Charlotte’s Threads

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Salisbury, Wiltshire, England

1637

 

"Honestly, I can't stand you anymore!" Charlotte screamed at the sewing machine in front of her. "Every time I get close to making my quota on time, you break! And do you have any idea how much I get fined for your tempers?"

"Shh," the girl next to her, Jane Porter, hissed. "I'm not getting in trouble because you're breaking the rules again. If the Missus hears you, I'm not losing my job. I have a family to support even if you don't!"

Tears began streaming down Charlotte's face as the girl turned back to her work. There's no help for it, Charlotte thought as she picked up the tiny knife by her sewing machine and began to cut the tangled snarl of thread.

"It would have to be around the needle and the bobbin," Charlotte muttered to herself, eyeing her neighbor rebelliously. Mrs. Grove's rules made each pair of workers responsible for the other, not only for the amount of work each did, but for what the missus called ‘excessive socializing,' which as far as Charlotte could tell, meant any word that wasn't ‘Yes, Missus.'

And Charlotte did need the money. Badly. Money was the only way out of the correction house that didn't involve becoming a whore. It was the only way she could earn herself a living without a husband.

"What's this, girl? Daydreaming again?" Mrs. Grove's harsh, sour voice sounded behind Charlotte, and she felt the stick the sweatshop's mistress carried prod her shoulder.

"No, Missus," Charlotte said, trying to concentrate on cutting the snarled thread loose from the up-time device. "The thread is knotted again, Missus. It's this cheap thread. The thread either snaps because it's too thin, locks the machine because it's too thick, or tangles as it did this time."

Mrs. Grove's next blow sent Charlotte forward, and she hugged the sewing machine to keep the machine from falling off the work table. Damage to one of the precious and expensive Higgins Sewing Machines was grounds for immediate dismissal without wages and, if a girl was lucky, without a beating.

"Keep the sauce to yourself and get back to work," Mrs. Grove snapped, giving Charlotte another whack with her stick.

****

"You have only yourself to blame," Jane said to Charlotte as she groaned and rubbed her shoulder. Jane was almost as much a pain as that cursed up-time machine, Charlotte thought, always kissing up to the Missus.

"I would have filled my baskets if that cursed thread hadn't broken at least a dozen times," Charlotte complained, putting her face in her hands. "Honestly, the master must buy every spool of bad thread on the market!"

Jane sniffed and tossing her head, strands of limp blonde hair falling out of her cap. Every girl who worked at Grove's Uniforms wore the same costume, a smock, bodice, skirt, apron, and cap made out of cheap wool and sewn with the Groves' cheap thread.

And we have to pay the price of a silk gown for these rags, Charlotte thought, her face reddening with anger. Or what might as well be the price of a silk gown to a parish orphan, when one included bed, board, and materials charged against the pittance the Groves paid.

"A poor worker blames her tools," Jane said piously as she tucked the loose strand of hair back under her cap and pulled a thin wool blanket from the pile near the curtain-door of the women's dormitory. The beds were straw pallets, but it was better than sleeping on a splintery wood floor. "Mrs. Grove's moved your spot twice now, and you know she won't do it a third time. And if you keep not filling your baskets you'll be fired."

Charlotte groaned and flopped back on her own thin, musty-smelling mattress. Jane was right, at least one girl was replaced every seven days. Grove Girls worked from sunup to sundown even on the Sabbath, a rule that kept the girls from church. And costs us the fine for not attending, Charlotte thought bitterly.

"We should organize," Gwen, the red-haired Welsh girl who slept on the pallet on the other side of Charlotte from Jane said, louder than she should. "In the Germanies . . ."

Several of the girls, including Jane and Charlotte's work-neighbor, hissed in disapproval.

"This isn't the Germanies," Jane snarled. "And if Mrs. or Mr. Grove hears you mention those Committees of Correspondence, you'll be on the road back to Wales and an English or Irish girl will have your job!"

"I wasn't the one that mentioned them was I," Gwen asked calmly, rolling over to face Jane, her thin arms folded. "It was you. And maybe I'll be the one telling the missus on you, Janet Porter! Then an even better Irish girl can have your job. At least an Irish girl could read and write, unlike you! One day I'll have a workshop of my own, and I'll treat my girls like human beings and not like the dogs the Groves treat us as."

Charlotte gave Gwen an envious glance, then burrowed deeper in her straw mattress as someone snuffed out the single candle the girls were allowed in their windowless room.

Charlotte's parents had died of the plague when she was a child, and without relatives she'd been sent to the parish orphanage, and from there to the Groves. Her only lessons had been in how to hold a needle and short lesson on how to sew a straight seam on the up-time devices the Groves had bought in bulk when a newer model of Higgins Sewing Machine had come out.

If only she could be transferred to the cutting room, Charlotte thought wistfully, where the pieces to be sewn were marked and cut from paper patterns before they were piled in a cart for the sewing girls.

Each sewing girl was assigned to a group that sewed part of the garment before it was passed to the group that was responsible for the next. The first two days Charlotte had been at the Groves' had been the best as far as Charlotte was concerned, she'd spent hours sewing bone buttons. But that was the way of things here, as soon as a machine girl lost her job or was transferred to the cutting room, a button girl took her place.

Suddenly Charlotte felt something shift on her Gwen side, and sat up just in time to see a sliver of light and the outline of a body as the door was pushed open.

Where was Gwen going? Charlotte wondered. The only men in the workshop were the porters . . . Was Gwen a member of the infamous Committees of Correspondence? Given what she'd said only a few minutes ago she could be . . .

Pushing her exhaustion aside, Charlotte rolled Gwen-ward and got up. She liked Gwen, she really did . . . but . . .

Competing visions of the cutting room and the correction house spun through her tired mind as she padded down the rickety stairs to the machine floor and caught up with Gwen as the other girl opened the door that led from the machine room to the shop.

The shop was full of different-sized wood dolls, from twelve-inch figures hung from the ceiling to cruder child-sized dolls, each wearing a different uniform. Several, Charlotte could see in the moonlight, were livery in different styles and festooned with gold braid. Others, she supposed, were military uniforms in the new up-time fashion. There were even uniforms for women, smocks, plain bodices, and skirts like the Groves issued their workers.

Charlotte was tempted to look through the dolls on display, to see which of the uniforms she was making, but Gwen had reached the heavy doors and Charlotte raced across the floor, managing to catch Gwen's sleeve as the girl turned to close the door.

Before Charlotte could react, Gwen reached out with her other hand, pulled Charlotte out the door and closed it with a bang that made every dog in Salisbury start barking.

"You had to follow me, didn't you," Gwen hissed as she pulled Charlotte down the street. "I suppose you're planning to tell Her Ladyship of the Workshop and get me sacked? Well then you might as well see everything!"

Charlotte twisted her arm out of Gwen's. "And why shouldn't I tell Mrs. Grove you're sneaking out for a Committee of Correspondence meeting? After what you said tonight, that Jane'll do it in the morning! Why should she get the reward?"

Gwen snorted. "Fat lot of a reward she'll get! The G's are a stingy lot. Mr. G will pat her butt while Mrs. G pretends to look away and that'll be it until Jane gets in the family way, then they'll fire her. You report me, and you'll get the same! That's what happened to the last girl."

Charlotte started backward, but Gwen gripped her arm and started pulling her through the narrow, medieval Salisbury streets.

"Come with me, and I'll show you something better than the Groves could ever offer," Gwen hissed.

****

"What's this, Gwen? A new recruit? I thought you said we couldn't trust any more Grove Girls?" a lanky young man with a thick French accent and heavy glasses asked as Gwen shoved Charlotte into a room.

Charlotte blinked in the unexpected bright light. Once her eyes had adjusted, Charlotte was surprised to recognize two of the porters from the Grove's'.

"You're Joshua and Daniel, aren't you?" Charlotte gasped, stumbling backward into Gwen.

"That's right," one of the muscular young men—Joshua, Charlotte thought—said. "We're porters. I haul the bundles of cut pieces to the sorting area and Danny, here, hauls the crates with the finished goods to the wagons."

Daniel or Danny, a large square young man, grinned at Charlotte, but didn't say anything.

Gwen pushed Charlotte forward. "This is Charlotte, one of the orphanage girls. She wanted to see what I was up to before she decides whether I lose my job or not."

The young men snorted.

"Cause we all know how much you love slaving for the Groves, don't we, Danny?" Joshua said, punching the larger man on the shoulder and giving Charlotte a grin. "I don't know why you keep working there, Sister. We're doing well enough now."

Gwen put her hands on her hips. "We're doing well enough to feed and clothe me and provide me with a place to live? In addition to buying wool, paying the Baguettes . . ."

"Breguet," the Frenchman interrupted, pronouncing his last name slowly. "I am David Breguet, Mademoiselle Charlotte, and this is my famille clock shop. We are Huguenots. We flee France after Ring of Fire say King Louis revoke Edict of Nantes. Oui, not the current roi, but my papa is caution? And war is not good for clocks. Les Anglais buy clocks, France at peace with Anglais."

"She doesn't need your life story within minutes of meeting you," Gwen said, pushing Charlotte out of her way, sitting on a bench, and picking up a basket of wool, which she shoved at Charlotte. "Here, you know how to card wool don't you? You can lend a hand while we talk. We'll even pay you for your missed sleep. And you know I'm right, Brother. I need to keep my job until David gets the water frame up and working."

"What's a water frame?" Charlotte asked, her hands working mechanically, picking up a wad of wool, working it between the cards, pulling the loosened ball of wool free, picking another wad from the basket. Any working-class daughter of Salisbury knew how to card, spin, and weave even though the days when Salisbury had been one of, if not the, greatest cloth cities in England, had died almost a century ago.

"This," David said, nodding to the open box of metal and wood he was tinkering with. It looked like a box on a table, except the box was open to show a strange arrangement of metal gears and spools. "It is an up-time device for spinning thread, good thread, fast. Not poor thread like la jeannette, or at least thread that is not good. Mesdames of Salisbury do better thread with regular spinning wheel, but not so fast. I'm not sure why; jeannette is identical to pictures my cousin sent from USE."

"I think it's the way we have the thread wound." Joshua picked up a hammer and began to attach a strange device to a spinning wheel. It looked, Charlotte thought, like a thread rack with six spindles for holding thread.


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