Imagine a world today without the convenience of zip fasteners, drip dry, non-iron materials, and electric sewing machines; replace these with minature hooks and eyes and tiny buttonholes, whale boned costumes and treadle machines used by the light of just one dim lamp, and these were the sort of challenges faced every day by any dress-maker working in the 1900s.
Last week in The Way We Were, the age of flannel petticoats and woollen combinations was colourfully recalled; but the pre-War Edwardian frills and flounces and the shapeless chiffon and fine crepe-de-chine of the 1920s, required expert sewing.The embroidered skirts, the tulle and the taffeta of any Flapper's dance frocks had to be made by somebody.
This week we glimpse life through the eye of the needle beyond the workroom door where the London fashions were lovingly copied and carefully re-created to satisfy the country customer in a town like Ambleside.
"I left school when I was 14; I left on the Friday and on Monday morning I started work at 7.30a.m. working for a lady called Madam Pearl Jenkinson, dressmaking. We worked in a cellar."
The pay was very small and the hours long:
"I started at Madam Jenkinson's for two shillings a week. I started at half past seven in the morning, half an hour for my dinner and we finished at five in the evening and never had a Saturday afternoon off. We used to sew for lots of people, and the youngest apprentices that were there, the two youngest, and I was one of them, we had our bikes and we had to deliver the dresses. I used to have to come to Cringlemire, to a lady called Mrs Martin, and we used to get sixpence for going. It was mostly evening dresses we made in those days."
There were fourteen girls employed in the cellar workroom, with the addition of a tailor who made ladies' coats:
"We had to go and help him and take the tackings out. That was all we had to do for him, and he sat cross-legged on the table. We'd a good time. Madam Jenkinson was a good person to work for."
When this apprentice started in 1914, the work involved nothing but hand-sewing; machines came later. Madam Jenkinson went to a big town like Manchester to buy her material, and on one occasion, she put her own workroom staff to good personal use:
"She used to cut out all her material on the floor, and I remember once she was going to something and she brought this brown material and we had to sit and make that costume that day; and we tacked her into it to go to this party at night. We tacked her into it because we hadn't time to finish it!"
The zip fastener was yet to be patented:
"It was all buttonholes, there were no zips. I used to wear stays, you had to had have a nice figure, you know."
Upstairs, Madam Jenkinson had a millinery department where the young seamstresses were let loose once a year:
"At Christmas she used to give us all a hat, and we used to have to go up to the showroom and choose this hat, and so much trim to decorate it. The millinery department was a beautiful place."
Training an apprentice dressmaker to sew started with teaching her one job, over and over again:
"For the first few weeks, you just tacked, a skirt hem, and you used to tack it all up, and then take it out and do it all over again, just to get into the way, unless you were standing on the table modelling."
No dummies were ever used to help fit a dress. So to save the customer from having to come in several times for dress fittings, an apprentice seamstress of roughly the same size and build would be chosen to model for the dress as it was made and fitted:
"I was the same build as this Miss Martin at Cringlemire and I used to stand and everything was fitted. If it was an evening dress, there would be three or four of us working on it, all in a ring, round and around, one would do one bit and one would do another. I have known it done for a girl to have to stand while the dress was sewn on her. It didn't happen very often, but the odd time you had to have it done. We had electric light, even in 1914, but very poor, there were no good lights, you know. It was a fairly big room and this stove stood in the middle to keep the iron on for pressing everything."
The dressmakers all used flat irons, and the apprentices also had to carry a special iron over to the tailor whenever he wanted it:
"For the tailor there was what you call a goose - a long iron with a pointed end, and that stopped on one side of the stove for him. When he wanted it, he'd send for one of us, the apprentices, to carry it. We had a holder to carry it, but it had a twisted handle and we used to carry it through and put it on a stand. And when he wanted it again, we used to bring it back. He was a nice man. He used to bring his 'bait' as they called it in them days, his food in newspaper. And sometimes he didn't want it, and whoever was there working had to have his sandwiches. Well, I couldn't stand it....because they were in newspaper! But he was kind to us, he wasn't a cheeky man. He was there for a long time with Madam Jenkinson."
Then came the invention of the electric sewing machine, and life for the workroom girls in the cellar changed abruptly.
"As Madam Jenkinson was getting older, she seemed to give over with her dressmaking. Now on Rydal Road in Ambleside, there was an old sort of chapel. And she took that over, fitted it up with electrical sewing machines and all we made was underwear. We used to get a dozen cami-knickers, a dozen bras, and a dozen underskirts to do - and you had to work! We were on piece work there. If you didn't make a good wage, you got into serious trouble. There was no time for a chat."
Despite working so hard and such long hours, the apprentice dressmaker still had time to court her young man. The courtship lasted five years, and at length they were married - the bride, naturally enough, in a costume made by herself:
"I wore a Navy blue costume, not white. It was wintertime, October, snow was falling. My sister-in-law helped me make this blue costume, with a pink hat and a fur stole. There wasn't the dresses in those days like there is now. They weren't as flash."