Tag Archives: fashion industry

Steedman’s Stories: On Weaving and Fashion and Burnley (Pt 2)

I loved the storytelling as much as the theory-making in Steedman’s Landscape for a Good Woman, and to tell the truth the two seem to effortlessly intertwine. I imagine the writing of it was far from effortless, of course, and as I said in part 1 on this wonderful book, this is a tour de force that few could accomplish so well. It is also a most moving glimpse into the past lives of the women who lived just a few miles from where I sit writing now. She writes:

My mother’s story was told to me early on, in bits and pieces throughout the fifties, and it wasn’t delivered to entertain, like my father’s much later stories were, but rather to teach me lessons. There was a child, an eleven-year-old from a farm seven miles south of Coventry, sent off to be a maid-of-all-work in a parsonage in Burnley. She had her tin trunk, and she cried, waiting on the platform with her family seeing her off, for the through train to Manchester. They’d sent her fare, the people in Burnley; ‘But think how she felt, such a little girl, she was only eleven, with nothing but her little tin box. Oh, she did cry.’ (30)

The eleven-year-old who cried on Coventry station hated being a servant. She got out as soon as she could and found work in the weaving sheds – ‘she was a good weaver; six looms under her by the time she was sixteen’ – married, produced nine children, eight of whom emigrated to the cotton mills of Massachusetts before the First World War, managed, ‘never went before the Guardians’. 2 It was much, much later that I learned from One Hand Tied Behind Us that four was the usual number of looms in Lancashire weaving towns. 3 Burnley weavers were badly organized over the question of loom supervision, and my great-grandmother had six not because she was a good weaver, but because she was exploited. (31)

Running through it is this sense of fabric, of fashion, of the cut and weave of things we wear and the pleasure we find in them. They are things we want, we feel good in as much as things that mark our place in life. So many parts of this reminded me of two dear friends who had been pattern makers and seamstresses in LA’s garment industry. Both exploited in very similar ways. Both would occassionally touch a sleeve and give it a price, run a finger along something with admiration.

From a cotton town, my mother had a heightened awareness of fabric and weave, and I can date events by the clothes I wore as a child, and the material they were made of. Post-War children had few clothes, because of rationing, but not only scarcity, rather names like barathea, worsted, gaberdine, twill, jersey, lawn … fix them in my mind. The dream of the New Look must have taken place during or after the summer of 1950, because in it I wore one of my two summer dresses, one of green, one of blue gingham …(31)

And a view into the factories still hard at work in the 1950s:

Sometime during 1950, I think before the summer, before the dresses were made, I was taken north to Burnley and into the sheds, where one afternoon my mother visited someone she used to know as a child, now working there. The woman smiled and nodded at me, through the noise that made a surrounding silence. Afterwards, my mother told me that they had to lip-read: they couldn’t hear each other speak for the noise of the looms. But I didn’t notice the noise. The woman wore high platform-soled black shoes that I still believe I heard click on the bright polished floor as she walked between her looms. Whenever I hear the word ‘tending’ I always think of that confident attentiveness to the needs of the machines, the control over work that was unceasing, with half a mind and hands engaged, but the looms always demanding attention. When I worked as a primary-school teacher I sometimes retrieved that feeling with a particular clarity, walking between the tables on the hard floor, all the little looms working, but needing my constant adjustment.

The woman wore a dress that seemed very short when I recalled the picture through the next few years: broad shoulders, a straight skirt patterned with black and red flowers that hung the way it did – I know now – because it had some rayon in it. The post-War years were full of women longing for a full skirt and unable to make it. I wanted to walk like that, a short skirt, high heels, bright red lipstick, in charge of all that machinery.

This was the first encounter with the landscape of my mother’s past. (32)

Who could not love such a view in the world of capable, beautiful women at work? But a world of complexity, limits and everyday cruelties as well. These religious divisions I find so hard to understand but more importantly I suppose, the role of women in speaking them.

At the back of the house, through the yard to the lane, the lavatory was perched over another stream; you could see the water running past if you looked down. In this back lane I played with another child, older than me, she was four: Maureen. She was a Catholic, my grandmother said, but I could play with her, she was a nice little girl, but they weren’t like us: you could tell them by their eyes. It was the women who told you about the public world, of work and politics, the details of social distinction. My grandmother’s lodger, the man who was to become her third husband when his wife died ten years later, stayed self-effacingly in the background as she explained these things. Anti-Catholicism propelled my mother’s placing of herself in a public sphere. A few years later she often repeated the story of Molly, her best friend at school, the priest beckoning to the Catholic child from over the road, furtively passing a betting slip; the strain of the penny collections at church with a dozen
mouths to feed at home. (33)

And I wonder how all of this fits with the older histories of Burnley and Pendle Hill, have been reading Ainsworth and cannot quite make it match.

She talked to me about witches, now and often before. The one book she carried from her childhood was Ainsworth’s Lancashire Witches, in an edition of the I 830s. She’d walked by Pendle Hill she said, to dances in the 1920s, by the place where Mistress Nutter met her fellow witches, and where the witches were later burned. I found the book in the house after her death, remembered my terrified reading of it at the age of ten, convinced that the mere opening of its pages brought the devil forward. (140)

Nor does it match my immense love of Lowry, and I resonated with this puzzling over what hs paintings meant to those tiny figures who hurried through streets to the mill.

As I went out, past the shrouded furniture in the front room (things made ready these ten years past for the move that never came), I saw hanging over the mantelpiece a Lowry reproduction that hadn’t been there on my last visit. Why did she go out and buy that obvious representation of a landscape she wanted to escape, the figures moving noiselessly under the shadow of the mill? ‘They know each other, recognise each other,’ says John Berger of these figures. ‘They are not, as is sometimes said, like lost souls in limbo; they are fellow travellers through a life which is impervious to most of their choices … ‘ Perhaps, as this commentary suggests, she did buy that picture because it is ‘concerned with loneliness’, with the ‘contemplation of time passing without meaning’,5 and moved then, hesitantly, momentarily, towards all the other lost travellers. … Where is the place that you move into the landscape and can
see yourself? (142)

That last line gives me shivers.

We come to a beautifully detailed history/political economy of Burnley — again a return to the landscape, the context, the material surroundings of town, home, work, income, the complexities of divisions between skilled and unskilled, I have put that at the end. It feels indulgent to have copied it so wholescale but I did. But first a short section drawing from this particular history of liberal Burnley that would make of it a seat for political radicalism — I didn’t know.

Political radicalism, defined as both ‘a vision and analysis of social and political evils’, developed in the period 1770-18 50. ‘It was,’ observes Gareth Stedman-Jones, ‘first and foremost a vocabulary of political exclusion whatever the social character of those excluded. ’29 Its rhetoric framed the demands of the Chartist movement, and as a tool of political analysis and a language of political expression, it became more and more the proJ’erty of working-class people as the century advanced. (118)

Radicalism asserted the rights of the individual in conflict with privilege, privilege being seen particularly as the twin-headed hydra of Church and aristocracy. Its notable feature as a means of analysis was that its rhetoric allowed the tracing of misery, evil and unfairness to a political source, that is to the manipulation by others of rights, privileges and money rather than attributing such perception to a shared conciousness of exploitation. It was a coherent device both for understanding the ordering of the world in a particular way, and for achieving that understandmg without direct experience of exploitation, or of a particular organization of labour, or of the viciscitudes of the labour market. This is by way of contrast with theories of classconsciousness which often do draw on such personal and direct experience, though not a lways explicitly. 32 (119)

she notes then, that for all of its place in radical history, there remains much untouched:

Burnley is a much-investigated town, and a great deal is known about political movements within it and the shaping of its political allegiances. However, two factors have been left out of the story so far. The first is any reckoning with the presence of so lage a number of women in workforce, except as adjuncts to the male story of trade unionism, or in terms of a developing suffraggette movement. The second mission factor is any discussion of how a political culture might affect children growing up within it. (120)

I end this second post with my typical self-indulgence, copying wholesale Steedman’s own short history of Burnley. One of my housing apprentices was from there, worked there. I went twice to meet with her in the glorious times before lockdown and quite loved it, though like Rochdale and Wigan it shows all the rough edges of austerity-driven desperation. I love this history of it, and the thought that I will carry it with me when I go back, especially the idea of Burnley as a ‘Radical hole’.

In the late nineteenth century, Burnley, by way of contrast with neighbouring Blackburn, still possessed a local landowning gentry which played a prominent and traditional part in local life. 15 The most important local family were the Roman Catholic Townleys (the bluebell wood with the little stream, where I remember her last day of happiness, was Townley land), but there were others too, and their social presence in the town prevented the rise of an industrial
middle class to gentry status.16 The social rulers of Burnley were then, the traditional ones, figures of the conventional class romance; and this conservative romance and its representatives were distanced from the culture and politics of daily life: Burnley was known as a “Radical Hole” a Liberal dominated mill-town where land and business kept their distance.’17

Cotton owners remained distinct from the town’s social elite, and this separation of trade from land provided a free arena for economic enterprise.18 The establishment of a weaving business was in any case a smaller and cheaper undertaking than the setting up of a spinning shop, and since the 1850s in Burnley it had always been feasible for a cotton worker with savings to set up on his or her own. A local economic practice, which was the easy availability of rooms to rent with power for machinery thrown in and the much-publicized facilities for saving in the town – for ‘getting on’ – made the possibility of rising part of its social and political landscape. 9

Beneath the traditional form of social government represented the separation of land and trade, a less rigid social structure pertained in Burnley when it is compared with other cotton towns. It is the argument of one historian of the town that this ‘fostered greater, not less discontent, as inter-group comparisons and a wider range of reference groups became adopted’. 20 Yet within this framework and within a social structure that allowed for individual
advancement and the telling of social fairy-tales about people making good, the Burnley working class at the turn of the century seems to have shown a greater division between skilled and unskilled workers than was usual in cotton towns. This separation showed itself in the low incidence of residential contact and marriage between the two groups. 21 Burnley, then, in the early decades of this century, presented the picture of a culture in which individual aspiration and success were allowed to express themselves within the broader setting of a traditional form of
local government.

The town expanded rapidly at the end of the nineteenth century, later than the other cotton towns, with the population more than doubling between 1871 and 1891.22 Any family established during those years and maintaining a household into the new century, as did my greatgrandmother, would have experienced a cycle of depression and boom. Many of my mother’s uncles and aunts left the town for Fall River, Massachusetts, between the two severe depressions of 1903/4 and 1908/9, and my grandmother,
age twenty-two and five-months pregnant with my mother, married my grandfather during the good year of 191 3. Burnley experienced a final period of boom at the end of the First World War, before entering catastrophic recession in 1921.23

Through all these fluctuations in the economy, Burnley women worked: in 1911, 56 per cent of females over ten years of age were at work, most of them in the weaving sheds.24 Work at weaving was understood as a source of pride for women, and Patrick Joyce has speculated of Burnley that ‘the principal threat to the [male] weaver was perhaps that to his family authority, in work and at home … ’25 Yet, as has already been indicated, there were many
ways in which gender divisions were maintained within the factory (particularly by the simple device of men tending a larger number of looms than women) and men received more money for work that was f ractically identical to that of their female fellow workers. 2

My mother’s experience of households largely supported and maintained by women was given dramatic emphasis by the death of her father at the Somme in 1916. The depression of 1921 and its aftermath changed the climate of expectation for working-class girls in the town: like many in her age group my mother did not do now, in the late 192Os, what she would have done ten years before, and go into the mill on leaving school. Her own mother stopped working in the sheds at this time because there was very little work to be had. (115-117)

Steedman, Carolyn (1986) Landscape for a Good Woman: A Story of Two Lives. London: Virago.