Spirella Company - Corset Makers & Corsetieres

Sat 12th January 2013
10.30 am - 3pm

First Garden City Heritage Museum
296 Norton Way South, Letchworth Garden City, SG6 1SU

The Spirella factory was built between 1912 and 1920. The American company revolutionised the manufacture of corsets, and came to Letchworth Garden City in 1910. The company’s motto was ‘Healthy Happy Workers are the World’s Best’. Thousands of people from the Garden City and around worked at the factory, and the building is a much-loved Letchworth landmark.

Packed full of objects & old photographs & ephemera from the museum's collections, this major exhibition explores the history of the magnificent Spirella Building, the company and the corsets it made, and the lives of some of those 'Healthy Happy Workers', and is open now, until February 2013.

Carolyn Ferguson

‘The warm sun-drenched days call for freedom of movement and unrestricted liberty’. These words, from an advertisement of 1953 for the Spirella Company, sum up the philosophy of the company that is celebrated in an exhibition at the First Garden City Heritage Museum in Letchworth. Members of the Textile Society were lucky enough to visit the museum to see the corsets, catalogues and other ephemera from the famous American company, whose Letchworth factory employed many thousands of local workers. The photographic displays of company events, dinners and fashion-shows provided a real insight into a company whose motto was ‘Happy Workers are the best’.

We were intrigued by the film clips, particularly the one which showed how a corsetiere would measure a rather large lady for her ‘Spirella’ and the benefits that she would gain. The company’s success was largely based on this personalised sales method and in the 1960s there were as many as 6500 Spirella corsetieres who visited homes, measured and fitted foundation garments to a large number of women.

The museum curator, Vicky Rawlings gave members a fascinating introduction to the museum and the 1903 social experiment which gave rise to the Garden City Movement. Her walking tour illustrated the social history of the city. As we walked along the wide and uncluttered streets, we saw many different forms of predominantly white rendered houses, with their balconies and Arts and Crafts features, and heard about the city’s first unconventional and artistic residents.

The morning gave us a real feel for the garden city, its residents and its businesses and we were lucky to have Vicky’s excellent commentary. However I think that we were all glad that society no longer dictates that women are bound by Spirella type under garments.

Report by Uthra Rajgopal

This visit took place on the afternoon of Saturday 12th January 2013 and was a joint event with the Costume Society. Led by the curator, Vicky Rawlings, of the First Garden City Heritage Museum, the afternoon visit was the perfect accompaniment to a walking tour of the architectural and urban planning history of the town. The visit involved looking at a fabulous selection of textiles by Edmund Hunter and his son, Alec Hunter. Edmund Hunter had established his company, St Edmundsbury Weaving Works in Letchworth Garden City in 1908. As a keen advocate of the Arts and Crafts Movement, Hunter was inevitably attracted to the utopian vision of the town’s architects, originally Ebenezer Howard and later, Raymond Unwin and Barry Parker. We were particularly grateful to Vicky and her colleagues for showing us a wonderful collection of colourful woven textiles depicting Hunter’s interests in a wide variety of subjects such as astrology, nature, heraldry and dancing.
‘The original aim of St. Edmundsbury was to produce textiles on a handloom, reflecting the pro-handicraft attitudes of the Arts and Crafts Movement. The early textiles at the factory were produced in this way, but later work for clients such as Burberry used power looms, to fulfil the needs of the commercial market. Throughout the history of the company, St Edmundsbury produced work for prominent clients including St Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle. They also designed some textiles for Liberty of London.The company made a wide range of textiles, including altar hangings, church vestments, upholstery fabrics, tablecloths, silk scarves and book covers. The designs of the textiles were generally quite intricate and high-quality. The textiles were primarily designed by Edmund Hunter, although Alec Hunter also contributed in his time at the firm from 1919-1927. The firm’s early style was mainly Arts and Crafts, and they regularly exhibited at the Arts and Crafts Society exhibitions. The subject matter of the designs reflected Edmund’s personal interests – heraldry, theosophy, dancing, animals, nature and tarot cards. Alec’s designs often featured ships and Morris dancers, while Edmund favoured animals and birds. Religious images appeared regularly since a number of textiles were designed for churches. The designs became more geometric and stylised in the late 1920s following the budding ‘Art Deco movement.’