“I went to work for a corporate wear company, doing uniforms and military clothing. It was just me and two other ladies. We made the all the samples up so I learnt a lot more then. I learnt to make jackets, combat clothing, shirts, trousers.” Susan White
Susan and Julie both from Derby were born 1958 and 1964 respectively. They have both had part of their working life in and around what was once a lively and thriving textiles industry in the city although much of that has now declined. Susan as a sewer and Julie as a mender.
Photography by Daniel Dytrych
How did you get started in the industry – how did it all begin?
Susan: It was my first Job. A lot or girls went into it back then because there was lot a factory work about and it was easier to get into. Only the very clever went to college or university. Most people went to work or to an apprenticeship, or something like that. When I started in 1974 they had a training school: you actually trained to work all of the machinery which, as time went on, new people starting just got put straight onto a machine with no training at all. The machine got more complex compared to when I started, when they were very basic. You had to learn the skill of turning corners and stopping when the machine stopped. As the years went on, new machines were brought in and they did a lot of those things for you. They stopped when you wanted them to stop, whereas with the old fashioned ones you had to rely on your skill to stop sewing.
How old were you?
Julie: I was 16 as well.
Were you thrown in at the deep end with your first job?
Susan: You trained on bits of paper. To start with straight lines, then you would have curvey lines to go down, usually using the sewing machine with no thread in. There were circles and other different patterns. Then, once we were trained up a bit, I don’t know if you’d remember full length petticoats that the old fashioned women used to wear – they had little squares on them, we had to sew these little squares. It was about eight stitches by eight stitches by eight stitches by eight. It was a horrible job!
What was horrible about it?
Susan: It was tedious. But then they brought a machine in, which did it automatically. You just put foot on it and it was away – it would sew in a square.
So that’s why you needed less training?
Susan: Yeah, because of the way the technology improved.
How long did you do that for?
Susan: I didn’t work in the same factory but I stayed in sewing until I was about 45.
Julie, was your role a bit different from that?
Julie: Yes, I worked at Moore & Eady’s in jumpers and cardigans, as a mender. As an item went through the factory, if the material got caught and there were holes in it, we would have to mend the holes up. We used to do knitted cable and the machines would sometimes miss a stitch in the cable, so we would have to put it back together again so it looked perfect.
Would there have been many errors or mistakes in the process?
Julie: It used to have to go through many stages, first the knitting, then the dying, then it used to come up and there would be two girls there with two machines like lights. They would put the jumper with the sleeves on the lights and it would show any holes up. They would mark the holes with a ticket, fold them up, put them in bags and they would come to us. We would then mend them, take them to the press, measured and finally packed.
Were there many of you doing that job?
Julie: When I started in 1980 there was six of us. I was made redundant in 1982, then went to Rowleys in 1982 where they made socks and I was an inspector of socks. I’d have a pile of socks going through, with a pile at the side and you had to measure each one for sizing, then pair them up, get another sock…and you’d do it over and over again with every… single… sock.
Is that still done now?
Susan: It’s all done abroad now.
Julie: The Rowley’s building I worked in shut down a long time ago. I think it’s all flats now. Moore and Eady’s was at Britannia Mills by Markeaton Park, near the bowling green, now owned by the University.
So they went under or just stopped running?
Julie: Yes, there were more imports coming in. We used to do a lot of cashmere, which was really expensive.
Out of the skills you learnt, have you been able to use them in other things like your hobbies?
Susan: I used to years ago. I went to work for a corporate wear company, doing uniforms and military clothing. It was just me and two other ladies. We made the all the samples up so I learnt a lot more then. I learnt to make jackets, combat clothing, shirts, trousers. I picked up a lot from then, whereas earlier it was all piece work, so you ended up doing the same thing everyday. But with this you would be making the blouses, sending them out to places like Aldi or Tesco to see if they wanted a new uniform. I worked at Stuart Broughton’s then at Slicks and then Rainbow, which was more a warehouse.
Was most of your working life in this industry?
Susan: Well that all shut down. To tell you the truth I got a second job at Asda and was left some money so we went travelling for a year. When I came back, Rainbow had shut down, but Asda had kept me on…I also used to work for Paul Smith, the designer at one time. We used to do some things for Mick Jagger – personal shirts and things like that.
What about your social life that you had where you worked?
Susan: We were always having parties. We’d have a fuddle and everyone would bring something.
There’s quite a difference now from the photographs you have?
Julie: They wouldn’t allow that now in the factories [drinking alcohol]
Susan: The lingerie is set up against the rails. There would be a machinist one side and there would be another one over at the other side and you just pick an item off the rail, do what you had to do to it and put it back. That’s how the work went down the section.
Can you tell me a bit about this older photograph?
Julie: Yes, that was my Grandma, where they used to make the bras at Coopers. There’s another photograph where she’s at a a machine and she’s got a fag in her mouth.
They let you smoke at the machines?
Susan: They did before my time. It was all stopped by the time I started, but they did at one time used to smoke at the machines. They also used to eat at the machines.
Julie: Yeah, through the dinner break.
Would you have had a proper dinner break?
Susan: We had a canteen. They served breakfast and lunches. In the afternoon you got tea break. You would start work about 8am then you’d have a morning break about 10am for breakfast and a staggered lunchtime from about 12 or 12:30pm
What are your fondest memories of that time?
Susan: We always had a laugh. If anybody was getting married at Stuart Broughton’s, they used to tie them to the fence outside with old bits of cloth. Dressed up in some awful outfit; tie them to the fences and leave them there. When I worked at Slicks, when someone was getting married they used to tie them to the bus stop. We would wait for the bus and the driver would take them up to cemetery and they would have to walk back down themselves. It was all taken in good fun.
Have you ever made anything strange or unusual?
Susan: Wardrobes. This is going back a bit. Those plastic covered wardrobe frames. We were short of work and trying to get some in, so they bought these plastic wardrobes. I think that’s the weirdest thing I have ever made. We would sow the plastic covers and they would put the poles in afterwards
You also used to make bikini’s at Slicks?
Susan: Yes, we had free bikinis when we went on holiday. At Slicks it was all swimwear. There used to be a lot of off cuts. We would save them and when we had enough we would make bikinis for each of us.
When you were doing something that was a little bit repetitive was there something that kept you motivated?
Julie: We always had the radio on and would sometimes have a sing-along.
Susan: There was always somebody who had a loud voice and you could hear them all round the factory.
Julie: If you got fed up, and smoked, you would go to the loos. The smokers all used to congregate there for a bit of a break.
Susan: Where I used to work, they had an old fashioned wood burner in the toilets and we used to take chairs in there in the winter around the burner to keep warm. There was no health and safety back then.
Have you stayed in touch with people you used to work with?
Susan: I see some of them in Asda when they come in shopping.
Do you still make things?
Susan: No, I’ve got a sewing machine, but I don’t use it.
Julie: I made a patchwork step cushion recently for the back step. Makes for a comfy place to sit.
Do you enjoy doing that sort of thing?
Julie: I do now and again. I helped do the cushions here at the Silk Mill with the writing on it for ‘Making Stories’. My daughter was 30 and I made her a cushion with the kids handprints, her boyfriends and hers. If I fancy doing something, then I’ll do it . I also used to do a lot of knitting and cross stitch, but my eyes are not so good now for threading the needle.
Do you think you’ve done that because you’ve had some experience doing it previously.
Julie: I always used to enjoy doing needle work at school and I used to do metalwork and woodwork. I’ve never been a clever person in my head, always with my hands. Anything to do with my hands.