Sewing puffballs in the 80s!

If you’ve ever read the ‘a bit about me’ page here on the blog you’ll see that in the mid 1980s I worked for a bridal and evening wear company in London called David Fielden. I left the London College of Fashion in the summer of 1985 and started working there on my 23rd birthday. Originally I’d wanted to be a costume designer but during my college course I realised that going into bridal or evening wear was a very good alternative. In those days you just sent letters and CVs out to companies you were interested in working for in the hope that they might like the sound of you and be desperate to add you to their payroll! As it happened my letter was passed to Caroline who was the production manager for David in the evening wear workroom and she had done the same course as me a year earlier so she had a fair idea of what I was potentially capable of.

‘trying on’ one of the dresses back in the day…that was fabulous gold-printed panne velvet but it shed everywhere and bits of gold fibre stuck to you! I’ve written on the back that it’s style 668D (the D denoted a dress) in April 1986

They took me on and I was going to be cutting samples rather than sewing which initially I was disappointed about. I soon learned that cutting was a huge responsibility in its own right. I was used to making my own clothes with inexpensive fabrics which I bought in my local market or fabric shops, now I was working with fabulous silk taffeta, dupion, Duchesse and slipper satins, velvet, beaded and embellished brocades, even the lining was always silk habutai, it was all a bit dazzling and quite scary to start with! I was provided with a massive pair of shears which soon gave me a callous on my finger joint, I still have a mark there to this day. We had two huge waist-high cutting tables with all the fabrics stored underneath. The pattern cutter would pass me the initial pattern to cut as a toile so that she and the designer could assess the shape and fit on the stand. When they were happy I would be given the pattern along with all the fabrics and instructions for the new sample. It was part of my job to get everything out of the fabric as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible so I always spent time working this out like pattern Tetris before going near it with the scissors! I kept sketches of the layplan for future reference too. No piece was ever cut on a fold, we always used a whole front or a whole back, sleeves, bodice pieces or skirt panels could be ‘flipped’ though to fit them in. The pattern cutter would make the pieces in card from the paper version and I would draw around them in chalk or marking pencil, the pattern pieces would be held down on the fabric with long heavy weights, this means the pattern lasts much much longer than a paper one would. The card patterns would be grouped in style number order onto large hooks a bit like safety pins, each size was on a different hook. Some styles got informal names which is what we identified them by in the workroom, for example there was the ‘Doris Day’ which was a pretty 50s-style gown with silk satin boned bodice and clouds of diamante-studded ankle length tulle skirts, it came in soft pastel colours, and the ‘Carmen Miranda’ which was a longer length figure-hugging silk bodice overlaid with sequin-embellished lace and extravagantly ruffled silk organza mermaid skirts. This was one of the best selling designs and came in a variety of colours including black and scarlet, or could be ordered in other colours and fabric combinations by special order. Just one outworker made this style because she became so skilled at it, every ruffle was edged using a rolled-hem foot and it was then sandwiched between diagonal skirt panels. Oh and there were net petticoats under all of that too! It was very popular for magazine shoots because of it’s ‘film star’ quality and we were regularly squashing dresses unceremoniously into boxes or into dress bags to be couriered on the back of motor bikes to Fleet Street! Some of those poor dresses really suffered and looked quite tired in the end.

Actress Stephanie Beacham wearing a gown similar to the Carmen Miranda in a women’s magazine
another version of the dress in an ad for a car (?)
Anita Dobson was a huge star in Eastenders on TV at this time
Actress Koo Stark, I remember this being an Ottoman jacket (a type of fabric with heavy ribbing) and separate spotted tulle skirt. The edge of the ruffles were finished with the plastic ‘wire’ stripped out of Rigilene boning and zigzagged onto the edge to make them stand out like this!
This is Kathy, who is Sir Ian Botham’s wife, modelling one of the most popular designs. It’s a pity you can’t see the back as it’s cut away to reveal the small of your back and shoulder blades. There’s a scrap of the fabrics pinned to the picture, it was silk chiffon covered in paillettes over a layer of silk satin and lining, all the edges were finished with bias binding so that the sequins didn’t cut the wearer to ribbons! The skirt is silk organza with a net underskirt.
the same dress worn by Bridget Nielsen, Sylvester Stallone’s then-wife
Same dress again, I think this was editorial in a magazine

Whilst the showroom was in the King’s Road, Chelsea at that time the evening wear workroom was set up across town in Farringdon around the corner from now-trendy Exmouth Market, it was definitely not glamorous and the Woolworth’s pick-n-mix counter was the only interesting eatery back then!!

As well as Caroline, who is still a friend all these years later, there was a designer (David didn’t design, he had no drawing or making skills, he employed others to do it for him) a highly-skilled pattern cutter, a sample machinist and a sample cutter (me) When I wasn’t cutting and costing samples and special orders, Caroline and I would cut production too which was all sewn by out-workers who came in regularly to drop off the garments they had made and to collect the next batch, they were paid an agreed piece rate per garment. Each one was a highly skilled, and fast, machinist who would make the whole garment from start to finish. They all had different capabilities so some would stick to simpler garments like skirts or bodices whilst others made the fantastic evening gowns and ball dresses which David Fielden had become known for. Some of them worked in their own homes and didn’t make a massive quantity of garments, and a couple had set up their own workrooms where they then employed a few extra machinists so they could make larger quantities, we are still only talking about several dozen garments per week though, not hundreds or thousands.

Twice a year the designer, Charlotte, would go with David and his business partner Walter to various fabric shows such as Premier Vision to select beautiful fabrics for the next collection. A lot of the fabrics such as silk taffeta, dupion or Duchesse satins would come from local London suppliers in very quick time, often the same day if the colour was in stock, but the premium fabrics from France or Italy would be ordered in sample lengths ranging from as little as 3 metres up to 10 or 20 metres in the new seasons colours. If those styles then went into production then larger orders would be placed at a later date.

Each new collection was often an evolution of the previous one with a few of the most popular styles being developed in new colours and fabrics, plus some completely new styles. It was always exciting to have the new fabrics starting to arrive from overseas, there were some exquisitely beautiful embellished laces and tulles, occasionally further down the line one or two would prove problematic because the supplier couldn’t produce them quickly enough, or in the quantities required. Each ‘piece’ of lace often came in a 5m length which didn’t go very far. My least favourite fabrics to cut were slipper satin or chiffon, they moved about like the very devil and often it was best to sandwich them between two sheets of spot and cross paper.

Short dress with a velvet bodice and ‘rolls’ of velvet on the shoulders, hip and hem (I wish I could remember what went inside the rolls, it could have been wadding)
It may not look it but this was the most expensive fabric I ever worked on costing around £125 per metre back then! It was a base fabric of lace which was embellished with sequins. THEN it was covered in another more open lace fabric and over-sprayed with gold so that it left a stencil-type design. It came in just 3m pieces if I remember rightly.

I would cut everything for each garment as required and then make a ‘bundle’ including all trims (covered buttons, zip, piping cord etc) and labels. All the cut pieces were folded neatly and layered up and then the whole bundle was carefully folded in several layers of tissue paper and tied up along with identifying sticky labels for the outworker to use when they returned it to us in plastic cover.

Once the new collection was underway Caroline would sew samples as well to speed the process up. Models would come in periodically for fittings and to assess a design on the body. As well as cutting the new samples I also cut one-offs and special orders which could be interesting. For example, we made the gown that Sarah Brightman wore to the party after the world premier of Phantom of the Opera [we memorably made another dress for her to wear for a Gala at the Royal Albert Hall, she had a fitting at the showroom and declared it should be taken in which we duly did at the workroom. It was delivered back to her but with only hours to spare she realised she now couldn’t inflate her lungs to actually sing in it!! Back to the workroom it came to be let out again!] I cut gowns for Daryl Hannah (star of Splash with Tom Hanks) allegedly for the Oscars but I never saw her in it, and I cut a dress for Aretha Franklin too but I never saw that one photographed either. Sadly we never got to meet any of the celebrity clientele, we would just get a set of measurements and fittings would usually take place at the shop. Some stars would borrow gowns for swish parties and premiers so nothing much changes does it? Vogue magazine especially commissioned a version of one dress for a shoot, it was a black taffeta column gown with a wide pale pink sash as I recall. When it returned to the workroom afterwards the hem was water-marked and full of sand! It had been photographed on a beach!!

Dame Joan Collins with her then-partner Bill Wiggins. The dress was a beautiful rose pink colour, I think it was the teensiest bit snug on her.
Dame Shirley Bassey, that ruched bodice and skirt took so much fabric!
a black and white studio shot of the same style that Joan Collins was wearing, this sample was made in beautiful French printed silk taffeta, there was a large puffed bow on the back.
and another version in shot silk taffeta
I remember cutting this little dress, it was made especially for the photo
I think style was being made when I first went to work at David Fielden.

There were times of stress and all-hands-on-deck but lots of laughs too. I have very positive memories of my 3 years at David Fielden, we were a good team and I learnt so much from my colleagues, they were all brilliant at their jobs with so much experience under their belts already. The company was growing fast during those three years and David took on catwalk shows at London Fashion Week (that was very stressful for everyone because of the workload and short lead times involved!) David and Walter travelled to many overseas shows to exhibit which garnered orders from prestige stores in the US such as Neimann Marcus and Bloomingdales among others, stores in Europe, and Harrods in London. [we could have cried though to see these beautiful dresses being crammed into boxes for despatch]

In the end I left after three years because I got fed up with commuting into London every day, I went to work in the dress fabrics department of our local John Lewis branch so that was more textiles and cloth knowledge to store away in my brain to come in handy another day. I’m sorry the quality of the pictures isn’t great, the cuttings were all torn from magazines and newspapers at the time so they are a little tatty in places.

David Fielden is still in business I believe although the premises have moved to Fulham now, I think they specialise entirely in bridal wear but I’m not sure. The website isn’t particularly up to date but you get an flavour.

This turned into quite a long post (I hope you had a coffee in hand?!) but there’s a few pictures to look at too!! I’ve really enjoyed thinking back to my early working days to tell you all about them and I guess I was very fortunate to work with such a variety of very beautiful fabrics, maybe now you can see why I’m always SO particular about cutting out at the start of any project! So until next time,

Sue

My latest Minerva blog

My latest Minerva blog is live now and it’s all about their beautiful printed velour. I was attracted to the gorgeous mixture of teal colours with a splash of pink thrown in for good measure. Initially I was going to make a pleated skirt with it but eventually I decided that wouldn’t be flattering on me so I settled on the River dress by Megan Nielsen with my own adaptations instead.

I lengthened the short sleeves and added elastic to make cuffs, I increased the length of the dress overall too and left a side split and finally I put wide elastic under the bust to create an Empire line.

This is a very simple pattern to sew and has the novelty of two necklines-a scoop and a V-and because of its raglan sleeves you can have either in the front, I generally wear it with the V in the front.

As always, you can find the full details of the fabric and my sewing tips on adapting the pattern with a lot more photos on the Minerva Crafts website, thank you to them for providing me with the fabric, in return for an honest review.