Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Savile Row

Sorry for the hugely out of date nature of this post, a combination of misplacing my camera cable and Andrew hogging the laptop have meant that I've been kept away from blogging!

Last Monday, to celebrate the start of British Wool Week, Savile Row, home of some of the world's greatest tailoring houses, hosted an open day. The street was literally turfed over and two very lovely flocks of sheep were brought in from Devon. It was certainly a surreal place to be;

There was a small flock of about 30 Exmoor Horn (above) and a similar number of Bowmonts. They were very lovely, and very calm, but were clearly not used to people, they would run from outstretched arms reaching for a stroke.

I was fortunate enough to be able to eavesdrop on one of the farmer's chatting to some of the press about the flocks, and he showed me that the Bowmont, although appearing grey, was in fact white underneath;

The most surprising thing about this was how relaxed the sheep seemed about all of this. She lay there, quite calmly, with only a firm hand against her head for about 5 minutes, although once released she ran off to join the flock at a sprint!

The highlight of the day, however, was a total surprise. I'd wandered into Huntsman for the sole reason that they had a video playing on the wall showing the origins of their wool. Upon arrival, I was however offered a free behind the scenes tour starting in 5 minutes! And free champagne! (The best part of this was, of course, being Huntsman, it was probably the most expensive champagne I am ever likely to drink!)

I probably don't need to say that the tour was amazing, but it was. The group was split into two, I was shown around by Peter Smith, the general manager, and the other half of us were shown around by David Wood, a senior pattern cutter.

The tour started on the shop floor. We were shown some of the textile sampler packs, customers have a choice of over 7000 different cloths for the manufacture of their suits. I say cloths, because in the tailoring trade they don't use "fabric", but "cloth". We were shown some of the tweeds that were specially designed by Huntsman, and thus unique to their brand. A new tweed collection is brought out every 2 years, so even this distinguished company, dating from 1849, can move with the times. Recently they have combined some of their old tweeds into this sampler jacket, originally designed for a window display, but of which they have sold four.

The next place we visited was the fantastic "Hanging Room", where all of the patterns are stored. Huntsman store all of the patterns for each of their customers until that customer passes away.

It's difficult to see here, but each of the thousands of hooks corresponds to one customer, some of which may have over a dozen garments made for them, each requiring up to a dozen pattern pieces.

Staff at the company travel regularly, 4 times a year to New York for example, and wherever they go they are visited by foreign customers for fittings. It takes up to 4 fittings to get a suit right, which is certainly worth it when the cheapest bespoke suits cost from £4300! Interestingly, many of the tailoring houses on Savile Row travel together, each booking a room in the same hotel in order for their clients to visit all of their tailors at once. A customer may choose to visit several tailors as each tailoring house has it's own distinctive take on the suit. Huntsman, for example, traditionally make single button suits, that are a bit longer than average, with a very distinctive high armhole. There is a degree of brand loyalty however, and this is due in part to the esteem in which the brand is held, and it's connection to certain well known individuals.

The order book in the shop is held open and protected all times at a page detailing an enormous order placed by King Edward VIII, then Prince Edward, for all manner of items, including shooting breeches, dress coats, dinner jackets, and almost anything else you can imagine. The store possesses one fitting room, a huge place, in which the suit patterns of Gregory Peck and Laurence Olivier hang. On the wall is a photograph of the 1966 World Cup winning England football squad, all kitted out in Huntsman suits. My favorite thing about the fitting room was however, this little touch;

The ornate glass bowls holding tailor's chalk and pins.

The company have an unusual attitude to staff, apparently common amongst tailoring houses, in that staff retention is an important aspect of the business model. Their longest serving member of staff has been working for Huntsman for 56 years. When I asked about their opinion to taking on a traditionally trained pattern cutter (always looking for employment opportunities for Andrew!) they were reticent, saying they like to "train people to cut Huntsman patterns", the implication being that in providing a narrow course of training, their former apprentices are unlikely to be future competitors.

The manufacturing process is highly specialized. I was aware that they trained trouser-makers as a separate discipline, but was unaware of how far this specialization runs. There is a woman who only sews buttonholes, and a man whose sole role is to press the suits, a process that can take up to 3 hours! This being said, they do have a number of young staff, in their early 20s or so, and nowadays have a womenswear cutter also, and I genuinely believe the company is keen to keep pace with changes in the modern world.

As far as the fibres are concerned, all of their wool for suitings is Australian merino, bought at high prices at auction due to its incredibly fine nature (1pp, not sure of the micron count). The raw fleece is shipped to the UK where it is scoured, spun, dyed and woven in Yorkshire. The tweed is spun from lambswool in Isla, Scotland.

I was very grateful to Peter Smith for such a wonderful tour, and such a special surprise treat to my day. I do hope that this somewhat makes up for the large delay in posting this, I promise more soon!

In other news, check out MODOdiva, the blog for MODO, UCL's fashion society of which I am Head of Design this year. Over the next few weeks I will be posting regular updates there on the ins and outs of my adventures with MODO. Also, now that I have begun my PhD proper, I will be posting random notes and musings on my progress at MichaelaDoesScience.

Speak soon!


  1. Brilliant post, thank you!

    I was in London that day, and was going to go up to Savile Row to see the sheep, but I was by the river and it seemed like too much effort at the time - now I really wish I had :(