Prior to visiting Los Angeles in last fall, I decided to erase preconceptions I had of Los Angeles and see it with “new” eyes. Even though I had been born in Glendale and raised in Whittier and Tarzana (San Fernando Valley), I’d seen relatively little of Los Angeles. My father was a workaholic. He owned a garment factory in downtown Los Angeles called Dori-Ann. The name was comprised of my mother’s first name, Doris, and my middle name, Ann.
On most Saturday, until I was nine years old, I went to my father’s factory. On Sundays, we did yard work and errands. Occasionally, we went camping, sightseeing or visited California beaches. My father enjoyed driving, camping and outdoor activities, the outcome of having become an Eagle Scout. I remember going to Las Vegas, Yosemite, Big Bear, Palm Springs, and other picturesque spots.
After my father died, my mother preferred to stay at home and avoid crowds and frenetic Southern California highways. The few times we went to the beach were to go deep-sea fishing. My mother’s lover ran a summer camp in Mammoth, a Southern California ski resort. It was our usually summer vacation spot along with Petaluma where one of her friends lived. My father’s sister took us to Knott’s Berry Farm at least once a year. I didn’t go to Disneyland until I was in my teens and it was at night during a Los Angeles Police Department event for which my mother was a volunteer.
When I got my driver’s license, the furthest I drove was down Ventura Boulevard to my part-time job at Pioneer Chicken in Woodland Hills. I was never encouraged to hangout with friends so when most teenagers were cruising with friends, I was either serving chicken, babysitting or doing “stuff” with my mother and grandparents.
The summer before my senior year, my mother, brother and I moved to Oregon. My memories of Los Angeles were limited and for the most part, not positive. I recalled the traffic, persistent smog that gave me a headache, the grimy garment district in downtown Los Angeles, crazy Ventura Boulevard, Mount Sinai Memorial in Burbank where my father is buried, and long, hot summers.
After moving to Oregon, most of my visits to Los Angeles were to Burbank to see my grandparent’s or the “Valley.” When Rich and I started to visit Los Angeles to see his brother in Anaheim and some of my relatives in Northridge, I decided to drop my prejudices and start appreciating my hometown or more appropriately, home metropolis.
Last October, Rich and I drove from one end of Los Angles to the other, from Anaheim to Woodland Hills then San Pedro to Northridge, and finally Buena Park, before heading east to Bullhead City, Arizona. We pass through downtown several times, which were comfortably familiar, yet foreign. Areas had been gentrified, large complexes added, and landmarks turned into tourist spots.
I remembered that my father’s factory was on Santee Street. I typed the street into Bing Maps and zoomed in using the aerial views, but nothing looked familiar. I remembered that his factory was a large building at the end of a dead-end street and fairly close to the freeway. Santee Street, however, stops and starts several times as it slices across the garment district.
Searching through my papers, I found the actual address – 743 Santee Street – and was shocked to discover that the ratty, un-air-conditioned building (top) along with two other neighboring buildings had been turned into 165 loft apartments, 280 loft condos, and 68,000 square feet of ground-floor retail space called Santee Village (below). The residences range from 700-square-foot studios (priced in the mid $300,00s) to 2,000-square-foot penthouses (priced in the mid $700,000s) with 10-14 foot high ceilings, polished concrete floors, oversized historical industrial windows, and modern amenities like stainless steel Bosch appliances, and Italian-style kitchen and bathroom cabinetry.
The images to the right and below I found on an apartment rental site. It’s hard to believe that someone’s kitchen or bedroom used to be the break and lunch area in my father’s factory!
The complex also has a rooftop swimming pool and spa, basketball court, landscaped courtyard, fitness center, and controlled access parking. As a child, I remember the only exercise associated with the area was stepping around the bums who had fallen sleep in the doorway or climbing up and down the stairs when the elevators broke.
According to propaganda on the buildings, “The $92 million additional investment in the loft conversions from former sweatshops, oops, we mean garment manufacturing buildings, aims to bring back middle-income families who have been priced out of other LA areas.”
Started in 2007, the redevelopment is the largest adaptive reuse development in L.A. The original buildings were built between 1912 and 1926 and were designated as historical structures. Owners qualify for tax savings of up to 70% through the Mills Act for the preservation of historical properties.
Looking at an aerial view of the area, I can point out the parking lot where we parked on Saturdays. Around the corner was a small deli with sticky booths, white Formica tables, and glaring florescent lights where we occasionally ate breakfast. I would schmear my warm bagel or Kaiser roll with soft butter and several packages of strawberry or grape jelly. Cattycorner to 743 Santee Street was a hole-in-wall snack bar that served the latest junk food and beverages. If we were good, my brother and I were allowed to go downstairs and buy cups of hot chocolate.
The lobby of 743 Santee Street had cracked marble floors and walls with rows of small brass mailboxes for the tenants. A brass button, made shiny by years of use, signaled the two freight-sized elevators that rattled and shock as they went up-and-down. The building always smelled like machine oil and lint. In the summer, the oppressive heat combined with the smells made me woozy.
My father’s factory took up half of the third (I think) floor. It was a rectangular space with my father’s office and the inspection tables towards the front. There were three or four “pressers” who ironed garments using large steam presses that resembled iron boards. They’d place a sleeve or skirt on the bottom “board” then pull down the second board. Bursts of steam would spew from the sides of the boards. It was horrible work in the summer, but the pressers who worked for my father were very loyal and stayed for years.
To the right of the pressers were several buttonhole and “trimming” machines. The buttonhole machine may have also sewn on the buttons. Snaps and hooks were sewn by hand. The trimming machine must have had a gentle vacuum that “sucked” in and cut loose threads.
A large part of the factory floor consisted of rows of industrial sewing machines. The only adjustment on these no-nonsense machines was the thread tension and stitch length. They also stitched two to three times faster than consumer machines. The operators claimed that you’re not a real seamstress until you’ve sewn through your finger. It wasn’t hard to do because the needle moved very rapidly and didn’t immediately stop when you took your foot off the presser pedal.
I found this picture, above, of an old Singer sewing machine online. It resembles the machines in my father’s factory with a holder for large bobbins of thread, plate presser foot, exposed wheel for manually lifting the needle or slowly moving it forward and backwards, and a huge engine under the machine. I learned to sew on one of these machines!
After a garment was sewed, the seams were overlocked to prevent them from raveling. I don’t remember the overlock machines, but am sure that my father had several.
At the back of the factory, by the windows, which are now marketed as “oversized historical industrial windows,” was the break and lunch area. It was my job to wash the large tables and straighten up the condiments. I hated the latter. There were jars of yellow, red and green peppers that smelled of vinegar and in my young mind, too nasty-smelling to eat. Even today, I cringe when I see pickled hot peppers.
Near the break room was racks with large spools of thread and boxes of buttons. The spools were around 3-inches high with an inch or more of thread wrapped around the cardboard spool. My heart pitter-patters when I think of the threads. The colors! The crisscross pattern of the thread when woven on the spool. And the musty smell from the lint in the factory!
Because thread was expensive, the secondary or bobbin thread was usually clear nylon. This threads was on very large spools (much like the picture of the sewing machine above) and prone to unwind or tangle very easily. A woven cloth, similar to a sock, was placed over the spool to keep the nylon from unwinding too quickly.
Along the wall, opposite the sewing machines, was a very, very long wooden table that my father built. To understand the purpose of this table, you need to understand how clothing is cut.
My father was a subcontractor to the clothing designer Fred Rothchild. The process started with the designer who created a sketch or prototype of a dress for a specific season or “line.” Pattern makers would then dissect the dress, creating paper patterns for all of the pieces that comprised the dress. A complicated dress might have dozens of pieces if you factor in interfacing, lining, and plackets. The patterns were then revised to create a range of sizes. The patterns were printed on thin paper, much like gift wrapping paper, not flimsy tissue that’s used in consumer patterns for McCall, Vogue or Butterick. This paper also had little symbols and numbers on it, probably to aid “cutters” in laying out the patterns in relationship to the fabric bias, and selvage.
Fabrics for garments are purchased from fabric brokers. My mother’s brother is a fabric broker and has represented hundreds of lines from laces to wools, chiffons, prints, and double-knit. For the most part, the fabrics that were sewed in my father’s factory were double-knits, synthetic linings, interfacing, and some satin or silk for bows and ties.
Fabrics would come on spools that were up to 36-inches in length. These spools were placed on a contraption that could roll along the length of a looooooog table. A company that specialized in cutting would “roll out” layers of fabric, interfacing, and lining – one on top of each other with tissue paper separating the varying colors and fabrics.
A cutter would then use a saw-like machine (below) to cut through the layers of fabric and the pattern on the top of the pile. Today, machines are used to cut out the layers of fabric. In addition, computers are used today to determine the optimal way to lay-out patterns to create the least waste of fabric (see the lay-out of the pattern above and to the right).
Several different sizes of a garment can be cut using the same layering of fabrics. After the pieces are cut, they’re placed one on top of each other and loaded into a large canvas cart with wheels. These carts would be pushed through the streets and alleys of the Los Angeles garment district to contract manufacturers like my father who bid on sewing and finishing the garments.
My father or on Saturdays, my mother, would wheel a cart full of cut pieces to the long table that my father built. The bundles of fabric would be laid-out. For instance, there would be a stack of sleeves, a stack of fronts, a stack of collars, a stack of cuffs, etc.
Starting at one end of the table, the pieces for a particular size or color would be taken off each stack – usually separated by a piece of tissue paper – then bundled up and tied with a scrap of fabric. A ticket would be added to the stack with the size and number of garments for each size. The bundle would then be placed in another cart for the operators to sew.
For instance, the cut pieces that my father might receive could consist of:
- 4 size two pink dresses, 8 size two blue dresses, and 2 size two yellow dresses
- 6 size four dresses, 10 size two blue dresses, and 3 size two yellow dresses
- 14 size six dresses, 22 size two blue dresses, and 7 size two yellow dresses
- 26 size eight dresses, 34 size two blue dresses, and 13 size two yellow dresses
- 20 size ten dresses, 26 size two blue dresses, and 10 size two yellow dresses
- 16 size twelve dresses, 24 size two blue dresses, and 8 size two yellow dresses
- 6 size fourteen dresses, 8 size two blue dresses, and 3 size two yellow dresses
Each size and each color would be a separate bundle! In addition, the cutter or manufacturer would provide an inventory sheet that you used to ensure you “picked” up the right number of pieces for each size or color.
My “other” job was to sit on a tall stool at the end of the sorting table and fill in the numbers on the tags: Size = 2, Number = 4. I would then hand the tag to my mother or father who would tie up the bundle and have me carry it to a cart. When I got old and stronger, I would tie up the bundles, which were sometime huge if it contained ten or more sets of pieces for one size.
Stay tuned for more details on my father’s garment factory in downtown Los Angeles!