Wednesday, August 17, 2011

We met on the Bus Part Five… Dress Design and Family Matters.

We met on the Bus Part Five… Dress Design and Family Matters.

Things went remarkably smoothly in my new job. My sample-hand Hilda, who had stitched for me at the previous firm, settled in well too. So did all the girls who followed us and were taken on. I think the rest were employed by the lingerie business (housed on the top floor) that took over the space — including the offices and showroom — previously occupied by the firm we had worked for. I did not know it at the time but my skills were later to become a considerable influence in their wheel of fortune. Nor would I have guessed that it would lead to a broader field of design capability.

I was sent to London to view the up and coming trends. I met the buyers when they visited the showroom and became more familiar with the various firms who bought from us. During this time we moved to Loughborough where my husband worked. It was rather isolating for me. It was not the house I wanted either. I would have preferred a new-build bungalow just a short distance away. My husband thought the older houses were better built and this one had a good piece of land with it — 100 yards long with a lane at the bottom end. But it was a very narrow plot. My husband built a brick garage at the bottom of the garden, complete with inspection pit. He had to take electricity down to it too. Seven years later when we sold up to move to a detached house. Considering what we had done to the property — large brick garage, new fireplaces, tiling and such — we had gained nothing on the price we got for it. Meanwhile the new bungalows up the road had gained in price with little, if anything, having been done to them. This was a hard lesson to learn. But much had happened before we made that move and circumstances were such that the position of our first house turned out to be ideal.

Our first son was born a year after our move into our own home. I started working a few weeks after the birth with an agreement that I would work from home for two or three days of the week. Indeed it would not have paid me to have child care for a full week. The lady next door, with an eleven year-old girl of her own, adored children and was more than willing to look after our baby. With just part-time care it took a third of my salary, stoppages took another chunk and travelling yet another. Then I became pregnant again. I decided the only thing to do was go freelance.

Remarkably, it worked out that the firm I was already working for continued to pay me the same money for a set number of designs — I went in to see the designs through to completion. Through Freddie (already travelling for the Lingerie firm, which had taken over where I had worked before) I received orders for new designs and some pattern cutting, all of which required me to go in occasionally to see the designs through. This was hard work, non-stop effort on my part so as to keep my travelling to minimum. The boss was also known to come bustling in with a new task: “Leave that, I want this doing first.” I would be there so late that the boss often whipped me off to the station in his Jag so I did not miss the train — once jumping on while the train was moving! (I would have left it as my tight skirt was hindering me, but the porter opened a carriage door and pushed me inside, bags and all!)

My husband built me a wooden workshop, nicely fitted with a cutting bench, lockstitch and overlock machines, and a huge roll of Swedish craft paper, heater, fan and all things necessary for my new business. Windows along both long sides gave ample light as needed. My neighbour continued to look after my infant as needed. She also took it upon herself to do my cleaning! Nicely set up, I was able to find more work, a few odd jobs and a whole new assignment when a firm in Dudley asked me to do all their designing for housecoats and sleepwear. Anyone reading my book, Awakening Love, might think it impossible for a designer to work as hard and creatively as my main character June does. But it is based on my own experiences. I have even designed and made children’s clothes and wedding dresses, most of my mother’s clothes too. Our three sons wore clothes I had made for them until they reached Junior School level, where only school uniform was allowed. (Boys in short trousers until they were eleven!) My middle son suffered with chapped thighs in winter but he was in trouble when I made him wear trousers.

So things worked well. I was able to save a huge chunk of my earnings and we decided to buy a larger detached house, which was under construction on a new estate overlooking open countryside. When the time came for our move, I was pregnant with our third son.

We had a nasty experience less than two weeks before moving into our new home. My husband was taken ill. Our doctor brought him home from the surgery to pack a bag for an unspecified time in hospital and then drove him there. (Doctors did that sort of thing in those days — totally committed day or night!) We were in the middle of a very bad winter with frost deep into the ground. There was a blizzard when I walked down to the hospital that evening. When I arrived in the ward, I found his bed empty and remade — no sign of my hubby or any of his belongings. Panic! Had he died and his body taken away? No, he had been moved to another ward following an operation. Apparently his large blood loss had been due to a benign cause, so he was allowed home after a few days. Just as well as I could not have managed the move myself. Bad enough to have all the floors to scrub, but the pipes had frozen up and the boiler had to be started. The toilet in the back porch had frozen up to the rim, complete with paper and excrement left by the workmen!

I was not sorry to leave our first house. Just after our first son was born we had received a brick through our front room window where I often left my baby asleep in his pram. The police thought the brick attack had been boys fooling about, but we had no boys hanging about our area, which housed mostly older people. Later, I received an abusive phone call from a woman I did not know. We hardly knew anyone in that road, just our near kindly neighbours. It wasn’t until our eldest started school at five that we found out that we had other children in the street the same age as ours. With enclosed large back gardens I suppose we all lived mostly private lives. What a change when we were in our new home. Most of the residents were similar to us, and the boys were never short of others to play with. The parents soon got to know each other too and we had occasional coffee mornings, which helped us all settle in.

It wasn’t long before some of my work dried up. The country had opened its doors to foreign imports and competition had become fierce. One firm closed its outwear department. Later the housecoat firm, which supplied a well-known chain store, either suffered the same fate or reduced its costs by creating their own designs, as had happened before I came on the scene. Actually, they had always taken three months to pay for each design collection, which is not a good indication of solvency. But the Lingerie firm I designed for, continued to require my services with no reduction. In fact they knew I ‘could deliver the goods’ and were keen to keep up our business relationship. I was always ready to oblige and I recall many an occasion when the director would drive to Loughborough with urgent work right up until the birth of my third son. I would get up as early as five in the morning to get a good start while everyone was in bed. The director would sit in a chair taking in the sun while I was in my shed finishing off his patterns!

I now had three young children to care for and I was in no rush to get more business. Our two eldest boys were at school when I saw an advert asking mothers to consider taking up teaching as a career. With one of my sons having problems with reading, I already had an interest in education and this seemed to be an ideal job for a mum with a family. Within a year I had taken an entrance test and soon started on a three-year course at the local College of Education. Little did we realise the problems that lay ahead — but that is another story!

The photographs are of designs I did in the early 1960’s. Housecoats and baby -doll pyjamas were popular. Nylon nightdresses were frilly and lacy. (So too slips, cami-knickers and petticoats.)

The suit (from a 1960 advert) is a design I did for a Nottingham firm in 1960.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

We Met On the Bus… Part Four Recognition and onwards…

We Met On the Bus… Part Four
Recognition and onwards…

Things were going swimmingly, at least as regards work, home life was something different. Living in a bedsit lacks privacy. Sharing the bathroom with the rest of the family could be frustrating. Moreover my husband was at night classes most evenings and studying much of the time too. We still went to the cinema on Fridays and often visited his parents in Derbyshire on Sundays. With my mother washing for us, I did all of the household’s weekly ironing, which I did over three evenings. Cleaning didn’t take long and so I stitched and read books. No television in those days but we had a radio to listen to — but not when my hubby was studying.

It was great being the only designer for the firm. I enjoyed going places with the traveller and meeting our buyers. Also meeting the various reps, who brought me samples of buttons and trimmings to look at, and order as appropriate. I was a vital cog in a well-oiled wheel. The orders came steadily in and no one was ever laid off. Most of the smooth working was down to the traveller — Freddie — even though the boss, who lived in Manchester, visited the factory several times a week. I have no idea what he did in the office on the ground floor but he had no influence upstairs in the huge workroom. There was also a sleeping partner — a smart-suited dapper man with neat facial hair — who dropped in a few times while I was there. I was once given the job of producing a certain garment worn at his ‘lodge’. I cut the pattern from one he brought with him. But the boss also had garments made, including pyjamas!

Then the blow came. Our Manchester boss, a heavy drinker, became seriously ill. The business was sold out to the busy lingerie firm who had the top floor just above us. With a glowing testimonial from Freddie, I wrote to my first firm to see if they were in need of a designer. I was taken on with a rise in salary. Not only that, but my sample hand and half the workforce were taken on with me.

So I was back to the firm where my career began, but no longer as a junior member of the team. At twenty-one I was regarded as a fully-fledged designer and, with the departure of one of the other designers, I had a decent office to work in. I had responsibility for designing for the younger end of the market. Freddie was travelling for the lingerie firm, and it was through him that I eventually became involved with them too.