Monday, 5 March 2012

Now we are one

Blue skies, blossom on the trees last week then icy sleet today. You have to roll with it and put your vest back on. Business, too, is unpredictable and unforgiving. Last month was scarily quiet for us, following a January that saw me knocked off balance by some health stuff (hence the blog hiatus). There are no "statutory sick days", or guaranteed wage, when you are self-employed. I did have half an hour longer in bed one morning but then some minor crisis arose that only I could solve so I got up and got on with it. We work seven days a week, opening Sunday afternoons too if the weather looks to encourage a constitutional. Not throwing a pity party - too much washing up afterwards - but just reminding those who tune in for the gritty docu-drama that we operate with an anorexic safety margin. Rent and rates have to be paid however wobbly you may feel. Prime Minster David Cameron "gifted" small businesses a cut on the rates last summer. Lambeth council said that would stand for a year. Three months later they rose and next month they go up again.

But this month, March, sees the shop's first anniversary and we have made it to that milepebble on the support of the local community (with the occasional guest postcode exception). Last week we received an invitation from local councillors to join a discussion group of Oval businesses and have RSVP'd in the positive. And positively shall we be minded to participate.

The lull in suiting commissions, on the bright side, meant we could concentrate on the four outfits we were invited to create for display at Mansion House, the Lord Mayor's palace in the City of London. You may recall we exhibited there last September, during Fashion Week. This season we sat that out as throwing limited resources at competing for attention with Burberry ( just seemed silly. But as a result of having danced last time round our name now came up in a meeting scheduled to discuss the new Lord Mayor's commitment, as a proud Yorkshireman, to promoting the wool trade and Yorkshire mills.

Other designers invited to showcase their work in the exhibition that rolls for the year David Wootton holds office include these long-established Titans of tailoring:
 and Hardy Amies ( 
That's pretty exalted company for raggle-taggle-come-lately-you-know-who! 
Staged by The Campaign for Wool (, and supported by The Woolmark Company (, some cloth has been provided for the others by Savile Row favourites Dormeuil ( Bedlam's bolts of fabric, however, have been generously sponsored ONCE AGAIN by those stalwarts of the merchant class, the Bob & Bing of warp & weft, Philip Pittack & Martin White of Crescent Trading ( Trading out of a permanently freezing warehouse stacked floor to ceiling with meltons, flannels, tweeds, worsteds and gaberdines - sourced from the last remaining mills in Yorkshire and Scotland - they have devoted their long careers to promoting British cloth. 

Last week then we arrived back at Mansion House to dress the mannequins and were really most touched by the friendly recognition we got from the lovely staff there. Stepping back to admire our work, however, we realised something was missing. Like doh! We had forgotten shirts and ties. So we dashed over to the Austin Reed store across the road at #1 Poultry to try our charm on the store manager Tony Dobbs. To our relief and delight he was instantly enthusiastic and after getting the rubber stamped OK from HQ told us to choose what we needed. Our sincere thanks to them.

Tony Dobbs, manager at Austin Reed, The Poultry, who got us out of  a pickle like it was no problem at all

Mark redressed the mannequin with a spotted silk tie and contrast collar shirt, generously supplied by Austin Reed

Technically tricky and using almost twice as much cloth as a conventional pinstripe, the plates on our Tectonic suit have shifted on the bias. The electric blue lining gives a jolt of energy. The six- button working cuffs prompt a man to roll up his sleeves and get on with the job (£1300 made-to-measure).

This anti-thorn fabric made with shoot “beaters” in mind will render you immune from snags and problems. Stride through life's undergrowth to emerge unscathed and pristine. Built to last a life time.
(£1200 made-to-measure)

Silk tie and luxury cotton shirt generously supplied by Austin Reed
What we also had time to do was an interesting project for a gentleman wood engraver called Mr Adam Lawrence who lives round the corner from the shop. Here he is demonstrating how you chisel the wood (with a very sharp doo-da) while resting it on a leather pad so that the v sharp doo-da doesn't slip and stab you:

Here (below) is an engraving of cyclamen Mr Lawrence did some years ago. He told us there is a block by the master wood engraver Thomas Bewick in the Newcastle Museum of Printmaking that is considered to have produced 800,000 prints and never got worn down. It was a most marvellous masterclass to have Mr Lawrence come in to tutor us in this fine yet robust art form.

But the reason for his visit is that his pad is a borrowed one, 18th century he thinks, and he wondered if Mr Wesley would try his hand at replicating it. With a piece of leather and some builder's sand he reckoned, somewhat to my surprise I do confess, that we could present him with a fair representation. And so the challenge was taken up.

Emma, the cool new girl at Biddle Sawyer Silks (, tipped me off that Walter Reginald leather and hide repository in Whitechapel ( would most likely have what we needed. I called them up one afternoon as I was leaving Crescent Trading, thinking I could not be far. The phone was answered with a flurry of bleedin' f'ing this and that before the gruff voice apologised, explaining he was having a vent. "That's quite OK," I said, trying to empathise, "I know how you feel."
"No you don't!" snapped the voice.
Crikey, OK.
"If I could just have your address, I'm on my way."
"We close on the dot at 5pm."
"I'm a few minutes away."
"No you're not," and so it went on until I wondered if I should simply sod them and search elsewhere.
But what a glorious turn out it turned out to be, in sense of mission fulfilled and first impressions overturned. Here are just some of the glorious hides revealed:

Noooo! They flayed Spiderman!
When I walked in the warehouse I heard the same voice barking at someone else. "Are you Ray?" I asked.
"NO, he died, and this is his widow," he said, gesturing at a lady who hurried away. I thought he was  double mean trying to double bluff me so I went yeah yeah and walked on.
The friendly chap trying to help me said some light leather from the economical scrap box would do the job. Malcolm stepped in. When I showed him the mission - Mr Lawrence's wood engraving pad - he said that was made using hide 3mm thick and took over. A mutual respect began to burgeon over our commitment to finding the right thing and doing a job well. Soon he was springing about showing me  all manner of gorgeous skins.

'orrible Malcom my new best friend
Malcolm the Misanthrope then said something guaranteed to win my heart, so rarely is it ever correctly proclaimed. "Is your hair naturally Titian?" My knees crumpled and my eyes shined.
" 'Titian'?! That IS the colour of my hair!" (a lifetime of "ginger" taunts informed the gratitude)
"I used to be a hairdresser," the lovely Malcolm now revealed, "It is the most beautiful of all hair colours."
As we stood suspended in the most precious moment of forging friendship he asked another question.
"Why did you call me 'Ray' when you came in?"
"Well, you were meant to go 'Ray?!' and I was going to go 'Yes, Ray of Sunshine!' because you were so horrible on the phone!"
"Cos Ray DID die and this IS his widow" - gesturing again at the lady who had reappeared. "He was my brother."
Mr Wesley with the beginnings of the wood engraver's pad cut from the bloody massive bit I had to buy.
Mr Wesley made holes around the two 4mm leather pizza bases by banging a big nail.
Then he laced the two halves together with waxed leather cord, with the sand bag in the middle.

He was very proud of the accomplishment, I was very proud of him and Mr Lawrence seemed delighted, going off to make his first print using his brand-new-made-just-like-the-old-style wood engraver's pad.

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