In pursuit of faster production methods I have been scouring the internet to see if I could improve the old, traditional hand sewing techniques at Red Rufus. I hoped that I might find some ingenious method, or discover a wonder machine that would cut our making time in half! Oh joy, then we'd actually be able to carry stock - imagine being able to reach into a box and pull out product. Unfortunately my research led to no such discoveries, but it did open my eyes a little and get me thinking about everything.
I love making a product and bringing it to market. It is a really honest process. My father was also a manufacturer, making make-up and wash bags, powder puffs and in later years dog beds (probably inspired by Lottie, our Dalmatian). I worked for a few summers at his factory, on well below any minimum wage anywhere!
(This is what the factory looked like, to my memory, but I've no idea if this picture is the actual factory!)
He told me that I was to stay on the factory floor with the "girls" and eat with them, which was awkward for me, but must have been a real pain for them! Each morning we greeted each with, "Aal reet lass!", which means, "Alright lass", but actually translates as hello. The Pie Man would come through the factory at the first break in the morning and you could buy your lunch for later. He'd walk into the factory with a big, wooden tray strapped across his shoulders and propped against his waist, shouting, "PIE MAN - PIE MAN", offering a selection of sausage or bacon butties, pasties and cheese and pickle sandwiches - delicious! They were probably made by Mrs Pie Man that morning, fresh-as-they-come and wrapped in grease proof paper.
Image from m62food.blogspot.ie
Radio 1 boomed out of the radio, the hum of machines was constant and the occasional shouts of the floor manager. A buzzer type bell marked each break and tools were downed, work stopped at that precise moment. At fourteen, fifteen and sixteen years old, I really wasn't that much younger than the youngest of the workers. We got on and would sometimes look at the magazines, Just Seventeen or Looks, at lunchtime, but I enjoyed listening to the older women talking.
I remember the atmosphere as being so pleasant and the characters on the factory were truly wonderful, strong women, but tough as they come. Dad's factory was in Consett, Co Durham, the steel works had closed years previously meaning that these women were sometimes the sole bread winners for their families. They often spoke of "him at home". They joked endlessly and badgered each other.
Each job on the factory floor was broken down into small tasks. Once the cutting of fabric and machining was complete, each bag or powder puff would be turned from inside to out. This was one process, for one worker only. The big bin of product, once full was moved to the next person, who would stuff the powder puff or attach the handle to a bag using a machine.
I remember the bags came in perspex boxes, my job would often be to place the bags in these perspex boxes and put the gold stretchy string around each corner, the final step in the process was the exact positioning of the logo sticker.
The boxes were then stacked into cardboard boxes and put on palettes to await the delivery lorries. These lorries backed right up into the factory, there didn't seem to be a loading bay and the driver and the only man working in the factory, the cutter, would load the boxes.
Sometimes on the way home from the factory, Dad would detour into Newcastle to the wholesaler in Wallsend, I think. This is where he'd get zips and press studs etc. It was a family owned business, located in an old Georgian town house, although my memory could be hazy. I really enjoyed doing these things and I learnt so much, without realising it.
Looking back now I realise that I loved that factory, my father worked so hard on all fronts to keep producing in the UK in the late 80s. It went over our heads, as kids, when he would ask us about designs and what we thought, how important those decisions and questions were to him. We all went through an awful stage of refusing to give my father's gorgeous products to other kids for their birthday presents - poor Dad!
Now with my own small business I realise how much my father did! No computers, no online ordering, no checking things out online, no email! When I think of all the paper work, the typing and posting of invoices, letters, cheques etc. I'm overwhelmed. The sourcing of raw materials must have been a nightmare and so physically limiting, unlike now when we just go on line and shop anywhere in the world.
Somethings don't change though, items made of fabric are still cut, sewn together, turned from inside to out and finished. This process is done by a person sewing on a machine and finishing by hand, whether in a large factory or in a small studio like at Red Rufus.
The Red Rufus Studio, the day after we moved in.
In my next blog post I'll show you an interesting film I found in my research, that really shows this process.