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.

 

 

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Things you don’t see any more – and things you don’t see so often.

  • Kids with bare knees in winter.

Boys wore short trousers until their teens – with knee length socks in winter, short socks in summer. Girls wore skirts and pinafore dresses all year with long (knee-length) socks in winter.

boys in shorts

 

  • Most adults wearing hats out of doors.

Whether it was a cloth cap for working outside or a trilby for walking to the shops or the office, men wore hats outside. It was rare when I was very young in the 50s to see a hatless man outside. The hats were always removed on entering a building. They were also removed if a funeral cortege went past. Women, too were rarely hatless. My mum had ‘best’ hats for church, going out hats for visiting people or going somewhere ‘nice’ and everyday hats for popping to the local shops. These came in winter and summer varieties. My grandmothers always had hat-pins in theirs!

hats

  • Women wearing gloves in summer.

When women went somewhere smart they wore gloves even if it was summer. Summer gloves were usually white or cream and made of cotton. I also remember me and my sister having to wear white summer gloves with our best spring outfits to church at Easter and Whitsuntide.

gloves

  • Bus conductors.

I lived in the country so visiting a town was exciting and going on a bus or a tram was part of the adventure. You entered at the back of the vehicle and the conductor came to you in your seat to sell you a ticket from his machine which he carried strapped to him.

conductor

  • Rag and Bone men.

This is another thing we didn’t see in the country but we did have one which used to go past my grandmother’s house which was in a town.When I was small I used to think he was shouting ‘Rainbow!’. What did they do with the bones, I wonder?

rag and bone man

  • Delivery vans selling practically everything.

We had each week (some came twice a week) – a butcher’s van, a bread van, a grocery van, a fish van and a pop van. My mum once cancelled a bread man because he used to put unwrapped loaves on the seat he had just been sitting on to drive while he got his change out.We were only allowed to have pop very occasionally as my mum was very careful with our teeth.

delivery van

  • Shopkeepers adding up on paper.

The tills didn’t add up in the old days. The prices of the items were jotted down in a column and then added up before being rung into the till. The paper they added up on was very often the top one of a pile of paper bags or sheets of greaseproof. My mum used to say she could add up a column of figures as quickly upsidedown as she could the right way up from years of keeping a close eye on the bill and making sure it was added up right!

 

Grocer

 

  • Kids climbing trees.

I, my brother and my sister spent half our childhood up trees I’m sure! I don’t ever remember falling or hurting myself.

tree climbing

  • Metal dustbins.

All bins were metal and were carried on the bin men’s backs and shoulders. Nothing was wrapped in bin liners in those days so they must have got pretty smelly at times!

bin men

 

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Dressing Up

All children love dressing up. Dressing up outfits are plentiful and cheap nowadays. My two grandsons, aged five and three, love to be dressed as Power Rangers, Storm Troopers, Spider-Man and Iron Man.

Image result for dressing up outfits for kids       

When I was a child dressing up at home involved whatever we could find – Mum and Dad’s clothes and shoes, drawn on beards and moustaches, Nana’s hats, any belts and bags from around the house plus various other props. One year we (that is me, my brother and sister) were given a dressing up outfit each at Christmas. Mine was a nurse’s outfit, my brother’s a cowboy one and my sister’s was a cowgirl’s costume – cowboys were huge at that time in films, books, comics and on TV. We thought they were amazing and wore them for as long as we could squeeze into them as we grew. When I wore my outfit and had my red, plastic pince-nez on the end of my nose (they hurt me, but I didn’t care!), I really felt like a proper nurse.

            

Apart from dressing up at home there were fancy dress occasions. Every town and village had an annual carnival – in some parts of Britain this would have been known as a gala or fete. There was always a fancy dress parade with prizes for the best costumes. The mums went all out to create outfits for the children and often for themselves as adults dressed up too. People dressed up as famous characters past or present, story characters, pirates, fairies, witches and so on. Dressing up as a tramp was always good fun. At that time the ‘tramp’ was a common sight. They were vagrants who walked (tramped) from place to place living on handouts from well-wishers – and their wits. The other name for tramps was ‘gentlemen of the road’. I now know that many of them had been traumatised in the two World Wars and had been unable to settle back into normal life so took to the roads.  At that time Post-traumatic Stress Disorder was unknown or mis-labelled ‘shell-shock’ and with no such thing as counselling they were left to get on with life as well as they could.

     

Anyway, back to fancy dress. My mum was a skilled seamstress (from necessity) and was also very creative. Some of the costumes I remember her putting together are; my brother as a golliwog (I know, they’re not PC now but to us at that time they were just toys), Little Bo Peep (my sister, complete with a big black spider made by my dad and suspended by elastic) and Dr Fuchs (my dad dressed in a duffle coat and wellies accompanied by my brother’s ride-on tractor with the name Sno Cat on a sign attached to the front).For those who don’t remember the name, Dr Vivian Fuchs’ Trans Atlantic expedition reached the South Pole in 1958. The vehicles they used to cross the Antarctic were known as Sno-Cats.

This is a picture of me and my sister dressed for a fancy dress parade. My mum made the costumes on her Singer sewing machine out of crepe paper. We were dressed as the soldier and lady on the Quality Street tin – note, if you can see it, the Quality Street tin my sister was carrying! Next to it I have put a picture of an old Quality Street tin in case anyone doesn’t know the man and woman I’m talking about.

Qual St       Qual St 2

To this day I still love fancy dress and would rather put my own outfit together than hire a ready-made one. It’s more fun!

 

As always, I have used a mixture of my own photos and relevant one sourced from the Internet. If I have infringed copyright I fill happily remove any offending photo.

Where did they go?

Recently I was reading with some children in school. The book was Michael Morpurgo’s Butterfly Lion (brilliant writer, fantastic book!). Chapter One is called Chilblains and Semolina Pudding. Before doing any reading, I had to explain the two things to the children. I know people do get chilblains and you could, if you wanted to, buy semolina and make a pudding with it. Yet as far as the kids of today are concerned they are unheard of. We were very familiar with both in the 1950s. I suffered from chilblains every winter and semolina pudding was a regular (if rather unpleasant) feature of school dinners. This started me thinking of other things which were part of our lives as we grew up which today’s children have no knowledge of.

I will start with food. Semolina pudding had several relatives in the milk pudding family. I think rice pudding is the only one which has survived into the 21st century in the UK – and even that isn’t very common. The others were macaroni (yes, pasta in a dessert!), ground rice, sago and tapioca (nicknamed frogspawn – the reason for this can be seen in the photo).

 

 

 

                 

 

 

With the advent of ice-cream, mousses and brands like Angel Delight, the traditional dessert blancmange has disappeared from the face of the earth. It was a milk-based, coloured and flavoured dessert thickened with cornflour and set in a mould. It was often served with jelly. For our birthday parties when we were little my mum used to make a rabbit-shaped blancmange and surround it with chopped up green jelly.

         Mum had a rabbit jelly mould like this.

A warm drink in the evening was also largely milk-based and could be cocoa or perhaps Ovaltine or Horlicks. I think they can still be bought but I don’t think many  children drink them or have even heard of them.

Image result for ovaltine                 

Moving on now to school and school uniforms. All school uniform for boys included a school cap which had to be worn every day throughout school if the boy stayed on until 18 years old. Long trousers were not worn by boys until they were thirteen and uniform shorts were worn with long woollen socks.

                     Image result for school duffle bag 1950s                      

Girls wore gymslips until thirteen when they could wear skirts. There were no tights (they hadn’t been invented) so long socks were worn in winter, ankle socks in summer – even if you were a sixth-former! In our school the girls had to wear a beret (known as a tam) and woe betide you if you ever stepped outside school without it on!

                                 1950's Leather School Satchel

The school bag – for boys and girls in secondary school – was a leather satchel. Games and P.E. kit was carried in a duffle bag.Two more expressions unknown to today’s children! The school uniform coat was a gabardine mac or raincoat, usually double-breasted and belted.

Here are some other things today’s youth have not heard of (I’ll cover these in more detail in Part 2):

Meccano,  plimsolls, cycling capes, leather footballs, Dinky toys, Liberty bodices, golliwogs, Spangles, leather footballs and bus conductors. Watch this space!

What we wore – some more thoughts and images.

First, a disclaimer.  All images used are freely available on the Internet. If, however, I have infringed copyright please inform me and the offending picture will be removed.

  

As can be seen in this photo, girls’ dresses were more or less smaller versions of what their mums wore. 



 

Notice the boy’s inevitable short back and sides with side parting.

  

A girl in my primary school had a rabbit cardigan just like this knitted in red and white.  When it became too small for her, her mum cut the sleeves above the elbow to make it bolero style. 



 

Yes, I had outfits just like this!

Puff sleeves, gingham, seersucker, Broderie Anglaise trim with ribbon threaded through, sashes tied at the back, pockets – some of the things I remember from summer dresses of the day.   



 

A pattern which could be adapted to make a day dress, a party dress, a skirt and top, all with a choice of collar styles. Notice the trousers. They weren’t common and were known as ‘slacks’. They were definitely not worn for school.

What we wore – the 1950s

The reason this post is not called ‘Fashion’ or ‘Clothes’ is because I am covering the other side of the story. When we think of clothing and fashion in the 1950s and 60s we picture Audrey Hepburn, James Dean, Marlon Brando, Twiggy, Jean Shrimpton, Mary Quant and pop icons such as The Beatles. All this is well documented and easy to research. Being a child in the 50s and a teenager in the 60s, in an area a long way from the large stores, the clothes I wore tell a very different tale.

In my Primary School days I, and all my friends, wore jumpers and cardigans knitted by our mums and dresses, skirts and pinafore dresses sewn on the home sewing machine – hand operated, of course, electric sewing machines were yet to arrive in our homes.

Because most garments were hand made and washing clothes was a once a week event, usually Monday (there were no washing machines), the same jumper and skirt (in winter) or dress and cardigan(summer) would be worn for several days, if not all week, so we didn’t have a huge selection of clothes.

Boys wore grey flannel shorts winter and summer with wool socks up to the knees. A blazer, v-necked jumper or tank top was worn over a shirt and a tie.

     2637e03f3bbe5225e1ff2ed23a92703d--school-life-school-uniforms

Boys’ hair was cut ‘short back and sides’ with a side parting – no exceptions!

We wore knee-high grey or brown socks in winter, short white socks in summer – no tights or trousers, bare knees all year round!

My hair was exactly like that of the girl in blue. I longed for straight hair with a side parting and a bow, like the girl in pink, or long plaits like my friend Valerie. I was stuck with what was known as a ‘bubble cut’

I will be coming back to this topic as there is plenty to say. I will also be moving on into the 1960s and the clothes of my teenage years.