Thursday, July 7, 2011

We Met on the Bus at a time of my working at a career in dress design...

We Met on the Bus
at a time of my working at a career in dress design...

(Late 1940's Designs done when I was in my teens)

It was late February of 1952 and I was starting a new job in the city of Nottingham. Along with my sister Phyl, I was waiting in the queue at the 5A bus stop, just around the corner from my home. I was dressed in grey — coat, stockings and shoes. A grey outfit for a grey day! But there was nothing gloomy in my mood: I had a new beginning, a chance to prove my ability to design clothes that would sell in shops all over Britain. At least, that is what I thought at the time.

The bus arrived and we slowly boarded. There were no seats left for me to be able to sit with my sister, so I sat on the long seat by the stepping on-and-off platform. My thoughts wandered to my previous jobs: trainee designer at a knitted-clothing firm catering for the wholesale trade, followed by two years as a designer pattern cutter at a manufacturer of dresses for the retail trade. I had done well with my first employers, William Gibson and Sons. I joined them when I was just sixteen and had worked my way up from the cutting bench to designing outfits for the younger end of the fashion trade. I smiled to myself as I recalled my first day of working in that huge factory.

The factory was a red brick, early nineteenth-century building. One of the many mill buildings in that city which was once a centre for Britain’s finest industry — clothing, lace, bicycles, pharmaceuticals, and many small engineering enterprises. Nottingham also has a fine university building, standing on a hill within the magnificent Highfields Park. I looked up to view the majestic white building silhouetted against a grey sky.

I suddenly realised I was being watched. Two soft brown eyes under thick eyelashes and heavy dark brows were smiling at me. I coyly dropped my eyes, knowing my cheeks were turning pink.

Oh, why did I have to blush when a man looked at me? It had been the same in my first year at Gibson’s. Every time I went down to the canteen with the other workers, the men sitting near the yard door, would whistle, knowing what would happen. It took the motherly overlooker to get it stopped. But it was the same at the cutting bench. The male supervisor would stand the other side of the table looking at me until I lifted up my head. Then everyone would laugh as my cheeks revealed my embarrassment. At least, a later supervisor did not get away with his sexist chauvinism. He had a habit of running his thumb knuckle down my spine as he passed behind me. I asked him nicely not to do it several times. The laughter was wiped off his face when I swung the tip of my boot at his shin. He called me a foul name but he didn’t touch me again.

I lifted my eyes a little. My dark-haired fellow traveller was still watching me, but now the corners of his lips were curling into a curious little smile. I dropped my eyes again. This time I had a picture of him in my mind: mid-twenties, medium build, short wavy hair, rather a swarthy face out of which shone those penetrating, but warm, eyes. Somehow he had connected with my inner being and that was disturbing. I turned my mind to other matters.

I had done well at Gibson’s. It had been tough to start with. My soft hands were not used to handling the heavy tailoring shears used to cut patterns and cloth, and my skin had to be hardened before I was comfortable using them. I had to get used to a lot of things: machinery noise within that huge room, and coming from the floors above and below; long hours of toil and the uncertainty of knowing my place — officially one of the staff, but unofficially one of the girls. Socially, I was totally out of my depth.

I soon found out that certain class distinctions operated in that place. Management, designers and office staff, tucked away in the offices were monthly paid. Cutters (close to the stock room and offices) and sample hands were hourly paid. Lockstitchers, embroidery machine operators, overlockers, finishers (at the opposite end of the factory floor) were on piece rates. The steam press workers and ironers, who were separated by a glass partition, would have been hourly paid. All piece rate workers received bonuses on top of the rate for the job. The bonuses brought them up to a living wage comparable with the other workers, with the speedier and more experienced girls doing very well. It was hot and sweaty working on those machines but the girls seemed cheerful enough, singing as they did to songs coming over the Tannoy system.

Until I actually began designing I found it difficult to fit in with any group, but then it became even more of a problem for me once the season rush was over. I would be back with the cutters. It especially became problematic when the chief designer thought, once the design rush was over, it would be a good idea for me to join the machinists and get really skilled. This way I could fill in where needed. This seemed unfair to me: the designers had time to relax and prepare for the following season, since my designs were selling well, why shouldn’t I have the same privilege?

I found myself another job. It seemed I had jumped out of the frying pan into the fire! I wasn’t really needed as a designer, even the designer-manageress copied just about every design produced each season. The boss would pick dresses up in London or elsewhere and have exact copies made. Even he himself was known to rip open a dress and use the pieces as a pattern for a new model. I hasten to add here that either the manageress or myself would have the job of translating it to our own pattern blocks, which were incredibly accurate. There was a strict system of grading different sizes too. Strict was indeed a word to describe many things there. Someone was told off for talking to me, I was practically timed if I went off to the toilet, and told off for leaving the light on while I did so. A new machinist was dismissed after the first week because she wasn’t earning enough — the boss said he could fill her place with a quicker worker. I was told that someone had applied for a job as a cutter and that the boss considered, since he could cut patterns too, he might be better off with him than me. I decided to get another job before I was put under even more pressure. When I gave in my notice, within less than half an hour I was handed my ‘cards’ and told to leave the building within two minutes. The manageress stood over me to make sure I did not take anything not mine, and that I did not speak to anyone. I resented being treated like a criminal!

So here I was on my way to a new job, which required two bus journeys. This earlier travelling time had brought me into contact with this young man. His eyes were fixed on me and nobody else. After a few days he started sitting next to me whenever he could. It wasn’t long before other passengers left us a seat so we could always sit together. After a few weeks he asked me to go to the cinema with him the following Friday, the one night he did not attend evening classes. It was Spring Day. Exactly one year later we were married in our local church.

A regards my designing career, there began a whole new turn of events …

(More to come)

1 comment:

Sheila Deeth said...

This is fascinating. Moving on to read part 2.