Me and my machine


As formal education was not seen as a reasonable investment by my mother, it was no surprise when a week before my fifteenth birthday the gift she presented to me came in the shape of a reality check. Instead of catching the school bus at 8.15 am that mid-March Monday of 1981, I was driven to a nearby town to work in a small regional clothing factory — a subsidiary of the main business in Richmond where all the pre-production, cutting, bundling and distribution was done.

The first thing to strike me as I entered the building, was the roaring concert of industrial sewing machines; the ladies had been hard at work since 7.30. I was introduced to the forelady; an Amazonian giant of ruddy complexion whose penchant for loud floral artificial fibre smock dresses gave her a passing resemblance to a crazy tropical island beach tent. In the years that followed, I would jokingly describe her as the kind of woman from whom a friendly pat on the back could send you to the other side of the room. It was only a slight exaggeration.

I was guided to an old round bodied three thread Union Special overlocker and given some scraps of fabric to get used to the machine — I had not even imagined an industrial sewing machine before that day — indeed, if I thought about it at all, I probably imagined the clothes sold in shops had been made by some automated robot — such was my ignorance. I was loaned a pair of thread clippers, a small pair of scissors, a baby stapler and a long pair of tweezers with an angled tip; these were the tools of the trade for a clothing factory machinist; I was told I would need to purchase my own once my two week trial was up. When the forelady was satisfied at my competency, I graduated from the scraps, to the side seam of nylon half slips.

Unmade garments were bundled in their parts, tied with strips of fabric and each bundle had a piece of spirit copier printed card attached with the style and colour information, bundle size and a number of small tickets with a process description and a time allowance for that process. On completion of a process on a bundle, the machinist would cut off the appropriate ticket (referred to as her "time") and staple it to her "times card". Each week times would be tallied; if a worker exceeded expectation, she would receive a bonus; if she failed too often, her employment would be terminated. I say she because being a factory machinist was seen as a singularly female job; the only male presence was in the shape of a manager who rarely left his office, the sewing machine mechanic on his weekly maintenance visit and delivery men from the city.

Most of the machinists were mature women with school age children, but there were a number of girls filling the time between leaving high school and marriage; I was by far the youngest. We worked from 7.30 am to 5.00 pm with a half hour lunch break Monday to Thursday and a half day Friday to make the 40 hour week. As a junior employee I took home around $80 after tax, this was slightly above the national award at the time. The work itself was tedious and hard; fingernails split and broke, hands became dry and chafed, fingers cramped and the back often ached from being constantly bowed over the machine. Some of the more experienced machinists managed to gossip over the roar of the factory, but it was the sort of work that left little room for a mind to wander or wonder, and there was no time for day dreaming. I had suffered much from school bullying; so for all the drawbacks, the work could be oddly comforting. Not having the time to think was actually quite a blessing, I could just be; there is a Zen aspect to the work once you get used to it.

A good sewing machine will sing to you; after a while you can tell just from its song if it is about to break down. I became quite affectionate of that little old Union Special overlocker. New machines were the domain of experienced full wage machinists, but I didn't mind — the new machines might be smarter and faster, but my machine was more reliable.

I was not pleased a few months later to be transferred to an old bar-tacker. Of all industrial sewing machines, few are more frightening; though buttonhole machines come close. A bar-tack is a re-enforced fixing stitch that requires a specialist machine that — in what should be a 20 to 25 second process — clamps the point needing the tack, moves the garment swiftly under the needle back, forth and back again, followed by a close zigzag to finish it off. My machine took close to 30 seconds to complete that process; the time allocation for each bar-tack on a ticket was 30 seconds exactly; that meant there was little leeway to go from one garment to the next in safety and make my times. I lived in terror that that my finger would get caught under that big needle for a 30 second smashing; there was no safety cut off or guard to protect me from that fate.

The style of leisure and underwear the company specialised in was not impressive; terry-toweling tracksuits, polyester tricot half-slips and nightgowns. After I had been working at the factory about six months, one particular nightie was greeted with a chorus of "Ooohs" and "Ahhhs" from the ladies. It was a creation of brown brushed nylon with matching lace. One of my older co-workers looked at me very seriously and suggested — without the slightest hint of irony — I should buy one for my wedding night. I knew right then and there I was in the wrong place.

 

cyndy kitt vogelsang 2004

 


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