Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 4/Trimmings and trimmers

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2894537Once a Week, Series 1, Volume IV — Trimmings and trimmers
1860-1861Isabella Kentish


The river rolls sluggishly and drearily, this damp March morning, past the Temple Gardens, whilst the mist which lies heavily on its surface floats on shore, partially obscuring from view the evolutions of the Inns of Court Volunteers, who, in spite of the unfavourable weather, are exercising in this favourite summer resort of the surrounding inhabitants. There they go, at quick time, across the once well-kept lawn, making a regular “slough of despond” for the gardeners to fill up at some future time: “right and left,” “advance,” “retreat,” “present arms,” “forward,” are the cries that ring hoarsely through the misty atmosphere, as skirmishers dart behind trees, spring out from quiet corners, or fall into line at the word of command. Strange, that in this Christian nineteenth century the noisy note of preparation for war should rouse the echoes of the brave old Temple, even as the clang of the barbed war-horse, and the clash of mailed footsteps, awoke them in the chivalrous times of Richard the Lionhearted! With what scorn, we fancy, would the quiet inmates of those sculptured tombs in the haughty Templars’ ancient church gaze upon yonder cloth-robed warriors, could they rise from their long sleep, and view the mimic foray. And yet, no steel-clad Knight of the Cross, struggling for possession of the Holy Sepulchre, ever fought with truer courage, or more determined bravery, than these simply-clad Volunteers will strike for the holy sanctuaries of hearth and home; and the same dauntless ardour that laid Acre in ruins will hold Old England’s shores free and unsullied from the footprint of a foreign foe. But hark 1 the clock strikes one, two, three—ten, warning us that our business lies far beyond the historic, time-hallowed precincts of the mighty dead! A few steps, and the turmoil of active Fleet Street bursts upon the ear, as we turn westward. Pausing a moment to cross the road, a group of grey-coated riflemen brush hastily past, and, as the simple braided uniforms meet our eye, we forget war and all its attendant miseries, and wander far away to the busy haunts of commerce, where that very trimming to the Volunteers’ coats was manufactured. And this reminds us that the history of “Trimmings” still remains one of those things which ought to be and are not. Turn over the leaves of any periodical published within the last fifty years, and therein we find written, “The life, death, and last ashes of a cigar”—“The tale of a coat”—“History of a pin”—“Adventures of a needle”—“Travels of a piece of cotton”—“Walks of a stocking”—“Glass-eyes, and those who use them”—“Something about shirts”—“A word on wigs, by a hair-brained bald pate,” &., &c., and so on to the end of almost all manufactured and unmanufactured articles. But never, to our remembrance, do we recollect seeing one single word about “Trimmings.” And without “trimmings” what would man or woman be? How shorn of all that gives the finishing effect to their appearance without trimmings! As well walk bootless as dress without “trimmings.” Kings and queens, warriors and statesmen, lawyers and clergymen, doctors and merchants, old ladies and young ladies, pretty women and ugly women, high and low, rich and poor, all pay their homage at the shrine of “Trimmings;” and these few sheets shall be our offering to their departed glory. Yes, alas! departed. They are not what they were. But we will speak of them in the pride of their prime, ere war and fashion robbed them of their “fairest proportions,” and the French treaty gave the finishing blow to the declining trade.

Going back, therefore, to 185—, we will enter one of the most celebrated and oldest-established “trimming-houses” in the City. But a few words first may not be out of place respecting the rise and progress of this manufacture. Between twenty and thirty years ago, it is said, there were only three manufactories in London, but in 185— they had increased to such a degree that over-competition seriously injured the profits of the “hands,” as well as in some respects those of the masters.

At the first-named period, a first-class manufacturer employed, directly and indirectly, at least 500 men, women, boys, and girls, and an establishment of this kind was looked upon as a great boon to the inhabitants of the densely populated districts of the metropolis in which they abounded, absorbing their surplus labour.

Under the head of “fancy trimmings” are classed an immense variety of goods, principally ornamental: fringes of all descriptions, plain, fancy, and beaded gimps and braids; crochet fastenings for mantles, do. headings for tassels, fringes; do. collarets for mantles, fancy tassels, girdles; fancy buttons of every conceivable variety; plain crape trimmings for ladies’ dresses; do. bugled; do. machine; crape collars, cuffs, &c.; bugled lace, finger gimp, ornaments for dresses, cloaks, &c. The following articles, though not strictly denominated “trimmings,” are made at many houses:—Gold, silver, steel, pearl, glass beaded, and spangled nets; do. plain silk and chenille; head-dresses; do. ribbon bracelets; crochet, netted, and knitted neck-ties; cuffs, collars, and children’s shoes; fancy garters; embroidered smoking caps; falls and fancy ties; together with every description of needlework for ladies’ dresses that the fashion of the day prescribes.

No firm carries on all these branches, but each confines itself to three or four. Thus, there are the fringe, the silk, the gimp, and the crape houses; but buttons are a staple commodity of all but the last; for, so long as women and children wear dresses, so long will fancy buttons be in request, unless the old-fashioned strings again come into 260


vogue, when adieu to buttons.* Almost entirely depending on fashion and prosperous times, this trade is peculiarly susceptible of depression, hun dreds of hands being often, without a week's warning, thrown out of employment by some caprice of the fickle goddess, or many-tongued rumour of war. For instance, the introduction of the plain strap, worn on ladies' mantles some few seasons back, threw nearly all the crocheters in London out of work ; while, at the same time, the Crimean war, which was raging in all its fury, combined with the uneasy aspect of the political horizon, depressed the trade to such an extent that it has never fairly recovered from the shock. Having given this necessary explanation we will enter, this clear bright autumn day, in the year 185—, the establishment of Messrs. Pettitoes, situ ated in one of the densely-crowded neighbourhoods of the City. There is a whir and buzz as we pass the doorway, which tells of King Steam, whose voice, powerful as it is, cannot drown the voices of the assembled outdoor hands, who, standing in the narrow passage, and sitting on the confined stairs, are waiting their turns to be served. A door lies at our right hand, on opening which we find ourselves in the public and finished stock room. A gentleman is standing by the counter, on which are littered pattern cards of different kinds. The one he is at present examining is of first-class gimp crochet. Here is a vine leaf, there an oak, together with hexagons, circles, squares, diamonds, &c, combined in various ways into graceful de signs, or else standing simply by themselves : the stiff material of which they are composed rendering it impossible for the designer, however skilful, to create the flowing and beautiful imitations of nature, in which the silk crochet particularly excels. And here a word about crochet patterns. At Pettitoes', as well as at most firms, the designs are made by the workers, who are allowed the preference of working up the orders, if their patterns succeed. If they cannot obtain them in this way, they buy them of persons possessing the gift of designing, who are not actually working for daily bread, and therefore refuse to part with them without payment. Sometimes orders are sent to Paris for the latest novelty, which is copied, and soon in the market. On the right hand of the gentleman is a packet of buttoncards, and here may be seen fancy trimming buttons of almost every description—melons, acorns, apples, pears, show their tiny counter parts in silk and twist, and the simple flat buttons are embroidered so delicately and tastefully that we almost doubt the truth of the assertion, that these beautiful little ornaments are the invention as well as the handiwork of poor, uneducated women, whose hands are hardened by daily toil, and their minds disturbed by anxious cares. And whilst admiring the exquisite taste displayed in the design, we cannot but think that the present superiority of French fancy designers over our own is owing not to greater natural ability, but to the higher knowledge of art in respect to manufactures which for years they have undoubt* Gilt buttons, not strings, have fairly driven fancy buttons out of the market.

[March 3, 1861.

edly possessed. But see, Mr. Smith has marked several cards, and disappears with them through a dark opening on our right ; following, we find ourselves in a long room on the first floor, where everything speaks of "work, work, work." Rows of dyed and undyed wooden-button and tassel moulds are hanging like many-jointed, headless snakes upon the walls ; large bobbins (that is, reels) of silk, gimp, and twist stand upon the counter, all ready for giving out ; whilst packet after packet of these same moulds, but covered with silk, ready for the embroiderers, or twist coverers, are ranged in rows by the bobbins, only waiting the nimble fingers of Mrs. Ellis to toss them into the scales, and from thence through the narrow aperture, with a sliding trap-door, behind which the workers stand. With undisputed sway does Mrs. Ellis (the head forewoman) rule over this department, and now she is busily serving her button hands. "There, now, there's four gross, as soon as you can make them—Mr. Smith says your pattern's good, but the price is high." " Lor, marm, only see what a time these leaves take ! " cries the worker. " Well, well, do your best, and don't scamp. Now, the next," calls Mrs. Ellis, as a new face appears at the trap, and so on, in rapid succession, till all the button hands are served. It is still early, and the crocheters and crape-trim mers have not arrived ; so the manageress composes herself to sorting out fresh supplies of buttons, or making entries in her books. Outside, the hands are comparing notes, congratulating or condoling with one another according to circumstances. Almost invariably this class of workers consists of the wives and daughters of mechanics of the humbler kind ; and, rough as some of them un doubtedly are, there is far more kindly feeling and consideration shown one towards the other than we often see in more polished circles. They truly " do as they would be done by." To use their own words, their " Bills and Jims are perhaps raging and swearing for their dinners," but never for one moment do they think of depriving one another of their turns. On the contrary, they will often resign their own, saying, " I got my Tom's dinner before I came out, so he's only got to eat it, and I know your Jack blazes if his ain't ready :" and the kindhearted speaker loses perhaps twenty minutes of her valuable time to serve her friend, who to-morrow would risk even " her Jack's fury " to requite the service. The language of the buttoners is not very classical, husbands being generally denominated as " my old un," " your Bill," &c, whilst children as often receive the expressive name of "limbs." We are bound to believe that the "old uns" are very ill-tempered and the " limbs " proportionally troublesome, not only from hearsay, but from the worn and jaded looks of too many of the married women. The spinsters appear upon good terms with themselves and all around them, joking each other unmerci fully respecting their " young man," who, at the first convenient opportunity, is to become their "old un," and till that blissful day arrives is bound to escort his lady-love to the "Wells," at least once a week. There seems to be some MiRcH 2. 18el.l




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special attraction about Sadler's Wells Theatre to buttouers ; for they will save and save to treat themselves to its allurements three or four times, at least in the winter season : though hard, indeed, they have to work for their pleasure, for button work is very fatiguing to the hands, and not so well paid as some other branches of the manufacture. The wooden moulds are carefully covered with silk by machinery, guided by boys, and on this fine slight tissue the patterns are worked with a needle and silk, or twist, the hard under ground rendering strong hands indispensable to a first-rate buttoner. After they are completed they are neatly carded on smart, gilt-edged pasteboards, in grosses, half grosses, or dozens, according to their size, and are then ready to be packed for sale. But see, the last worker has disappeared, and the crocheters come dropping in with their work, neatly tied up in dozens. Mrs. Ellis carefully examines each packet of medallions, leaves, &c, cutting the string of any suspicious-looking one, to see if the leaves correspond in size ; and after weighing them (for all material is weighed out to the hands, and when it is returned), sends them up to the carders, for most firms prefer carding crochet in the house. A laconic dialogue takes place between Mrs. Ellis and a worker. " Don't let the rings show so next time ! " cries the first. " It's I shall too the have fine—put gimp's to fault miss more ! some " replies stitches." then, theand second. spoil the pattern. Give me good gimp, and I'll give you good work." "Stand on one side, and I'll see if we have any," and the poor crocheter composes herself, it may be, for an hour's waiting. With every order a pattern is given, from which, without any other aid, the copy is produced, the worker reading her pattern just as easily as a musician does a score of music : " crotchets," " quavers," " semiquavers," and " demisemiquavers," are not more distinct to his sight than •' singles," " plains," "trebles," "long stitches," and " double Russian," are to her. This last, generally termed " back-stitch," is the torment of all the first-class crocheters. To work from right to left is sometimes troublesome enough, but from left to right is more than the patience of the best constituted worker can bear. These round medallions are for the headings of tassels ; silk will be " knotted " through the loops, and the mantle Whattassel makes is complete. these headings so firm is, they have a metal ring for foundation, which ring must not be permitted to show through the silk, or gimp. Buttons and elastic will be sewn on those large leaves before "carding," and the cloakfastening is ready prepared for sale. The crocheters are quite a distinct class from the buttoners. They are principally the daughters of small traders, retired or otherwise, dotted here and there with those of whom the best description is given by saying " they have seen better days." As a rule, they are a far more comfortable-looking class of workers than the buttoners, and their work pays better for the time it lasts.


A crape hand now thrusts her bag of trimming8 through the trap. This is the best paid work ™ all, but it is necessary to serve an apprenticeship to it. The bugled crape is inferior to the crochet and buttons. The bugled lace-work is, again, inferior to this, although the labour is lighter. With a smile of satisfaction, Mrs. Ellis welcomes the last arrival, and " have you brought all in—for we can't finish a shipping order without them, and to-morrow would be too late?" "All," is the quick reply : and Mrs. Ellis sends a message to Mr. Smith, that her part of the order will be ready in two hours. An immense quantity of crochet is exported. The almond-eyed beauties of Malta are extensive purchasers ; so are the proud dames of Corunna. Crochet, it would appear, is of Grecian origin ; and we have a shrewd suspicion that Penelope's wide-world-famed piece of work was nothing more nor less than a crochet-fastening for Ulysses' mantle, or whatever description of out-door gar ment that gentleman delighted in. Why, are not our best crochet-hooks called Penelopes to this day ? All hail, then, to the Queen of Crochet ! But hark ! the buzz of the steam-engine ceases ; and for half a minute there is a deep silence. Then, from every part of the rumbling building is heard the rush of feet and clang of voices ; and down the break-neck narrow staircases, laughing, joking, chattering, chasing each other at full speed, we see the in-door hands rushing to their dinners. In five minutes all is so still that you wonder if the busy tide of happy humanity has really hurried past ; happy, at least, in the prospect of an hour's repose and refreshment. At two o'clock precisely, the loud " whirring" of the engine signals all hands to work ; and, as the last worker clatters past us, two minutes after time, we leave the great firm to its afternoon toil, and turn into the public streets. In-door hands are employed principally on fringes, braids, &c, and as finishers of out-door work, and are more certain of constant employ ment than the out-door ones—having the pre ference given them in the slack season. They are paid by the piece, so merit has its due reward ; and at Pettitoes', as well as several firms we could name, are well looked after and kindly treated. At one on Saturdays, work ceases at Pettitoes' for the day ; and at two, the in-door hands assemble to be paid ; the out-door having received their wages before noon, This not very short transaction at length completed, everything is cleared up, and Pettitoes and their satellites leave the " house " to the care of watchmen and police till Monday morning. (Jowers, of Paul's Chain, are more particularly noted for silk work of various kinds : they also do a good deal of " finger gimp," a species of work very trying to the eyes and hands. The gimp is laid down on some light fabric, in winding pat terns, and sewn with a needle and thread to the groundwork. "Table gimp" also is very hard work, and consists of a thread of that material for foundation, on which patterns are worked with bugles and beads, by means of stout thread and 32


eedles. "Tommy gimp," as the hands designate lis, from the stick called a "Tommy" to which ie gimp is fastened, is much disliked by all orkers. leting Owingorders, to the as well necessity as forofeconomical immediately reasons, com3 much material as possible is made on the pre sses of all firms. The manufacture of gimp nploys a large number of boys ; and here, if we lease, we may see them walking up and down, t their monotonous tasks. Gimp consists of

rands of cotton, covered with a thin coating of

lk. The moulds for buttons, tassels, &c, are cut l the house, or by men who live close by ; and a ood stock of all kinds of material is kept on and, ready for any emergency. The necessity lr a good supply is shown by the fact, that for

veral weeks the crocheters at Pettitoes' were out

f work through the non-arrival of rings from Birmingham ; and when at length they did make aeir appearance, the orders were too late. So, Iso, if delay occur in the sailing of ships from 'enice and Germany ; for, still faithful to her ncient far-famed industry, the Pride of the Sea applies the Island Queen with flashing bugles ; 'hilst from the Fatherland she receives her eads. And woe be to the hands of those firms 'ho are out of stock when ships are due, for then ll the refuse bugles are given out to be worked p ; and the workers growl, and rage, and grumble -ithout ceasing, as it is impossible to make good 'ork with bad materials, and the smallness and iggedness of the refuse bugles causes them a srious loss of time, besides severe lectures from be master and forewoman on account of rough fork. Indeed, it is a difficult question to deterline who exhibits the most temper on " taking-in ays,"—the employer, or employed. Bugles and beads remind us of bugled and eaded head-dresses, and so on, through the net ategory, from the humble cotton one, price twoenee three-farthings (into which the little slave f all-work, who waits on small genteel families lr eighteen-pence a-week, thrusts her unkempt lcks), up to the gorgeous gold-thread and shining earl net which adorns, it may bo, the fair head f some noble maid of honour ; the cost, according o the terms the conscience of her ladyship's ulliner allows her to take. The net warehouses employ quite a distinct class f hands to those of which we have written. Here here is no abject poverty, except in a very few ases. Young ladies, who wish to increase their tore of pocket-money ; others whose parents have ather littlestraitened at homeincomes, to goingandout whointo prefer the helping "cold rorld." All ladies whom time or sickness has deprived f their own natural head-dresses, may obtain rtilicial ouses ; ones and of all every knitted, description netted, atand thesecrochet wareroollen goods are to be found here in endless ariety. The net manufacture has been very .risk the last season or two. So, also, the braiding •ranvh has been peculiarly active ; rifles doing or the one, what hats did for the other. But rochet and other trimmings are worse than dull ; 'rench goods completely flooding the market, to

[Marcs 2, 1861.

the exclusion of, it must be admitted, our less tasteful manufacturers. But fashion assists to depress the trade. Gilt, glass, and mother-of-pearl buttons have taken the place of "fancy" silk-embroidered ones ; and tas sels have bowed their heads to ribbons. In 18o—, the following prices were, on the average, paid to the out-door hands :—Plain crape hands, from 10s. to 15a. a-week; crocheters, Ss. to 13s. ; buttoners, 5s. to 8s. or 9s. ; crape buglers, from 4s, to 6». ; ditto lace, 3s. to 5s. ; and nets, 4*. to 6s. a-week, according to ability and good orders. Of the in-door, the boys who attend to the ma chinery earn about 4*. a-week. Of the others we cannot speak with precise accuracy : but, judging from their appearance, and the preference they show to an in-door life, we infer that they either earn more than the above rates, or that the longer continuance of their work is the attraction to which they cling. And now farewell—a long farewell—to fancy trimmings. But never do we see a crochet-hook or fancy button without a saddening thought of the good old times of trimming glory. Isabella Kent18h. "THE MAGNOLIA, FOR LONDON, WITH COTTON." " My dear Charley, you can, and must—there's only you and your mother left ; so spin your yarn at once, and set her a good example." " Silence, for Charles Fuller, Esq." "Well, as you asked me to tell you a story, I may as well tell you one about last voyage. " You must know, then, that I was in New Orleans, about the end of September, with a ship mate I'd sailed two or three voyages with. I dare say you wonder that sailors don't stick to each other more than they do—go more voyages in company; but the fact is that, when you've a long voyage, you quarrel, for the sake of excite ment ; and then it must be a good fellow indeed who sticks to you. However, this Ned Saunders and I were fast friends enough, and we agreed not to sail one without the other : it's a sort of pro tection in a gang of such chaps as one sometimes meets with in a fo'castle, to be two together, standing up for each other, giving an eye to each other's chests, and so on—to say nothing of the comfort of having a chap to talk to about things you can't talk about to the common run of people. " We'd been in the city about three weeks. Trade was rather slack, as it was a bit too early for the fall trade just then ; so we hadn't got a ship, and were staying up at a boarding-house, on the Levee, just below Canal Street. " One evening, about eight, a man who kept a shipping office came in and asked if we'd ' liquor.' Ned and I were playing dominoes at one of the tables in front of the bar. So we had something. Ned had a brandy smash, I had a gin sling ; and he came and sat down at the table. "'I'll tell you what I want, boys,' said he, when we'd emptied the glasses. ' You know the Magnolia ? ' " ' Went down night before last—Cotton— London.'