It has been many years, about 30, that I have been working in the fashion industry in one form or another! Is it a glorified hobby that, fortunately for me became a job that I have often enjoyed and obsessed over which has, as the years pass, become more of a way of life?
I graduated from Edinburgh College of Art Fashion Department in 1984. The images below are two of the outfits from my final degree show collection. Two of the pieces are hand knitted, but I always preferred sewing – it just always seemed easier and faster to me.
As a student studying pattern cutting you always learn to draft basic blocks and learn how to manipulate these basic blocks into working patterns and then further develop into your own style. When I started my job in industry the block types were already established. For example – say I wanted to cut a pattern for a blouse, instead of starting with basic bodice blocks, I would refer to the collection of graded nests of blouse blocks/patterns and pick the one closest to my design – more of an alter and adapt process – and much faster!
I started my first job during the boom of the fashion industry, when clothing was still being designed, manufactured, distributed and sold all over the UK, with Made In Britain proudly stamped on the care labels.
There were very many clothing manufacturing outlets all over the country and I worked as a designer/pattern-cutter for Castleblair Ltd., based in Dunfermline, we were a supplier to Marks & Spencer. This was where I acquired the pattern-cutting, the production methods, the sewing skills and the knowledge that I love to use today.
Fashion designer, though sounding glamourous, always meant lots and lots of hard work. Back in the 80’s – remember no internet available to us at all – our main source of inspiration would be magazines and travelling abroad to “do the shops”. Normal, was carrying heavy bags and occasionally being physically forced into underground trains to start the long journey home! We would buy certain key garments and take patterns from them. The silhouettes could then be manipulated into various styles of garment! I still use these techniques today to cut patterns from favourite items of clothing.
When I designed clothing and cut patterns for industry there were strict rules to consider eg fabric width and cost efficiency but at the first sample design stage we had free reign. I would design and cut my own patterns, taking details and silhouettes from my drawings and sketches.
Having conquered many aspects of pattern-cutting in the design room, and being obsessed with following and wearing every new trend that came out, I would pester the design room sample machinists to show me how to put together and sew anything and everything. (One of the other designers and I would go home in the evening and be determined to be wearing our new creations to work the next day).
I always enjoyed the more technical side, the problem solving, the pattern cutting and the making. These are skills that develop almost naturally. And I worked with and learned from design room sample machinists whose sewing skills were excellent. They could sew anything and they new exactly what mistake you had made in a pattern and they did not let you off with it!
Design room sample machinists started on the factory floor. They were the most skilled and experienced of all the factory machinists. They started in garment production lines, where each machinist would carry out a single job on a garment eg. side seams, or zip or hem. This accumulated experience could lead them to become line supervisors and as supervisors they learned the order of construction of a garment. For everyone else practice is simply what makes a good maker. Practice and double checking before cutting or sewing, and not having to waste time unpicking. In fact a sample machinists would have a garment recut rather than waste valuable time unpicking! This is how I learned to construct garments and sew them, factory style.
These photos are the only visual record of my work at Castleblair ltd.
To be clear, the designs and patterns are mine but the garments were made up by design room sample machinists. I had designed girls wear for many years but we were attempting to get into the boys wear ranges too, by way of unisex core garments complimented by matching smaller ranges. The many factories that existed back then often specialised in specific garment types.
This range was for boys and girls with an American casual influence and was designed after we had been on a trip to New York. Imagine also that the only Gap stores were in London and Flip in Covent Garden was the best vintage shop there was!! We used the superb homely “all American” images of illustrator Norman Rockwell as attached garment labels. And although the range was well received we did not become suppliers for boys wear – there were too many suppliers already and it was the early 90’s so times were starting to get very tough for the UK suppliers!
However, it doesn’t even look dated!
By the 90’s the manufacturing side was moving abroad, mainly because of costs! We, as consumers, were looking for cheaper clothing prices and these could not be achieved in the factories in this country.
From Castleblair I moved to become the Fashion and Theatre costume technician at Edinburgh College of Art and it proved to be the ultimate “problem solving” job.
It became obvious to me, fairly quickly, that to take what seemed like the most hopeless maker, and stand over them and instruct them step by step, they became neat, tidy and accomplished. (after a lot of practice, patience and consideration) Like a lot of things in life, preparation is the key.
I have a particular memory of one student who I worked with, who with concentrated effort and patience, shocked themselves into producing a fantastic piece by working in this organised and precise method. Beautiful sewing and making is a simple process as long as the correct order of construction is followed: potentially ending the days of “unpicking” – which is messy and a particular waste of time! (I am aware that the bought patterns have sewing instructions with them. These are not something I am familiar with since I make my own patterns. I enjoy figuring out the order of construction of a garment.)
Here are some rare photos from my days as technician at Edinburgh College of Art. The aim of the first 4th year project was for the students to be given a fabric, research and create a series of designs, pick one outfit, cut the patterns, toile the outfits, cut the fabric, lining etc, write out a specification sheet and give it all to me to make up. This gave the students a unique experience and a taste of how they might work in industry.
During these years I also taught evening classes at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art in Dundee – what else but more pattern cutting. I also worked on a community based project – a theatre production of Cinderella and l have a particularly good pattern for a mouses head from this time! I worked as a part time lecturer in the Fashion and Stitch Textiles department at Edinburgh’s Telford College teaching pattern cutting, sewing and making techniques. I also worked on the set design and props for a local church production of “Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat”.
I left the job of technician in 1995, to have my first child. In 1996 I returned as a lecturer in pattern cutting. I worked with all the year groups during this time and the culmination of their work was showcased in the annual Edinburgh College of Art fashion show, and the degree shows for the fourth year students. In 2002, Edinburgh College of Art’s fashion department was the first in Scotland to be invited to show at Graduate Fashion Week in London, where they have, over the years, won many awards. I left in 2010.
With the two children came the local toddler group art activities and the fab years of children’s Halloween parties.
The thrill of a Halloween costume was one of my unexpected delights while my children were growing up. I loved helping them create the characters they wanted to be. Imagine my disappointment if they wanted a bought one! The images below show a selection of costumes I helped them make.