Posts Tagged ‘training’

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…

Clearing the attic — goodbye to the past

September 21, 2009

Wolfscotedale, Derbyshire

Wolfscotedale, Derbyshire

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.

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.

Fashion and Dress Design — Jan.1949

July 10, 2009

I started work at the factory in 1949. I was sixteen and unprepared for factory life. A simple lass, nervous of the big wide world, shy and totally naive. I knew little about the world of clothing manufacture. I had spent barely one and a half terms at college, but at least, I was attending evening classes. But this was a factory and I had memories of what happened to my sister when she worked as a machinist for a local manufacturer. She began to swear. My dad (a prolific swearer himself but could not abide it coming from a woman’s mouth) said,
‘If another daughter of mine goes into a factory and starts swearing, I’ll cut her throat!’
Oo — he didn’t mean it but my dad could be fearsome and I hated to be around when he was angry.

What I did not bargain for was wolf-whistles. I blushed easily. The first time I entered the canteen a barrage of whistling met me. The workers’ union lady dealt with that. But whistling was not needed to make me blush. The male junior managers soon found out that staring at me had the same effect. Working at the cutting bench, I would sense someone there and look up at a grinning male. Laughter followed. When I took no notice they gave up but it was not easy — my cheeks were hot with embarrassment.

I soon heard plenty of sexy jokes. I was not sure what most of them meant but better to laugh or smile than look ignorant. The girls were generally a friendly lot. It was a difficult situation for me: I was on the staff payroll but working on the factory floor learning about factory methods while waiting for the designer to need assistance. To break me in I was given lots of roll ends and pieces to chop up with cutting shears. Cutting through several thicknesses at a time with heavy shears, my hands, especially my thumbs, became sore and blistered but eventually they hardened off. (No electric cutters then)

It seemed a shame to cut up large pieces of fabric but colours changed each season (and with slightly different dyes), and small ends were best out of the way. It would be sold as waste wool. Occasionally large ends would be sneaked away. One machinist made bathing costumes for her husband and friend. She told us that when they went in the sea the costumes soaked up the water and floated away. They had to leave the sea naked as the day they were born, to the hoots of their wives. A cutter did the same thing for herself and lost the bra part in the river.

More to follow…