All In Vein: Recollections from the lost world of flower making

Veining mould and upper. The upper would usually have a piece of shaped felt glued to it to prevent the mould from cutting the petal shape.

Veining mould and upper. The upper would usually have a piece of shaped felt glued to it to prevent the mould from cutting the petal shape.

Here's some things I remember about veining. Veining was a part of the old artificial flower making process. It involved pressing pre-cut petal or leaf shapes in a veining mould to give a more naturalistic shape and to emboss the impression of veins into the fabric.

At W.F. Johnson's, our old family flower making firm, which finally closed down in the late 1990s, we used cast iron veining presses for this work. We called these machines "veiners". Confusingly, we used the same word to refer to the veining moulds.

Ivy leaf veiner. Note the felt on the mould upper.
Ivy leaf veiner. Note the felt on the mould upper.

Our presses were all of nineteenth or early twentieth century vintage. Made of blackened metal, they were basically an iron table about the size and shape of an individual school desk, with a heavy wheel on a threaded vertical axle. The axle passed through a hefty iron arch fitted with a hammer/press. When the wheel was turned anti-clockwise it raised the hammer/press. When spun back the other way, the hammer fell.

Veiner (top)

The person operating the press (who we would also have referred to as a veiner!) placed the leaf or petal shape into its mould (we would have called it a veiner) and slid the mould into place beneath the hammer. They would then turn the wheel back and spin it down again, hammering the mould and completing the veining process. The force of gravity and the weight of the iron wheel gave the press its heft, while the operator's hand upon the wheel gave it control. As a veiner you would need to develop the knack of turning the wheel and letting the hammer strike the veining mould with just the right amount of strength. This was important because hitting too hard would split the leaf/petal shape, while not hitting hard enough would mean the mould left too faint an impression.

The author veining at Johnson's, early 1990s. (Photo: F. Batten)

When my grandmother was helping out at the firm, working as a veiner, my dad had to swathe the veiner wheels in strips of cloth (off-cuts filched from the bins outside the dress-makers that worked on the same industrial estate) because she complained about having to grasp the cold iron wheel on chilly winter mornings.

One thing that did help with the cold was if the leaf or petal shape being veined needed a hot iron. Irons were generally used for what we called “silks”, which were leaves or petals cut from rayon. Orange blossom for wedding cake decorations, for instance, or holly for various Christmas related products. The rayon was shiny on one side, as opposed to the courser lawn cotton we used for most of our leaves and petals. To heat the veining mould you would place a flat iron (a slab of metal the size and shape of a small paperback, with a hole at one end) onto the gas ring of the old cooker that stood next to the sink in our workshop. When the iron was hot enough (judged by the somewhat repulsive method of spitting onto the iron and gauging the sizzle) you lifted the iron with an old screw driver, an operation that often resulted in singed knuckles. You would then carry the hot iron over to your veiner and place it under the hammer. The veining mould would go on top of it. The heat helped the fabric to take a nice crisp impression from the mould.

The ornamental legs of a veiner.

Veining was monotonous and uncomfortable work. It gave you a pain in the elbow, the shoulder and the back. But there was something about it, its very repetitiveness perhaps, that could, on occasion, evoke a meditative state of mind that was almost soothing. The sounds a veiner made when in use, the bright metallic clank, whirr, clatter, along with repeated shuddering jolts, and the high tinkling click-clack of the veining mould as counter-point, are like no other combination of sounds I can think of. I can't imagine there are many places where it can still be heard.

We are using a looped recording of the sound of veining as part of the musical theme to my play The Flower Maker's Tale, which is set in a fictional flower making workshop just before the First Word War. I took the sound recording from a short documentary film I made about my dad and our family firm back in 1997, a few years before W.F. Johnson ceased trading. Veining can be seen, and heard, towards the end of this ten-minute film, which is called The Last of the Flower Makers. The veining press shown in the photographs on this blog post is now in the archive collection of the Museum of London. Some of our old flower making hand-tools will feature as props in The Flower Maker's Tale.

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