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Eileen Davies. Voices from the Factory Floor

Slimma-Dewhirst Garment-making Factory, Llandovery (from 1977)

Interviewee: VSW026 Eileen Davies

Date: 7.2.14

Interviewee: Catrin Stevens on behalf of Women's Archive of Wales

Eileen left school at 15 (1969) after doing her A Level in sewing and taught in night school etc, until she had her daughter and then she started in Slimma's, Llandovery. The factory produced elasticated waist trousers for M&S. There were no cutters there and each one sewed a different part of the garment. Eileem feels that farm girls are used to hard work. They had detailed instructions (e.g. how many stitches an inch) from M&S. Eileen did some checking of goods, then became a floater. She wasn't fast enough to be on the line. She also worked making jeans in the Lampeter factory. After leaving college she worked for a while in a small factory in Kenfig Hill making clothes from Welsh flannel. When checking in Slimma's it was difficult to tell a worker to re-do the work. She became a supervisor. Dispute would arise when machines broke and the work was on stop. The girls had no ambition. Not a union member. The heaps of trousers absorbed the noise. Health and Safety – carrying heavy weight. Some of the girls went to the pub after pay on Fridays. They had a turkey each at Xmas. She left to get married.

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Eileen was born on 21st September, 1951 in Neath Hospital. (Her parents lived in Powys and her mother needed a Caesarian section.) Her father was a farmer, and her mother worked at home with her parents. Her mother wanted to be a nurse but because she was the youngest child had to stay at home and help.

Eileen is the middle child of three children. (She has a brother and sister.) She attended school in Cwmdwr on the A40. The family farm was Crugybwbach near Trecastle and she went on to secondary school in Llandovery. She liked school and did her A levels (including sewing) before going to art school in Llanelli to do a sewing course. The course was closed down after a year so she switched to a course in Carmarthen. They wanted her to stay on here for another year to do a course in design but she left. Her intention had been to teach sewing but she couldn’t pass her English O Level so she couldn’t go to a college like Trinity, Carmarthen. As a last resort she went to art college. She felt gutted that she couldn’t teach sewing but went on to teach in night classes in Brecon anyway. She taught on three or four nights a week. The focus seemed to be on the social aspects of the class rather than the craft itself. She knew many of the people who took the class and spoke Welsh with them, so she  found the situation awkward because there were non-Welsh speakers in the class as well.

The first job that she got after leaving college was in Brecon, altering clothes, and she was there for a year and a half. During this time she was also doing night classes and going over to Merthyr to do a teachers’ training course. After having her first child she decided to just work doing the night classes. Her daughter was about three years old when she started working in Slimma in Llandovery (circa 1977).

Eileen got the job because her sister’s mother-in-law knew that she could sew and offered it to her. The first job she got there was checking the finished trousers to see whether there were any faults or holes in them. She didn’t really want the job and was quite happy at home, but her mother encouraged her to go and work there. She wasn’t interviewed for the job.

If any faults needed correcting Eileen could get behind one of the machines and do them herself. There were about thirty people working in the factory at the time, producing trousers with elasticated waists for Marks and Spencers.

The manageress, Pat Pegram, lived in Tally and her husband worked in Fords in Swansea. Eileen didn’t know her before she went to work in the factory. The other women who worked there had been trained at the factory. They would sew parts of the garments, and not a whole garment. The trousers would come in parts and travel from one part of the shed to the other as it was sewn. The pieces were cut in Skewen, and at one time were cut in Lampeter rather than on site.

Eileen had good sewing skills and found the work easy. The money was good too. Many of the girls were from a farming background and Eileen thinks they were recruited because they were used to working hard. She started work at eight o’clock in the morning and finished at half past four or five o’clock.

The women worked to targets. Eileen doesn’t think the targets were set too high but they had to keep going to earn their money.

There were young women and older women working there. Eileen worked from Monday to Thursday, with a half day on a Friday. There would be over-time available sometimes if they were trying to finish an order or for stock taking purposes.

It was quite a noisy place to work but she got used to the noise. There weren’t many changes introduced in the factory during the time that Eileen was there. They started making shorts and skirts at one time, but they normally made trousers.

They would get visits from the bosses and from representatives of Marks and Spencers. Everything would be kept clean and tidy for the Marks and Spencers visits. Marks and Spencer would give very specific instructions about their requirements, even down to the number of stitches per inch.

After working as a checker, Eileen went on to work as a float – which was someone who did the work of anyone who was absent. She didn’t have targets when she worked as a float but was paid a basic wage. She wasn’t as fast as the girls who did the same job every day.

No qualifications were needed for the job. Some of the girls had started working there straight from school. Eileen says there were ways of handling the fabric to maximise sewing speed. If somebody could sew from the hip of the trouser leg to the bottom without stopping the work would be finished sooner.

Eileen worked on jeans for a while at the factory, but this was very hard work. She had also worked in a factory in Kenfig Hill for six weeks after leaving college, making clothes from Welsh flannel. Nobody there enjoyed making the cloaks, apart from one woman, who earned good money doing it. It was a small factory producing specialised work, and didn’t have a production line as such although the two girls working on the capes had created their own production line. This led to arguments.

As a checker Eileen would cut the threads off the garments, check that the labels were correct, check for holes, turn them out and stack them. When she discovered a hole she would have to return the garment to the person who had sewn it. This could be awkward sometimes. For Eileen there was a choice – she could either do this with a smile on her face or quarrel with the person concerned. Eileen would choose the first option.

There was a small canteen in the factory which provided breakfast. The workers had a quarter of an hour break in the morning and an hour’s break for lunch. The girls could go to the toilet whenever they wanted to and would talk as much as they liked, despite the noise. They would discuss who was going out with whom. There wasn’t much squabbling, although this did happen occasionally. They all came from the area and knew each other. During the time that Eileen worked as a supervisor, she would interview candidates for jobs in the factory and knowing the candidates’ families and backgrounds was definitely an advantage. This was also an advantage when she had to tell the girls to behave themselves. The younger workers would have trouble getting to work on time because they had been out the night before. Eileen’s advice was,

00.33.43: ‘Get married for goodness sake, and let’s get back to normal.’

Pat, the manageress, had decided that Eileen would manage the line, and this is how she got the supervisor’s job even though most of the other girls had been there longer than her. She was also elected as union representative even though she wasn’t a member of the union.

Two mechanics would travel down from Lampeter to fix machines. When Eileen was supervisor she would try and sort out any problems on the machines herself but if she couldn’t she would have to call a mechanic. There were blades on the machines that cut fabric so if they were blunt the mechanic would change them.

There weren’t many opportunities for advancement in the factory because it was a small set up and a vacancy as a supervisor would only arise if somebody left. Staff didn’t leave very often, and indeed most of them were there for years.

It was difficult for Eileen to socialise with her colleagues outside working hours because she had a small child. The younger girls socialised a lot with each other.

There was a lot of leg pulling. On the other hand, Eileen would also see the ‘claws coming out.’ The girls would get annoyed if they thought they were losing out – and this would happen if there was a problem with the machines and the work was on stop.

00.38.38: ‘Everybody would be blamed then and everybody would be in the line of fire. They could say whatever they wanted to me. That didn’t mean that I would rise to it.’

Eileen would advise the women who complained about problems that affected their bonus to make a note on their timesheets. She would give the easiest jobs to those workers who were having difficulty completing more complex tasks. Workers couldn’t choose which jobs they did.

00.40.17: ‘If you saw that somebody didn’t have the ability to do a simple job, you’d find something else for them to do... Some people have the talent to do things, and to do what you ask them to do.’

Several of the women had children, like Eileen herself. The money was good and Eileen earned about £100 a week when she was a supervisor (thirty years ago).

00.42.53: ‘The girls who worked there didn’t have aspirations. They were quite happy to stay there.’ If they left, it was to go and have children rather than to go to another job.

There was a shop in a Portakabin on the site selling seconds - towels, men’s clothes - and not just the ladies’ trousers made in Llandovery.

After Eileen had been elected as union representative she explained that she wasn’t a member. She was encouraged to join and pay membership but she refused.

00.45.38: She said, ‘I thought that if I’ve got a battle to fight, I’ll fight it on my own ... I’ll fight my corner but I’m not fighting everybody elses.’

When she was supervisor it was she who took any complaints to the manager, so she didn’t see any point in having a union there.

00.47.00: ‘If somebody thought they were hard done by, it wouldn’t take long for you to hear about it.’

Eileen feels the workers were treated fairly at the factory. It wasn’t possible to work part time. Slimma and Llandovery College were two of the biggest employers in the area for women. It could get cold in the factory in the winter because the building was basically a shed, but it could also be boiling there during the summer. Sometimes Eileen would go in early during the summer and go home early to avoid the hottest times of the day. The building itself was a concrete shed with an asbestos roof. When the floor was brushed there would be a lot of dust. They had a cleaner but the girls also kept their own work space clean and tidy.

The work wasn’t dangerous and the facilities were clean.

00.54.05: ‘There were piles of trousers around the place. It was never empty there ... The noise didn’t go anywhere. You were quite buffered. The noise was absorbed by the fabric … You had sound barriers round you.’

If somebody wasn’t feeling a hundred per cent and it was affecting their performance, Eileen would get somebody to help them.

00.56.17: ‘Your job as a supervisor was to keep an eye on the line to ensure that the work went smoothly.’

There were more lines in a factory like Lampeter, and the work more complicated. The trousers produced in Llandovery were quite plain – no pockets, or zips but the work still had to run efficiently. If she saw that somebody wasn’t pulling their weight she would have to ask them what was wrong and put somebody else on to ensure that the work went through.

Before the factory in Llandovery started, Slimma ran a bus for about fifteen workers to travel from Llandovery to Lampeter. It was decided to open a factory in Llandovery. The Slimma factory in Lampeter produced the same type of trousers as they did in Llandovery.

There weren’t many days taken off sick although some of the girls would arrive late now and again, claiming that there was cattle on the road. Radio 2 would be playing as they worked.

An apprentice worked there for a short while, but went on to become a policeman. As it was a small factory, clocking in and out didn’t take place. It was usually the women without children who worked over-time.

The canteen sold light snacks, like sandwiches and rolls.

There was a week’s holiday Easter time, a fortnight in the summer when the factory would shut down, and about a fortnight at Christmas time. They were also off on bank holidays. It was possible to have time off for personal reasons but this was more difficult for Eileen as she was a supervisor.

The manageress didn’t have a background in sewing. She was from London, originally and Eileen doesn’t know how she secured the job. Eileen travelled to work by car, and the girls gave each other lifts.

Eileen describes the social life of the women in the factory as going out and drinking. They would usually start on a Friday afternoon after getting their wages.

At Christmas time the women would have a party which they would have to pay for themselves. They all had a free turkey from the company.

Eileen didn’t mind working at the factory – it was a stress free job. She left when she got married. There was quite a lot of concern for the future of the factory at this time. Her husband had said she didn’t have to work, and she was quite happy to pursue a career working for herself.

http://www.lleisiaumenywodffatri.cymru/uploads/VSW026.2.pdf

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