* The original version of this post was published, sans images, on the Bespoke(n) website*
One of the disturbing and joyful things about collaboration is that it opens you up to seeing the world through a different lens. Since Bespoke(n) started, I have become more visually aware, taking note of the details of coat fastenings and fabric patterns in a way I hadn’t even realised I’d stopped doing previously. Noting the shape of collars while I’m commuting. Staring abstractly at the juxtaposition of jewellery and cardigans.
Then after seeing Nathalie’s studio, interviewing her by email and absorbing the articles, photos, illustrations and comments that have been flying round the project email list I began to find that the world has this new angle to it. It seems as though everywhere I go has been a tailoring epicentre at some point in its history. I mention the project to casual acquaintances and they barter back shoe manufacturing histories, such as last weekend when I was at a friend’s wedding reception in The Last Wine Bar in Norwich; fellow guests Dick & Anthea pointing out to me that the eponymous ‘Last’ is a mechanical form in the shape of a foot used by cobblers, as demonstrated by the funky lamps in the brasserie.
In recent weeks I’ve been abroad and trekking in the Sapa mountains in Vietnam, I was intrigued as our guide, Tu, talked us through the process of making indigo dye (it involves fresh urine to set the colour, and soaking the hemp fabric for a minimum of 30 days), showed us the plants it comes from, the pots outside houses in the hilltribe villages. How they stone-roll wax into the dyed fabric with their feet to make it attractively glossy and waterproof.
Later in the trip, a few days relaxing in Hoi An for a few days allowed me to indulge in some cut-price made-to-measure garment purchasing. Various memories have stuck in the newly-formed tailoring part of my brain: the seamstresses giggling as I snap them measuring up my companion for a three-piece suit. The girls in the shoe-shop tutting and shaking their heads as I try to reassure them that my boyfriend back home will indeed appreciate the bright yellow lining I’ve chosen for the shoes I want them to make him as a birthday present. Baskets full of different leather samples kicked under tables.
I’ve been intrigued by the ribbon selections for the elaborate packaging of biscuits in Taiwan, fabric shops in Hong Kong. Closer to home, I’ve been cheerfully snapping iPhone shots of antique sewing machines converted into café tables in Oval in the way I normally pap anything book or writing related.
But what inspired me to note this all down in a blog post was going on a Street Art tour of East London, run by Alternative London. We met by the statue of a goat in Spitalfields and as we walked along towards Brick Lane (and some spectacular, provocative and emotional Street Art) our guide, Gary, gave us a potted history of the district and the industrial influences of waves of immigration from the French Huguenots to the present day.
He pointed out the street names – such as Tenter Ground, named after the wooden frames used to stretch wet fabric (leading to the phrase ‘on tenterhooks’).
He showed us where the silk for Queen Victoria’s wedding gown was woven. How windows were added into attics so that there was more space for workers, leading to the roof-top rows being nicknamed ‘top shops’ – after which the well known High Street store is named.
And all of this came out unexpectedly – I was expecting to have my eyes opened to graffiti and political art, not a history lesson in tailoring. But I think I’d learnt to listen differently as well. To ask more questions, hold a place in my mind for those kind of details rather than letting them wash over me in a cheerful haze of ‘well, how interesting – what next?’. I hadn’t expected to become so passionately interested in the history of tailoring through taking part in this project. That the manufacturing of clothes would start to interest me more than buying or wearing them. And I’m looking forward to learning where it takes me next.