Posts Tagged ‘career’

Dress Design in the 1950’s — So you want to be a designer? Final Part

September 3, 2010

Dress Design in the 1950’s

So you want to be a designer? — Final Part (see previous three posts for rest of story).

I did indeed find another job. As a designer, yes, but also assistant to the Manageress Designer. This was to be a new thing for me — designing straight to the retail.
The premises were above one of the shops the factory supplied. The names may have been different, but both factory and shops were owned by the same person. Plans were already far advanced for their move into specially renovated premises, on the opposite side of the periphery of Nottingham’s city. Little did I know then that we would be treated to the stink of the glue factory every time a window was opened. No doubt our boss was not too pleased to find his new Daimler with piercing scratches right along the sides. (The lads who did were quite open about it. They told him, “We did it with this rock, mister.”
The room I worked in before the move was crowded but friendly. The finishers and others worked at one end and I had a long worktable at the side of the designer-manageress’s. This is the person I answered to (I’ll call her Joan). The boss, an incredibly busy person not shy of taking off his coat and doing a job to push production along, rarely spoke to anyone other than Joan. Here I will call the boss, Mr Big. He surely must have been at my interview, but I have no recollection of an interview taking place. That seems to be lost in the mist of time with events of far more significance taking place.
It was just as well we were to move. Tales of being overrun with mice, crowding, and the drabness of the place were depressing. Joan was overbearing and watched me like a hawk. Her upgrading of sizes were done to the perfection of cutting through the correct side of a fine pencil line. She would check to make sure the correct fraction had been added and that no pencil line showed. In a way it was funny because the boss seemed to have a far laxer approach, judging by what he did occasionally. He sometimes bought dresses and had them copied. One day, when Joan was not there to do it, he quickly unpicked the seams of a dress, placed the pieces on fabric and cut round them. He gave the parts to Joan’s sample hand to make up. Later, Joan cut a proper pattern made to our own specifications.
It did not take me long to hate the place. Moving to the prepared factory didn’t help either. It was still two bus journey’s to get there and it was in a deprived area within the stink of the glue factory. It had two toilets, but after a factory inspection one had to set aside for the man who came to work on the cutting bench, and the one who did the driving. Not that it mattered, no one had time to visit the toilet unless really urgent. Golly, I was timed by Joan, and what’s more, told off for not switching off my light during those few minutes.
Finally I was allowed to do a few sketches when things were slack, but I need not have bothered, Mr Big had no intention of using them. It did not take long to realize that I was only there to cut patterns. In fact, Joan came up to me one day and said, “Mr Big had been contacted by a man who can use the electric cutter, and he can grade patterns too. He wants eight pounds a week. He thinks he would be better off with him than keeping you.”
I was getting about five pounds a week then. I felt utterly humiliated. But that was the way things were. Mr Big took on a machinist. At the end of the week he looked at her work card, saw that she had not earned as much as he expected from his machinists and gave her two minutes notice to leave. They may have been on piece rates but he wanted to fill his benches with girls who could push through the work to his advantage.
So there I was, keeping my nose to the grindstone while thinking about looking elsewhere. The man did come and work for the firm. He was fast with the electric cutter and laying up machine, but he had no time for pattern cutting. Business was booming.
The only highlight for me was manning the firm’s stand each afternoon for a week during a Nottingham Trade Fair. I wore one of the firm’s designs made just to fit. That was to be my uniform for the week.
It did not take long to get another job. I informed Joan that I was leaving and where I was going. She was furious and sneered, “Huh! Another jersey-knit firm!” (As opposed to the many types of fabric used there.)
About ten minutes later I was brought my ‘cards’ and pay in lieu of a week’s notice. I was given two minutes to leave the factory.

The next place did not work out either. They really wanted help on the cutting bench (where I used an electric cutter for the first time) and an assistant for the designer. Not that she did much designing, as simple ‘sloppy Joe’ type of garments, made of brushed nylon, were brought in to be copied. I cut plenty of samples of her designs but few apparently sold. I was given a chance to design a couple of garments myself, one to specific instructions and the other freely. It was a nice black suit with perfect fit. All the samples were sold off in the factory after a few months, so I bought my suit and wore it on my honeymoon!
But I was back in that awkward position of being staff in a segregated system. Having lunch with staff in a boxed-off corner of the canteen was embarrassing. I soon joined the girls I worked with. The factory was even further away from home too. So I found myself another job.

At my new firm, I knew I was on a two week trial, not that it made any difference to the way I worked. The first thing to sort out was the blocks they had been using. Nothing fitted properly. The sample hand told me that if a bodice was too big for the dress’s skirt they would make a tuck in the bodice. Likewise if the skirt was too big for the bodice. What if the sides did not meet up? They cut off a bit themselves. Having been used to working to the thickness of a pencil line, I decided things had to change. Once I had a perfect set of blocks for the main sizes — not a big job — I could get down to designing.
What a place to work in though. At least I had a window near my cutting table, the rest of the room had to be lit up. The ceiling was low, with old wooden beams, and somewhat oppressive. The only toilet was off a landing down the stairs. It had a wash basin in there too, which was used to wash cups and mugs used for tea or coffee.
At the end of the first week, apart from cutting some specials and improving the blocks, I had designed ten dresses based on ones in a brochure I had been told to look through. The samples were all looking good and well made. Friday afternoon, I was called into the office. Of course, I expected to be given the post permanently. Instead I was told the opposite. They were really looking for an overlooker and I was not the person for the job. However, they said they could not fault my pattern cutting skills and would gladly give me a reference. They said I could stay for the second week if I wanted to. But I took my one week’s pay and left.
Before I left the building the sample hand came up to me. “You’re leaving aren’t you? We all knew you wouldn’t get the job. You see you’re too good. Mrs Smith (the previous designer who still had some influence) will never allow someone in her job who can better than her. We’re all very sorry about it, and we wanted you to know.”
I found that support comforting, especially as I had not been told about the overlooker requirement when appointed. The room had been working very smoothly that week. What did Mrs Smith do that would have made a difference? When she was cutting the patterns, likely she had to constantly sort out seams that didn’t fit!
On the Monday I called in at the Labour office (now job centres). I refused to be ‘signed on’ and found myself a job as a sample cutter at a well-established Nottingham firm turning out high quality garments. The pay was about the same but I only had one bus to catch to get there. It kept me going financially for a few months until that real break came my way.
I had applied for a job some months earlier but had not received a reply — that is, until it suddenly arrived unexpectedly . I was the only one for the interview. Their main interest in me was my connection with the firm I had done my training with. They sold garments to some of the same buyers. The man who did most of the selling for this firm knew the managers of the other one. (Likely had gulped down a few ‘glasses’ with them.)
The person who interviewed me lived in Manchester and only dropped in a few days a week. A ‘sleeping partner’ came rarely. One of the main partners had died some time before I went there. (His two sons ran a lingerie business on the floor above) The business seemed to be mainly run by the traveller, who got the orders and made sure the goods went through the factory and out. A secretary did all the office work. The overlooker made sure the garments were made and went through the system. (Unfortunately, this overlooker was a friend of the designer whom I was replacing.)
I was told why they were letting their designer go — evidently she came and went as she chose. Possibly she had someone to look after, I’m not sure. I was given £6 a week and told it would be raised to £8 if I merited it. Later on, supported by the traveller who kept the business afloat, I asked for the £8 and got it.
The overlooker was openly hostile but with Freddie (the travelling salesman) behind me, I got on okay. I also had an excellent sample hand and we worked well together. Freddie got what he needed, someone to be there, drop everything, and get on with whatever he had brought in that was hot on the market scene. This is where his connections came in. He would come along with samples of embroidery or ‘skirt permanent pleating‘ and want samples of dresses doing straight away. It was easy enough to design dresses to suit these samples and cut both pattern and fabric within a short time. Freddie would have his completed samples to take off to a customer in pretty quick time. This is where he scored at retail production. So this firm did both wholesale and retail trade. I could imagine he must have got somewhat frustrated before if the designer was missing half the time.
Freddie took me with him occasionally to meet the customers — both London and in Nottingham. He once told me what the buyer at C&A had said to him: “… and did that little girl design these?” He was quite impressed.
One day bales of a silky fabric arrived that had been bought incredibly cheap. I was asked to design a blouse that would be attractive but work out inexpensive. My design was just right. The blouse sold and the whole lot gone within a week.
To me this was all a dream come true. A good job with good money doing something that I was good at. What could be better?
Unfortunately, the boss in Manchester died and the business was sold out to the brothers who owned the lingerie firm above. They took over the two floors and the office.
With an excellent testimonial from Freddie, I applied back to the first firm that I worked for in Awkwright Steet. Not only were they pleased to take me on, they also took on a number of the workgirls, including my sample hand. I also had yet another another rise in salary. More to my personal satisfaction, I returned to that factory as a fully-fledged designer, and only just a little over two years after I had left it.
When I turned freelance, soon after my first child was born, I continued designing for that firm, plus the lingerie firm that had taken over my previous one. Shortly after, I designed and cut patterns for a firm manufacturing housecoats in Dudley, and occasional designing for others — in Nottingham, Leicester, London. These last were just fleeting as I had no wish to travel as my second son had been born. A few years later our third child arrived.
By this time manufacturing in this country was quickly dying out. The firm I first worked for sold one of their factories and turned the other over to underwear as being more profitable. Then the housecoat firm collapsed. I was still doing good business with the lingerie firm but they were greatly concerned about imports and looking for ways to reduce costs.
When my sons started school I became interested in Education. I took a three year teacher-training course, and finally qualified a year after we moved up here (Cumbria). It had been incredibly hard: my hubby in a completely different job, a mid-stream change of colleges for me (driving me towards a break-down in health), our children in different schools away from friends and family, and a different way of life for all of us. But I still did an occasional bit of work for the lingerie firm. Then the overlooker at that firm suddenly died. The remaining director (his brother having died some years earlier) sold out. Like most factories in Nottingham, that building is now turned into expensive apartments. What’s more, clothes can be bought at ridiculous prices due to cheap, if not, ‘sweated’ labour abroad. Even so, while workers labour long hours for low pay merely to put food in their children’s mouths, fortunes are being made at their expense. Does anyone care?
I look back on my life and consider these last years. After teaching I studied for the church and worked in lay ministry. These last years I have been writing stories and novels. Everything in my past is useful as a writer, but of interest to the modern reader? I very much doubt it.

The Designed For Love Trilogy — Awakening Love, Seduction By Design, Checkmate. Published by Magpies Nest Publishing in the Uk

The first book, Awakening Love, does contain settings familiar to me — the factory, home, and life in general with social distinctions as lived then. But June’s story is not mine. She does have much of my spirit though — a desire to achieve. Her love life is not mine but the morals and education do reflect those times. ‘Seduction’ moves the reader on to the late sixties and seventies, when mini skirts and hot pants became the rage, and sex was no longer a hush-hush subject. The final part takes the reader to the glorious Lake District where June regains an even stronger zest for design. Her former boss is as sexually potent as ever!
Chapters from all the books can be read at Magpies Nest Publishing.

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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
Writing For Joy
Diary of a Country Lady
My books
Ask Gran Hobson
NEW SITE — Lakeland Writer — Checkmate and lovely photographs of Cumbria