Posts Tagged ‘Nottingham’

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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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…

NEW EDITION — When Phones Were Immobile and Lived in Red Boxes is now available

December 29, 2009

Queuing to phone at the corner telephone box!

When Phones Were Immobile and Lived in RED BOXES — ISBN 978-0-9548885-8-9
Now available in Ulverston at the Tinners Rabbit Bookshop, The Novel Cafe, The Corner Bookshop in the Market Hall. Also in Barrow-in-Furness at Heath’s Books and Stationers.
May be purchased on-line (signed if required) at Magpies Nest Publishing or order from any good bookshop (don’t forget ISBN number)
£7.50 – includes P&P if ordered direct from publisher. (UK)

Contents:
Introduction.
Chapter One — School-days:
sewage, sex, sport and school dinners.
Chapter Two — No NHS.
Chapter Three — Of God and Bananas.
Chapter Four — Of war and play.
Chapter Five — Innocent youth or just plain daft?
Chapter Six — Family affairs.
Chapter Seven — I want to be a designer.
Chapter Eight — Moving on to where I started!
Chapter Nine — Boys!
Chapter Ten — You shall go to the ball.
Conclusion — The beginning of the new.
Chapter Eleven — On the move.
Chapter Twelve — Babies !
Chapter Thirteen — Education and all that.
Chapter Fourteen — Practice makes perfect?

This book, enjoyed by young and old – and all those in between – gets passed around whole families — sometimes getting as far as Canada, the USA and Australia!
Excellent reviews. Go to Magpies Nest Publishing for more information and chapters to read.
AS WITH FIRST EDITION, ALL PUBLISHER’S PROFITS (AND AUTHOR ROYALTIES) TO GO TO SAVE THE CHILDREN FUND for work in Africa.

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

July 21, 2009

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.