Report by Linda Moore.
Our speaker for October was textile expert Claire Day, who came to talk to us about her latest PhD research into the onshore apparel of the deep-sea trawlermen of Hessle Road, Hull 1950s-1970s.
Claire started her talk with a fascinating overview of her career to date before going into the detail of her current research. Fashion and textiles being the thread that runs through a career that has encompassed design, fashion, management, consultancy, research and lecturing with, as she puts it, the only thing she is certain of is uncertainty.
Specialising in weave because she didn’t understand it, Claire emerged as a technically competent weaver with her first degree in fashion and textiles from Birmingham City University, and embarked on a career as a commercial designer. In her words ‘I may not be the most exciting designer but I present designs that feel new to the market – I find gaps and fill them.’
Mixing designing with lecturing, Claire teaches at under and post graduate level. Textiles, fashion and fashion marketing and management are her subjects which encompass facilitating drawing, principles of design, trend predicting, consumer behaviour and colour forecasting.
‘It’s about enabling students to think and question their own work, to become independent and feel confident in their own knowledge of their field.”
As manufacturing declined in the UK, Claire became more involved with design companies at the luxury end of the market, designing for both fabric and wallpaper. When developing a collection Claire works with up to 30 mills at a time, these can be based in the UK, Europe and India according to each mill’s specialisation.
Combining education and industry worked well for Claire although in order to progress she needed to develop a track record of research so embarked on an MSc in Advanced Textiles and Performance Clothing at the University of Leeds. Based on retaining clothing in the loop for longer her research into sustainability took her to the rubbish dumps of Tanzania and a research assistant post at Huddersfield University.
Viewing research and design as being the same process has allowed Claire to flow within the discipline of fashion and textiles moving easily between the different areas of work that she undertakes. Still researching fashion, her PhD studies now place her in a maritime history department.
As a fashion student, 20 years ago Claire saw the play Northern Trawl at the Spring Street Theatre in Hull and was mesmerised by the suits worn by the actors portraying the trawlermen of Hessle Road. ‘I had never seen anything like these suits in all my studies,’ she says. ‘I was blown away by this individualism by a group of Hull men.’ Even more so when her mum remarked that her dad used to wear suits like that.
Four years ago, Claire decided that she needed to do something about documenting the suits, the men who wore them, and the tailoring industry in Hull. The deep sea trawlermen of Hull developed a style of dress that was particular to this workforce and worn from the 1950s to the collapse of the UK distant water fisheries in the mid-1970s. As no suits seem to exist, oral history interviews have been key to obtaining descriptive and exploratory data.
Each suit was made to measure, but in terms of design features was bespoke with key features being retained to create the collective look. The original suit jacket had a shawl collar with a single shank button fastening, half moon pockets and various pleats on the back which included a yoke. A belt would also be added, either attached or stitched down according to the wearer’s preference. The trousers had a deep waistband, known as a Spanish waistband which was typically 3” deep rather than the conventional 1”, but could be up to 8” deep! The trousers would be wide between 18”-24”, with the widest recorded at 30”. Colours were pastel in shade including powder blue, beige and silver grey. These suits were worn by the trawlermen during their 3-day shore leave following a 3-week voyage. One theory is that this dress style was influenced by the cowboy through country music, cowboy novels and Hollywood westerns and this became the start of Claire’s creative process – thinking about cowboys and sailors and their symbolism.
This research led through tattoos into floral symbolism and the different meanings of flowers that could represent the men and their livelihoods. Borage, peony, cypress, protea and wormwood which mean courage, bravery, sorrow, courage and absence were chosen and designs began to emerge. Deciding that the fabrics would be a mixture of embroidery and weave for shirts with woven suit designs for women’s’ wear, Claire set about her drawings. Recognising that the final making up stage would take time, Claire has used her design experience to quickly realise working designs incorporating borage, that grows profusely in her garden and the cod, haddock and flat fish that were caught by the trawlermen. Halibut gave her a particular challenge as nothing she could do could improve its looks. However, the stylised haddock and cod look magnificent.
The colour palette of purple and red was based on colour forecasting trends for today using 2/28s worsted wool and fine stainless-steel thread in both the warp and weft to produce a modern twist on versions of tradition woven check design. The stainless-steel thread gives the fabric a shimmer, reminiscent of the surface of the water. In order to merge the weave with the embroidery ideas and to bring the collection together as a whole, Claire has employed a novel technique to remove the wool leaving the stainless-steel thread in the shape of the peonies.
As her research has progressed Claire is shifting her views away from the idea that the suits were in response to the real or mythical cowboy, as there is not enough evidence to substantiate this. Unsure where her next investigations will take her, Claire concluded saying “I’m uncertain but as I said at the beginning, that’s the only thing I can be certain of.”