Late 1940’s Factory Life — Training To Be A Designer

This is the third part of the story of my design training and growing up into an adult.
That first day at work was painful on my hands. The cutting shears were huge and my hands fairly small and tender. The pressure on the ball of my thumb caused by the unyielding metal as it sliced through several thicknesses of fabric, was unrelenting. Binding the the thumb and finger grips may have softened things a little but it did not stop blisters forming.
The constant noise of heavy machinery above and below that huge room, as well as in the room itself, was like nothing I had ever before experienced. Noise of tanks going along the road and shaking the house was about the nearest thing but that was just an occasional occurrence, this noise only ceased when the workers stopped for lunch.
The room — almost a whole floor of the huge factory — was dull except next to the dirty windows. Plenty of lighting over work benches though. A smell of oil pervaded everywhere. The floor was worn and shiny from many years of use. Shiny knots and heavy grain in the wood stood out of the floorboards, not enough to trip us up but showing the factory’s age like the wrinkled and gnarled faces of some of the aged workers. Many of those employees had spent the whole of their working lives at that factory.
By the time I arrived home on that first day, I felt incredibly weary. My hands hurt and my feet ached. Everything had been so new to me. All my ideas about dress designing had been completely at odds with what I had experienced that day. I may have been staff, but to start with I was part of the workforce. The girls on the cutting bench were lovely, but I felt alone and gauche when talking to the staff. At lunchtime, the office girl took me down to the canteen to have lunch with her. Morning snack with the work-girls, then all change at lunchtime. I ate my pudding with a spoon. She ate it with a fork and spoon. We had nothing in common to talk about. She talked posh and had a boyfriend about twenty years her senior. I was back with the girls on my own level after lunchtime. Well, not really on my level because they were more sophisticated and knowledgeable about life as well as their jobs. (That is where I found out a lot about sex!) I felt everyone was laughing at me. Since I blushed easily, they had cause to.
It sounds daft now, maybe because my perception of life has radically changed. I was young and vulnerable in those days. I had never been away from home and even the girls at college, during my short time there, seemed above my ‘station’ in life. I had been the only girl at school without a navy gabardine coat (I only had a second-hand pea-green coat), and patches stitched over cracks in the uppers of my shoes had marked me out as a poor child. But I started work in the factory wearing a jumper and skirt I bought with my pay from the six weeks’ job I had before getting the trainee designer position. Even so, I was aware of poverty. Poverty had brought about humiliating experiences and they could not easily be dismissed from my memory.
So the evening of that first day of working in that factory, weary and disillusioned I cried myself to sleep. What had I expected? Bright offices and pleasant workrooms with genteel ladies working on individual garments. My mother wanted to know why I was crying but I could not tell her. I did not really know myself.
Teasing over blushing went on, but I settled in. Eventually I kicked the overseer on the shin because he refused to stop rubbing the knuckle of his thumb down my spine. Okay, so he called me ‘a nasty little bitch’ but he never did it again.
I became friendly with one of the cutters — May, a girl six feet in height and a big welcoming smile.
Joan, a young woman, was head cutter. She also modelled the new designs. A lovely friendly girl, she invited May and me to her twenty-first birthday party. I remember we had a lot to drink, mostly stuff like cherry brandy but also gin and lime. I stayed the night at May’s house. We had more to drink before we went to bed. Her younger brother was still up. He drank too, turned a greenish grey (I had never seen anyone turn that colour before) and threw up in the sink. Us? We ate a few large pickled onions, dropped a few and picked them up — likely with fluff attached — ate them and went to bed. We had a good night’s sleep and I went home the next day, fit and happy.
More of my adventures with May later.

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