We recently caught up with Howard, our sewing machine mechanic (and star of our Made in Manchester video) to reminisce about Manchester back in the day, when clothing manufacturing was thriving and the mills in the city were a hive of activity, bustling with hundreds of sewing machinists in each mill. Howard discusses the history of the area, the community, the lost industry and tells us how things have changed over the years…
Where are you from Howard?
I'm from Salford originally, and now I live in Failsworth
Can you remember what it was like as a kid growing up in Salford?
Yeah I do actually, it was amazing. Absolutely amazing. I mean, I can only go back to when I was a kid, like when we had cobbled streets. And that's exactly what it was like. l know I probably don't appear to be old enough to remember this (laughs). Inside of the cobbles they used to have pitch and stuff like that. I vaguely remember we used to dig them out in the summertime. And In the streets, there was like a natural barricade to the wind. So it really enhanced the heat coming on to the floor. And when these cobbles were butted up together, with bitumen I think. Of course, the heat used to melt it and we’d dig it out with lolly sticks. We used to make little things from them and start throwing them about and they used to stick on peoples doors. I shouldn’t tell you that really (laughs). But yeah, that's as a child growing up in Salford in the early 60s.
What did you dream of as a kid? What did you want to be?
I suppose if I was dreaming…I was a big Manchester United fan. And everybody being in Salford where I was from. We're not a million miles away from there. So I used to play football anyway, not at a great level, but nevertheless. And that was my place to go to every Saturday, to watch United play, and I played right through school. A bit of amateur play, but nowhere near good enough to be in any trials or anything. But I'd love to have played for United, I’d love to have been a professional footballer. I think every kid would have, at that time.
When did you start your sewing machine mechanic apprenticeship? How'd that come about?
I think it was just after my last year in school, so I was 15 years old. My father worked at a place called Raffles on Bradford Road in Ancoats, near Pollard Street, where WAWWA is now. Raffles were a clothing manufacturer, they used to make coats for Marks and Spencers right through the 50’s and 60’s. So my dad said; “This six weeks of holidays, there's no way that you're going to be walking around the streets and playing about, you're going to get a job right away. You can come and work with me at raffles” because he was Production Manager there. So when I actually went one Saturday morning, I went to this huge factory. There were 300 machinists, 10 pressing girls, 2 electricians and 4 mechanics. It was just an amazing place to be. And that's where it all started really. So I went through Saturday morning, then through a school holiday and then my dad said; “do you like it here, because I can get you a job, you can either be an electrician, or plumber or do the sewing machine side”, because everything was in-house, everything. So because I walked into the mechanic shop, it just reminded me of doing some metalwork at school. It was big, well lit, everything was nice and bright and the tools were exactly the same as what we had at school. It just seemed to be exactly the same as where I'd just been…it felt familiar. I just fitted in, so I chose the sewing machine part as opposed to electrician or the plumbing. So that's when I became a sewing machine mechanic. That was the start of my apprenticeship anyway.
Can you remember those early days? How was the city different back then? Especially with regards to the textile industry…how was it to be in those types of places back then as they don’t exist anymore?
It was a frightening atmosphere actually, as a 15 year old lad, going into a factory where there were 300 machinists. And the noise was just unbelievable. All the machines going off all at once, and then the press and the clicking presses, and the conveyors of course. Once the machinists had finished making the coats and the garments, they got passed onto people to bag them up, and then to people to put them on carousels that would go all the way around the factory, then go right out into the back where they were loaded up into vehicles. And you’d do that twice a week, every week. So there’d be thousands of garments loaded into these huge 40ft containers, to be shipped off wherever they were going. On route to John Lewis’, Marks and Spencer, Kendals and places like that.
But going into these factories in the first place was quite a frightening experience for me at the start working amongst the 300 women in there as a 15 year old, it was quite daunting.
I guess, when you become more and more established. You become part of those factories. How did things change? Did it feel like a community there?
It did, because everybody knew everybody. It was such a close knit community, particularly, in Ancoats where I was on Bradford road. The ladies who worked there, the machinists - the seamstresses, they had their own family working there. They had their daughters working there, and their sons would be in the loading bays, maybe become cutters or just general cleaners or anything really. And so it was a big family base. Everybody knew everybody. It was quite amazing.
I guess the workers of the city are kind of its lifesblood and they give character to the city and how it's viewed in the outside world. Did you understand that this was happening at that time…that the city was thriving off these people working in the factories?
No, I didn't. It's only later that you realise, looking back at what it gave to people was amazing. The opportunities it gave people. Because there was a big council estate and actually not much else before then. I remember playing football on the fields at lunchtimes, at the age of 15. Then a few years later, there were houses popping up everywhere. Of course, there were jobs for everybody. Because there were a lot of machinists then who could go and work in factories. There were like 100 mills in the Manchester area, 1000 people in each mill. It was just an amazing place for people to come for a job. Basically everybody had a job. And I think you felt like everybody used to be able to buy their own clothes and buy their kids clothes and go for holidays for the first time, maybe in the 70s particularly. But yeah, it was a good vibe to be in when I look back. It was a great time.
What was the impact on the people in the city with the decline of that textile industry moving away into different forms. Did you see the industry disappear and all the mills shut down? What was the impact on the people that worked there?
Looking back, you know when you get a bit older, when you get a bit older in your relationship yourself, and all of a sudden you have children when you’re 23. Looking back at what a struggle it must have been. To have a job was great, but then not to have a job when I had children was a real problem because I had responsibilities. I must have thought, wow, flippin ‘eck, there's no jobs about like there used to be, to be able to go to work and earn some wages for your children.
So how does it feel to be involved with a company like WAWWA?
I think it's brilliant what they’re doing. Getting young people back into manufacturing, it's so refreshing. WAWWA’s making such great garments. It's made us rethink, rejig, and these young people here, I think it's great that they’re just having a go themselves. Thinking, you know something, let's make our own garments here. Because they’re great at fashion, we live in Manchester, you can see fashion in front of your eyes. It's just nice to see someone manufacturing again, in Manchester. I think it’s great!
You've obviously worked in the big mills whilst the industry was booming. How was the quality of clothing in comparison to what WAWWA are producing now?
The quality that WAWWA is producing is certainly up there. Absolutely up there, they have to be. You can't just throw a garment together, because people will know. The garments that WAWWA is putting together are really well made, whether it's a hat, hoody or sweatshirt and so on. I've seen them, I've checked and I'll keep going through it. I'm thinking I'm going to see a mistake but I don't, I really don't. These garments are really really well made and the materials they use are sustainable. Bamboo or something like that (laughs). But, whatever they’re made out of, I think it's really good what they're doing. It is quite refreshing to see it.