BIRDWELL’s was started in 1961 by my mother, Carrie Mann, whose maiden name was Birdwell. She had been in an accident and needed someone to be with her, not to take care of her, but just to be there. My father and brother, Robert, had a machine shop on first street in Santa Ana behind a small house. The three of them made the house into a store and sewing room where Carrie did alterations and made women’s sports wear.
That year the sport of surfing became popular, although it did not have the status of being a SPORT. Surf Style clothing became a demand, but not in the shops. Carrie made lifeguard trunks for a store in Newport Beach; swimsuits for some friends; baggies for a team; a dozen special pattern suits for a attorney; custom orders for Neal’s Sporting goods in Santa Ana.
She was on her way to FAME, however, when Robert went to Huntington Beach on business for the machine shop and came back with an order of 100 surfing suits per week. Mother nearly fainted…she was working alone. After she regained her senses, she hired a woman to sew and made the entire family pitch in. Anyone visiting my mother had to work…sewing on buttons by hand, turning pocket flaps or any other thing that she needed to have done. When I brought my portable zig zag machine to her house to try to sew on buttons and it was a success, we were jubilant. We had wondered, can the small machine handle the heavy thread? And we pounded in the grommets by hand. No. We did not have a machine to do that. We used a leather mallot.
Over the years all seven of my children have worked for BIRDWELL’s, but at that time they were too young to work except for the family. So they swept floors, made coffee, ran errands, and sometimes got in the way.
She did not advertise, but her BRITCHES became known. Our first ad was in the fledgling SURFER… their second or third issue, while they were still printing on a six month schedule. Our small ad has been in every issue since.
One evening in 1965, mother worked late to get a order ready for shipping the next morning. During the night the shop was broken into and all the finished BRITCHES, including the boxed shipment were stolen. They were never recovered and it left Carrie without BRITCHES to ship and no time to make more. With so many BEACH BRITCHES to remake, I arranged to quit my job and mother, glad but dismayed, said, “But, Vivian, sometimes you might get paid.” She was right. Many weeks, none of us received more than groceries and, at times, she and Robert didn’t take that.
But we received many other things of value. The pleasure of family working together, the pride of doing good work and joy when it was recognized by a happy customer. At first all SURFERS or Baggies as they were called, made were of canvas and BIRDWELL’s were too. When Juno Surf Shop in Florida sent us a pair of single layer nylon team pants to copy, Mother took one look at them and said, “Well! I’m not going to make anything indecent.” And so she invented our double fabric nylon BRITCHES.
My mother made many rules. One was that we would offer only even sizes, 28 through 36. Over the years we have broken most of her rules and this was one of them. First we needed a size smaller, then a size bigger, then a size in between. This was repeated until in exasperation, I graded patterns from size 1 through 60. Then we got a bigger customer. At present the largest pattern is 66 inches and adjusted larger for a custom-sized man. A larger, standard pattern is free…the pattern not the BRITCHES.
Style 301 was, and still is, our most popular BRITCHES. Over the years the customers wanted it shorter and we made a #305. They wanted it longer; and we have a style #303. The men grew older, got too big for their BRITCHES and wanted them bigger. I made some new patterns: 361, 365, 363, which look like the 301, 305, 303, and have a body for the adult instead the teenager who first got acquainted with us. The new teenagers want great big pants and we have styles 371, 375, 373, for them to be fashionable.
In 1967, our father got sick and Mother quit to care for him. Robert and I are still working on the mousetrap and the world is coming to our door. Without our seeking, distributers from France, Japan, Peru, Australia… catalog retail from everywhere. We have grown with minimum advertising, no salesmen. Just hard work, integrity, beautiful BRITCHES, and faith.
Vivian Richardson and Robert Mann
PS. Can you imagine growing up with your sister, then spending most of your adult life with her? Or visa versa?
Vivian Richardson retired in 2008 at the age of 87. As of November of 2010 her brother Robert Mann, son Roy Richardson and his wife Cindy are taking the lead at the Birdwell shop. We are proud to be able to say we are a Four generation family owned and operated business since 1961. Made in America.