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.
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…