When I entered the exam for entrance to the Nottingham Secondary Art School at the age of thirteen, I was asked what job I wanted to do. I wrote down DRESS DESIGNER. I was told by several people that it was almost impossible to get into designing. So I crossed it out and wrote BOOK ILLUSTRATOR. I was told that I would never be able to get into that sort of business. Better to opt for dress designing. So I crossed out my illustrator option and wrote designer again. Whoever read the form likely decided I was good at dithering. How true! I dislike having to make choices — too bad, life is full of them.
I have written elsewhere how I got into designing and eventually, to suit family life and cut down travelling, decided to go freelance. I could never have done this at the start as I was unknown and untried. But I was able to carry on at the same firm, plus design and pattern cut for a lingerie firm, then take on the design and pattern cutting of nightwear and housecoats. Now I could see my designs on display in a large range of stores.
Three years after my third child was born I saw a notice asking for married women with experience of children to train as teachers. By this time I was quite interested in education and thought this would be an ideal occupation as it would fit in better with my family. We lived at a distance from the manufacturing cities and so I still had to travel when designing. But was I cut out to be a teacher? Did I have the qualifications to enter the local training college?
The story of how I accomplished this, plus the training and enormous problems when my husband became redundant and we had no choice but to move 220 miles to a totally different environment, will be the subject of another post. Enough to say here that I still continued to do a few designs and cut patterns for one firm for quite a few years. Such was my value to that firm — reliability is essential — that the manager would travel many miles from his factory in Nottingham to ensure he would get his perfect patterns. I recall on a few occasions, working in my workshop (a purpose-built shed in our garden) at five in the morning so as to get the patterns completed. It also enabled me to work while the children were still in bed. On another occasion, the manager relaxed in a deck chair in the sunshine, with cigarettes and cool drink, while I was sweating away in my workshop — I was heavily pregnant at the time. Such was my reliability.
Changes in garment manufacture, especially with the growth of imports, and a severe credit squeeze, forced many manufactures to give up and buildings to be sold. Nottingham’s mills, indeed mills all over the country, seem to have been turned into apartments. Britain has largely lost its manufacturing base. I can buy clothes cheaper today than the cost of material. Once I made most of my own clothes, all of my mother’s clothes, the children’s clothes until they went to school and needed a uniform, and clothes for relatives and friends. I made wedding dresses and bridesmaids outfits, I even made the carry cot for our first child. With industrial machines (lockstitch and overlock) and a Viking to do embroidery, there was little I could not attempt. Pram covers to fancy patches on our sons’ jeans!
Now with my diseased eyes, I only do essential mending. But I still had all my basic patterns in our attic. Pattern blocks are the tools of a designer-cutter. They were shaped and perfected over years of use. There was no pattern I could not cut using those blocks. A pile of them, all cut in Swedish Craft paper: basic blocks for all garments — knicker, cami-knickers, nightdress, slips, housecoat, coat, dress blocks of different sizes – my personal block and those of family members etc etc. A stack of them hanging up and in a large flat box. Once worth a lot but now completely redundant.
Yesterday, I took them all out, made a huge parcel of them, and took them with other rubbish to the recycling bins. I am still left with collections of designs I did years ago. Those were the days when dresses had to fit the figure. Soft drapes or neat collar, shapely bustline and waist, pencil skirt or mid-calf flowing skirts — all so feminine. I smile at some of today’s clothing — I had patterns for baby-doll nightware that would do nicely for what women buy today!
So my pattern blocks are gone — the end of an identity I once had.
Lots more to clear out of the attic yet — materials for teaching, especially art and reading. Amazing what I have hung on to. I have cleared out boxes of fabric — useful for many purposes. And old Nativity costumes etc. etc.
Still to go — and this brings tears to my eyes— my cassocks, surplices and cloaks, used when I was conducting funerals, services and when preaching or assisting with baptisms or with Communion.
Then what? I have already sold off books I used for studying with the OU and other courses. I once thought of writing novels associated with my fields of study, especially the Victorian age and maybe a Roman romance. Or a school yarn? It will not happen. So I have thrown out many essays and so on, although I have kept two long dissertations — well, I did get a distinction for one and just a few marks off a distinction for the other. Pride!
Now, about my writing…. Time to be realistic?
I looked through the photo album to find a photograph that seemed the most relevant at this stage of my life. I decided on this one. Looking forward. I am standing alone, and that is the way it has been in most of what I have done and achieved — academically and in the workplace. But I am not alone in my life. Does our work define who we are? To me that is a side issue. I am a wife, mother, grandmother, aunt, a homemaker, friend and neighbour. If we cling to what was, what might have been, to faded hopes and dreams, the ‘stuff in the attic of our lives’ then we miss the scene around us and the joys that may well lie ahead.