It was in 1984 that I found myself walking up the steps of a very beautiful old house, on one of the most expensive roads in Dusseldorf.
Pressing the bell of a gold-plated plaque which read ‘Mode Atelier’, I stepped into a new world of thick carpets, gold-framed mirrors, enormous vases of fresh-cut flowers, velvet-covered chairs, coffee and champagne, silks and linens, big cutting tables and scissors, overlockers and straight stitchers, steam irons and vacuum tables, pins and needles, covered shoulder pads, buttons and poppers.
As a dressmaker’s apprentice, your job every morning was to take your cleaning cloths and start dusting and tidying up, after that we had to make coffee for everybody. The sound of the coffee machine was ongoing. All day long there was coffee to be made, first for my boss, then for the first client and then for everybody’s breakfast at nine thirty.
Eventually by lunchtime, coffee got exchanged to champagne and back to coffee again around three o’clock. It was followed by one glass of water with Alka-Seltzer for my boss and then back to champagne or wine for the evening.
Another important job was to collect the pins and needles that had fallen on the floor with a magnet and to soak them overnight in white spirit. I had to dry them with a special cloth the following morning and at least fifteen pin cushions had to be prepared. My boss got through seven to eight of them during a day herself. Hell broke loose if she ran out of them for her next customer.
Next, all sewing machines had to be dusted and cleaned as well. I remember there was an overlocker, a grumpy old oily thing with a mind of its own. Unloved, it was sitting there in the corner, dusty and seldom used. But it had to be cleaned and rethreaded and that was a science in itself. If you lose one of the four threads that were going through different loops, ores and needles, the punishment was to stay late and learn how to rethread the machine in your sleep.
There was also an ancient buttonhole machine with a life of its own. Everybody was frightened of this machine. It stood in the corner of the cutting room, shining oily and black, with little teeth that were fine cutting blades and an uncontrollable temper. Once the pedal was pushed, it took off! I kept pulling the plug out of its socket when I had to clean it, just in case…
So, all in all it took a long time before we were actually able to get going on learning how to cut, sew and make garments.
My boss mainly sketched her designs, but we had to learn how to drape. I learned about weaves and fibres, how fabrics behaved, how to make patterns, how to fit garments. Toiles were made and put on tailor’s dummies to pin and stitch pleats, seams, darts into place. I remember doing a lot of gathering on bodices for evening gowns and all these gathers had to be stitched carefully, invisibly, as if they were just falling naturally like this. None of the stitches had to be seen. I learned so much and most of the time it was fun and exciting, but there were also a lot of tears and dramas.
We had many high profile customers, who had special ball gowns made for charity events. One day, when my boss was at lunch, a lady turned up announcing that she had an appointment, even though she did not, and insisted on waiting in the showroom. My Meisterin, who opened the door for her, knew instantly what she was up to and managed to keep her talking just long enough outside, for all of us to clear the showroom of the dresses ordered by other ladies for the same event. We were wrestling with those big frocks, trying to hide them quickly. Once the lady entered the showroom and realised that there was nothing to see, she suddenly remembered that she had got the wrong date!
Basically, she had just come to spy to find out what some of the other ladies were going to wear. We all laughed after she had left and my boss was very grateful to us when she returned and heard what had happened.