Contributed by Carolyn Shadid Lewis
This is a follow-up to the post I submitted in July, asking for help in finding women who worked as seamstresses in a parachute factory in Carrickfergus during the Second World War. [The image is from the parachute factory in Carrickfergus, courtesy of the National Archives of Ireland.-Pue]
Margaret Smyth warmly welcomed me into her home in Ballymena, directing her daughter to start the kettle as we settled into her living room. She had trouble hearing, so she asked me to sit close to her. She held my hand, gave me a smile and asked in a perplexed voice, “You came all the way from America to interview me?” I laughed and assured her that she was worth the effort.
Now age 89, Margaret had worked for five years as a seamstress in the parachute factory in Carrickfergus during the war. My journey to find her was long and varied, filled with the help and support of so many people on both sides of the border. It was a difficult task, mostly due to my own lack of research skills, but also due to the unfortunate fact that the women’s experience during the Second World War was not well documented. In the end, I found Margaret from the sheer luck that her daughter, Daphne, read my letter in the Belfast Telegraph and took the initiative to write to me. Her letter arrived two weeks before I was set to return to the States, just as I gave up hope of actually finding anyone.
But after all of my unsuccessful searching, there I was with Margaret in her living room. We talked, and a picture began to unfold of her as a young woman during the war. She described her experience of rationing, airstrikes, and blackouts. Her family struggled to make ends meet, so Margaret worked to help with the expenses. She described her first job at the Mourne Clothing Company in Larne. “I made Soldiers’ uniforms—trousers,” she said. “I put a note in one of the pockets, and I got a letter from a Soldier from Portadown. But, my mother wouldn’t let me write to him, because she was strict. So, that was that.”
Margaret continued to playfully share the details of her life. Her face lit up as she began to reminisce about her work for the Littlewoods Company at Barn Halt. “I heard about this factory in Carrickfergus, making parachutes,” she began. “And my mother wasn’t too well pleased, because I left the Mourne, because I had to travel on the train.” She proceeded to describe the long working hours at the factory, working ten-hour days during the week, and an additional four hours on Saturday. She had an hour commute each day, with only 15-minutes off for lunch. “My life was sewing,” she said, “and I loved it.”
Margaret became the fastest seamstress in the factory, sewing five or six parachutes a day, even though the factory only required three. She proudly told me that her colleagues christened her “Speedy” Margaret. She was part of a long assembly line of women who worked together in order to create each parachute. One woman measured and cut the eight individual sections, and Margaret sewed the seams of the sections together to make up the circumference of the parachute. Another woman sewed the top, someone else closed up the seams at the bottom, and yet another woman added the parachute cords. One woman carefully rigged each parachute in the packs while another checked the accuracy of her work. All of this collective labor contributed to the Allies’ major Airborne offensive campaigns of the later part of the war, such as the Italian campaign, the invasion of Normandy, and Market Garden. The women’s cooperation also created a seemingly impossible reality; they made a delicate object that defied gravity to support the weight of a human body in mid air.
Before I left for Ireland, so many people asked me if my project was about Rosie the Riveter. Despite the good intentions of those who asked, the question always troubled me. The ubiquitous image is a piece of American propaganda, and while it may speak to some vague and general sense of female empowerment, it in no way gives us a clear picture of the everyday experience of the actual women employed during the war. Hundreds of women worked in this particular factory alone, and yet I struggled to find any historical documentation about their specific experience.
The challenging task of finding Margaret helped me to grasp the importance of my encounter with her. She is possibly one of the last living witnesses to speak about her experience at the factory in Carrickfergus. The specifics of her life and her work are significant. Her labor played a small part in altering the course of the war, but it also, over time, increased the opportunities for so many women who followed her.
I was thankful to be with Margaret in her living room. Using the pleats of her skirt, she showed me how she made the seams of the parachute. She folded one edge of the pleat over the other. “We called them French seams,” she said. “They were closed, you see.” I told her that I found parachutes to be beautiful, and I asked her if she enjoyed working with the material. She replied, “Oh aye! They were lovely!”
We talked for a while, and Margaret gave me a vivid picture of her life during the war. I have my work cut out for me as I begin to edit the recorded interview. I am striving to give the right context to the details of Margaret’s life, while capturing the beauty of our moment together. I am still unsure exactly where the work is headed, but this I do know: the next time someone asks me if my project is about Rosie the Riveter, I can confidently reply, “No, it isn’t about Rosie—it’s about Speedy Margaret.”
Carolyn Shadid Lewis is a multimedia artist living in Boston. You can see examples of her recent work, including other pieces related to the memory of war, on her website.