It wasn’t the best needle for the job, but I had to persevere. I was on to something. I heard my grandma’s words: Needs must.
It was one of the most beautiful labels I owned. A Tootal scarf one-off from the early 70s. The legend about them being ‘Regd in England 1799’ was in a contrasting colour to the ‘An Authentic Tootal Scarf’. The scarf looked as though it had been caught up in some natural disaster, part-fire, part-plague, but the label was beautiful and, though I struggled with the sewing, I was proud of the final result.
With a name like Andrew Anderson there was a fair chance I’d be the butt of jokes, even before I made public my passion. At school if I ever got even slightly annoyed I would be Angry Anderson. Other situations would prompt people into holding thumb to ear and little finger to mouth and calling AA for any drink-related issues. How they laughed. How I shrugged my shoulders. Any opportunity for a list of first names or surnames would result in the stuttering “And – And – And”. Et cetera, et cetera, et so very annoying cetera.
I put up with this through the first three years of high school, then things turned worse. When people became aware I collected labels I was Anorak Anderson for all time. One of my teachers used the sobriquet to get down with the morons.
It started with a competition. Collecting the labels from Heinz products meant you had a chance of winning big prizes by sending in the pieces of paper peeled from the front of soup cans, tins of beans, Alphabetti Spaghetti.
I was soon peeling labels most evenings.
This developed into a – let’s call it an interest – with labels of all sorts. I put them in files and folders at first, and kept a meticulous card index. It was all curiously old-fashioned, and at the time I thought it was quite healthy.
Then my sister told her best friend who had a brother in my class and one thing inevitably led to an assembly where the staff orchestrated a scene where the whole school community was given permission to laugh at me. The good old days.
The turning point was a complete accident. My first family holiday in another country. Ten days on the Isle of Wight. I behaved impeccably – and was rewarded with a Mickey Mouse t-shirt. I remember well the care instructions (Warning!): don’t, please, (I’m paraphrasing) bother ironing – or indeed drying or washing – or the character picture on the front of the garment will disintegrate before your very eyes. This information was on a label which was very loosely-sewed so – you work out my reasoning, I’m too tired – I took it off and sewed it on the outside of the shirt. At the bottom of the sleeve.
My brother had a Brutus t-shirt. I stitched the label on the outside for him. I don’t believe he said Thank you, but he wore it when he mocked me in Yarmouth, Ventnor, Osborne House and on the pitch and putt course at Sandown
I started buying cheap clothes just for the labels. The linings of dead men’s coats brought rick pickings. Gentlemen’s outfitters from Cardiff, Bristol, Stockport and Solihull were among the best. The coats were then passed back to the next jumble sale. Sometimes I would leap with excitement on a great-looking coat to find I had removed the label months previously.
One of my best finds – I nearly wrote best friends there, which may tell you something about me – was a quilted brown anorak from Greenwoods, a store which once had a presence on every English high street. This was the largest label I’d seen up to that point.
One weekend I picked up three labels from Burton Menswear coats: Foam Backed. That’s what I call a label. They all went on the back of a collar. It wasn’t a good look, but it was my look.
A classmate called round one time when I was busy unpicking a rather beautiful label from a Dunn & Co Harris tweed jacket, which was destined to find its way on to the breast pocket of a short-sleeved Ben Sherman shirt. He admired it, picked up the homework he’d called round for, and left with a different expression on his face. Which is to say, different from the one with which he’d arrived.
I remember a Bronco western-style shirt where I attached the label to the small of the back. I often sewed labels on pockets and people were unable to tell whether they had been put there by the manufacturers. Lots of people poured scorn on me over the years, insisting labels should be on the inside of a piece of clothing, but I maintained I was watching for commerce to catch up.
I found out about the big business catch-up one day when I was making labels into elbow patches. Not my greatest hour by any stretch of the imagination. My old school ‘friend’ appeared on some TV business programme. He’d got a job down south in a factory or an office or a workplace or something. Then he’d got more specific and worked in design and suddenly labels and brand names started appearing on the outside of clothes and accessories.
I clearly had to do something about it and, like I said, the stitching was difficult but worth it. Enemy was a little-known label but I had a small polythene pocket full of their logos in different sizes. It was one of those I ‘gave’ to that boy from my class. Nothing will ever convince me he didn’t steal my ideas. And nothing will ever convince me to have regrets.
When the orderly brings me my evening meal (at 4:30!) I look at the grey plastic tray and look at his name badge and think how much better it would look if it was sewn on him.
Bio: Rob Walton is from Scunthorpe, and lives on Tyneside with his family. In 2017 poetry for adults and children, flash fictions, short stories and creative non-fiction will appear in Sidekick Books, Northern Voices, The Emma Press, The Interpreter’s House, a shop window in Marsden, Bennison Books, Write Out Loud, The Line Between Two Towns, Celebrating Change, the Worktown anthology, and DNA among others. He collated the New Hartley Memorial Pathway, and sometimes tweets @anicelad.