“You’ve got to make the turn on the pocket. Make sure it’s straight or it will have a crease in it and you’ll have to redo it. It takes a year of doing welt pockets everyday to get good at it”. I’ve heard Max say this more than once, talking above the noise of the sewing machines, showing someone how he wanted a pocket sewn or how the corners of a collar should be finished.
This was Mary’s job. Making pockets. all shapes and sizes. Didn’t matter if it was coats, pants or finely-tailored suits. Max said that Mary was the patron saint of pockets. Mary was a piece worker. Which meant that you got paid by the number of pieces you finished, not by the hours you worked. Five cents a pocket. Most of the time she had to fight for a few extra cents for pockets that were difficult and required her to work so close to the needle that she was sent to the emergency room more than once with a needle stuck in her finger or one that went through it. It was a result of the frenetic pace they worked. It was the amount of pieces that had to be completed for a days wages, and everything had to be showroom quality. It had to have the right drape and hanger appeal.The incessant buzz of a hundred sewing machines and Max walking up and down the aisles checking the quality of the work or settling a feud between sewing operators in the cramped working conditions was constant.
After school I would walk a few blocks to where Mary worked. She was at the end of a long line of sewing machines next to a second floor window. I would pick up little pebbles from the street and pitch them at the window to get her attention and ask for a dollar or what ever change she had. I didn’t call up to her or go into the factory because Max would put me to work if he knew I was there. Knowing I wanted money, he would have me sweeping the factory floors or running errands for him. When the window would open sometimes it was not Mary, but cranky Max that would stick his head out and yell down at me “Your mother works hard for her money! If you want money come up and work for it!”. I would have no choice but to go up. Filtering down as you walked up the crickety old stairs to the factory you heard a constant buzz of sewing machines like a concerto of fog horns and cellos inhaling and exhaling.
When you opened the factory door, adding to this industrial melody was the hissing sound of Angelo’s iron presser. He was always in a t-shirt even in winter because of the heat from the big iron press. He’d lay a garment down, push down on the presser foot and lower the top of the presser clam, and the iron would release a big plume of steam. He’d lift the top of the clam and the garment would be as flat as a board. I remember the time he pressed my best pants for Easter Sunday. The creases were like knife pleats and lasted till I grew out of them.
I can still sometimes hear the moaning of machinery filtering out of a building, reminding me of those pants I ripped on that Easter Sunday. The smell of the steam when it heats wool brings me right back to Max’s factory. I can see Mary going in her purse and throwing some change out the window to me below. These memories lead me to consider the shape of a pocket that I have just sewn. Max would probably have me redo it.
THE CUTTING MACHINE
Nat was a short man, heavy around the middle. He always had a cigarette hanging from his lips and there always seemed to be a long ash that could never shake it self loose. You could always catch Nat on the corner of 35th & 7th avenue before eight in the morning. This was where garment cutters, pattern makers and other factory workers met before they started their work day. They would exchange war stories about their jobs, place bets with bookies and schmooze. Weather permitting, this went on throughout the work week. In bad weather it went underground to the Horn & Hardarts’ cafeteria below Macy’s.
Nat was a connector, the mayor of 7th avenue. He had the inside word on what fabric cutters and pattern making jobs were available. How he knew this and how it came to him was a mystery to me. I would watch men walk up to him, shake his hand then lean in close and they would have a brief conversation. Nat would stick his hand in his pocket and fish around through slips of paper and finding the right match, he would hand it to the person and then the man was gone. Then there would be some male maneuvering, some posturing and repositioning, and then another man would approach. This same ritual would be repeated. It was a like watching the documentary March of the Penguins.
One morning when I went to see Nat, there was a line to see him. It was like waiting to receive holy communion. When it was my turn, I leaned in and told him Louie sent me. He nodded, fished around in his pocket and pulled out some papers and handed one to me and said “go see Big Frank up the street”. In the building occupied by Big Frank, the elevators, like most in Manhattan, opened up right into the factory. When the elevator door opened, there sat Big Frank in front of the cutting tables dwarfing an old wooden desk. I told him Nat sent me and he put me to work with one of the head fabric cutters. Later that morning the fabric cutter and I had just finished laying up plies of cotton tubular fabric that were stacked up really high on the cutting table. A blueprint paper was laid on top of the fabric. This schematic of the graded pattern pieces is used as a cutting guide. On each edge of this paper, the front, back and sleeve and other pieces are folded on the half to accommodate the tubular fold. The fabric cutter is supposed to cut around this piece and not cut off the tubular fold. The head cutter went to lunch and asked me to get the cutting machine ready for him. I did this and decided I needed a little practice to advance my apprenticeship. Without any knowledge of what I was doing, I proceeded to cut off all of the tubular fold.
The head cutter came back from lunch and took one look and noticed all the tubular fold had been cut away. He stood there staring at what he could not undo. A fabric cutters crime scene lay before him. Something had gone terribly wrong. The apprentice cutter had ruined about 500 tubular tops! He shouted. “Oh no, Frank the f**kin kid has ruined the order for Macy’s!”. I can still hear it today as if it’s coming from the next room. There was a long moment of silence. Then Big Frank’s frame filled the doorway. His look cut deep and I knew that there was no explaining my way out of this. As I said before, the elevator opened up into the factory loft. I couldn’t just go over and push the button and stand there and wait for it. I was standing near an emergency exit door that looked like it hadn’t been opened since the civil war.
I caught one last look at Big Frank, he didn’t look good and he was bearing down on me. I pushed and kicked open the door to the emergency exit and leaped down landings over homeless people that were sleeping in the halls. I could hear Big Frank yell down the stairs “ If I ever see you on this street again…*@#*#!…” and his voice faded as I fled out of the building. After that day, I decided to work in Brooklyn for awhile and stay out of Manhattan.
I remember when I started working in the garment center in the 1960’s in New York. I had to walk from 34th & 8th avenue up to 11th avenue. The wind in the winter coming off the Hudson was so strong that I would have to seek shelter inside store fronts till it subsided. It was a six story factory loft with an elevator that had a pull down wooden gate that rumbled its way to the top floor. This elevator was large enough to transport a buick. The company that I was working for was on the top floor and had a poor man’s view of the Hudson. In the winter months you could see ice floes coming down the river along with cargo freighters navigating through the frigid waters.
At this company I was an apprentice fabric cutter working with Charlie the bookmaker. We called him Chas for short. When I would arrive about eight in the morning he was usually there leaning on the cutting table turning the sports page with one hand and hollering into the wall phone with the other while puffs of steam were coming from his cigar. Saying things like ” Ok,Ok, parlay in the 2nd race. You want the number straight or you wanna do a combo? Yeah, Yeah you’re on the hangar till the end of the week”, stuff like that. The phone wire would usually be stretched to its limit across a skinny aisle where people passing would be ducking under it. From a distance it looked as though people were genuflecting as they passed him. As usual when Chas would see me he would pull out a fat roll of money that had a couple of rubber bands around it to hold the wad of dough in place. He would slide the rubber band up to his knuckles and he would peel off a hundred dollar bill and tell me to run down to the deli and pick up bagels, crumb buns and cups of coffee for the guys. One time he told this new guy who didn’t understand much English to go to the deli and pick up a couple of sandwiches and get something for himself. As usual he peeled off a $100 and gave it to him. When the guy came back with the sandwiches, Chas asked him where the rest of his change was. The guy says, “Well, you said to get something for myself”. Chas says, “So what the f**k did you get?!” The guy looked down at his feet. He had on a new pair of shoes.
Chas was one tough guy from the old Italian section of Harlem. I’ve seen him leap over cutting tables and collar guys against the wall that would show any disrespect. Chas would take money on all sporting events, including the numbers racket. This is how the numbers racket worked: at the end of the local horse race day the amount of the mutual handling of the money was tallied. The last three numbers of that tally was what the numbers were for that day. The odds and the payout were 600 to 1. I’ve never seen anyone hit those numbers in my life. One of the guys in the factory comes in yelling one morning that he had a dream about these numbers, and these are the same numbers of his address and something like his mother in law’s birthday. He goes around the factory telling everyone this story and is collecting nickels, dimes and quarters. He comes to Chas with a small fortune of coins and dollar bills that totaled somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 bucks. Now the hit on this would be about 60,000 dollars. Like I said, this is a 600 to 1 shot but Chas is not taking any chances. Chas makes a few phone calls and pushes off some of this money to other bookies in case this guy delivers a miracle. These were common favors in the bookmaking world. The next morning the number was off by a point or two. Still, it didn’t matter. The next day someone else was collecting nickels and dimes and helping to pay for Chas’ Cuban cigars. Chas has moved on to whatever heaven has to offer bookmakers, which could be a place where nobody wins in the betting world, or maybe Chas is in the eternal hell where the factory guys’ dreams come true everyday.
I remember back in the early 60’s working in the garment center as a fabric cutter. When scissors needed sharpening you would never take them to a cutlery shop, you’d wait for the scissor man to stop by. He would come around about every other month. He’d push his four wheeled cart in and out of elevators from 35th to 40th street and east to west from 5th avenue up to 10th. He knew most of the fabric cutters, pattern makers and clothing designers in this fashion jungle. He’d show up in the factory with his pushcart and a grindstone wheel on top. He’d walk up and down the aisles and ask who needed their scissors sharpened. It used to cost about a buck to have your scissors sharpened back then. Pricey! The Heinisch scissor, would set you back about a buck and half because of its size. Fourteen inches edge to edge. The cutting blade alone was 7 inches long, and weighing in at almost three pounds. These scissors were so enormous that they had a support rest for the thumb when you were using them to cut fabric. The scissor man would set up his temporary shop at one end of the factory loft. He’d pump that grindstone peddle with one leg and get the grinding wheel humming. He’d set the blade on it and you could see the carbon sparks flying off and the shrieking sound of the grinding wheel as he kept pumping the pedal. The Heinisch would always stand out as the luxury model on the cutting table with the other scissors that had just been trimmed. R. Heinisch sold his business to the Wiss family in 1914. The foundry was located in Newark New Jersey on the corners of Bruce street and 13th avenue. The pair that I have sitting in my studio probably have cut through enough yards of fabric to stretch across the states. The old bones of the tailor’s hand seems to have shaped out the handles of these scissors like an old pair of gloves.
Choosing the right tool(s) is essential because it speaks to the work that you do, and the respect you have for it. The hip curve tool is used to create the soft curves on a pattern for making clothes. It allows the eye to shape from the waistline to the thigh area. It also allows consistency with all of your hip shapes. I also use part of the curve to shape the knee area of the pattern, and just above the hem. It also has a nice line for the slight curve from the armhole at the shoulder just before it takes its deep turn toward the sideseam. This curve shape is everywhere. I never know when I will encounter this shape and fall under its hypnotic spell. You can see it in the adobe shaped mosques of west africa, at buddhist temples and other spiritual destinations. It’s in the slight curve of the horizon. It’s Picasso’s Blue Nude, Coltranes horn, Rothko used it in The Omen of the Eagle along with a few french curves. Ellsworth Kelly used it in his piece called Blue Curve. I see it in the softness of the round tables that line the cafes along the St Germaine des pres and the curve of the stairs that lead to the top of Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia. Le Corbusier used it at Ronchamp. Richard Serra genuflects to it.
The wooden hip curve that I purchased at a garage sale some years back has the name Yoko carved in it. Then on the other side are some initials that read SGW. Could sound like the abbreviation for the town of Saginaw where these rulers were made. It’s not uncommon for pattern tools to have names on them. Working in a factory or design room people tend to borrow them and forget to return them. I wonder if Yoko and SGW lost these tools or they were just passed on. Well, I think it’s time for me to carve my name into it also.
If you can find a vintage wooden hip curve made by Luftkin of Saginaw Michigan, that would be a prize catch. Morley Brothers of Saginaw began manufacturing log scales in the late 19th century. “Scalers,” men who determined the amount of board feet in any given log, needed an accurate gauge for that purpose.
The Lufkin Rule Company of Saginaw was founded to make log scales when lumbering dominated the county’s economy. The No. 1206 tape measure was made in the early 20th century. Lufkin’s Saginaw plant closed in 1967. Lufkin was acquired by Cooper Industries (CooperTools), which continued to manufacture Lufkin measuring tapes and rulers.