The art and craft of tailoring
“An Englishman,“ said Philip Parker, MD of Henry Poole and Co, quoting the late Hardy Amies, “ chooses his clothes with care, puts them on with care, and then forgets about them.” Philip continued, “ What you are buying in Savile Row are classic garments crafted to the highest standard, made to last for many years and with built in room for growth”.
We, members of the London Branch of the Textile Institute were sitting in the workrooms of Henry Poole and Co, on dainty silver chairs borrowed from the Hardy Amies showroom next door while Philip talked about Savile Row tailoring while surrounded by all the tools and materials of his craft; the cutting tables, shears, chalk, and lengths of Super 120’s. At the end of their working day the cutters had gone but had left their current work out for us to see. Paper patterns with the clients name clearly marked, a list of measurements and a sketch of the style in work. Remarkably few items then, in this day of electronic and computer technology, the tailors hands providing the most valuable tool of all.
The reason that we were in the workrooms, which from our point of view was a bonus, was due to the ongoing refurbishment of the showroom upstairs where we should have been. And the reason for that dates back to the change of law in 1987 which removed the definition of light industrial, introduced in 1963, from the use of premises in Savile Row.
By re-zoning and therefore removing the protected rents not only in Savile Row but of many other areas of specialist trades in London, such as Hatton Garden or Jermyn Street, other businesses that can afford the much higher rents have been able to move into these areas. As leases come to an end, so the negotiations begin, trying to find a way in which the previously low cost workrooms can remain the working space for tailors. Pooles has been fortunate to find a way of keeping their premises in the Row but not without the upheaval of merging some workshops and moving others. Before a garment is completed,numerous fittings and adjustments are required (called”improvements’ in the trade) which is why it is important that showrooms, cutting rooms and workshops are adjacent to each other.
The history of Savile Row
Philip went on to tell us about the history of Savile Row itself, “It dates back to the eighteenth century when it was the vegetable garden of Burlington House, now the Royal Academy of Art. A private residence was built in the garden which became No. 1 Savile Row (home today of Gieves and Hawkes) and where guests included Beau Brummel”.
“The first tailor on the Row was James Poole who moved to London from Shropshire in 1806 and started working with his wife in the front room of their house in Bloomsbury. In 1846 James died and his son Henry took control of the business. The stable block at the rear of the building in Old Burlington Street was then converted into a large showroom and workshops with a main entrance made into the Row”.
“ When a new customer walks into Savile Row today he or she enters a world that has changed little since the 1800’s in the approach to its work. Each garment is as individual as the person it is being made for. Henry Poole suits are worn all over the world and have been for 200 years”.
In a back room corridor are shelves of huge ledgers recording the names and transactions of every client. Though now very dusty and in need of a little restoration,the contents record the 40 royal warrants ranging from Emperor Napoleon III in 1858 to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
Old ledgers recording client’s details
and the measurements for Monty’s breeches
The importance of apprenticeship
While Savile Row is renowned for the quality of its tailoring and the high profile of its clients none of this would be possible without the nurturing of apprentices. The cutters that I talked to, and Philip himself, all spoke very fondly of the Master Tailors that had trained them, befriended them and then with complete trust introduced them to their first client.
“However.” Philip said, “A serious decline in vocational training means companies currently have an ageing workforce. Training has always been an important part of my professional life. Apart from myself and one other, lets say mature cutter, we have four young fully trained operating cutters all under 35 years of age with a great diversity of skills and growing experience. We must let them grow!”
To put a young person to work with a craftsman, give him or her guidance and mentoring, encourage pride in their work and allow them to acquire a means to earn a rewarding living is surely a part of the fabric of civilised society. And the rightful passing on of skills is only a part of the education. Young and old alike benefit in the relationship of master and apprentice – sharing the elders experience and maturity, refreshed by the juniors new eyes and energy. Like many aspects of life it is a slow process, a gradual giving and receiving, a relationship which has limits imposed by the necessary articles of a contract, but in fact lasts a lifetime.
As with all craft, the excellence of the skilled provides a benchmark and their standards provide an aspiration as well as an inspiration for others. Craftsmanship can only be passed on person to person, by example and guidance and once that chain is broken it is difficult, if not impossible, to mend.
The history of Henry Poole and Co. exemplifies this very clearly, that the working life of the tailors must overlap in order for the huge body of knowledge and skill to be passed on. 200 years after James Poole began his tailoring career, craftsmanship in Savile Row is alive and well.