A stitch in time.....

“I can tell by the way you speak, your mannerisms, you’re very polite,” says Mr C.  Oh dear, two minutes into tea with Mr C, former inmate of HMP Wandsworth and star volunteer for social enterprise Fine Cell Work and he’s already ratted me out as a former public school girl.  Character analysis is a skill I imagine you quickly hone at Her Majesty’s pleasure when thrown together with people from all walks of life.  Maybe he’s worked it out so quickly because he describes his own background as not too dissimilar and one characterised by “maintaining a stiff upper lip at all times.”

Before prison, Mr C (as he prefers to be known, to protect his anonymity) tells me he had a successful career as a CAD designer.   That’s blown all my prepped questions out the window then I think to myself.   You see, I’d come along to the interview anticipating we’d talk about the power of colour; it’s mood altering qualities, the therapeutic effects of drawing and hand sewing and the freedom of creativity.  I wanted to hear first hand about how all those things had got him through a prison sentence.  But Mr C and I are both designers, we know all about the benefits of being a creative person.   

So for once, I threw the preparation out the window and listened, not knowing quite where the conversation might lead.  Mr C was never going to tell me what he went to prison for and in my mind it’s irrelevant.  We talked about the fine line between those of us who think bad thoughts and those that act on them and I think there’s a grain of truth in that, but it’s too complex an issue to even debate.  But to see the work of a man who takes on commemorative military embroidery and stitches embroideries like paintings, having previously never sewn a button on a shirt, is nothing short of extraordinary.   It is to witness a man changed and immensely proud of his work. 

Faced with the monotony of cell life he signed up for every hobby going; art, music, computer classes.   Anything to avoid the cell, drugs, alcohol and fights.  He took a tailoring job which paid £12.50 per week, purely because it was the highest paid and meant he had more to spend on tobacco, toiletries and calls home.  “Everyone laughed at me trying to work the sewing machine pedal, but I kept going till I could perfect a stitched square spiral. ” After that he raced his way through sweatshirts, duffle coats and PE shorts, made for prison issue.   

A volunteer for the social enterprise Fine Cell Work picked up on his drawing and sewing skills and asked if he might like to be trained in hand embroidery.  This would lead to paid commissions, which Mr C could also stitch during cell time.  Initially, finding the work difficult to grasp, a Polish inmate whose tree trunk like fingers managed to dance across quilts like ballerinas, helped show him the ropes.   A natural affinity with computer software from his CAD design days also meant he quickly hit his stride programming digital sewing machines to machine embroider. 

After what must have seemed like a lifetime, he eventually was released, a time when he needed FCW’s support more than ever; finding that first job hasn’t been easy.   I’m heartened to hear that Hand & Lock (the embroidery atelier) generously sponsored him to take lessons in gold work and military embroidery and he’s even collaborated with Levis.  

And so what next for Mr C?  “Self sufficiency and a fresh start,’ he declares with eyes beaming.  I am in in awe of his positivity.  He is currently undertaking a Certified Ethical Hacker Training programme, an apprenticeship award sponsored by the Lady Anne Tree Memorial Fund (FCW bursary fund).  In the future, he hopes to split his time between employment and continuing his paid commission based work for FCW.  “I’ll do anything for them, if it weren’t for them I’m not sure where I’d be.”  Everyone deserves a second chance in life and Mr C more than anyone I met in 2015. 

 

To find out more about Fine Cell Work’s history or better still purchase their beautiful products, click here. 

Touch wood

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Nestled between a residential road of Victorian two up two downs in East London lies Nichols Brothers, wood turners. A family business, the factory has resided here since 1949, which makes for a burgeoning archive of 65 years worth of staircase design. Three whole outdoor lock ups houses their amassed collection of 2500 newels and 2500 spindles, one kept from each job.   I doubt even they keep count anymore. “How on earth do you choose, if you aren’t having one matched,” I said, my eyes bulging at the seams. Crumbs, I’d be in their for days trying to decide. “I try to steer people before they get overwhelmed,” said Geoff diplomatically.

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Besides spindles and newels, the odd four-poster bed and Edwardian porch, they were even working on a batch of cherry wood coat pegs on my visit. Not to mention offering bespoke dado rails, architraves, picture rails and skirting boards to match your existing, thrown in for good measure. The Nichols factory is a craft gem in a league of it’s own. From 9am to 7 pm they turn wood, the team of four, all born and bred locals. Come home time, I imagine they must have to dust themselves off like snowmen!

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That afternoon, 400 spindles were being turned, over a three – four week period using an 80 year old machine adapted and mechanized over the years. The old boy keeping watch.  Every spindle takes approximately 6-7 minutes to carve, some being turned 2 or 3 times.    “it can get monotonous for the boys, that’ s why we like a variety of smaller projects,” explained Geoff. Speaking of which; “you didn’t happen to carve the beautiful Edwardian porch, newly installed at the bottom of my road?” I asked. It broke my heart watching the old one rot to splinters.  I’d stopped to congratulate the owner, elated that someone cared enough to even pay for his neighbour’s side of the porch. Of course they did, even though they hastily pointed out they are turners not joiners.

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“Carved any staircases of listed buildings or famous boltholes? ” I chirped, coughing gently on some wood chippings. Geoff and Harry were humble on the subject; “ there is not a lot of glory to bathe in and we are too busy to reflect on it. The work comes in and goes out. Often we only find out it’s for a celebrity when the driver collects.” Harry, still the new boy after 40 years, mans the office. But finds the modern necessities of running a business ultimately distract him from what he loves most; working with wood.   “We come to work every day, to do what we love.

The essential tea making equipment....

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Geoff’s son works in the city and without a family member to take on the business, he fears the business may one day have to wind down.  “ You can’t !” I cry, when Geoff explains he may have to wind down the business one day; his son works in the city. Having left school at 15 and now 61 years of age, he is entering his 46th year in the business he took over from his father. He must be doing something right I tell him, the other lads have served for 30 years! If they close down, we’ll all be confined to the likes of Homebase for a one size fits all bannister. So I suggest all those planning a loft extension get down to Nichols’ for your bespoke, matching staircase, carved with pride by the last wood turning factory left in London.

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Love this architect's drawing tucked between pieces of wood, ready for the turn!

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Original Shop Fronts

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I've been learning how to drive.  Yes, I know, I should have knocked it off when I was 18 ( if I had £1 for every person who tells me so).  I've made a rod for my own back, learning in London is stressful.  I would love to be back at home in Berkshire, rolling down country roads in wide open spaces.  Instead, I hold my breath, trying not to clip wing mirrors passing down claustrophobic victorian streets where everyone parks on BOTH sides. Worryingly, it's also confirmed what family and friends have known for years; distraction is my middle name.   Paul (my instructor), I hope you are not reading this.  Anything from puppies to bakeries and old buildings can get my pulse racing, when my eyes should be on the road.  In my defense, I am new to this part of town.  Secretly, years of not holding a license has afforded me the opportunity to sit back and daydream. Being driven round London, particularly through Westminster, is a favourite though rare pastime. Waiting at the traffic lights on my last lesson, this little shop caught my eye.  M.Winger, Watchmaker & Jewellers.  The building dates from 1888, though the business first occupied the building from 1908.  The shop fit, was believed to be carried out in the 1920s but it looks earlier to me.  The exterior and interior have a distinctly Edwardian and Art Nouveau feel,  popular from 1890 - 1910.   I had a lovely chat with the current shop owner who also owns the pawnbrokers next door.  I'll admit to always feeling a little maudlin when passing by second hand or antique engagement rings.  Wondering the stories behind why people had to sell objects of such sentimental value and family treasures?  Naively, I'd assumed that the pawnbroking industry was doing a roaring trade, given these austere times and the all time high price of gold.  Not so apparently, this is working class area, everything that could have been sold, has been.  George Osborne, take note.

Standing in a watchmaker's shop, it dawned on me that perhaps clocks have lost their relevance and place in the modern world.  There is no need to wear a watch, when everyone has iphones whirring away in their pockets.  And what of the soothing "tick tock" of clocks which seemed to have vanished from our mantlepieces?  Undoubtably, it is a vanishing industry and a great shame when they represent so much.   Well, I enjoy a little bit of rebellion against the vanguard, especially as I am yet to join the iphone generation.    I have my heart set on the idea of an elegant cocktail watch to adorn my little wrist.  My timekeeping is terrible, I have this eternal optimism that I can fit it all in, when really I can't (ring any bells, fellow offender K.Mort?).  Maybe this is what I need to set me back on track and what better reminder of the cocktail hour?

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Original shop fittings.......to die for.

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I am in love with this old factory clock used for workers to "clock in and clock off", as demonstrated in the picture below.

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The current shop owner showed me an original telegram from the 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11 month, 1918, declaring the end of the Great War. A fantastic piece of history to own.

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The voice of a sitting room

I wasn't sure if I wanted to keep this little gem a secret.  But I rationalised with myself; how many sets of Victorian fireplace tiles are you going to buy in the next year?  So I am sharing my love of Mr Wandles' with one and all. I stumbled across Mr Wandles' workshop quite by accident, whilst hunting down carpet in Wandsworth, a year ago.   Meandering towards Earslfield, I noticed piles of reclaimed fireplaces stacked up against the shop's facade.   I was in the middle of renovating my first flat and pondering what to do with the sitting room fireplace.  The original one had been stripped out during the 1970s.  Then  replaced by a mock Victorian fireplace, complete with Flaming June, Rossetti style tiles and pine mantle piece...........the horror!  The previous owner had the best of intentions,  it just didn't quite cut the mustard.    My friend Emma says that a fireplace should be the voice of a sitting room, with a song to sing.  Well, my heart sank every time I looked at it, but my renovation budget was fast depleting.

My first impression of the workshop was how filthy it was, I held my coat tails tight to my body.  A veritable coal hole, the place was black!  As I looked around, I recognised the same original cast iron fireplace remaining in my bedroom.  The raised patterns and edges of the all the designs were covered in soot and gloss paint.  Freshly ripped out of houses, by property developers keen to make a fast buck I reckon.   Why would anyone even consider modernising to such an extreme level?

Down some rickety old stairs to the cellar, the story got better and darker.   It was so dark, I could barely see what I was being led towards.  Till Mr Wandle switched the light on to illuminate a plethora of antique tiles.  Racks of full sets and partial sets sat in rows, gleaming on the wooden shelves like sweets.   This was the answer to my problem.  If I could buy a reclaimed set of tiles and paint the mantle piece I might just rescue the budget back.  Some of the tiles were so dirty, he had to polish them on his machine to show me the true colour.  I was in heaven, I loved them all, how would I possibly choose?  My sitting room was still wet from plastering, I didn't know what colour I was going to paint it.  Mmm, this was my trickiest interior design decision yet.  I fell hard for the Mintons tiles, but at £400 they were beyond my purse strings.   But then a set of eight stags caught my eye, in cream and brown.  I would need to use a separate set of chocolate-brown breakers to make the set up; to the full length of the side panels.   Queen Victoria's love affair with Scotland made the Highlands a fashionable place and decorative theme in her time.  Albert and Victoria felt so at home there, in 1852 they made Balmoral castle their holiday retreat, visiting every summer.  My stags would also make the perfect reference to my namesake Scottish island; Islay ( the "y" is the masculine in case you wonder why I don't use it!).  Perhaps I would never feel far from the country if I had them to cosy up to?  When I proudly showed the builder my antique tiles, he decided the stags should face away from the fire, in case they got burnt..... sweet!

In our age of central heating, one forgets that the Victorian fireplace was the ultimate  marriage between decoration and function.  Coal and gas were costly commodities and Victorians were frugal types, anxious to keep costs down.   Yet mass production meant that cast iron fireplaces suddenly became relatively inexpensive and widely available.  The metal was malleable enough to be moulded into a wide range of ornate designs.  They indulged the middle classes' appetite for interior design statements.  Little wonder then that the fireplace became the focal point of domestic life and a fashionable place to display a home owner's trinkets.   I haven't quite got to the trinkets stage, I need to source an antique mirror, I'd like a tartan blanket for the sofa to extend my highland theme.  There is still so much to do, but it is my favourite room and I spend far too much time day dreaming in front of the fire.   I think it might be time for The Antiques Roadshow..............

Mr Wandles' Workshop; 202 Garratt Lane,  London SW18 4ED

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Taylors Buttons

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It struck me at midnight on Wednesday that I just had to feature Taylors Buttons before leaving Fitzrovia.  The reason for this is simple - Taylors keeps rather old-fashioned opening hours; 11am - 4pm, closed at the weekends.  I can't say I blame the wonderful Mrs Maureen Rose, if I ran a shop I would do the same.  I have got far too used to running over there in my lunch looking for the perfect statement button to replace cheap ones on my latest threads.  It's one of my top peeves that the high street fashion retailers won't spend their margin on fixing beautiful buttons to garments.  They just shove the cheapest matching plastic button going and the consumer puts up with it.  But changing the buttons on a jacket can elevate something from the ordinary into the magical for just a few pounds.  I have jet black glass buttons bought from Taylors years ago on my Jigsaw swing coat.   Buttoning up is a luxurious experience; the cool feel of the glass buttons between my fingers, not to mention looking very elegant. As I approach Cleveland street I marvel at the colossal building site of the former Middlesex hospital.   Demolished to make way for 11 storey high flats for which residents of the Georgian houses opposite receive compensation.  Their view will be horribly affected and I wonder how many of these modern flats will remain vacant for 11 months of the year, bought by non doms to shore up cash funds.  In the midst of all the rubble, Maureen sits amongst piles of vintage button boxes going about her trade.  Interestingly, the building the shop is based in was occupied twice by Charles Dickens.  Taylors is a family run business established over 100 years ago with their first shop in Soho.  Maureen's late husband Leon took over the business over fifty years ago having trained in a button factory and his Uncle (also in the trade) mentored him when he bought Taylors.   Leon moved the shop from 1 Silver Place to its present location on 22 Cleveland Street.  When Maureen married Leon I suspect she brought her own flair to the table.

It's a tiny shop crammed floor to ceiling with boxes of buttons, most of them vintage and art deco, never to be seen again once sold.  Maureen can dye to match any colour of button for a beloved garment at a very reasonable price.  Moreover, she can make a fabric belt to match any dress covering the buckle and backing the belt with leather - all for less than £20.  This makes her a sartorial heroine in my book.  It saddens me that Button Queen in Marylebone Lane seems to steal her limelight.  Give me Taylors' bespoke service any day over Button Queens new slick looking shop.  Did you know every plastic button starts life white before hitting the dye vats? I learn something new every time I visit.  But I've come to the conclusion that Maureen is far too modest for her own good.  I hadn't a clue that she supplied 40,000 handmade buttons to line the walls of Alan Ducasse's restaurant at The Dorchester hotel in Park Lane.  It took 6 months to complete and looked stunning.  She has worked with couture stalwarts such as Hardie Amies and Norman Hartnell through to costumes for film and theatre.  Famous clients include the Queen, Margaret Thatcher and one scarlet belt sported by Bond girl Eva Green in Casino Royale.  The list goes on so please visit her website to learn more;

http://www.taylorsbuttons.co.uk/index.html

Maureen told me that whilst her son built her website she is not keen on e-commerce and prefers retailing through the shop.  She has over 100 buttons on-line but cataloguing the entire shop's stock must be a daunting task.  I'm inclined to agree, if only because buttons are such tactile objects.  There is no substitute for appreciating the shiny glint of gold or the true colour of a button in daylight.  You need to lay a button on a garment to bring it to life.  You need to rummage through the cardboard boxes with their original fifties font labels to realise just how unique each button is.  You could think designing a button could be quite limiting until you visit the vast array at Taylors.  They sit there like confectionary in an old fashioned sweet shop.

There probably would not be any point in tidying up and it looks like organised mess to me.  If you ask nicely Maureen will open her little drawers of treasures for you.  From alphabetically labeled drawers I purchased little vintage name tags of my initials I S, just like the ones  I used to have at school.  She also has pretty vintage cotton reels in the colours of sugared almonds for sale.  Oh and the original shop fittings are to die for, I've offered to buy them so many times I've given up asking.  On this occasion I took the time just to admire this rare shop chat to Maureen, long may she continue.

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