This set of books are the three volumes of 'The Modern Tailor Outfitter and Clothier' first published in 1928, my edition is from 1951, I joke that they are my 'Bibles'. Truth is I rarely look at them but when I do, say I need to remind myself of a draft for a particular pattern or perhaps just out of idle curiosity, to smile at some oddity from the trade, they are always inspiring...
Tailoring has been in my family for many generations. When my Great-Grandfather and Grandfather came to London from Poland, they set up a tailoring factory in Hackney. My dad followed them into the business and still works as a tailor in Bethnal Green. My intention wasn't to follow them into the trade (this is another story not worth telling, but briefly) A few years after finishing a degree in architecture, travelling and making various other foolish mistakes, this was where I ended up, done.
When I finally returned to London to start my apprenticeship in tailoring, I would visit my dad's workshop in my spare time to help him strike out morning coats and to sew my own stuff. Quite early on he had a rare visit from one of his father's old partners, a tailor called John Eagland, also known as Big John. I remembered him from when as a child my dad would take me to the factory, during holidays and particularly on Saturday mornings (before he and my Grandfather would go to see the Spurs in the afternoon). The factory was situated on the top floor of a building called Enterprise House on Tudor Grove in Hackney. As a matter of fact, their presence is still felt for me in the courtyard where they parked their cars. My grandfather's and his original partner's names could still be seen until recently (from a certain angle and in a certain light) painted on the walls above their spaces. The weather had revealed their names again where once they had been painted over. This was the same car park where we once witnessed a shoot-out between the police and a gang of thieves who had planned to rob the weekly delivery of wages to one of the factories below. Trying to escape, one of the mob ran over the tops of the cars parked there (my dad's black and white Ford Cortina had a dent in it's roof as a result) but he was caught as he jumped over the wall and was thrown into a large metal wheelie-bin...
Anyway, back to the Modern Tailor, Outfitter & Clothier books... I had not seen Big John since way back in the late 70s/early 80s. So when my dad told John I was learning to become a tailor he seemed pleased that I would be continuing the family tradition but hinted my Grandfather might've been a little disappointed. I was quite touched to see John because it brought back memories from my childhood... my Grandfather, the factory in Hackney, the racket of sewing machines, the smell of the heavy bolts of cloth and machine oil, of bacon, bagels and the sight of the steam shooting from the pressing machines and the general commotion of the factory atmosphere and the East End, particularly in those days. Not to mention the many larger than life characters that used to work, laugh, argue, live and die there!
John offered to lend me these three books as he modestly thought they might be of some interest to me. When I received them, they looked almost arcane. The pages show a little sign of age, you could see they had been well used but well looked after, having been carefully protected in paper to preserve the covers and tied together with a cord. Inside I found small old notes with corrections and observations. Also, work tickets with measurements and orders from over half a century of use, slipped in between chapters describing how to cut anything from a Naval Great-Coat to a Nurses Cape or even more specifically how to draft a Morning Coat for a 'corpulent figure' etc. Chapter's with advice on the Importance of Good Lighting, Book-Keeping, diplomacy when dealing with 'the Wives' of customers or understanding the idiosyncrasies of American customers!
There is, of course, the 'indispensable' and often quirky Glossary of Technical and Trade Terms, including slang, (learn the hidden meaning behind the nursery rhyme, 'Pop Goes The Weasel'. To 'pop' is slang for 'pawn' and a 'weasel' is a travelling tailors' small thin iron that he used when pressing work on his lap as he would sit cross-legged on a bench. Apparently his most dispensable tool, so when times got hard, it was the first to get exchanged at the Pawnshop. That said, weasel, as in Weasel and Stoat, I always knew as Cockney Rhyming Slang for coat, so it could well be that too)
These books really felt like an opened time capsule, but one that released things to me that still felt vital and alive, despite their oddities. Reading through the various articles and subjects covered in these volumes confirmed to me that I was about to embark on a career that I would, whether I'd be any good at it or not (Oi, you, no comment! At any rate, I can sew better than I write, but that's not saying much. I know!) And that I'd develop an unreasonable passion for... fuck everything else.
Sadly, within a week of receiving these books my dad called me to say that John had died. His wife told him that I could keep the books. They somehow help me connect to my family history and for what it's worth, remind me of my childhood. But I also feel that they illuminate the past to reveal the rich layers beneath this creaking old city and a knackered old trade that I am unwittingly trying to keep alive.