These mid-1970s Laura Ashley scraps were the first materials I handled, shaped and stitched when learning to sew as a girl. I pulled them out of the Scrapiana archive after seeing the wonderful Laura Ashley The Romantic Heroine exhibition at the Fashion Museum in Bath recently. The exhibition made me feel deeply nostalgic for 1970s Laura Ashley fabrics and dress designs, which is ironic because Laura Ashley traded heavily on nostalgia herself, so I effectively entered a state of meta-nostalgia (nostalgia for nostalgia) from which I fear I may never emerge back into the 21st century.
I seem to specialise in unlikely survivals, and these Laura Ashley scraps really shouldn’t be hanging about intact still, 40 years on. There is no decent explanation for it. I may as well tell you that Peter Capaldi swung by in the tardis and dropped them off. But, for whatever unlikely reason, they remain with me still. Mostly unused. And I’m very happy to be able to show them to you.
1970s Laura Ashley factory offcuts
They were probably bought in the Bath shop which opened its doors in 1971. This was the first Laura Ashley shop outside of London, and it soon acquired a legendary status.
Bath was a fairly frequent destination for family outings when I was a girl; sometimes we’d go to the American Museum or the Museum of Costume, the previous incarnation of the Fashion Museum, then just a few years old. Bath was not quite the tourist hub it is today, and it actually looked pretty shabby back then, though one couldn’t help but be struck by its elegant (if very blackened) stone architecture.
Looking at these scraps still fills me with a kind of feverish excitement, depositing me right back circa 1973. Laura Ashley had such an exhilarating aura of elegance, sophistication and wholesome escapism, so unlike anything else I can remember from the period, though I didn’t get out much in middle childhood. Anyone under thirty might find it hard to imagine, looking at these little brown fragments, how they excited such admiration and longing. Maybe you just had to be there, with rocketing inflation, the 3-day week, the sexual revolution, the perennial fear of Soviet invasion (not to mention nuclear annihilation), doing your best to block it all out with your tranny tuned to Radio Luxembourg under your brushed polyester bedclothes. No wonder we were so ready to lap up The Forsyte Saga, War & Peace, The Onedin Line, and Upstairs Downstairs on the TV.
Laura Ashley print of mythical beasts
I still love almost everything about these Laura Ashley pieces. The sturdy texture of the 100% cotton, a world away from my purple manmade sheets of the time (which crackled with static and snagged against my toenails when I rolled over). I love the earthy, hippy hues, giving the impression that they’ve been dyed with the products of a hedgerow, though I’m very sure they weren’t. I love the small-repeat designs in just two restrained tones, the pseudo-medieval, mock-oriental and Victorian-style motifs. These fabrics seemed so sophisticated, so opulent, yet incredibly safe and modest too. It was a compelling mix for a young girl.
But possibly most of all, I love the fact that Laura Ashley was selling these as genuine manufacturing offcuts: pieces culled from dresses made in the Welsh factory. No pre-cut patchwork squares from virgin metres of cloth in those days. I wish there could be more conspicuous selling of designer wastage today. Shall we start a campaign?
The dresses themselves would have been beyond the budget at the time, so scraps were all I could reasonably aspire to. These scraps date from when the company was still very much Laura’s baby, and I can easily imagine (though it’s purely my fantasy) that every piece of cloth still passed under Laura’s gaze for a final quality check. I’m sure it didn’t really, but her spirit is very much here.
Print S105 featuring a triangular pansy motif
Laura had a keen sense of thrift and strove to avoid waste when pattern-cutting. One of her early designs was an oven glove, made from the wastage created by the scooped neck of a gardening smock. And it’s easy to imagine how her unwillingness to see such offcuts go to waste, plus her love of patchwork (notably sparked by a WI exhibition in the early ’50s) informed the decision to package them up and sell them.
Any pattern-cutters out there care to tell me which garment pieces you think these were cut from? Is that plum ‘C’-shape from a neckline, the comma-shaped piece from an armscye?
1970s Laura Ashley factory offcuts
There’s a great story related by Meirion, one of the Welsh factory stalwarts, in Anne Sebba’s biography Laura Ashley: A Life By Design published in 1990 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson:
Once I cut the neckline wrong on three hundred dresses and I thought at first I’d just keep quiet and fill the gap with lace. But, of course, she would have noticed so I told her and we turned the scoop to our advantage. In future that style always carried the “wrong” neckline. All she said to me, very calmly, was, “Remember, you can always learn from your mistakes”.
And speaking of mistakes, here’s some of the patchwork I made from these offcuts, way back in my very earliest needle-plying days. Don’t look too closely at the stitching. And how many shades of brown can you include in one piece, anyway? The cushion was well loved, but this wasn’t my finest hour. The item with the smaller piecing is a bag, with every hexagon stuffed. Not sure why I thought that was a good idea.
My early Laura Ashley patchwork
Don’t look too closely at the stitching
Hexagon patchwork also features in the current exhibition. There’s a cover pieced by Rosemary Harden, the director of the Fashion Museum, and a vibrant patchwork skirt made by Beverly Peach. Now, I don’t remember Laura Ashley producing particularly bright fabrics, but I realised how wrong I was when I visited the exhibition. More about that (and some surprisingly psychedelic offerings from Mrs Ashley) very soon.
In my next post: a report on Laura Ashley A Romantic Heroine which celebrates 60 years of the Laura Ashley label. The exhibition is currently on display at the Fashion Museum, Bath, until 26th August 2013, then at the Bowes Museum, County Durham, from 21st September 2013 to 5th January 2014.