Pamela Thornton, Sample Machinist

All photos by Brendan Kitto

All photos by Brendan Kitto

"I don’t think there are many places that actually train machinists. Which I think is a real shame, otherwise it’s going to be a dying art."

I’m from Auckland. I was born and raised in Whanganui. I tell people I’m in the fashion industry and then explain I work for Zambesi. I’m a sample machinist. I started off at the Wanganui Woollen Mills. I think I always used to like sewing, I used to dress my dolls. I used to hand sew nice garments together for the dolls. I was about 7 or 8.

There wasn’t really that many opportunities in Whanganui. Unless you wanted to be a typist or something like that. I thought I’d try the fashion industry and then really liked it.

I’ve been with Zambesi for about 29 years. I enjoy the creative part. It’s all brain work. Liz will want something done and you both go over and over until you’re both satisfied with the finished garment and how it’s all put together.

I don’t think there are many places that actually train machinists. Which I think is a real shame, otherwise it’s going to be a dying art. I don’t think they think they’re going to be paid enough. Some of the girls go to colleges, they do learn quite a lot and some of them are really, really good. And others haven’t quite understood it. I think it depends on the college they go to.

Sample machinists start from calico. Liz and Olga talk about the garment they want, she comes up with the pattern and we start off with calico first. It’s just put together to see if they like the shape and styling of it. You might do several before they get the fit right, and after that we’ll put it in a fabric. We might put it one fabric, and it won’t work, and then you’ll put it in another and it’s great.

There’s usually a lot of problem solving, it’s the way we go about constructing the garment. You might say, ‘can you pattern it this way, so we can construct it this way and that will look nicer, it will be easier to put together.’ We’re just doing the samples and later on it goes out to the others. So they have to understand every aspect of how we’ve put something together.

Sometimes we don’t stick to the same garment, I might have started off and someone else finishes it. Other times I think, Pam’s got a handle on that particular one, so she can do that. Jenny can do this. That’s the way we do it.

When we started, people didn’t really get designer fashion as such, because most people used to make clothes at home, and they couldn’t afford designer clothes. Or if they could, they saved up a lot of money to get a nice piece that they could wear for a long time that would last them forever.

I think that’s why Zambesi was quite popular because they knew the brand after a while and they knew they could rely on it. We have had some garments come back to get repaired and you think, why don’t they throw it out? They have worn it to death.

It is really satisfying when you get a piece that’s just about falling apart and you put it back together and think ‘Wow, that’s good for another five years’. And sometimes we think, that’s a nice garment isn’t it? We should do it again. So then we do.



Esther Lim, Sample Machinist

Esther Lim, Sample Machinist

Neil Benson Donald, Samples and Production Cutter