots of roll ends and pieces to chop up with cutting shears. Cutting through several thicknesses at a time with heavy shears, my hands, especially my thumbs, became sore and blistered but eventually they hardened off. (No electric cutters then)

It seemed a shame to cut up large pieces of fabric but colours changed each season (and with slightly different dyes), and small ends were best out of the way. It would be sold as waste wool. Occasionally large ends would be sneaked away. One machinist made bathing costumes for her husband and friend. She told us that when they went in the sea the costumes soaked up the water and floated away. They had to leave the sea naked as the day they were born, to the hoots of their wives. A cutter did the same thing for herself and lost the bra part in the river.

More to follow…

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