Monday, 30 April 2012

Clothes fit for Heroes

Our "Thin Red Line" jacket has proven to be something of a hit with the ladies, despite having been designed with boys in mind. I have my own eye on the sample, and when my friend from New York and her daughter paid their debut visit to the store they chose it as the Bedlam piece the young lady would most like to own.

The charming debutante from New York City, Miss Anais, the embodiment of youthful daring-do

Before we got to the fitting however, we had something of a mystery challenge on our hands. When we went back to our cloth merchants for more of the fabric they shook their heads and announced we'd had the last bit of that.
"So how fast can you get some more?"
With just a hint of doom, they pronounced, "You'll never get more of that, it was a one-off bit, you'll never see its like again."

My shoulders slumped for a second before I straightened up and took on the challenge. The only clue I had was that Martin described it as "Kersey". My research revealed that Kersey is the fabric traditionally used to make clerical and military outerwear since Medieval times, named for the little village in Suffolk from whence it originated. Now Anne Barclay, who knows a thing or two about fabric and whose lovely women's tailoring we stock, ( lives just up the road from Kersey and confessed that was news to her. It was woven, so I learnt, to give protection against cold and damp thus if, while on the march for God or country or some other cause, you had perforce to sleep in a ditch you had at least a little comfort round your aching bones.

So I set to Googling and my first call was to a mill in Shropshire where an engaging gentleman told me that in thirty years of weaving cloth he had never heard of Kersey. Crap. Still, we agreed that I would send him a swatch and he would see what he had by any other name that might be a match. Undaunted I dialled on and got to speak to another splendid chap, the top man, Mr James Walker of J. W. Textiles in Mirfield, West Yorkshire ( He too asked to see a cutting and pledged to do his best. He told me that he knew of the supremely utilitarian fabric, and that round their way it was used to stand the wet clay on in the pottery mills. Generously he divulged that the Lady Most Likely to have the answer to my quest was Gill Rushton at A.W. Hainsworth, also in Yorkshire, who have been weaving there since 1783 and been the mainstay of the uniforms for the British Army (

Within a couple of days I had the samples from the three mills and it was indeed Hainsworth who hit the target. One of our friends who had been following the Great Kersey Hunt, printmaker Squire Trafford Parsons (, lives but a few miles over hill and dale from Hainsworth and happened to be coming to the big smoke that week. Ever the soul of helpfulness he offered to collect it thus saving us the carriage and this he duly did. It also afforded the occasion for him to present to us this comely consort Mistress Binky Buxotica, of the marvellously feminine creative emporium
Here they are, she in my flamenco dress bought from the gypsies in the mountains behind Malaga, with Trafford in Bedlam's Beater's outfit of finest Yorkshire cloth:

Ey Up and Olé!
Now it was all perfectly fitting that we found our quarry in Yorkshire of course, having done the pieces recently for exhibition at the Mansion House for the current Lord Mayor, Yorkshireman David Wootton. As it transpired, we had arranged to rendez-vous with his good Lady, Liz Wootton, in order to introduce her to the incomparable fabric merchants Philip and Martin, and we gathered there last week to do just that. Shining like a beacon in the cold warehouse was a vivid bolt of scarlet cloth resonant with elegant authority. It was, no less, the very fabric woven by Hainsworth from which they make the uniforms of the guards at Buckingham Palace:

Philip Pittack of Crescent Trading with Mr Wesley and Liz Wootton, Lady Mayoress of the City of London
We took a couple of meters of that so I might reproduce one of my favourite pieces - the National Anthem skirt, in time for Her Majesty's Diamond Jubilee Celebrations. It is shameful how often people say to us "Isn't that Boris??" when we mention the Lord Mayor, confusing the honorary position of Lord Mayor of the City of London with the political office of Mayor of London. The latest election for that latter post is now imminent and a couple of weeks back I accompanied my beloved godmother Elisabeth Ratiu to St. James' Church on Piccadilly to see the main four candidates - Blue Boris, Red Ken, Green Jenny and in pink shirt and tie, the Lib Dem candidate Brian Paddick ( - be grilled by the god squad.

The panel was as good tempered and generous of spirit as any such I have seen but the congregation became decidedly rowdy and on occasion quite rude. When they passed the mic amongst the pews I risked my nerves to ask - as "small business person from the Oval" - how it can be possible that the FOURTH Tesco within quarter of a mile of our shop is about to open. When the panel had to respond Brian Paddick said he wished to address “the lovely lady from Stockwell.”  Recently, in an interview in ES magazine, Mr Paddick revealed how he wanted to make a t-shirt so that when he was in the gym changing room wearing one sock and little else people wouldn’t keep coming up and start talking about bin collection (or whatever) -
So bowled over was I by his compliment that Mr Wesley made it for him ( and here is the delectable and eminently electable Mr Paddick at the shop to collect it:
Mr Wesley with Lib Dem candidate for Mayor of London Brian Paddick

But back to the Thin Red Line to close. In a blog last month I explained the origin of that phrase and if you clicked through to the Hainsworth website link above you will have read, "The scarlet cloth for the War Office had long been an important product for Hainsworth, but at the end of the 19th century demand for bright, distinctive combat wear plummeted when the increasing use of rifles and artillery in the Boer War led to a demand for a more protective colouring for army cloth."
Now, in the oddly holistic (?) way that brings about the thematic structure (?!) of these postings, I happened to be typing up the epilogue for the third and final volume of my father's memoirs, written in reverse order. And this consisted of the letters of his great uncle Alfred to his adored sister Alice Bond, my great grandmother, from the front at the Boer War. Known as "the last of the Gentlemen’s Wars" it was sandwiched between the Crimean and the First World Wars, and, my pa concurred with Hainsworth, was the conflict "in which the famous scarlet tunic and white cross belts of the British infantry gave place to the camouflage of khaki, making it more difficult for the expert Boer marksmen, armed with Mauser rifles, to hit their target."
There follows some extracts from his letters, written in pencil on now nicotine coloured paper. Mr Wesley felt a cigarette smoker's bond across the years with Alfred and declared he will design a t-shirt in his honour. And so we have travelled with the fabric through the centuries, via Alfred and his comrades to the young lady of New York City who, we hope, will find the jacket offers her some protection as she finds her way on the field of modern life.

8 Dec 1899

Dear Alice,

I expect you read in the papers about the battle. Our regiment had no joke.  It was a bit tight to see the wounded. I had the job to carry some as the stretcher-bearers could not get up in the firing line. One chap had a wound in his leg and he died through loss of blood. Of course, we had several killed beside him but we did not half make the Boers run. We captured horses and a lot of meat and treacle and several other things. But we had to retire as the day went on as we were fairly outnumbered – 7000 Boers against 2000 of us. But we killed such a lot of them I got the cramp looking at them. Well Alice, they are a dirty looking lot, dressed like a lot of tramps.
When we charged up the hill at them at daybreak one of them shouted “Halt, who goes there” (he was an Englishman – they have a lot of English fighting for them) and before he had time to get an answer he had about ten of our bayonets sticking through his ribs. He gave a couple of groans, handed over his dinner and fell back dead. I went down his pockets to see if he had any money but he did not have any. Well Alice, we were firing at each other all day and I found myself behind a big rock – about the size of the Latchmere [a famous public house in Battersea] – with bullets and shells flying around us. Well Alice, it is a fact, while they were firing we were advancing up to them, singing for old times sake.
I am on outpost duty with my company. Things are a bit rough here. If you could get a box of Woodbine fags and send them to me I would be very pleased.

1 January 1900

My dear Alice,

Very pleased to receive your kind and welcome letter… We have had another couple of fights and you would laugh to see us ducking our heads when the Boers start shelling us. It is a bit tight to see all our killed and wounded being carried away. We don’t know how many of the Boers we kill as they take them away.
The grub we get is a bit thick, so if you have got a couple of spare bones to give away you might think of me.
Did you see in the papers about one of our officers being shot? Well, he had just taken myself and another chap around a hill and was taking two more around when he and one of the others got killed. So you see, I had a very narrow escape.
We are getting a lot of our wounded back. If they get shot through the arm or the leg without the bullet touching the bone it takes only about three weeks or a month to get better again…
We have only just been back in camp a couple of days after having a good day’s fighting, with no tents and soaking wet through, and it is terribly cold at nights…
Don’t forget the fags.

11 February, 1900

Dear Alice,

Many thanks for your letter and box of fags which I received yesterday. We were on the march from Spearmans Hill back to Colenso when I got it. All my chums gathered round to see what was in the parcel and when we saw fags every hair in my head stood up with excitement.
Well Alice old girl, we are having it a bit thick again… especially in our last eight days fighting. On one day we had the most shelling I have seen and it is a wonder I am left to tell the tale. One shell burst right among our post, killing one chap. It broke our Captain’s arm and two ribs and busted his head. I was sitting on the top of a hill we had taken when a shell came over very close. I could hear it coming and it burst just over our heads, the back part falling right through a waterproof sheet that was keeping the sun off me. It fell just between my feet – so you see my day had not yet come.
But it is a treat to see some of the cowards tremble. They say English soldiers have no fear – but if they were out here they would see a few proper big cowards frightened to move. They do make one wild when one is trying to do his best.
Well Alice, we have shifted back to Colenso, the place where we had so many killed and wounded and we believe we are going to try another attack in a day or so. I am looking forward to coming out alright. I am rather lucky. I have seen as much fighting out here as most and I have not been hit yet. But I must not brag about it as there is a lot more to go through…