24. Stayed Here III: “The Loud Staccato of Needles,” by Lucille T. Nolen.

On July 31, 2014, Randall Wells accompanied Judy Nolen Hylton and her mother, Lucille T. Nolen (b. 1922), on a tour of the earlier shirt factory, eventually the Winter Sun Building. J. Freezer & Son, Inc., was evidently based in New York and for many years the operation in Floyd made shirts. After this factory was purchased by the owner of Floyd Garment, it made blouses; material for them (later on) was cut in the building on Oxford St. behind the Food Lion grocery store. Both factories sewed garments that as finished products were trucked to the Radford factory for shipping. During World War II the company made bandoliers for a time; worn around the waist, they enabled a soldier to carry shells. (Lucille’s husband Edd was one of these soldiers.)

Judy knows all the sewing steps, as she grew up beside her mother: “I used to make pillows, bedspreads, crafts, my clothes and my daughter’s clothes.” They both still own a commercial sewing machine like the kind used in the factory, and Lucille could make about anything, including Judy’s wedding dress. Judy did see the shirt factory in full operation on a senior class tour. Family history repeated itself: after high school, for a short time, her sister and both of her brothers worked at the place, and she worked at Floyd Garment. In this chapter–a long-term, collaborative project–Judy records and amplifies Lucille’s memories of the factory’s history, floor plan, manufacturing process, employees, and impact on the community. For Lucille’s memories of downtown Floyd, please see earlier chapter.

Lucille T. Norton on floor of earlier shirt factory, 2014.

Lucille T. Nolen on floor of earlier shirt factory, 2014.

People of the area were delighted when the so-called “Shirt Factory,” J. Freezer & Son, was built in the Town of Floyd in 1936. Claude Thomas was a skilled carpenter who walked several miles from their home to help with construction. His daughter Lucille (later Lucille Nolen) worked at this factory for about forty years. When school let out in the spring of 1938, she did not return to classes but went to her first job there at the age of sixteen. For the initial three weeks she was paid three dollars a week and then put on production (i.e., on output measured against a quota) for 10 or 15 cents per hour. When she retired to help care of her aging parents in 1979, she was making five dollars per hour. (Please see “Making Production,” by Willadean Hylton, no close relation to Judy.) At the front of the building, a roll-down door was used for deliveries of material, and next to it was probably a large window. The remnant of the first can be seen where the doors to the hall take up only part of the original opening in the brick facade, and of the second where a large area has been blocked up.

For several years, finished work was shipped back out of the roll-down front door, then later out of the basement. The garments were put in cloth bins on wheels, then pushed onto the trucks and sent to the Radford factory. That factory ironed and packaged the garments to fill orders, often to Sears, Roebuck & Co. and Montgomery Ward & Co., large mail-order businesses. [Coincidentally, Wells’s father was employed by Montgomery Ward when Lucille started at J. Freezer, in the Great Depression; he was a merchandiser at the catalogue house in Chicago.] The old photograph does show large windows and a few small ones that were opened for ventilation. Windows were tinted so no one could see in or out, and there was no air-conditioning.

At the right front corner stood the office, which was reached by the front door (in 2014 the entrance to Dogtown Pizza). As one entered, the office was on the right with a glass window that could be raised; on the left was a waiting room for filling out paperwork. To get into the working factory a person walked through another door that was kept closed. There was a mechanics’ office adjacent to the main office and along the right side.

Lucille filled out her application and went into work the same morning. She had sewn at home with her mother, making quilts, and she had made dresses for herself, so she had a helpful background. For the first hour or two, the floor lady gave her scraps to sew to become familiar with the commercial sewing machine. If a person had sewn at home it mostly likely was with a non-electric sewing machine, which was no comparison to these fast, commercial ones. A lot of workers, moreover, might never have sewn before this job.

Each machine used cone-type thread with thousand of yards of thread on each spool. The supervisors would bring the workers thread to match up the material and then keep them supplied with it. The seamstresses were responsible for filling the bobbins. Thread was placed on the spindle and the thread end was guided through the tension discs and to the empty bobbin on the winder. By hand the seamstress would wind the thread-end around the bobbin a couple of times and push the winder until it clicked.  During the sewing process, the bobbin wound until full, at which point the winder would pop back and sit there until ready for use.

When on production, an employee did not want to waste time. Lucille usually worked at “her machine.” When it was not operating correctly, she told her supervisor, who then had the mechanic work on it. While he did so, she lost production time, so if the repair was ticking off too many minutes, they would give her something else to do.

The bosses were men (one was Pete Harman), but female supervisors, often called “floor ladies,” would help. The rest of the ground floor held long rows of sewing machines and seamstresses, all wearing dresses, pair by pair, facing one another like students at desks. “My number was 200-something at one time,” remembers Lucille. On production, there were so many dozen in a bundle. There was a large ticket on each bundle for each operation necessary to make it into a shirt. When the seamstress did her part, she would tear off her ticket and write her number on the part that was pasted on. Each procedure received so much for a production rate.

At the end of the day she would count the dozens she had completed and then compared to the production rate; if she had made over the limits that had been set for production, she would earn that much extra money. “Sometimes the jobs were so hard that I didn’t make production,” Lucille recalled. She would turn in her tickets and production sheets for checking-over in the office. The boss wanted the seamstress to make so much production every day to make sure that she was working to her full capacity. Besides, everyone wanted to make more money and this was the only way to do it. Even if the current performance-stage had been in the building, no musician could have been heard over the loud staccato of needles. Talking was not easy and not favored.

As a person entering on the right side would behold seamstresses who were handed bundles, each of which contained dozens of pre-cut cuffs, collars, pockets and pocket flaps ready to be sewn together. After sewing them, the seamstress wrote her number on the production ticket, kept her part of the ticket, and passed the bundle on to the lady who would turn them. The bundle was then passed to the seamstress who top-stitched around each item.

Odell Edmonds (a woman who rode to work with Lucille) sewed a label on each yoke, some marked Sears or Montgomery Ward. The labels came on a roll and had to be cut apart and then turned under on each end. The boss would let Odell take the rolls home to cut apart and turn the ends under to have them ready to sew on the yoke. If she wanted to, this made her job easier for the next day.

To the left of these sewing machines was a row of tables where these workers matched up the shirt front to the back yokes and sleeves. The floor ladies would oversee and help move the bundles onto the next seamstress on the left side of the factory. On that side there were rows of sewing machines facing one another with the first steps starting at the front of the factory. The shirts were always put together in a specific order with each worker diligently performing her task as quickly as she could to meet the high standards expected. The pockets were sewn onto the front of the shirt and then passed on for the button placket to be sewn on the front also. Double yokes were then sewn to the back of the shirt by a folder, a special attachment on the machine.

Lucille worked as a shoulder-seamier, the term used in the factory, sewing the shirts together at the back yoke. This process also required a machine folder. This job required her to feed the shirt fronts, top and bottom yoke, into the folder attachment that sewed it together, leaving no raw seams. When the factory later started making blouses, Lucille used a serger–a machine that overcasts the edges of a piece of fabric to prevent raveling. This device finished the seam at the same time that it sewed it together, leaving no raw edges. The sleeve packets were sewn at the bottom of the sleeves for the cuff and passed on to the sleevier whose job was to sew the sleeves into the garment. The sleeve machine was special in that it had two needles.

Serger. Courtesy Judy N. Hylton.

Serger. Courtesy Judy N. Hylton.

The shirt then moved on to the side-seamier, who sewed the garment together at the sides. The cuffs were set on the sleeves and the bottom of the shirts hemmed. The buttonholes were made in the shirts and on the cuffs. The buttons were sewed on the shirts by machine. Supervisors dropped all garments into a chute that took them to the basement of the factory for final inspection; any extra threads were cut off and cleaned up. The repair lady worked in the basement to repair minor imperfections of the shirts. Each bundle had a ticket attached with a worker’s number, so an unsatisfactory product would find its way back for correction. There were separate washrooms in the basement for men and women: at the back of the main floor there were steps on one side that went down to the women’s, and steps on the other side down to the men’s.

The day started at 7:30 and ended at 4:00, with a fifteen-minute break in the morning and afternoon and a half-hour break for lunch. Workers would bring their meal with them or walk out the street to one of the lunch counters. There were vending machines and tables in the break room in the basement. A loud buzzer would ring for breaks and for lunch. Everyone was glad to hear that sound, just to get up and move around after sitting in that position for hours, a strain that caused their shoulders and arms to get tired.

Lucille mainly did shoulder seams but said the supervisors “moved me around right much.” “They found out I could do most anything and they moved me wherever they needed me.” They wanted Lucille to do the repair lady’s job but she decided it was time for her to retire and help her parents. For the last few years, Lucille was working at the factory and after going home to fix dinner, she would go work for a neighbor, Ethel Nuckols, who made curtains for a country shop. She had worked at this factory while raising four children. After sewing all day she would often go home and make the children’s clothes or do garden work and can vegetables. Once retired, she had more time to help her parents and work at the neighbor’s house making curtains.

Workers carpooled with their neighbors and some rode from Hillsville on a bus. Jerry Eanes, who lived across from the factory in a room at the Dickerson Mill, would drive a bus to Hillsville morning and evening for the women to have a ride to work. Asa Quesenberry worked in the factory and lived in the direction of Hillsville, so eventually he started driving the bus home and this provided the workers transportation. Lucille especially remembers a couple of her fellow workers, Esther Trail and Hilda Wimmer. She also remembers mechanics such as Kermit Bowers, and Jimmy Bowers. Lucille became best friends with the lady who worked beside her, Dorothy Weeks (Salmons); they have shared a lifelong friendship, and both have celebrated their 90+ birthdays.

Lucille and Dorothy Weeks (Salmons)., just above the factory. Photographer unknown.

Lucille (on right) and Dorothy Weeks (Salmons), just above the factory. By permission of both, 2015. Photographer unknown.

When Lucille began her job, she would walk with neighbors from her house to the Parkway where Willard Smith lived to meet him for a ride. Since this was before daylight she would watch for the others’ flashlights to come across the hill and would walk down to the road to meet them. Walking together and trying to dodge mud holes, they even had a path below the road and through the field when the road was really muddy. If there was a heavy snow, the factory would close.

Willard owned a green truck that had benches on both sides and across the front of the bed, as well as tall cattle-racks with a canvas over the top for protection from the weather. These workers–Mrs. Blackwell, Odell Edmonds, Hattie Griffin, Vada Robertson, and Nora Smith–rode in that truck for ten cents a day, later twenty cents. Most of the time the truck was driven by Willard’s daughter, Nadine Smith, who also worked in the factory. The route in those days started north on the Parkway, turned left on Shooting Creek, passed Nolen’s Mill, reached Rt. 221, and then turned left to town. While they worked in the factory, Willard would take out the benches and haul cattle to Roanoke. He would wash out the truck, put the benches back in before picking up the workers, and take them back home each afternoon. So no matter the weather, Lucille would walk in the mornings with her flashlight to the Parkway and then walk back home with neighbors in the afternoon.

One day it snowed before they came home and, as the truck approached the area near the Rock Quarry on Shooting Creek, it got stuck in a snow drift and the riders had to abandon it. They first walked on to Tom Agee’s store, where the ladies all purchased bib overalls to wear home in the snow. Odell Edmonds’s stepmother was a large woman and they did not have any to fit her. Mr. Agee even let them charge the overalls until they received their paycheck to come back and pay, so, like a herd of cattle, they all walked home along the Parkway through the snow up to their knees. In later days the Smiths moved farther out the Parkway, and by this time, Lucille had purchased her car. Vada, Hattie and Mrs. Blackwell rode with her to work until she married and moved.

Ironically, Lucille could not always afford store-bought clothes. She would go window-shopping in Christiansburg, “I would just draw me off a picture, then cut a pattern from newspaper and sew the garment.” This is how most of her daughters’ dresses were made. Whoever purchased a dress pattern would share it with their friends to save money. A lot of the patterns that Lucille drew and cut were borrowed by her friends. The material used in the factory for the shirts was cotton, and if there were shirt backs or fronts left over, or if they had a flaw in them, they were given to the factory workers. These pieces were large enough for Lucille to make her sons’ shirts. If necessary, she would put a yoke in the front of the shirt to make it work. Lucille’s mother, Alma Thomas, used the small pieces to make quilts. These were the days when handmade patterns cut from a newspaper along with scraps of material made wearable clothes.

Lucille at home sewing on an industrial-quality machine. Photo by Judy N. Hylton.

Lucille at home sewing on an industrial-quality machine. Photo by Judy N. Hylton, 2011.

In the beginning, paychecks came every other Friday; later, every Friday. Declared Lucille: “This factory helped a lot of little hungry children, and grownups, too.”