The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 14, Issue 4 (July 1, 1939)
Buy … New Zealand Goods and Build New Zealand — New Zealand Industries Series — No. 5.—Men's Overwear
(Rly. Publicity photos)
Many years ago, Polonius, Lord Chamberlain to the King of Denmark, remarked that “The apparel oft proclaims the man.” This remains true to-day in New Zealand, but what is also worth proclaiming is that the making of men's raiment is one of the most important industries in New Zealand. In the “true factory” figures of New Zealand, the manufacture of clothes employs many more people than any other single industry. This particular army numbers about 12,000, the added value produced by the workmanship of these fellow citizens, amounts to over £2,000,000, and both sets of totals are growing.
This is in spite of the fact that modern fashions for men tend to grow plainer, simpler, and more comfortable every day. Gone are the times of Carlyle's quaint Professor Tuefelsdroch who pronounced that, “The first purpose of clothes was not warmth or decency, but ornament”; men rejoiced in dazzling colours and rainbow-hued garments of fantastic shapes. This odd old philosopher, however, spoke obvious truth in his statement that “Man's earthly interests are all hooked and buttoned together, and held up by clothes.” In so many words he said: “Society is founded upon cloth.”
The visits I have recently paid to our clothing factories have afforded welcome proof that if clothes for men are foundation necessities for our community life, they are well and truly designed and made in New Zealand by New Zealanders.
It should be first understood that a clothing factory on modern lines is simply a place where machines do the work of the old-time tailor who sat with crossed legs and laboriously stitched all day. These machines are bewildering in their variety and complexity, and in the ingenuity with which they are planned to do the work of thousands of human fingers. At an incredible rate, they smoothly do such tasks as hem-stitching, invisible sewing, double-seaming, and “felling” which turns a hem under so that there is no raw edge. One can never tire of watching these electrically-operated, neat and deft mechanisms at work, especially when a star performer with lightning movements is coaxing super-speed from them in an apparently effortless way.
Naturally, I have only space to describe here a few of the 340 plants engaged in clothing manufacture in New Zealand. I have taken four of varying grades of capacity, and these can be taken to be representative of this widespread industry which has modern units in all the provinces of New Zealand.
I visited the Kaiapoi Woollen Manufacturing Company's great establishment situated in lower Manchester Street, Christchurch. Its pillared entrance has a temple effect, and this seems in keeping with an institution which already has a tradition and a long history. This vast enterprise originated of course as a woollen mill, and it was first established in 1873. The sixty-six years of life of this New Zealand industry have brought an enormous increment in social and economic values for our whole commonwealth.
The total staff of the company's enterprises runs into well over four figures, all the wool used in the huge volume of manufactured goods is purchased from our own farmers, and the allied secondary industries to which this giant gives custom are legion.
The first impression I got in my journey through the Kaiapoi works was that of spaciousness and height. There is ample room everywhere, and there is a feeling of broad daylight throughout the wide workrooms.
The woollen and knitting mills of the company must be left for a later story, for this article deals solely with the actual making of men's overwear.
The first process is, of course, the designing, and personal skill here, is the groundwork of success. The long room is hung with patterns in flocks, battalions or clusters, and cutters are busily at work. They operate electrically-driven cutting knives, and there is a huge band-knife which resembles a timber band-saw and works just as fast.page 10
These shear through, with ease, eighteen to twenty thicknesses of cloth at one time. A system of amazing simplicity passes these shaped pieces of material to the 300 girls who are next to deal with the situation.
The division of labour is finely made, all the differing portions of a suit being allotted to individual workers who operate in teams.
It would be tedious to elaborate the efficient systems which enable the “flow” of the assembly of a coat or pair of trousers. Vests are made quite separately. Hundreds of uncanny machines do their intricate jobs in planned succession, and finally the coat emerges complete with sleeves, pockets, buttons, linings and so on. I was impressed with the buttoning machines which sew a button on in a flash and cut the thread after locking it underneath.
In a place of the Kaiapoi size, the pressing machines alone make an imposing sight. Some of these are paired, that is to say, while one coat is actually under the press, the other is released to alter the position or allow the insertion of another garment.
These pressing machines have various shapes to suit each form of garment, but they all have one characteristic; they are permeated with steam during the pressing process, but at a touch of a lever, a vacuum-created draught of hot air passes through.
The garment thus emerges from the press absolutely dry. I found that the men engaged on this particular section of clothing manufacture were keen on their job, and took an artist's pride in the final polish and finish of each article.
However, to the casual observer, the making of caps and hats has even more picturesque features. Here is at last a situation where wooden heads are valuable. There are scores and scores of them, of every shape and size of the human skull. The caps are fitted on these and with the help of the ever-present steam, take their allotted form. This is, of course, after the various segments of the cap have been sewn together.
The peaks and segments, or the various forms of tops, are all made separately, being simply cut out by die presses, after the fashion of the tins I described in a former article.
Here again I was impressed with the number and the perfection of the checking and calculating processes which ensure accuracy.
Uniform, college, and games caps of all degrees of smartness were shown to me, and the long procession of handsome headgear ranged from the debonair peaked cap of Union Airways to the junior school type, a scanty affair made to cope with being thrown under desks or holding birds' eggs.
I began to see life, however, when I viewed the making of monograms. The Kaiapoi Company specialises in this line, and will make any monogram for any design submitted. The first step is taken by the artist who draws the required picture, three times the necessary size. The colours are all inserted, and then comes the selection of the blue, gold, red or other materials needed. I had not realised that there were so many colours in thread. The next operation reaches the region of miracles; it has to be seen to be believed. By a device which is a translation of the artist's pantograph into a tracery of steel, an incredible machine does six monograms at a time. The operator sits with a control needle, running it carefully over the centrally situated single pattern, and the machine takes care, six at a time, of the intricate weaving of curve, line and colour. There are three of these sextuple machines busy all the time.
Designs that require gold or other metallic threads or fine wire require special processes.
Although the re-planning of the Kaiapoi clothing factory was only carried out four years ago, extensive improvements are on the way, and all the time progress is steady. I have, however, touched but one branch of this New Zealand institution's activities, and in this branch it is obvious that the Kaiapoi Company is abreast of world method in every respect. This New Zealand possession, owned, managed and manned by New Zealanders, has national importance, and represents an achievement of real magnitude for any country. I like the company's slogan: “The best that grows into Kaiapoi goes.”
By way of contrast, my next visit was to the compact establishment of Mr. H. T. Booker. After the War, this young Dunedinite, who had been trained at Hallensteins', took a busman's holiday round London. He looked through English factories, observed their methods of work and their system of planning. On his return to New Zealand (after various managerial jobs) he acquired a small clothing factory in Herbert Street, Wellington. His progress was rapid and he soon found it necessary to move into the commodious factory now used. In this type of business, there remains a large measure of personal fitting, and the craftsmanship of the cutter is a more important element. Still, as with all clothing factories, the staple of the business is the ready-made suit, sports coat, or overcoat.
One of his stories was illuminating as to the usefulness of this type of industrial unit. He was describing his good fortune in getting, in the depths of the depression, a visit from an enterprising trader who wanted a supply of standard suits “solidly made but cheap.” The result was that thousands of suits poured out of this plant—suits priced for the depleted purses of harassed citizens, for the trader in question sought only a small distribution profit.
The plant here is neatly arranged, the whole staff totalling about one hundred and twenty. The same team systems apply as at the huge Kaiapoi factory, and the machines belong to exactly the same mechanical families. I was introduced to the mystery of the “invisible stitch.” The machine that performs this operation plunges the thread half-way only into the material, locks the stitch inside, as it were, so that the reverse side of the cloth shows no sign whatever.
Buttonholing machines are good to watch after remembering the long task it was in the old days when our women folk sat for hours over one small garment. It is a final fact, too, that machine stitchery is better than handwork. No fingers, however skilful, can approach the complete accuracy and precision of these steel antennae. All the modern thread-locking devices, too, operate to ensure the toughness and lasting qualities of mechanically produced seams, stitching and sewing.
The Booker plant has an informal air, and can be said to be the expression in industrial organisation of the personality of a good, competent, forward-looking, New Zealand “Digger.”
My next call was on the old established enterprise of Cathie and Sons, Ltd. Mr. Charles Cathie came to New Zealand in 1885. He was an Edinburgh man and knew the manufacturing business. The well-known old tailoring firm of Jones and Ashdown had started a suit-making factory in Wellington and Mr. Cathie eventually acquired it. The firm has thus passed its jubilee year, and is among the veterans in this branch of endeavour.
Cathie and Sons are the makers of the Sincerity suit, a household name throughout New Zealand, but in addition they produce a wide range of sports garments and overcoats for men.
On the first floor, there are mainly battalions of rolls of suitings of all patterns and shades. I noticed great packages of hair, masses of buttons, legions of thread cones, and the other numerous accessories that go into the making of every garment, however simple in design.
A new problem was explained to me here—that of the linings. As there are almost endless varieties of tints in the suiting materials, the problem of matching the linings to each particular garment takes some answering. It is solved by the use of a matching book, working on serial numbers. This obviates all possibilities of mistake. The main workroom at Cathie and Sons is a spacious and airy room, with the familiar batteries of sewing machines of all sorts, sizes and design.
This room was large enough to accommodate the changes of system as modern methods were implemented and up-to-date plant progressively installed.
The “flow” system works smoothly and the dissection into parts, and the allocation of work, make for easy handling
I had no idea before my visit to this factory, how many different processes went to the making of a pair of trousers. This apparently simple garment is quite a complex affair, when its making is tackled in the logical sequences of multiple production.
Among the specialty machines I paused to watch was an over-sewing machine which stops revelling, and is equipped with a tiny, busy knife which shears off all loose edges and stray threads.
I also inspected the huge steam generator which makes steam for the battery of presses. A unique piece of plant in this section is a big shrinking press, which deals with a fabric six feet by two and a half feet. This applies steam heat to the cloth and is useful in various ways. One of its functions is in the instances where a material arrives from the mill with a big check pattern. Occasionally these are a little “out” of line, and they can be adjusted to mathematical precision under the influence of this pressure mechanism.
My last visit was to the makers of another famous suit, the Minster—Messrs. Matheson and Wilkinson, Ltd. Their factory is in Minster Chambers, Victoria Street, Wellington, and is equipped with every last word in clothes-making machinery.
One of the neat devices I have omitted to mention is the small electric light attached to each machine. Many a time we have seen our womenfolk changing position uneasily under a light to get a better view of their fine sewing. All this difficulty disappears in these modern New Zealand plants. The light is placed in a planned position shedding a clear beam on the spot where it does most good.
Both Messrs. Matheson and Wilkinson make visits abroad to observe the trends and changes in method in the manufacturing plants of the world. Here again there is an easy-going atmosphere, and, as I was there in the middle of the afternoon, the five minutes spell was on. The radio was in full swing, and was heard above the sound of busy chatter.
As a general observation, I want to stress the fact that I saw no pressure in any factory I visited. Perhaps a little more earnestness might be useful, for, after all, good conditions should mean increased production. The New Zealand worker has initiative and (Continued on page 49.)