As my students will probably tell you, I love a good micro-history. Nothing pleases me more than finding out a lot of things about one tiny, specific subject. So imagine how thrilled I was to discover the Flower Making Museum in Hastings. Not only is this tiny museum packed full of history, it is an ongoing concern – making flowers for theatres and designers, and anyone else that needs artificial floral embellishments.
Brenda Wilson, the owner since 1981, is full of stories about flower making, and takes obvious and well-placed pride in the incredible range of items on offer. As you descend the staircase to the museum space, you realize that every surface, every nook and cranny is filled – with fruit, seeds, stamen, that form the basis of the flowers, and with petals of every conceivable variety, and the metal and wooden shapes that are used to punch out the delicate forms.
What is amazing is that Shirley Leaf and Petal Company has been in business for 150 years, having moved to Hastings in 1910. It gives a snapshot history of what would have been one of hundreds of mini-trades that have serviced the fashion, costume and related industries, past and present, and which are all too often forgotten. It is the history of many craftspeople that worked from home, and in small factories all over the country making a small but significant contribution to a huge variety of creations.
The myriad tools used to make the flowers are packed into cases around the small interconnecting rooms in the basement museum. And this includes a big metal machine that one of Wilson’s employees demonstrated to us – he carefully placed a metal stamp in the shape of petals onto a piece of fabric, lined it up under the machine’s arm and then, bang, stamped out shapes, one at a time to be wrapped and sewn together to make the flowers.
I was fascinated to hear about the range of places that have commissioned the company. Not just milliners, and theatre and carnival costumiers, as you would expect, but also chocolate and Christmas cracker manufacturers that used floral sprays and sprigs of holly as decoration.
So if you are on the South Coast, do make a visit, it really is fascinating. And never forget the power of ‘small’ histories.