Who We Are: An Insight into Tailoring

Claire stands in her workroom, surrounded by the tools of her trade.

My tailoring career all began with a stroke of luck. Having spent a year studying an Art and Design foundation (or maybe more of the year hanging out in the Student Union bar) I was at a loss as to what my next step would be. A friend of mine called me one day to tell me about a new Tailoring course that had started up, and asked if I was interested. She had read an article about it in a makeup magazine. I decided to go along and check it out. Perhaps my lack of direction made me impulsive.

A dinner jacket on a mannequin, awaiting its final fitting. It has wide lapels and is double-breasted, with a very slim silhouette.
This dinner jacket has grosgrain edge tapes. Pressed and ready for the final fitting.

During my first day on the course I discovered that I was the least experienced. I had never used an industrial sewing machine before, and I felt overwhelmed. I could barely use a domestic. A few months passed and despite all my struggles I became absolutely devoted to learning the trade. It appealed so thoroughly to my creative needs.

We were allocated one day a week for work experience on Savile Row, and this is when I discovered where I wanted to work. However, in an industry that was very male dominated, opportunities for a young woman were few and far between. I knew that only with hard work and perseverance I would be noticed and considered for an apprenticeship.

A close-up shot of paddign, with dark fabric covered in white herringbone stitches to shape it for structure.
Padding. Found on canvasses, lapels and the under collar. They are used to shape the cloth and give the canvas structural integrity.

I posted my CV and a cover letter to a multitude of tailoring houses. In the letter I asked for one chance to prove how committed I was. A tailoring contact advised me to try a few houses off Savile Row, one of which was Edward Sexton.

Edward was the first person to respond to my letter. He asked if I could go and see him that day. I remember dropping everything and jumping on the tube to Knightsbridge. Of course it was incredibly hot that day, so by the time I arrived I was melting. Far from ideal when you are trying to be calm and collected! The question I remember most clearly was “Do you know who I am and who I have made suits for?” I only knew about Savile Row tailors at this time, so I had no idea! Honesty is the best policy, right? Despite telling him I had no idea, the rest of the interview went well and he offered me a trial period. 

A close-up of the pressing process, showing the canvas being formed into its desired shape.
The final stage of pressing a canvas. Plenty of water, steam and heat has been applied to reach this point. The wooden block (banger) is used to hold the chest in place so the canvas can be manipulated into its final shape.

When you become an apprentice, you start from the very beginning. I spent the next several months learning how to use a thimble correctly and padding like my life depended on it. Thinking back now, I laugh when I remember all of the holes I made in my fingers. Eventually the skin toughened and became resilient.

I received a crash course in tailoring vocabulary, terminology that has been passed along through the generations. I still remember the look of disappointment that I would receive for saying “cushion” instead of “ham”. “Twist, gimp, banger, kippers, bundles, crushed beetles, dolly, gorge, scye, pig,” and my least favourite, “skiffle”. Skiffle is a rush job, one that was needed yesterday!

Each stage I would practice, practice, practice until it became second nature. Once I could do it proficiently, I would be allowed to move onto the next step.

For example, my mentor would ask if I could see why the cloth would lay the way it did. Frustratingly I couldn’t, and didn’t understand why. With time and guidance, however, when asked again further along, finally I could see exactly what the grains were telling me. This was a pivotal moment. A genuine lightbulb moment and a great leap forward in my abilities and education.

The front piece of a jacket, laid flat on the worktable, showing all of the interior work. There is padding and basting, and there are pockets and other features in place.
Tailoring is an inside job. Here you can see all the handwork that has gone into getting the forepart to this point. Next the lining is shaped and basted in place.

My thirst for knowledge kept me focused and my memory improved greatly. I wasn’t allowed to make notes due to old fashioned beliefs. An important part of tailoring is being able to visualise the next stages in the process, and how your actions will affect it.

I got to work on suits for celebrities that passed through our doors, clothing for fashion shows, and a variety of expensive cloths, vicuna being one of the priciest. When you are mark stitching something that costs £3,000 per meter, you spend most of your time holding your breath in fear. My apprentice wage started on £100 per week and it would take me the rest of my life to pay for a new length.

A close-up of a pocket opening, basted shut to keep the fabric hanging correctly.
Inbreast pockets come in all shapes and sizes. Some with tabs or flaps. The average jacket has 3 but some require more.

Running was also a key part of being an apprentice. Running to trimming shops, tailors, or just random errands. You develop a knack for juggling all the bags and suits, keeping the latter from getting creased whilst on a packed tube. 

Once, while walking back from the station after running an errand, I was listening to music and noticed everyone was staring at me. I removed my headphones and realised someone was shouting my name. One of Edward’s clients had pulled up in his Rolls Royce to ask me if I would like a lift back to the showroom. I can only imagine how bizarre this looked to everyone around me!

Around this time I also had to run suits to a local customer. I remember walking into their “flat” and staring in awe as I looked up to see a chandelier hanging down between the split staircase. I had never before witnessed such extravagance!

A jacket spread out on the work table, showing the inside of the back. The jacket is in a dark navy fabric, but the partial lining is bright red, as is the piping on any exposed interior edges.
Summer jacket, half lined. Piping is used to conceal and prevent all raw edges from fraying. This allows you to make a lightweight jacket that is cooler in the summer months. The piping is cut by hand and is on the bias.

After qualifying, I was tasked with running the workroom. During this period I had my own apprentices to train and help deal with increased workflow. Slowly Team Sexton expanded. We employed as many apprentices as we had room for. If you have ever been inside a workshop then you will appreciate workspace is at a premium!

Through this I had the privilege of meeting many talented people and made life long friends. The workshop can be a highly pressured environment, with deadlines always changing you learn to adapt. Sometimes we would make several fittings for customers who were only in the country for a short duration of time. We worked hard to construct a reliable, talented team that could cope with this pressure.  

A jacket on a mannequin, showing all the basting that has been used to shape it.
The bastes are the structure and act as scaffolding. Once a job is finished I removed all the ones that no longer serve a purpose. The jacket then goes to the finisher hand sew all the linings into place. The facings, flaps, vents and collar are edge stitched and finally the buttonholes are made.

Reflecting upon my apprenticeship, I can tell you it was not easy. You need to be committed, patient and able to accept criticism. It is essential to be passionate about tailoring because it is demanding and consuming. I would spend many evenings reflecting upon my work that day, searching for ways to refine my skills and be more efficient.

Tailoring is not a skill that can be learnt in a month, only with repetition and commitment. The day I stop learning shall be the day that I retire.

Another jacket in progress, this one in a navy and black plaid. The pattern-matching is exquisite.
Matching is key when making a check jacket. We aim to match the flaps, outbreast welt, front of the sleeves, if possible the front and centre back of the top collar and one prominent check on the facing. Due to the angle of the lapel it is not possible to match more. Wider checks make this harder to achieve and require more cloth.

The main apprenticeships are in cutting, coats, trousers, waistcoats and finishing. Individually, these can take many years to master.

The average jacket alone takes around 30 hours to make, and then in addition you have finishing and pressing. Each will have at least 2 fittings, often more! The stages are baste, pocket baste, forward and finish. You must consider all the hours involved to arrive at the final product.

I have encountered many people from all aspects of life that have been drawn to the craft. Some have dropped out of years of studying or a full-time job to pursue their passion for tailoring. The trade has benefited significantly from them being brave enough to make that first step.

If tailoring is your passion, then pursue it. 

A morning coat in progress, hanging on the mannequin. The basting stitches show the work that has gone into its deceptively simple shape.
Morning Coat. Commonly worn by grooms or those attending the races, in the royal enclosure at Ascot. On a side note it is also one of my favourite things to make.

For all those who wish to pursue a career in tailoring, my advice would be get involved. Work experience is a excellent way to make contacts and have a better understanding of the working environment. There are no other learning experiences that compare to hands on learning, one to one with a tailor. Use your spare time to practice what you have been taught. This will show you are committed and it will help improve you abilities at a faster pace.

Funding is now available for apprentices through the work place. The  Savile Row Bespoke Association (SRBA) and the houses involved in this scheme have worked hard to make a system that is efficient, with guidelines for structured learning each year.

11 years on, I decided to work from home. Now I have my own workshop and spend my time making coats for Savile row houses. It is true what they say about finding a job that you love and never having to work a day in your life.

Random tailoring facts:

Favourite thing to make: Morning coats or great coats.

Least favourite thing to make: Anything white. You spend most of your time using a lint roller.

Best way to befriend a tailor: Give them biscuits, cakes or chocolate. Or in my case pizza.

Tailors like to collect: Shears. I have many different sizes, shapes and colours. The more the better!

Worst thing I have seen in the workshop: A trainee sewing through their finger and the thread hanging out.

Most apprentices struggle with: Sleeves! It is also the last thing you are taught.

Most apprentices don’t realise: You can learn from them also.

Most unusual non tailoring item I have been asked to fix: A sail for my dad’s boat. Yes, tailoring really is a transferable skill and you will get asked to fix a variety of things!

Next skill I wish to learn: I have always been really interested in making lingerie. I adore lace.

Favourite tailoring fact: A tailor named Robert Baker in the seventeenth-century made a large fortune after designing a frilled collar, named a piccadil. With his riches he bought land in the open areas of West London and built a country house. It was nicknamed “Piccadilly Hall” The nickname stuck and gave its name to the street in London that leads to Piccadilly Circus.

If you would like to see my work, then check out my instagram, @claire_emerson_bespoke.