By Seth Rolbein
“Mackerel rejoice. Sardines fling their shining scales in the air. There is joy in the pools where minnows swim. Fish-net, their oldest and deadliest enemy, has become a fashion. Women – to the astonishment of the fish – are actually wrapping themselves up in the stuff. Deliberately.”
— From an article in “Picture Post,” a leading international magazine of the era, May 3, 1939
The reason for this whimsical, ersatz fish celebration was the success of a remarkable Cape Cod business that linked our fishing community to the world in a unique way – using fish net as fabric to create high women’s fashion. It lasted for decades, created scores of jobs, and was the manifestation of one amazing woman’s imagination, and energy.
Ada Elizabeth Worthington was her name, born in Buenos Ares in 1899, an ambulance driver in World War One, trained as an actress and nurse, six feet tall in her size 10 combat boots. Her accepted nickname was one of those meant to be the opposite of her true persona: “Tiny.”
Tiny met her husband-to-be, John Worthington, soon after the war. John was a piece of work himself: a pilot in the earliest days of aviation, Marine, an adventurer who rode rails to the West, worked in mines and Mexican oilfields. John also had deep Cape Cod roots; as a young teenager as early as 1912, he summered in Truro and worked fish weirs, hauling and harvesting thousands of pounds of fish. The weirs, and way of life, got in his blood.
The couple married in Montreal, moved back to Mexico for awhile. Returning to the States, John barnstormed the country, flying small airfield to small airfield, a traveling salesman with wings, selling products for Monsanto.
The Great Depression, starting in 1929, hit them less hard than many. But like many businesses on Cape and across the country, North Truro’s cold storage company, crucial for the weir fishing fleet, built in 1893, went bankrupt. When John and Tiny Worthington bought a house in town in 1932, local fishermen who had known him since he was a teenager implored him to help get the company back on its feet. John created shares in a new Pond Village Cold Storage Company, distributed them among fishermen, got the facility up and running again, and settled in. Except for a stint as a pilot in World War II, he spent the rest of his life in Truro.
Tiny soon revealed that she had ambitions of her own. In 1934, visiting the resurrected plant, she saw men dipping nets in tar to better protect them for long soaks in the sea.
“She thought the net was beautiful,” remembers her daughter Diana Worthington, who still lives in North Truro. “So she took a raw piece home and put it on a window as a valance. She asked the fishermen, generally men of few words, to come take a look, see if she could use their nets in that manner. They said it looked good.
“Before long, she started wrapping it around herself, experimenting with fashions. And that’s how it started.”
Cape Cod Fish Net Industries formed in 1935. The Great Depression was ravaging the country, but Tiny was not to be stopped. She started designing turbans, beachwear, gowns, dresses, bags, bracelets, belts, tablecloth, curtains. She could not sew (wrapping was her specialty) so she turned to women from Truro who could. These women, often wives of men fishing the nets, made her designs a reality. The net was cotton, not salvaged off gear, but bought directly from a linen factory. A store opened on the second story of a building on Depot Road; for the first two years, clients had to climb a ladder to reach the merchandize.
Tiny realized that if she was going to make her Fish Net Industries successful, she was going to need exposure, and distribution.
“Yes, she was a nurse, but you might say primarily she was an actress,” says Diana. “She used those skills well. She packed her bag with samples, and just went to New York City. She’d go prancing into every one of the major buyers, and they’d fall on the floor.”
By 1939, the year Diana was born, four national and international magazines featured fish net designs emerging from Truro’s women-run cottage industry. Major retailers like Macy’s, Bonwit Teller, and Bergdorf Goodman were promoting everything from full-length dresses to turbans; when the Duchess of Kent was photographed wearing her turban, the style received a royal stamp of approval (and great free publicity).
Back in Truro, production picked up. According to press reports at the time, Tiny had 49 employees sewing and cutting, diversifying into everything from lamp shades to fish net dolls, hammocks and rope belts.
John, meanwhile, with the revived the cold storage facility along Cape Cod Bay, was responsible for creating as many if not more jobs for the men of Truro. Between them, the Worthingtons were the town’s major economic engine as the nation emerged out of the Depression. “The freezer and the fish nets kept North Truro going,” says Diana.
“My father didn’t think that my mother’s business would last one winter,” she smiles. But it lasted long enough to match the cold storage plant for staying power. While the business diminished for many reasons, including that cotton fish net was increasingly difficult to find (replaced by plastic mesh), the company reinvented itself; a major product later on became industrial fan guards, far from haute fashion, but a solid and useful line. By the 1990s Diana finally decided to stop for good. The cold storage plant, where the idea was born, had been sold in 1973, soon demolished
The Cape Cod Fish Net Industry, like many elements of the industry it drew from, is not celebrated or even remembered as it should be. But the Truro Historical Museum has kept the history alive with an exhibition of fashion, photos, and other memorabilia, well worth a visit when the museum soon reopens for the season. The display makes clear a point that Diana Worthington emphasizes, sometimes with a little chagrin:
Never, in all those years of production, did Tiny and her team make fishnet stockings.