The Singer Festival comes to Clydebank Town Hall next week so we thought it was a good time to share one of our favourite stories from Issue 5 of Clydesider magazine.
By Amanda Eleftheriades
It’s not every day that you get the opportunity to sit down for a chat with someone born at the end of World War One so it was a great pleasure to join Margaret Wright for a chat at the Singer Sensory Sewing workshops.
Organised by West Dunbartonshire Heritage in Clydebank Town Hall the workshops involved a mix of sewing class and reminiscence sessions and were open to anyone with an interest in Clydebank’s internationally-renowned factory.
Margaret was one of the participants who came along to share her memories of the factory where she started her working life at the tender age of 14.
Now, just shy of 99, Margaret remembers her years at Singers with a mix of fondness tinged with sadness as the factory played a massive role in every aspect of her life.
She said: “I started working in the factory when I was 14. I had to get an exempt line to allow me to work as I was still at school but as I was one of eight we needed the money to buy food.
“My brothers and sisters all worked there as well and so did my uncle who was a gaffer.
“My job was putting transfers on to the machines, we worked from 8am to 6pm and it was piece work, you didn’t get paid if you didn’t do the work.
“You got a big transfer sheet and you had to cut it all out and it would stick to your fingers, it was really hard work and you had to be awfully quick.
Margaret remembers they were always struggling for more money. “It was a very good factory to work in, they were as good to us as they could be but we would always be going on strike for more money – it was always to do with money because you wanted more to give to your mother.
“But the gaffers were good to you and I thoroughly enjoyed it the only problem was the money – it wasn’t very much but it paid for our dinners, my mum would make big pots of soup for us.”
Factory workers enjoyed a good social life, much of it laid on by Singers. Margaret remembers going to the dancing and it was here she met her future husband who also worked in the factory.
“I started going to the dancing when I was 17 or 18 and I was still dancing with my husband until the day he died.
“I had to give up working at Singers though as back then you couldn’t work there if you were a married woman.
“So I stayed there until I was 27 and then left to get married. I went back when I was 49 and was there until my man died, I had to stop then. He took a stroke and then a heart attack in the factory – he was only 55. I couldn’t go back after that.”
Margaret’s story of her time at Singers is one of many that have been captured by volunteers working with West Dunbartonshire Heritage and will form part of the Singer Festival at Clydebank Town Hall in May.
Jen Smith from West Dunbartonshire Heritage explained:- “We had three Singer Sensory workshops, they were part of the Luminate Scotland Creative Ageing Festival. The materials were donated by the Council’s staff so everything we used meant something to people and were used to make sensory crafts and cushions that help people with Alzheimer’s or dementia.
“Lots of people who hadn’t sewn before or hadn’t done any sewing in years got right into it putting buttons, beads, braiding on to tactile fabrics like velvet and taffeta. At the same time we had people come along and chat to one of our volunteers about their memories of Singers and we also have postcards for people to jot down their stories about the factory.”
The Volunteers Showcase of memories and stories will launch the Singers Festival which will run from 3 – 5 May and involve a mix of activities open to the public. They will include more sensory sewing, children’s activities, a Dram & Drawing evening, Great British Sewing Bee competition, book reading by author Natalie Fergie and a display of some of the machines which the Council has in its archives.
Daphne Mackay from Old Kilpatrick had slightly different memories to many of the other women attending the Singer Sensory workshops as she had worked in the office on the retail side of the business, rather on the factory floor.
She said: “I started work when I was 16, that was in 1955 and I was there for 18 years. I had a wonderful boss and I moved around from office to office doing shorthand, typing, stock control and sales figures.
“My boss had 12 shops under his control in the west of Scotland and one was in the Singer factory, they sold the sewing machines which were originally made in Clydebank.
“The office next to where I worked was the ‘education’ department, they were responsible for training new staff on how to use the sewing machines so they could show the new improvements to the public.
“They also ran dress-making classes for staff. I remember buying my first sewing machine when I started work there. It was a 201, it was really good – one of the best machines they had at the time I used to get lessons from the education staff and I started dress-making for myself.
“I never had any formal lessons as such but they were very good at helping when I got stuck on anything. I made most of my clothes, a lot of women did back then. We made tops and skirts, suits, matching two-pieces, I even made a coat.
“I even got to help with some of the training courses myself and would play an awkward customer for the sales reps and the education department also made all the dresses for the Singer gala queen and her entourage – that was something that the whole of Clydebank would come out for.
“There were huge changes with shops closing and getting smaller – they used to have enormous shops in Union Street and Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow but by the time I left the only one left was a pokey wee place.
“And the closure of the factory had a huge impact on the town as the whole workforce was out of work.
“It’s 40 years since I left but I have a lot of happy memories of my time there.”
For more information about the Singer Festival or to share a memory of your time at Singers contact West Dunbartonshire Heritage by emailing email@example.com or calling 01389 771147 or visit their Facebook page.