Everything is a beautiful shade of happy yellow. I am sat on a homely sofa, covered with cushions and crochet blankets of all colours. Whilst Jo’s soothing voice tells me countless stories, I can hear the steady metronomic tick of the huge alpha grandfather clock that lives behind me, taking status in the room. It ticks along steadily and faithfully, as if it were a part of her. It is really a rather romantic sound.
“Quality is in everything if you can see it. My home is like a museum of things, always good quality! I never buy rubbish. I’ve dealt with fabrics all my life. My mother had the good sense to put me into ‘Norman Hartnell’ where the fabrics I was touching were the best in the world, coming in to be made up for selective clients. They had walking mannequins show off the garments and the clients all sitting in the horseshoe on fabulous armchairs, deciding which garments they wanted, and they wanted them in the very best fabric possible, of course! There’s something to be said about something being beautifully made by someone, and being made with love.
When I was fourteen my mother took me to Bruton Street where ‘Norman Hartnell’ was based, oh I’m so in love with London! I was working there within a week! I was absolutely in awe of all the beautiful fabrics that had been sent, because Hartnell did loads of fashions, designs, drawings, for what he wanted and it was a big concern! He had a ferier, two, three tailors, about four work rooms, so I thought it was a bit of heaven. At first I was an apprentice for Anne Olivant, then I became an assistant. And then I took up my own work and had four assistants working with me so I got a hold of the right job! I’m still friends with Anne Olivant after all these years, she’s well into her nineties now, she was a lovely looking girl. She put me on the right road to using my hands and I will never forget her. And Mademoiselle, I learnt so much from her. She would never use the patterns given to her she would always just cut fabrics free hand, she gave everyone such a fright! When you’re working you’re given a design and you have to build this pattern up out of calico fabric so the pattern can be used to make a fresh garment. So that’s what I was doing, I made a dress for the Queen, well, back then she was a princess. It was sort of taffeta, pure silk.
My first few weeks in, I was asked to take this beautiful dress, a corded china blue long dress with beaded scallops on the front, and I’ve still got the scar here on my finger, which I cut when I was machining something earlier on that day. I was asked to take the dress down to the packing room as it was going off to the Palace. So I took it down, put the sheet over it but I caught my finger on the hook, and the blood went right the way down onto the scallops. She was Princess Elizabeth, and I just thought, “I’m gonna die.” I started to cry. What they made me do is to chew yards (in those days they had the big reels of white cotton) of cotton so that my saliva would rub and remove all the blood stains. Two doors down they had the special cleaner that Hartnell used religiously, and the garment came back and you wouldn’t have known anything had happened, and then it went off to the Palace. But they never asked me to take anything down again! I was so upset, I thought I would be sacked and I knew what my mother would say!
I taught in three leading art and fashion colleges. ‘St Martin’s School of Art’ was my latest. The students were damn good, eager to learn. I didn’t find teaching difficult at all. It all started when I was supposed to see this lady for an interview and she said,
“I know about you, come in.” She had obviously heard about my career in ‘Norman Hartnell’ so I was thrilled. She asked if I would become part of the college. I started work the following week. But I was thrilled to bits, I thought “gosh, I’ve arrived!” I can remember we were all in the staff room during the end of my first week. I said,
“Mary, why are the machinists making up their garments instead of the students?”
“Well this is what they’re there for,” she replied.
“How on earth is a student supposed to learn if they’re having their work done for them? They’ve got to know!” There was a deadly hush, everyone was sat there drinking their tea. She said,
“Alright I’ll see to it,” and she did. So that was the start of my teaching career! I think a woman’s job is never done.”
Words and Photography by Loo Loo Rose
Originally published in ‘Noctis Magazine’ Issue 11