Today in our third segment we are continuing our chat with Jenifer Klier, great niece of Helen Bond Carruthers about just how her great aunt actually produced her beautiful sweaters.
One thing in particular that I wanted to ask Jenifer about was where her Aunt Helen got her piano shawls. The crewelwork from these shawls was used to embellish the sweaters that Mrs. Carruthers made.
Jenifer answered, “None of us have any idea if any of the embroidery came from piano shawls. We really never saw them before the embroidery was removed. My dad thinks that a lot of the shawls come from a warehouse in Louisville which was purchased by my aunt before she ever started the sweater business. He seems to think that she discovered all of these shawls and then had to come up with an idea for using them. I don’t know if this helps, but I know I never saw one on a piano.”
Jenifer did ask if I would be interested in the process of making the sweaters and of course I said I would be, as I imagine anyone reading this would be.
Jenifer said, “#1. Constructing the sweaters is best described in two parts:
A) The embroidery.
This primarily came from silk shawls, but also from old-fashioned lace curtains and the like. They placed iron-on backing on the wrong side and then trimmed out the designs intended for use on the sweaters. This was a fairly tedious process, and everyone who could use a pair of scissors helped. I was even allowed to do this after a certain age. The cut out designs were placed on square, divided paper plates, and it was not unusual to see paper plates with embroidery pieces and pairs of tiny embroidery scissors lying all around the house. Any time someone had a few minutes to spare, they would trim embroidery. I don’t know if you can still get those scissors, but I still have a pair (there were originally hundreds) and will include a picture when I get to that point.
B) The sweaters.
As I have previously mentioned, these came from Bergdorf Goodman, and arrived without any ornamentation whatsoever, except for plain, matching buttons. The sleeves were shortened, and the ribbing around the bottom of the sweater was removed and replaced with grosgrain ribbon, which was turned up into the hem. Over this they placed her label. The embroidery (prepared as described above) was then applied to the front, back and sleeves. Originally, Auntie was the only one who did this, but later on there were at least two other ladies employed by her to do this as well. However, all their designs had to be approved by her. Once the design was approved it was pinned on, also a very tedious task, as you might suppose. After this the embroidery was sewn on by hand. The sweater was then lined with chiffon, and the buttons were changed. I remember a large cabinet full of tiny drawers, each holding different kinds of exotic buttons. There must have been hundreds of those drawers. The other thing I remember there being hundreds of were boxes of thread. Each box held maybe a dozen spools of the same color; but there was every possible shade of every possible color in the known spectrum. It was amazing.
Basically, that’s the process as best I remember it. I confirmed this with my Mom. At the time I was a school-aged child (roughly mid to late sixties), the sweater were selling for $150 each, which was incredibly expensive at that time, believe it or not."
When I asked Jenifer where her aunt came up with her design ideas Jenifer stated, “I honestly do not know where she got the ideas or themes. I wish I could tell you. There is probably no one alive now who could. My dad certainly has no idea.”
In talking with Jenifer I asked if her Aunt Helen had employees that assisted in the making of the sweaters. Jenifer said, “None of us are really sure exactly when she began hiring people to help her. I do know that there was a fire in 1954 or 1955 that damaged most of the third floor of the house, which was primarily being used for her business, and all that had to be restored. When I was a child (I was born in 1958) I can recall at least six women who worked on the third floor full-time. These women were primarily seamstresses who hemmed, sewed in linings and labels, changed buttons, sewed on embroidery and such. Also, the lady who ironed the backing onto the embroidery worked up there. Obviously, a large part of this work involved sewing by hand, but there was also quite a bit of machine work going on. There may have been as many as eight black Singer sewing machines up there. Most of the clothes we wore in those days were made by those ladies, and we used to “hang out” up there, and actually became quite close to many of them. They taught me to sew, and I have made many garments for myself and my daughter over the years. There were also several other women in the community who would work from home. They would pick up a sweater that had embroidery pinned on it, take it home and sew it on (all by hand, of course). My mom tells me they were paid ten dollars per sweater for this work.
As to the other employees I remember, there were two ladies who did designing and pinning (all approved by Auntie). This work was done on the second floor, in my grandfather’s bedroom. He didn’t seem to mind; he really didn’t spend much time there—he had his own real estate business and was very active in the community; I seem to remember he served as a judge part-time. (This was “Jim Ed” Bond, Auntie’s brother. Her other brother, “Doc” Bond, was a famous horse auctioneer—he even did a Corn Flakes commercial!) As I have already mentioned, Auntie had a secretary to help her run the business. She had her own office on the second floor. I remember watching her take shorthand while my aunt dictated many a letter. I was fascinated!”
In closing this installment we have pictures Jenifer has provided for our viewing pleasure. We have pictures of another gorgeous sweater, tools of Mrs. Carruthers' trade, Mrs. Carruthers herself and of one very famous Hollywood legend, Elizabeth Taylor, sporting one of her ten Helen Bond Carruthers creations.
Helen Bond Carruthers
Tools of Helen Bond Carruthers trade
Elizabeth Taylor wearing one of her ten Helen Bond Carruthers sweaters (picture from the October 24, 1954 issue of the NY Sunday News)
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