Fabrics Past and Present.

It occurred to me the other day that back in the 1950s we had words for fabrics which are hardly ever heard now. Perhaps because my mum was a keen dressmaker, I remember even as a child being aware of the different fabrics my clothes were made from. Seersucker was very popular for making summer dresses. I remember my mum making clothes for us out of poplin, gingham, moygashel, broderie anglaise. A raincoat was often referred to as a gabardine – the fabric it was made of. Men’s plain grey trousers, standard wear for men at that time, were always known as flannels. My school blazer was made of barathea. Garments were often referred to by their fabrics e.g. a poplin shirt, grey flannels, twill and cavalry twill trousers, worsted suits, gabardine raincoats and barathea blazers. Stockings were called nylons and I remember old ladies referring to lisle stockings which were what preceded nylon stockings.

Some historical notes on the origins of some of the fabrics mentioned –  which some might find interesting.

Lisle (named after Lisle in France where it originated) was a fine cotton knit used for stockings for a few hundred years before the invention of nylon. Referring to garments by specific fabrics is something which doesn’t happen so much now and also many of these fabric names have dropped completely out of common usage.

School uniforms of flannel shorts and blazers. Barathea was also used a lot for blazers and gymslips.

 

Nylons were shaped as there was no stretch in them.

A Welsh origin to the word flannel has been suggested as fabric similar to flannel can be traced back to Wales, where it was well known as early as the 16th century. The French term flanelle was used in the late 17th century, and the German Flanell was used in the early 18th century. Flannel has been made since the 17th century, gradually replacing the older Welsh plains, some of which were finished as “cottons” or friezes which was the local textile product. In the 19th century, flannel was made particularly in towns such as Newtown, Hay on Wye and Llanidloes. Newtown has a lovely textile museum I’ve visited which tells the story of the Welsh flannel industry.

An old flannel mill in South Wales.

Gabardine was invented in 1879 by Thomas Burberry, founder of the Burberry fashion house in Basingstoke and patented in 1888. The word then became a synonym for a mac or raincoat.

A gabardine raincoat as standard school uniform.

During the British Colonial period seersucker was a popular material in Britain’s warm weather colonies like British India.

Broderie anglaise was extremely popular in England between 1840 and 1880 for women’s underclothing and children’s wear. The 1950s saw a resurgence in popularity, when it was frequently used to trim dresses and underwear. In 1959, Brigitte Bardot wore a dress of gingham and broderie anglaise for her wedding to Jacques Charrier.

When I was about ten my mum made me a summer dress in gingham with broderie anglaise trim. I had no idea that Brigitte Bardot had influenced that style!

Worsted is a high-quality type of wool yarn and the fabric made from this yarn. The name derives from Worstead, a village in the county of Norfolk. That village, together with North Walsham and Aylsham, formed a manufacturing centre for yarn and cloth in the 12th century, when pasture enclosure and liming rendered the East Anglian soil too rich for the older sheep breeds.

Back in the 15th Century, poplin was used for winter attire, and was made using silk and wool. The actual word ‘poplin’ derives from ‘papelaine’, and is based on the (now obsolete) French papal town of Avignon.

Even good old corduroy isn’t seen or heard of much today. In continental Europe, corduroy is known as “Cord”, “rib cord” or “rib velvet” – in parts of Europe such as Germany, Czechoslovakia, Holland and Belgium it used to be simply known as “Manchester” – that still remains the current name for corduroy in Swedish. Corduroy is a material traditionally used in making British country clothing, even though its origin lies among items worn by townspeople in industrial areas. Although corduroy has existed for a long time and was used in Europe since the 18th century, only in the 20th century did it become global – notably expanding in popularity during the 1970s.

 

Tweed, linen cotton, poly cotton and denim are familiar words now but so many of the others are hardly heard now apart from amongst people who work with fabrics.

 

 

Make Do And Mend

Mending and repairing were everyday activities when I was growing up. I remember my mum darning socks and jumpers, shortening and lengthening skirts and trousers, replacing broken zips and my grandmother ‘turning’ collars. For those of you who don’t know what that means, it’s when a man’s shirt collar becomes frayed around the neck and you unpick the collar, turn it around the other way and sew it back on. Mums and grandmas sometimes unravelled an old knitted garment and re-knitted it into a new jumper or cardigan. I was taught how to darn by my mum as a young girl. She had a darning mushroom (the wooden item in the photos below) and I reckon most houses would have had one.

darning mushroom  sock darningDarningStep4-4

Even as recently as the seventies and eighties, I could still get small electrical items like kettles, radios and irons repaired at my local electrical repair shop. I once saw, in the eighties, an umbrella repair stall in a market in Cumbria. I doubt there are any of those anywhere here now.

People used to, and still can, buy new broom heads and handles, replace spade, shovel and hoe blades and handles. Although you can still buy decent brushes and brooms, there are many flimsier tools, with plastic handles and bristles, which just get thrown away when they have stopped being useful. There was a joke my dad used to tell;

‘This was my great-grandfather’s hoe. It’s had three new handles and four new blades.’

brush  plastic brush

One long-lasting, repairable and biodegradable, one flimsy and disposable.

The term tinker from tinsmith or tinsmithing was originally assigned to those working with tin who mended pots and pans. The words “tyckner” or “tinkler” were used in medieval Scotland and England for a metal worker. The term transferred to travellers who earned their way going from town to town and mending as they went.  These knife-grinders and  tinkers used to repair farm and garden tools, household utensils, umbrellas and chairs. This is how gypsies came to be nicknamed tinkers.

tinker knife grinder

Knife-grinders from the around the 1950s.

There are several factors here. The first one is that things were made to last in the old days from robust materials and by craftsmen and were worth repairing. Most modern day socks would not be worth darning as the fabric they are made from is flimsier and would not support a darn. Also, goods are so much cheaper now (relative to earnings) and far more plentiful so that in many cases it would cost more to repair the item than to buy a new one – even if you could find anyone with the skills to do the repair. Umbrellas, for example. Who wants to pay for a repair when you can buy a new one for £2 – 5? Where would you find an umbrella repairer, anyway?

When my mum and dad bought their first house, in 1955, the people moving out left their vacuum cleaner for us as they said it was getting old and not worth moving. My mum used it for decades As far as I remember, I last saw it in a rented flat of my sister’s in the late 1970s and still in use. My mum had a Hoover man who used to come to the house to do the occasional repair. It was more or less exactly the same as the ones in the pictures and those are described as being from the 1930s. The black canvas bag had the slogan ‘It beats, as it sweeps, as it cleans’ emblazoned on it in white, exactly as shown in the photos below.

hoover 3                               hoover750_1  DSC_3159

 

 

 

As usual, I credit Google images for my photographs. Anyone objecting to my use of an image can approach me directly and ask for it to be removed.

 

 

School Uniform in the 1960s.

There have always been school uniforms and certain features never change – dark colours, ties, blazers, badges etc. One of the main things I remember about wearing a school uniform is that it was a rite of passage. Back in those times, in Britain, state primary schools didn’t normally have uniforms. My first school uniform was my high school one. How exciting it was, during that summer, to buy all the items on the list in readiness for moving into my new school in September! Learning to tie a tie was one of my tasks over the summer holiday before moving up to ‘big school’.

At that time, in my school and probably most others, the first and second year pupils wore gymslips (girls) and short trousers (boys). A gymslip, for those unfamiliar with the term, is not an item of gym wear but a pinafore dress, much like a skirt with a bib top.  In your third year, as you were coming up to 13 years old, girls moved on to skirts and boys to long trousers. With the skirts, gymslips and short trousers we wore long socks. Girls wore short white ankle socks in summer. Under the skirt or gymslip we wore big, thick navy knickers. They were worn over normal white cotton pants so I can only think they were for warmth and maybe decency – in case your skirt blew up? They were perhaps the least favoured item of uniform.

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The hat was an intrinsic part of the uniform. In our school the girls wore berets, the boys caps. Our berets were called tams. The hat had to be worn whenever you were outside the school premises in your uniform, even if it was well outside school hours. If a member of staff or a prefect spotted you in the town without your hat on you were punished. Most girls pushed the limit by clipping the hat so far on to the back of the head that they looked as though they had no hat on – which was also punishable! We had uniform scarves too, and navy belted gaberdine macs.

There was no choice of school bag style – it was a leather satchel. I had the same one all the way through high school – seven years! On PE day the regulation sports bag was a navy duffel bag.

 

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This is a photograph of a group of girls from my school with two teachers showing the shirts, ties, skirts (regulation length – although we used to roll the waistband over when there were no teachers looking to make them more like mini-skirts) and the white ankle socks.

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As an afterthought, here is a photograph of all the staff at my high school in the mid 60s – no uniform except for the fact that those who had degrees taught in black gowns. . . .

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. . .  and one of a class (we called them forms) with their form teacher for that year, who was our Geography master.

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Home Made Clothes and Entertainment

When I was a teenager in the mid 1960s my friends and I were all caught up in the fashions and music of the times. We lived in a remote area,  money wasn’t plentiful and as we were still at school we didn’t have spending money apart from a bit of pocket money.

The latest single (known as a 45) was saved up for or, if you had a birthday coming, up you might be bought it as a present. At home, my dad bought a reel to reel tape recorder, I remember it was a Grundig TK14. We used to tape pop songs from the radio (I believe it was illegal but we didn’t know that) by holding the microphone near to the speaker of the transistor radio. The quality must have been terrible but we were happy! You had to be smart on the record button to make sure you didn’t get the presenter’s voice at the beginning and end of the song.

dansette01      TK14 good pic

My brother, sister and I used to have fun pretending to be radio presenters and putting our own commentary on the tape in between songs.

I loved Honey magazine and used to read each issue cover to cover many times. My mum was an excellent knitter and sewer and made most of our dresses, jumpers and cardigans. Once I spotted a delightful green dress in my magazine and showed it to my mum. She copied it for me by combining three different dress patterns and I was SO proud of it! I think I wore it all the parties and dances I went to that year. The picture and the patterns aren’t the actual ones but similar.

green dress                    Dress5                         mccalls-8755

I had a lovely pair of cream T-Bar shoes for best which I wore throughout one year with a camel coloured A-line dress. The following year camel was out and turquoise was big so I bought a Lady Esquire shoe dye and dyed the shoes turquoise. My sister and I also used to use Dylon dyes to give clothes a new look.

60s shoes                                     shoe dye

One winter, when capes were in fashion, I longed for one. My mum had an old policeman’s cape which had belonged to my dad’s policeman brother. She cut it down for me, put new fastenings on it and lined it with emerald green satin from one of her old dance dresses. I thought it was fabulous!

 

cape