From rags to stitches

From rags to stitches I

Hugh Ramage has prepared a fascinating display entitled Back Stitch: Recollections of Wanganui’s Rag Trade. And he’s just the man to do it. He has also written a book, but we’ll get to that.
The museum display consisted of sewing machines from Hugh’s collection, technical manuals, accessories, photographs, advertising posters and clothing produced by some of Wanganui’s factories.
Hugh’s story follows closely the weft and warp of the rag trade itself, beginning with his stint at the Chilco factory. Hugh had left school and this was his first job back in 1957. His boss was Eric Healey and the factory occupied the building known as Druids’ Hall in Bell St. He was there for more than six years, learning his future trade, maintaining and repairing industrial sewing machines and equipment. Hugh says the biggest thing he had to learn was how to interact with huge numbers of women. Having no sisters and being shy, he says he had to put aside his embarrassment and learn to listen to the machinists when they had a sewing machine problem.
From Chilco he went to Manawatu Knitting Mills in Palmerston North as a sewing machine mechanic. He was there for two years. “I found I was running backwards and forwards between Wanganui and Palmerston North, doing work here [Wanganui] at the weekends, so I took the plunge and went out and worked for myself,” says Hugh. He started Ramage’s Sewing Machine Service, offering a freelance service to the clothing trade.
This brings us to Hugh’s book: In the midst of the boom! Wanganui Clothing Factories 1966 and beyond.
Hugh still has his first sundry debtors’ list from his first year of trading. In effect, it’s a list of Wanganui clothing manufacturers from 1966 and he has used this as the basis of his research. He has compiled stories and facts from each factory, found photographs and interviewed people to make this a fascinating study of Wanganui’s manufacturing history from a unique perspective. It took him six years to put together and it also ties in nicely with his display at the museum. “The book homes in on the period when I started work but it also indicates the boom that was happening in clothing factories,” says Hugh.
Before long, Hugh was offered the Bernina agency and later opened the Bernina Sewing Centre at 138 Victoria Ave. “There was also a boom time in domestic. Machines had been hard to get after the war and Swift, Bernina and other brands were making quite an impact and people were spending money on home sewing machines,” he says. Things went well and he moved into bigger premises next door.
In 1985, he sold up and concentrated in the industrial business once more, until 1993 when Hugh and his wife Elaine opened a store in the Bridge Block (where Jolt is now), selling various brands of domestic machines.
They traded until 2000 then did another five years at an upstairs premises in Drews Ave. By then Hugh had built up an impressive sewing machine collection and Elaine was teaching sewing classes. This place gave them room to move. The collection of some 50 domestic machines – all restored and most in working order – is destined to be shown someday, perhaps as part of Ed Boyd’s museum complex, which is where they’re stored.

Union Special Overlocker

Union Special Overlocker

In the exhibit on display, the museum has supplied a dressing gown, a dress and petticoat, as well as a Union Special overlocker. Hugh says those machines were still in service when he started work.  Hugh Ramage’s book is a good read and is available from The Wanganui Regional Museum, Maxilab, Nu-Way Dry Cleaners, Lindsay’s Lotto Post and More and Aramoho Mags and Lotto.


Original article appeared in the Wanganui Midweek in April 2010.  Reproduced with permission from the Publishers.


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