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Joy Harris, Dressmaker

January 17, 2020
by the gentle author

Joy with her engagement ring, at seventeen.

Almost sixty years after she was apprenticed as a dressmaker in Spitalfields, Joy Harris returned to visit the streets where she began her career and found them much changed. The sweatshops and factories have new uses today and the textile industry itself has gone but, as we walked around in search of her long-lost haunts, Joy told me her story – and it all came back to life.

“Dressmaking was all I was interested in, and I wanted to be a court dressmaker. My mother made her own clothes and she made mine too. She was from Stepney and she had done an apprenticeship as a dressmaker in the East End. I think I was born with it and I can’t ever remember not being able to sew, even at twelve or thirteen I made clothes for other people.

In 1961, at fifteen years old, I was offered an apprenticeship at Christian Dior in Paris but my mum and dad couldn’t afford to send me there. So Eastex in Brick Lane was the next best option – very disappointing that was!  I left school in July and went straight to Eastex where I earned a pittance, it only covered my fare. Eastex were a middle range clothing company and I worked on the third floor at the corner of Brick Lane and Wentworth St. I started off making shoulder pads by the hundred and then you did darts and gradually we were taught to make a whole garment. Zips were measured and everything had to be in the right place. We used to sing, “Daisy, Daisy, Give me your answer do!” all day at work. It was boring. We spent all day making darts and then we’d take it up to show what we’d done, and we’d be sent back to do it all over again.

My friend Sandra already worked in Fashion St and we travelled up together to Aldgate East on the train from Barking each day. In Wentworth St, there was an underground butcher where there’d always be these men up against the grilles whistling at us, in our miniskirts at fifteen. They’d get locked up now. My mother let me keep my money for the first three weeks, and the first week I bought her a watch and, on the second week, I bought these black patent leather Italian slingbacks in Commercial St. I love shoes and I can remember everybody looking at my slingbacks. Of a Friday, we’d go down Petticoat Lane where there was a table that sold forty-fives and I bought my first Beatles record there and everybody asked me, “Who’s the Beatles?” I was a teenager and everybody I knew bought records, I had loads because they were really cheap.

I’ve known Larry since I was fourteen. We met at the youth club where I was friends with this guy called John. I’d seen Larry and I thought he looked nice and he had a scooter. John and Larry went on an Outward Bound trip for a month, and I was quite taken aback when John turned up with Larry. We got engaged after I finished my apprenticeship at seventeen, and John became the best man at our wedding.

And then I went to work in Fashion St which was a very stupid thing to do. But it was where my friend Sandra worked and they were paid three times as much at Lestelle Modes as I got at Eastex. It was a sweatshop they used to make very cheap clothes for C&A and market stalls. It ended my ambition to become a court dressmaker but all I wanted to do was get married and have children. Yet I didn’t make any money at first because I’d been trained to make clothes properly whilst at this place they were running them up quickly. The other girls made fifty dresses a day yet I only made ten because I was trying to make them as I was taught at Eastex. It took me ages to get the hang of throwing them together! It was a big problem and I used to go home crying with frustration, because I’d given up my apprenticeship to do this and I thought I’d be making more. But after a few weeks, I managed to do it.

It was a horrible place, a filthy dirty shed in a back yard with eight or ten machinists, and a tea table at the end of the line. The whole workshop was thick with fluff and people used to smoke there. We didn’t have overalls we just wore our old clothes. Yet it was a fun time in my life. They were wonderful people that owned it, Les and his sister Estelle – and Estelle and her husband Jack managed it. It was a relaxed place. We had a record player and took in our own records and played them while we worked. We played “Hit the Road Jack!” on Fridays when Jack left early and ran out the door afterwards, once he’d gone. We curled our hair with cotton reels, permed it in our lunch break and washed it out in the afternoon tea break, ready for the evening. We spent most of our money down the Lane. The motto there was, “If it don’t fit, cut it off!” – if you had spare fabric left over anywhere on the dress.

I stayed there two years, and then me and my friend left and went to a place in Chadwell Heath, until I had my first baby at twenty-one. Then I machined at home for a company from Hackney. It was bloody hard work, but he was a very good baby. Returning to work, I went to a really posh place and my dressmaking training was essential there. It was evening wear and it was all beaded, made of satin and chiffon, and my skills came back because it all had to be done properly.”

In spite of her sojourn in a sweatshop in Fashion St, Joy discovered the fulfilment of her talent as a dressmaker. “I’ve done it all my life!” she informed me proudly, “I made four thousand costumes for a dance contest once, and me and my friend we work self-employed making bridal gowns and bridesmaid’s dresses. Last year, I made twelve Disney costumes for my daughter’s twenty-first birthday party and it took me six months.”

Walking up Fashion St together past the newly renovated Eastern Bazaar that Joy remembers as crowded sweatshops and scruffy fabric warehouses, we met young women outside a fashion school. Joy’s contemporary counterparts, they explained they were at training to be stylists and while Joy was delighted to see that life goes on here, they were even more excited to meet Joy and learn of the clothing manufacturing that was once in Fashion St more than half a century ago, before they born.

Joy aged four in a dress made by her mother, taken in Dagenham where Joy was born – “My parents moved from Stepney in 1939, both were from the East End.”

Joy (right) and her best friend Sandra (left), 1961. – “We were always together. We used to see each other every Wednesday night, even after we were married.”

Joy and Larry up a mountain near Gelligaer, Glamorganshire, in 1963, when Joy was seventeen.

Joy and her husband Larry re-enact the phone call made from this box outside Christ Church Spitalfields in 1963 when Joy rang her sister to learn of the birth of her nephew.

Joy meets Carina Arab, Gulia Felicani and Julie Adler, students at fashion school in Fashion St, on her first return visit since she worked there in a sweatshop in 1963.

Joy at the corner of Brick Lane and Wentworth St where she did her apprenticeship as a dressmaker in 1961, working  for Eastex on the third floor. The building is now offices of the Sky network.

Joy Harris, Dressmaker

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9 Responses leave one →
  1. January 17, 2020

    As a sewist and a fan of your stories, I must thank you from the bottom of my heart for this. I’m glad that her story has gone well, and not up in flames in some factory fire. Linking to this story.

  2. Jane Jones permalink
    January 17, 2020

    What a lovely lady and such an interesting life. I am always inspired by hearing about dressmakers and fashion as it was such an integral part of my life and that of my family. If you didn’t sew, you didn’t have clothes.

  3. Jamie S permalink
    January 17, 2020

    Absolutely charming story – thank you to Joy and TGA for sharing…

  4. aubrey permalink
    January 17, 2020

    I remember that my father worked as a machiner in various sweatshops throughout my formative years. They were just dreadful places to work with little or no security of work. The ‘labour’ (Labour Exchange) was often mentioned in family conversation as often as not in the search for work during a slack season.

  5. January 17, 2020

    This is a lovely story that encapsulates a lot of Spitalfields history. I am interested in this as it informs me of the patterns of life in this part of London over time. I would like to get in touch with Joyce as I believe we may be family. Margaret Harris Stebbing (Australia).

  6. stuart goodman permalink
    January 17, 2020

    wonderful living history.

  7. January 17, 2020

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, what a nice story about Joy Harris returning to Spitalfields to relive her youth in the dressmaking trades. It brought back memories of the late 50s when my dear mother made so many outfits for me in my college days, including evening gowns. One was a lovely cranberry color with a large “cabbage rose” at the waist she had learned to make in millinery school. Of course, my mother was a perfectionist and I had to endure many fittings, but the garments all looked great in the end.

    In those days there were so many fabric stores around here. I used to love to leaf through those huge pattern books. A few years back I went looking for some buttons for a jacket I had. I thought, “Well, I can go to the Windsor Button Shop at the Mall.” Wrong – it had closed decades ago.

  8. January 17, 2020

    I know I speak for so many of your readers — this story sent ripples through my memory. Grace notes too numerous to mention here, but they will enrich me all day long. (and I learned a new-to-me word: “sewist”!). I will forward this to a wonderful friend who was my colleague in the 70s as we both began our careers, creating the original Vogue Sewing Book. We were tasked with creating
    a “bible” for sewing/tailoring — and just happened to make lifelong friendships in the bargain.
    What is that Chinese phrase? – “There is an invisible red thread that connects like-minded people.”
    Thank you, GA for the continuous red thread. And thank YOU Joy for your kindred story.

  9. Amanda permalink
    January 20, 2020

    The most poignant WHAT IF? of this lovely story was Joy missing her ‘big break’ apprenticeship and not hopping  off to Christian Dior in Paris as it would have been a big outlay for her family.

    And then l saw their photo up the Welsh mountain at 17  and could understand why Larry might have been a much stronger yearning than unknown Paris.

    A couple of photos later and l sigh with relief to see a devoted married couple still together who appear contented and with shared, solid, life-long memories.

    Her devotion to high standards could have eventually meant living the high life with own Paris design studio, a fab Parisienne apartment  but ….. no Larry, no soulmate.

    Joy made the right choices in life.

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