Archive for August, 2010

So You Want To Be a Designer? Part Three

August 31, 2010

This rough design is the dress (as I remember it) that I did in my first job training to be a designer. I was sixteen at the time. The other dress is a basic design I used for a number of best-selling designs.

My first dress design at the factory. I don't like it much but I was paid!

Part three

Having got over the shock of having my dreams shattered, I caught the bus for work the next day with lower expectations of job satisfaction.
In a way I was in a privileged position compared with the workers. I was on the monthly staff roll and that meant I could use the staff toilet just off the stone stairway below. For this we had a communal key. No mixing with the girls at the toilet level! I was also allowed to go in at eight-thirty, the girls had to be there for eight. Mind you, they lived almost on the doorstep, I had to go five miles, or so, by bus and then walk the rest of the way.
The staff usually went out for lunch. They had their coffee break in their office. I went down to the canteen with the cutters. The girls tended to eat with their coffee. Likely they hadn’t had breakfast. I soon picked up the habit of enjoying a delightful cheese bap and a Swiss tart each morning. Was this comfort eating or piggishness? Possibly both. After all, for me, this was ‘eating out’. Only those with money or a good wage ate outside of the home, except that great take-away — fish and chips. Foreign food had yet to make inroads into British eating habits. Few people went abroad to know anything different. Few English cafes were around, never mind foreign food ones. My mother once took me to a Lyons Corner House and I thought that quite posh.
I was soon given samples to cut. Of course, my work was checked to make sure I had the patterns placed correctly. If a lay had already been made, it was just a case of making sure it came to the edge of the fabric fold. And, of course, that I cut it out exactly on the lines — smoothly.
I was asked to assist the head designer. I knew how to cut out economically just as I knew how to cut patterns. It is always essential to get patterns laid according to the grain of the material. The line of grain is always marked on the pattern. Measuring the each side of the line to the edge makes sure it is correct. Deviations and the fit of the bodice, and hang of the skirt, could be ruined. Turnings are always allowed on the pattern. A drawing of how to lay the pattern on the fabric correctly and for the most economical use of fabric is drawn on the largest piece of pattern with the actual amount of cloth needed. This is essential for the costing of each garment.
Before long I was grading patterns to different sizes. I also helped the designer by communicating with her sample hand and the girls who did the trimming, embroidery, finishing or pressing. In other words I was her gofer. After each buyer had been there would be much gofer activity.
Then came the day, when things had gone quiet, I was asked to do a few drawings for dresses. Now this was exciting. I was given an office to work in. It was being used as an extra stockroom so rolls of fabric and boxes of trimmings were carted off elsewhere. Before long I produced a few drawings. I showed these to the head designer and she suggested additions were needed. I added a pocket, which then had appliqué embroidery as an extra to pep it up a bit. It was in two shades of grey. Apart from the dress, the only comment I recall was that I had put arms, legs and a head to my designs. As to whether she could draw I have no idea but her drawings were of the garments alone as if hanging on hangers. No need for anything else — working drawings for the workgirls being the only essential.
I have done a rough drawing of the dress as I remember it. Normally sketches would not be shaded, it was enough to put which fabric was being used and maybe a swatch if needed. I can’t say I liked it with the pockets but the designer knew what she was doing. In fact I think it was the boss who suggested the appliqué on a pocket. The dress sold well and in a number of sizes and shades. So began my designing there. How exciting when the buyers came! I would be in my room waiting and then in would come the boss with a pile of dresses on his arm and instructions on how some needed changes to suit the customer.
I still had gradings to do and the designer to assist, samples to cut when required. That season was over and my contribution was small but quite successful. I was back on cutting again. I asked to go on the machines for practice. But I got worried when the chief designer said that would be useful. They could put me where needed.
We had a new overlooker for the cutters and he was a menace. Every time he passed me by he would rub the knuckle of his thumb down my spine. Did he think he was giving me a thrill? I asked him several times not to do it. He would just laugh. So when I had had enough of being laughed at, I swung my booted foot at his shin. He called me an unpleasant name, but I had the last laugh!
He wasn’t the only teaser. The one before him was training for management and quite pleasant. But he knew how easily I blushed and would stand staring until I looked up, knowing my cheeks would turn red. The cutters would laugh with him. Even so, they were a pleasant bunch.
From that first design beak, each time the new season stuff was being designed and new fabrics coming in, I was given a chance to design again. I had my own sample hand and she was a wonderful help. But this in-between position was not good. Assisting the designer was one thing but working on the shop floor denied me the respect the rest of the monthly staff received. My wages were not brilliant either. When I reached eighteen I looked around for another position.
Meanwhile, while walking down the street one day, I saw a woman walking towards me wearing one of my designs. It was unmistakable. The cut was simple enough, but I’d put appliquéd flowers flowing out of a pocket on the skirt and out of one on the bodice.
More to come — working in an almost windowless low-ceiled room, in a factory with only one toilet; working in a factory where mice played; working in others too…
And then my really big chance…

So You Want To Be A Designer — Part Two

August 28, 2010

So You Want To Be A Designer — Part Two…

Sketch on pad and pencils — lingerie like this came later

When I first started designing it was for the wholesale trade. This meant a time gap between design and the dress appearing in a shop. These shops were often called Madam shops, many of which claimed to sell exclusive designs. Wholesale buyers would come to the factory showroom before the actual season began, to choose the garments they required for their exclusive label. They would be bought in large quantities but in different shades and sizes. All would have the customers label stitched inside. (Some surprising names too) As soon as a garment was sold exclusively, it was put aside, but that did not mean we could not use it again in a different form. A little addition or something removed and it was fine to sell it to another customer. But garments were also sold with the firm’s own label. And salesmen travelled with samples too. So we had orders large and small.
Cutting would be done in bulk. The girls working the different sewing machines received bungles and, according to style, would perform their contribution ready for the following process. It is unlikely that many, if any, of these factories have survived over the years. Once trade was opened up some years after the war, cheap imports killed of much of our garment industry. The factories I knew in Nottingham have either been pulled down or turned into expensive apartments.
I suppose it is a bit like books. Mass production means a cheaper product, especially if manufactured abroad. Garments from China and elsewhere are produced far cheaper than even making one’s own clothes. Clothes are thrown away rather than be repaired, and many women throw out what they get bored with.
Looking at the clothes worn by many women, it is hardly surprising few fit properly because they are cut to allow for a wide band of sizes. Fewer sizes mean easier and cheaper production. So too, lack of fitting to the figure and the use of stretch fabrics.
I saw a dress in our local factory shop that I thought was for a slim six-year old. Not so — it was an ‘all-size’ woman’s dress cut in a tube of stretch fabric. Now I really did have a job keeping a straight face. This tiny garment was indeed incredibly stretchy, but pull it outwards and it became shorter in length. Now, it stands to reason you can’t have it all ways. I imagined a gang of girls out for a Saturday (or Friday) night booze-up, walking through town each wearing the same one-size dress tube. Miss Skinny’s dress tight over her size A cups and downwards to just cover her thighs. While Miss Buxom’s dress looking almost threadbare and barely covering her crotch. (Her bosom somewhat exposed too.) The rest of the girls in-between.
I myself cannot go by dress sizing today. I have clothes varying from size 12 to size 18. The size 18 I bought today. It looks as small, if not smaller, than a size 12.

I ask myself if it is possible to get a job as a designer in the UK these days. Of course you get the fashion houses turning out their usual freakish dresses, which are copied in a more toned down style for practical use. Our presenters on TV generally dress with restraint, but few seem to wear clothes that actually fit. Ah, maybe they do when the girls get up in the morning, but eating, travelling and sitting down can alter the shape of the body. Tight dresses ride up legs and buttons pull across chests and breasts.
Very few clothes look good when sitting down if tight at the waist. And how amusing to see tops constantly being pulled up to cover popping-out breasts, and pulled down to cover the bulging fat at the waist. And pants that open up at the back when the wearer sits down, as if giving an airing to what lies lower down.

Clothes used to be made to standard sizing with a certain tolerance to allow for movement and slight difference in size. Of course, corsetry, light or heavy, help preserve the figure’s shape, which clothes were designed to enhance. Film stars all had these lovely shapely figures. We girls wanted to look like they did — desirable. Big floppy bosoms were rarely seen. Cross-your-heart bras were meant to shape and separate. Firm breasts were enhanced by the cut of garments. Likewise waists and hips.

Firmness and standard fitting, made it fairly simple to cut patterns from blocks, knowing they would fit. Draping on a model might be possible for certain styling but they too had to have a pattern for sizing up and down. One-off designs might be okay for dresses for the rich and costed accordingly, but copies would have to be practical for the ‘masses’.

Back to my own story. Many factories existed in the Midlands and quite a few in Nottingham where I generally worked. (Further afield when freelancing). I was just sixteen when I began training at a knitted-fabric factory in Arkwright Street.
After the light and airy rooms of the Art College, where we sat peacefully designing or sewing, the noisy factory came as a shock. The design offices did not come up to my expectations, designing was done simply with sketches to show the sample-hand what the dress would look like when finished — seaming and styling. It was also a record, with a number to go with it, for orders to be placed with. The pattern would be numbered accordingly, also the lay to go with it, ready for production.
The lay was drawn on part of the pattern — that is the way the pieces were placed on the fabric for most economical cutting. When the design entered production a long piece of Swedish craft paper, exactly the width of the fabric, would have the pattern placed on and penciled accordingly. This lay was then machined with holes along the pattern lines, with a long-armed sewing machine. When placed on fabric, chalk puffed through the holes would leave an impression when the ‘lay’ was rolled away. A piece of fabric tied like a pudding held the powdered chalk. It didn’t fly all over and not much is needed to do the job. Several layers of cloth are cut at once. In more modern factories, electric cutters were used. But for soft knitted woolen cloth, hand cutting is probably better. Most knitted fabric these days is cotton, some mixed with other fibre.

In that particular factory the other floors had different things going on — wool knitted into fabric up above, and wool knitted on flat frames into jumpers on the floor below. Offices and storage on the ground floor. The noise of working machinery drummed and rattled above and below, almost drowning the noise of machinery in the outerwear department. All the sewing machines, including those for embroidery and other decoration, were looped onto rotating machinery. At the far end of the huge room, a partition separated the finishers, who sat quietly sewing on buttons, press studs and hooks and eyes. In those days, zips were fairly new and some skirts and dresses had placket or fly fastening. Another glass partition separated the finishers from the pressers. Off that room could be found the ladies’ toilets. What few men working there would be using the staff toilet. Off the main room a walk-in stock cupboard held fabric ready for use. A corridor took you to the managers’ office and the designers’ rooms.
The stone steps up which I walked every day, were worn down by the hundreds of workers who, over very many years had followed the same path. To keep the workers happy, the radio played out songs for singing. Just as it did in many other factories throughout the land. Not only for factory workers, but also for the busy housewife at home too. Modern gadgets — vacuum cleaners, washing machines, dryers, mixers, or anything else that needed an electric plug — existed in most homes. When I was at school it was assumed we would be using flat irons at home, although the teacher did show us how an electric iron could be plugged into a light bulb socket.
The smell of oil and warm fabric that had been delivered from the Finishers and Dyers, mingled with the sweat of workers. The windows were dirty and the floor worn and shiny with constant use.
Underneath the long cutting benches were bins on wheels. Remnants of fabric were kept in these bins just in case a part might need re-cutting. Every so often they were emptied so as not to get different shades mixed up. Of course, occasionally pieces would be taken to make small garments. Someone made her husband a swimming outfit but the fabric became soggy in the sea and he lost it, much to the delight of the ladies on the beach.
That first day at work, I was given a pair of cutting shears and told to sort out the remnants in the bins, chopping up the smaller pieces. I spent the whole day doing nothing else. My hands became sore and blistered, but worse — when I went into the huge canteen with the other girls at break time, the men who worked in the other departments all let out wolf whistles. The heat in my face told me that my cheeks were scarlet. Fortunately, the union rep went over and told them that I was a ‘lady’ and did not like that sort of thing!
When I arrived home, it was late and dark. I was tired and weary from being on my feet the whole day and bombarded with noise. Nothing was like I had expected. My hands hurt and plasters were needed for my thumb joints. I felt bitterly disappointed, humiliated and alone with my thoughts. I fell onto my bed and wept. My mother came to ask me what the problem was. To be truthful I didn’t really know what to tell her, so I said nothing. After a while I pulled myself together and read a book.
There’s nothing like a book for forgetting your problems.

More to come…

Designing in Post-War Britain

August 26, 2010

Design while at art college late 1948

So You Want To Be A Designer? Part One

Me, age 10 (?) doing my party piece, wearing the dress of a four year old with huge hanky pinned to dress (as some young children did many years ago)


My pencil sketch while at Nottingham College Of Art (design course), late 1948


The sort of design I turned out at Nottingham Art College late 1948. Pencil lines faded with age.

There is no doubt that interest in fashion, and dress design in particular, is a highly popular subject. Together the hits on my few postings concerned with design must top up to over 2,000, the majority on one post with plenty of sketches. I have been asked to write more about this interesting topic.
First let me say, I cannot speak for what happens in design offices and factories today. Of course, I could comment profusely on today’s fashion but I see that as pointless simply because ‘anything’ goes. The top of the pops celebrity of the week, or day, or hour, seems to set a rotating ephemeral trend. The only key theme seems to be ABSURD.
I look at some of the clothes and smile.
Many years ago when I was about nine or ten, I used to go on the stage dressed like a very young child at a concert reciting ‘A little ship’ in a lisping voice. Before getting to the end of the first verse, I would stumble and start again, and again, and again, gradually getting more tearful until I ran off the stage, accompanied by much laughter. Now, to perform my little act I would wear a small child’s dress with a large hanky pinned to the garment, usually with a huge safety-pin (see picture). Since children’s dresses used to be generous with sizing (they had to last as long as possible in those days) I could just get into one, but it was exceedingly short on a growing girl like me. So imagine the scene — girl walks onto the stage looking nervous. Her dress is short but covers her knickers, her hair is tied in two bunches, each with a large bow. She dabs her nose with the big hanky and gives a nervous grin. She gives little swinging movements as she lisps what she is going to recite.
Now open any page in a popular magazine and see that the celebs are wearing. Quite recently it was girly dresses with tiny puffed sleeves. Any one of them could have been styled on that dress I used to wear for the concert. (The main, if not only, difference being bosom exposure.) Open another magazine and you may well see baby doll dresses that look like the sleepwear I designed so many years ago when Lolita was all the rage.
The expression, ‘been there, done it, got the T shirt’ could never be more apt as far as fashion goes. For some women, T shirts — embroidered, sequined, printed, or plain and simple have almost replaced blouses, and the longer ones, dresses. Is it just fashion or a reluctance to use an iron?
I recall when I was designing in the late 50’s, we had some special expensive fabric to try out. To keep costs down we were encouraged to create slim fitting designs. The fabric, being beautifully patterned, required no extra adornments. I styled a perfectly plain dress — pencil line with split skirt. I added a square piece of fabric folded into a small shawl, which fastened in front. Simple, slick and ‘with it’. After gaining approval from the bosses, we had a little fun when returning to my room. I pulled a hat flat down over our model’s head to look like a cloche and we did a laughing interpretation of a pre-war flappers’ dance.
Nothing is new. Anyone can wear anything, all you need is confidence. If a celeb wore a flour sack deliberately splashed with paint, and fastened a wide leather belt at whatever she regards as her waist, the fashion world would go nuts — Gina Wotsername photographed in posh restaurant wearing a sack. Now everyone wants one with that special paint splashing. Wow, now Gina has her own fashion label. Years ago many of these magazines did not exist, neither did TV, but more people went to the pictures (as we called the cinema).
When I was working freelance, one of the firms took on a designer who was the wife of a well known film director. I think she might have been an actress too. The firm contracted to buy a certain number of her designs. She visited the firm to get the samples made just like I did. She was useless and had little idea how to cut a pattern. Since she was in when I was not there, she worked in my office and used my patterns when she could get hold of them (my sample hand started hiding my made-up designs and their patterns when possible). But, evidently, what she designed from them could not have been up to much, as I was told that this minor celebrity had cost the firm a lot of money. Goodness knows what she was paid but she stayed in a city hotel while she was doing the work.
But then, the sort of designs I was doing at art school in late 1948 (see pictures) would have been useless for the firms I worked for after leaving. It was more a case of turning impractical designs into ones that would be acceptable for the garment market. Clothes were not just thrown out in those days, they had to last.
More next time…

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Magpies Nest Publishing
Writing For Joy
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All my books in one place
My Space for photographs, stories and poems, plus Ann Dunning singing Any Dream Will Do
Ask Gran Hobson about times gone by — designing, wartime, food, play… what you will

Leigh Russell — crime writer

August 20, 2010

Leigh Russell's eye-catching covers

Leigh Russell — crime writer

Cut Short and Road Closed are Ms Russell’s first books and I expect more to come — annually?
I came across Leigh on the Internet. It was the cover of her first book that was to be released some time in the future that fascinated me. A single eye with a bloody tear. I was considering a cover for one of my own books at the time and wished I had the imagination for eye-catching covers.
I have to admit that after a while I became too busy to follow many blogs and the careers of other writers, but fortunately I came back to find Leigh Russell had two books on Amazon — Short Cut and Road Closed. I bought them both.
There are a number of psychological thrillers, crime and mystery books on the market and we have read quite a few of them. I say ‘we’ because my husband reads to me each day (my eyesight not good enough for sustained reading). So any book has to suit both of us. This is a good test for any book.
I can’t say that the novels are particularly ‘different’ from the run of detective stories on the market. DI Geraldine Steel is a memorable believable character that we are happy to follow through her career of arresting the baddies. Both books are well worth reading, neither is taxing and each one holds your attention and grips the imagination until the final page.
As a detective writer I would put Leigh Russell on a par with Dick Francis for easy-read books but we have yet to see if they are as predictive as the latter’s books (with Dick Francis you always know that the hero is going to get a beating to within an inch of his life before he finally triumphs). Yes indeed, we look forward to more novels from Leigh Russell’s imagination.
Both books are available on Amazon.

Visit my other sites:
Magpies Nest Publishing
Writing For Joy
Diary of a Country Lady
Lakeland Writer
Lake District Saga — Checkmate
All my books
My Space for photographs, stories and poems, plus Ann Dunning singing Any Dream Will Do

Dress Design and all that…

August 18, 2010

Wedding dress design 1949-1950

Dance dress designed by me in 1948. Black lace and net over gold satin.

Two designs for different occasions but they reveal the difference that a year or two can make in fashion.
I think I designed the gold/black ball dress in 1948 and the wedding dress a year later. Of course I was a mere teenager at the time and did not have the benefit of further education, TV and the vast number of magazines that are around today. But I did know how to cut a garment pattern. I attended a variety of art and craft classes in the Secondary Art School I attended between the ages of 13 and 15. Plus one term at the Nottingham College of Art and Craft. It should have been a two year Design Course but I had to withdraw so that I could earn a wage.
My dad had become completely disabled and the benefits expected today did not exist when I was young. My mum worked as a cleaner and, in our home lacked all the labour saving devices expected in today’s homes. It was hard enough putting food on the table. My mother never seemed to stop working. Dad (often angry and showing it) did his best to earn a little money while sitting at the kitchen table (the kitchen being the only room with heating — fire needed for hot water). Dad tried his hand at thonging handbags and purses, repairing vacuum cleaners, renovating old dolls prams and various other activities. None really earned much and likely most of it went to pay for his football coupons each week. Like today, those that can least afford it, gamble in the hope of winning that pot of gold at the end of an imaginary rainbow. But it all worked out okay.
Someone heard that I had left college and was working in a shop. This lady happened to be secretary to the boss of a garment manufacturer. I was interviewed on the strength of having a reputation for doing well both at college and for my general artistic talents. So, being engaged as a trainee designer and assistant to the chief designer, I had a foot on the ladder to success.
But I digress. These two outfits reflect my thoughts at the time as to what was fashionable. I made a booklet of designs – painted on black paper (most of them are on an earlier post) and the wedding dress featured on the first page.
The evening dress was something I thought of making for myself. But I chose something quite different. (That too is on another post).
I showed my designs to someone at the time and he said I was an uncut diamond. He was right. I did not move in the right circles and had to find my way to improve and succeed. But my ideas went down okay at the firm where I worked and buyers bought my designs. They liked the youthful image. I was on my way up. Switching to different firms gaining experience and then back again helped to broaden my outlook. After my children came along, I switched to freelance work, embracing not only outerwear but lingerie and housecoats too. I worked hard (I cut the patterns too) as we had a family and a home to look after too. Later, I gave up most of the designing and went in for teaching. The hours and work were more compatible with having a young family. But that’s another story!

My web sites:
Magpies Nest Publishing
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My books
Ask Gran Hobson
NEW SITE — Lakeland Writer — Checkmate and lovely photographs of Cumbria

Bad poetry?

August 13, 2010

Just William — his favourite spot in front of the fire.

When it comes to writing, you never know what others will choose as their favourite pieces. You could go by those who ‘know’ what is good, especially when it comes to poetry. Rhyme is out — or is it?
I wrote a little ditty in celebration of the life of a cat that I had never met. It only took a few minutes. I sent it to a friend who had just buried his beloved cat. But a copy remained in my files.
When I, along with Bob Taylor, published Northern Lights, I needed a poem to balance a section. Something simple and light-hearted. I used the cat poem and called him William.
William was a cat that had belonged to one of my sons many years ago. He was one of many, born in a barn at the local farm. I can’t say that I was pleased to have yet another pet to supervise. Of course, I was the one who had to look after him, feed him and take him to the vet when necessary. He became part of the family, but a cat that was always aloof and his own person. That is, until he became old and really poorly. I hated to see him suffer and when I took him to the vet I hoped termination would be recommended, so I could have him put to sleep without a guilty conscience, The vet said his kidneys had hardened and put him on a drip. I asked if William was suffering. She said with his health problem he would be dozy and not feel pain much. So I collected him to live on for a few more weeks.
I had to feed the cat with a syringe because his gums were rotting. The cat was not too pleased and I got the benefit of his anger. (Such scratches!) But I persevered.
For the first time in his life, when he was smelly with pus and losing teeth and hair, William wanted to come on my knee. Every time I sat down, William would jump up and sort of purr. He did not live much longer and I found him dead in his bed. My hubby buried him in the garden.
So this little ditty is really about two cats.
The funniest thing about the poem, is that it was picked out by a reader as being her most favourite piece in the whole book. It reminded her of her dead cat. The lady was incredibly thankful and full of praise.


William was my darling —
A friendly little cat.
Each time that I came through the door
He was waiting on the mat.
How he loved a cuddle,
Me too I must confess,
For when upset and moody
He softened my distress.
I buried him in the garden,
Just where he loved to sit
And stretch out in the sunshine,
Or take a little kip.
I’m really going to miss him,
He eased my woes and fears.
My little friend has given me
The best of his fourteen years.

Writing For joy
Gladys Hobson — Author
Diary Of A Country Lady
Magpies Nest Publishing.

Now For Something Completely Different!

August 6, 2010

And now for something completely different!

Cat early morning

Surprised cat caught mousing

I often get up early. Looking out of my study window I saw a roundish black something on the slope leading up to the garden. It was still fairly dark but I thought it might possibly be a cat with its head stuck in the low shrubbery. Doing what? The light was bad and I was indoors but I decided to take a snap of the object. I took a couple and then tapped on the window to see if the object moved. It did. A head came up out of the shrubbery. I quickly snapped the cat before it disappeared. The flash came on. Unfortunately it was reflected on the window glass and the image I got is quite ghostly. But I love it! I love the blue eyes glowing in the gloom. But I don’t love the cat. We found a tiny shrew on the drive. Is that what the cat was waiting for? I have to say, I admire its dedication. While it was outside the cat kept incredibly still.

My latest book is now finished, but more of that later.

Writing For joy
Gladys Hobson — Author
Diary Of A Country Lady
Magpies Nest Publishing.