Gwlithyn Rowlands , Voices from the Factory Floor

Items in this story:

Gwlithyn was born on 23rd May, 1947 in Caersws. Her mother was a housewife and her father worked on a farm. He retired from farming due to arthritis and got work as a cleaner in the Laura Ashley factory in Carno. Her mother got work there pressing on a part-time basis later on. She had three sisters and four brothers, and all of them, with the exception of one, worked at Laura Ashley. Her brother, Meirion, had been sheep shearing on a farm when he was asked by Bernard Ashley if he would like to cut fabric at the factory. He became a Managing Director in the end.

Gwlithyn went to a Welsh school in Carno and then on to a secondary English school in Newtown, which she found difficult. She left school when she was fifteen years old. 'Whatever you did, you had to find a job.’ She got a job in a shop in Newtown, and then in a factory there which made car parts. It was dirty work and she didn’t like it.

She went back to shop work and then got a job in the office at Laura Ashley in 1964 helping with the salaries. She left in 1966 to have her son (without getting married) and then got work as an outworker for Laura Ashley. She’d never sewn before but thought she would give it a go to earn some money. The factory brought a machine to the house, and would then bring her bags of material and the completed work which would be collected in a few days. She worked as an outworker like this until her son went to school in 1970-1, and then went into the factory to work nine until three. Laura Ashley was adamant that any mother that worked for her could take their children to school and be allowed time to collect them. When her son was older she worked from eight until five.

When Gwlithyn started as a clerk in 1964 there were four men working as engineers,and two men printing there. She wasn’t interviewed for the job, she just told Laura Ashley she was out of work. Laura Ashley told her to come in and she’d find a job for her. She didn’t know them personally but her mother looked after Laura’s little girl, and they lived opposite the original factory. Her first job was answering the phone, doing the wages and making cups of tea for four pounds and something.

9:00 She was trained to make dresses, skirts and blouses when she returned to the factory. She taught herself when she was doing the out-work and was paid on a piece work basis. When she was sewing all day in the factory it was hard work. Her wage was the same for sewing as it was for working in the office. She met her husband when she worked in the office. He was a cutter but they’d known each other for a while. They married after having their child. The period when she was sewing in the factory was the best time at the factory: ‘the happiest days ever in Laura Ashley... We had a lot of fun ..’ She would take some of the collars and cuff home for pressing in order to earn some extra money.

She was happy with the change from office work to sewing. She knew how to sew and her grandmother had taught her to knit and embroider. When she was an out-worker the boys would bring the bags and she would copy the samples. The type of work done at home was tea towels, oven gloves, and smocks with a front pocket. In the factory they made dresses and capes. She earned two pounds a week for working at home, would get one bag per week, and was paid for the items she’d made, eg three pence for each one.

She enjoyed sewing and made clothes for her son to go to school.

15:00 She didn’t need to be interviewed for the factory job because she’d been working for them at home for four years. She told the Ashleys that she would like to work at the factory. When she went back to work at the factory the second time the large blue building had not yet been built. She went to work in a building near the station, and when that became full they built the new large factory.

She knew everybody in the factory in Carno. The workers were local people in the days before the company grew. Mo Lewis said that she and her sister Rosina were the first engineers in Laura Ashley. (VN002) but according to Gwlithyn two women from Llandinam were the first, with her and Ann Puw in the office. Even the boys doing the cutting were local. This was in the 1970s before the company had grown. They then opened factories in Machynlleth, Caernarfon, Llanidloes, Newtown, and Gresford.

The factory was quite comfortable. There was a canteen with an old woman called Gwenni who made the tea and lunch. She brought home-made cakes in on a Friday. "Laura Ashley was my favourite, she was the driving force.... If we had an order, she didn’t have to ask us to do over time, everybody would bend over backwards to help. She helped us as well. "

If there was a large order she would sit down herself, she was very loving. If they were having forty pence for making a dress and the amount didn’t seem right Laura would call Gwlithyn’s brother over and tell him to re-time the making of the dress as the girls weren’t happy. If Meirion was giving the girls a row he would direct it towards Gwlithyn, but everybody listened.

20:00 When Gwlithyn left the office job in 1966 to have her child her sister got the job. Her younger brother, Alun, got a job printing there too. At one time, her mother worked there pressing, her father cleaned, her brother Meirion was a cutter, Alun was printing, and Gwyneira her eldest sister was a receptionist. Later on her other brother, Sulwyn, came to work there too. Meirion was having a pint in the pub after shearing in the Royal Welsh when he was offered the job by Bernard. He started cutting the material for the dresses but made a mistake one day and cut too much. He told Laura Ashley and she said they would try this scoop neckline style. It became one of their best sellers.

Meirion was a hard worker and would go to London and back with the lorries after finishing work at five o’clock. He had a good bond with Laura Ashley and was trusted by her which is how he became managing director.

Work at the factory wasn’t hard or formal, and all the workers knew what they had to do. If you needed help to finish you would ask. They clocked in and out. They could have time off to take the children to see the dentist or doctor and would offer help with the transport. It was like being part of a family.

28:00 The men there worked on the dyeing, painting, washing the fabric, and cutting the fabric. Gwlithyn made all types of clothes, depending on what the order was. They normally concentrated on one particular style of garment before moving on to something else. The machinists would make the whole garment rather than part of it, apart from the over-locking. They had many perks such as seconds that had been produced by the girls who were training.

They had to measure every dress before it went to the shop, and when the garments were being joined the seam allowance had to be a centimetre. If one of the girls training took a centimetre and a half or two centimetres the garment might go down from a size 12 to a size 8, and this would be unacceptable. The workers could buy the garments that didn’t meet the standard for being sent out to the shops. They weren’t that fussy about sizing when she first started but as more and more shops opened they had to be correct, down to the nearest millimetre.

The atmosphere changed considerably over the years, especially after the death of Laura Ashley. Strangers came in to run the place towards the end of the 1980s and it felt less like a family atmosphere. The workers broke their hearts when she died. The new people didn’t appreciate the relationship that had existed between Laura Ashley and her workers. The Ashleys had done a lot for the village, even though Bernard could be sarcastic. His manner was different to his wife’s. The workers also knew the Ashley children who came into the factory and would speak to the workers.

Gwlithyn worked for Laura Ashley for about forty eight years including the office and outwork. She was made redundant when they started making curtains and sent the clothes abroad to be made. In 1999 they were all shocked when they heard that they would no longer be making clothes (Gwlithyn was a supervisor at the time.) After this she did some sewing at home. The manageress phoned her one day to ask her if she could come and help because they had a rush order on. This was illegal as she would need to wait six months after the redundancy before accepting work. She couldn’t go back full time straight away but she went to help. She applied for a full time job after six months and made curtains for Laura Ashley Home Stylist and worked from 2001 until 2011, when she retired.

39:00 She became a supervisor because somebody with her experience was needed to train the new girls how to do pleats, tucks, cuffs, collars, etc . She went on a company-paid course in 1988 which was held in the meeting room in Carno. She passed and got a certificate. (VN013.21) but she really receive a pay rise. She’d been doing piece work previously so can’t really compare the wages for the two different jobs. As a supervisor she knew exactly how much she earned every week and there was more responsibility.

There were five supervisors at the factory in Carno, and twenty machinists. The managers would walk down between the machinists in order to ensure that they were doing their work properly and to make sure they had enough to do. In the latter years, the management would speak to her as if she was a child, despite all her experience.

In the early days they were allowed to take zips and cottons that were going out of stock home, as well as left over material, paint, and wall paper. Gwlithyn wore her own clothes to work, although she also wore Laura Ashley smocks in the early days. They made them themselves and had large pockets.

There were occasionally small accidents. Gwlithyn had an accident when she was showing somebody how to make gathers with the gathering foot. The needle went through her thumb. The first aider insisted she went to see the doctor despite her protestations that she was fine. The doctor sent her for an x-ray in Aberystwyth and they discovered that there was still a piece of needle in her thumb. It wasn’t painful until they removed it. She was driven to Aberystwyth in the company’s car. She was back in work the next day, even though they’d told her to take a few paid days off. “You didn’t like to skive because you thought you owed it to them”. Nobody took time off without good reason.

There was lots of fun in the event of a birthday or wedding. There was a big pond behind the Dye House in Carno, and if somebody was getting married they would be thrown in. Somebody would have brought spare clothes for them. “She's going in the water, somebody bring some spare clothes.” This didn’t happen to Gwlithyn because they’d shut the pool by the time that she got married. They had nights out with Laura Ashley’s children – Nick and Jane, but not as many with the younger son, David.

Word reached Bernard and Laura Ashley that the girls wanted to start a football team. "These girls want a football team so they can play on a Sunday against the shops.” “Great idea.” They bought them the kit which was green with the red dragon on it, and they would play every Sunday in Llanidloes, Machynlleth, Caernarfon or Carno. They had lots of fun. They went down to play in London, and played on a field outside Wormwood Scrubs. Many of the girls had a hangover after drinking in the hotel the previous evening, and the prisoners were shouting to them from the windows. Gwlithyn paid in mid-field. They Ashleys paid for everything – the trip and the hotel – and the team kept going for several years, until the girls started getting married, having babies or moved away.

53:00 There was an annual ‘It’s a Knockout,’ where they had planks over water, pillow fights, and tyres to go through. For the men there was a special game – when they reached a particular obstacle they had to swap one item of their clothing for an item of women’s clothing – tights, corsets or suspender belts. The money raised went into the entertainment fund. They usually went out at Christmas time. They also went out when they won the Queen’s Award for Industry, in Deeside. They were given a silver brooch, and Gwlithyn still has hers.

Everybody got on well at the factory. If there were any issues such as pay rises they would discuss them with the Ashleys and reach an agreement. Bernard and Laura Ashley didn’t want a union in the factory. Everybody knew this and didn’t question it. But as the years went by and new people came in (to manage) the company this changed, especially after the death of Laura Ashley, although Gwlithyn never became a member of a union.

She describes the early days at the factory. “At that time ... there was a tin roof, and it was freezing in the winter, boiling in the summer, and no air con, well a union would have helped with that.” They complained but nothing happened, and she put up with it because the Ashleys treated them well. Gwlithyn remembers it being so hot she couldn’t work and she would come home absolutely drained. She would go upstairs and see water on the floor, where there was electricity and report it but nothing would be done about it. In the winter, she would work in her coat and gloves and would have a hot bath after going home to warm herself up. Nothing was done about these problems due to the costs involved.

The part of the factory where she worked upstairs (in Home Styling) was not noisy, but it was noisy downstairs. Where she worked their eyes would water because of the fumes from the wall paper printing process, and they would have to open a window. This was happening in the Newtown factory two years ago. When she worked downstairs in Carno it wasn’t too noisy to talk or listen to the radio. The printing was in another part of the factory. The radio was on all day and they would chat about what they would be doing on the weekend, the family or criticising their husbands.

She remembers when there were four of them making five velvet burgundy dresses – two on each side of the table. The dresses had to go out by the end of the day. One of the girls had bought new make-up over the weekend and while she was showing the others, some of spilt over one of the dresses. They ran to the cutting room for another piece of material and couldn’t go home until they’d finished. They hid the piece with the make-up on it in the bin. “You wait ‘til Laura Ashley comes here, she'll want to know where that piece has gone.”

1.08 Welsh was in language of the factory to begin with but then it became mixed. Gwlithyn and a woman called Gwen from Towyn were speaking Welsh in the factory in Newtown about five years before she retired when one of the managers told them, "Don't speak Welsh, I can't understand you." "Well, I'm not talking to you, I'm talking to Gwen and she's Welsh," she answered. "It's ignorant." Gwen said, "It's you that's ignorant because this is our native tongue." Gwlithyn asked for an apology and got one after threatening to go to HR.

Gwlithyn started in Laura Ashley in 1964; she moved to Newtown in 2003 and retired in 2011. The early years were the best, when they were only a handful of workers. Everybody was friends, and would socialise with each other in the evening, everybody helped each other and had a good relationship with Laura Ashley. She managed well as a working mother with a child in school, even though her husband was away driving lorries for Laura Ashley for the best part of the week. Over the course of her forty years work, Gwlithyn learnt patience and independence. The outwork was difficult because the machine was small. All of the workers were able to buy a house. One of her friends didn’t have the money to put down as a deposit to buy a house and Bernard Ashley lent it to her.

Duration: 1 hour 20 minutes.