Factory Girl – A celebration of women in textiles


Factory Girl – A celebration of women in textiles

Factory Girl – A celebration of women in textiles. I am currently undertaking a personal photography project to illustrate and celebrate the skill set and role of the ‘Factory Girl ‘and her place in the British Textile Industry today.

I am a freelance photographer but I have a substantial and significant background of 17 years in the retail fashion and  textile clothing industry, predominantly as a buyer of Intimate Apparel (Underwear and Lingerie), Nightwear, Swimwear, Hosiery and Socks.

I started my career as a factory outlet buyer in 1993. My role was to travel from factory to factory across the UK, agreeing garment prices and buying redundant yarns, cancelled orders, over-makes and ‘slight imps’ for Coats Viyella clothing factory shops (Reliable Hosiery).

During this time Coats Viyella owned 40 textile manufacturing sites in the UK (mainly in the midlands and north) and made garments almost exclusively for M&S. M&S at the time the brightest mass-market star on the high street and BHS a significant player.

A period in time when the UK held a thriving textile industry, driven by the high street and home to huge factory manufacturing sites. These sites with factory floors supporting hundreds of highly skilled women driving sewing machines to hit tough targets and dead lines.

This was a time driven by massive production runs and a bouyant retail high street in the UK. A time before the internet. A time before buying on line. A time when a skilled female machinist/textile worker could earn as much if not more than her husband and father. This was made possible because she worked ‘piecemeal’ (paid by a system of piece by piece); the more skilled and faster she could make garments, the more she could earn. Plus there was great opportunity to work and be paid for overtime. This liberated women. It provided them with choices, opinion and power. When I meet ladies from this era, they could easily buy their own homes, could live alone if they wanted to, could make independent decisions, book all the holidays they wanted and much more.  One lady I interviewed told me as a young woman she earned more money than her father who was a miner and went down the pits every day.

Today the British textile industry is substantially diminished and struggling to survive following the major departure of manufacturing production taken overseas to countries like China, India and Bangladesh, towards the end of the 1990’s. Production costs and labour were far cheaper in the Far East and still are and there’s no need to pay over time.  These days British textiles salaries are depleted.

Many of the factories I traded with (back in the 1990’s) simply no longer exist today. The business names and brands sometimes remain but are design houses and not hives of industry with their production now mostly off shore.

Scratch the surface though and there are small pockets of manufacturing still found in market towns and city centre back streets, interlaced between domestic living spaces. I recently discovered a factory, down a familiar side street, next door to a pub , a green door and a letter box but behind it a small work force of 11 skilled machinists and a business that had been producing since the early 1970’s.

There are still major manufacturing players in the UK with sizeable enterprises. These are led by traditional British fashion houses with high price tags and those companies that can better afford the economies of British labour costs. These are few to what there used to be.

I am desperately seeking any UK manufacturing textile factories containing skilled ladies and machinists to photograph and celebrate the skills they have. I am also looking to discover ladies who have left the fashion industry but were the ‘Factory Girls’ I knew and worked alongside in the 1990’s.

I need just an hour on site to photograph maybe 4-5 ‘Girls’ and in exchange I’ll be happy to share some of my photographic skills with any business, for promotional purposes as a ‘Thank You’.

My project has many positive aims. It is a way of meeting magnificent skilled women, making a brilliant project that sits close to me and hopefully provides greater public awareness and insight.  It is an opportunity to ‘give back’ to this industry and help by sharing and making images to better promote any participating British business and factory, tagging  in to any articles to promote trade.   And It’s my way of celebrating women and giving back for the fantastic life and career this industry provided for me.

(Pictured here Carly Spendlove knitwear presser- Glenbrae knitwear production – Belper/Derbyshire).

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