Make it yourself - patterns and thread
On its opening day, 5 November 1909, the first British store in Liverpool offered a range of fashions, along with a counter full of 'notions', which was the American parent company's name for Haberdashery, or Hab'y for short.
Part of the chain's brand essence was a self-imposed maximum price of sixpence (2½p). As a result, rather than selling made-up clothes, it specialised in selling everything that people would need to make their own garments at home.
Life was very different in Edwardian times. Most homes had gas lighting and were heated by coal fires. There was no television or radio. A popular pastime on long winter evenings was to knit or sew. Many women repaired the family's clothes, and some also made items from scratch, guided by a paper pattern.
Whatever the project, making a sweater or mending a rug, Woolworth had the right needle and all the raw material. It also offered the needles, wool and yarn, cotton and thread and even the scissors, all for sixpence or less. Adjusted for inflation the pre-war prices would range between 17p and £2.11 or 27 cents and $3.59 today. The low prices made the stores very popular with thrifty mums working to a tight budget.
Many of the patterns were designed for beginners. At the time most girls were taught needlework at school, in preparation for a life minding the home. Life has changed a lot since then, but most of clothes still look quite fashionable!
Everything to make a complete outfit cost less than ten shillings (50p), but it is a sign of how values have changed over the century that at today's prices some of the finished garments would cost as much as £42 ($71.40) to make. At the time it was much cheaper to make garments than to buy them ready-made.
When Woolworth first opened in Britain, it was one of the only international chains. It drew on thirty years of experience in the Main Streets of the USA, and incorporated design ideas from its stores in Canada and Buying Offices in France and Germany. The goal of the Buyers was to imitate the latest catwalk fashions from Paris, Milan and New York at sixpenny prices.
The Crochet Over Blouse on the right could be made for five shillings at the time (25p), the equivalent of about £10.50 or $17.85 today.
In a twist of fate, while most of the patterns were of American origin, virtually all of the original accessories and threads sold in the USA were British made. Sheffield steel and needles from Redditch in the Midlands were the finest in the world. The factories were ultra-efficient and offered the lowest cost price.
In 1912, when Frank wanted mementoes for the Woolworth Building, the British Needle Co. Ltd. of Redditch was the obvious choice. They designed and made the needle books, which became million sellers.
Two years later, the outbreak of war interrupted the supply line, leaving the counters in the USA empty. Woolworth had to think on his feet. He drew on a visit to the Redditch factory to explain the manufacturing process to a local supplier. His work stimulating American industry helped to ensure that today he is revered as a merchant prince.
As the new Woolworth's subsidiary expanded across the UK and Ireland and its stores grew larger, the haberdashery department was extended, making room for lots of new lines. By the 1930s it was possible to buy ready-made accessories, including sew-in pockets, and fabric panels in a variety of styles. There were also sequins and costume jewellery for dresses, and lots of fancy buttons and zips. New patterns showed customers how to make soft toys, lampshades and carpets. The picture below shows some of the new items. Click the image if you would like to open a high resolution version in a new window.
To add spice to the offer, the firm looked out for bin-end fashions, particularly after the Woolworth headquarters moved to fashionable New Bond Street, Mayfair in 1931. This placed the Buyer just a stone's throw from the London fashion scene in Regent Street and Saville Row. Treasures like silk stockings and ladies underwear, sold for sixpence as a special offer on the occasional Saturday, caused mayhem in the stores. Customers besieged the fashion counter towards the back of the salesfloor in search of a bargain.
It became a standing joke that when well-to-do shoppers were seen by their friends in the throng, they would explain that they were buying for their servants or a child's school play. In fact it reflected Woolworth's great and enduring strength as the everyday store for everyone.
The picture below shows the store in Chiswick High Road, West London in 1936. The window is captioned "Lace for Loveliness" and features some of the things people could make with a large consignment of lace that the Buyer acquired after a large factory went out of business. If you would like to see more detail, please click the image to open a larger version in a new window.
The 'everyday store for everyone' brand was reinforced by a series of local initiatives, designed to appeal to customers in different areas of the country.
For example the chain had over a hundred branches in old county of Lancashire, which included the major conurbations of Liverpool, Manchester and Preston. The District Manager brokered a deal with the largest mill in the county, Horrockses of Preston, to borrow a small portable loom. He also hired a signwriter to make a large banner declaring:
The display was circulated between the stores across the county, following a carefully crafted timetable which aimed to line up with local wakes week holidays. It proved a highly-effective sales aid, and built priceless goodwill for the brand, which endured long after the original window was forgotten.
Du Barry dressmaking patterns became very popular in the 1930s. Each one included drawings and sewing instructions; some also had a cut-out of the outfit. There were patterns for all sorts of things, including dresses, blouses, hats and even men's suits.
Innovative marketing was used to drive sales. A teaser version called Free Fashion Forecast was given away to customers. This showcased the latest designs, with enough detail to help readers choose. The measurements were omitted to make them buy.
The stores stocked paper patterns until the mid 1980s. Until 1965 the price was generally held to sixpence, with multi-pattern booklets even better value at a shilling (5p).
Like the Fashion Forecast of earlier years, the booklets were treated as a sales aid for the stores' own wool, needles and buttons.
Each pattern was carefully crafted. The goal was to persuade shoppers that the garments were easy to make and guaranteed that a skilled knitter would be able to create a stylish and fashionable look to be proud of. To achieve this Woolworth commissioned a full fashion shoot for each batch of patterns and hired the best models that money could buy.
The firm's talent scouts chose models from drama schools and beauty parades, picking artists who they believed were 'going places'. The patterns show that they knew their stuff. Among those pictured in 'Woolies' Woolies' were the Gurkhas' champion and absolutely fabulous Joanna Lumley, and the shaken but not stirred Persuader and super-sauve James Bond, Roger Moore.
In between the patterns each booklet featured advertisements for the extensive range of accessories that were available in the haberdashery department at Woolworth's. By the 1960s the range in the largest superstores had expanded to include material by the yard, and even electric sewing and knitting machines.
You can see more window displays and paper patterns in our tribute to Woolies fashion - The Easter Parade, here in the fashion and Ladybird gallery of the Woolworths Museum. Why not take a look?
The Ladybird and Fashion Gallery