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With three generations involved in bespoke tailoring, my career path was always going to be obvious.
My late Father, Terry, wasn’t a tailor, he was an engineer, a sewing machine engineer and a really good one. He ended up being the chief engineer for all of Montague Burtons’tailoring factories.
This is how I really got started onto the tailoring path. My earliest tailoring recollections are as a young boy aged about 6 running into the vast Burtons’ Hudson Road tailoring factory on a Saturday morning with my father.
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My father would occasionally take me with him to work at Burtons’ huge factory which was on Hudson Road in Leeds and sometimes to the other Burton’s factories he was also responsible for.
These other Burtons’ factories were at Doncaster, Gainsborough and Goole. The Leeds factory has always stayed within my memory purely down to its immense size. I can still see the rows and rows of old men and women sat hand sewing the suits Burtons’ made. My late Mother, Pat, also worked for Burtons’ in both the Leeds and Goole factory for many years, eventually running the training wing element of the Burtons’ factory in Goole. Every potential new sewing machinist coming to Burtons’ had to first pass an intensive four week sewing machine course. My mother eventually tutored this course and was an extremely accomplished sewing hand.
My Grandmother and my Nan were also both lifelong workers at Montys in Leeds for almost 50 years each. School clothes, everyday clothes and fancy dress costumes were never bought, they were always made for us by my mum, gran and Nan. Tailoring is most certainly in my blood.
It was in the very early 1980’s that my father was approached by two former Burton’s employees that he knew, Mr Eddie Topping and Mrs Janet Howard, Eddie was the factory manager at Doncaster and Janet was the trouser room manageress at Doncaster. Both had just been made redundant, my father still worked for Burton’s.
They were setting up on their own and was my father interested in coming on board, all three as equal partners. My Father took a punt which turned out to be one of the best things he ever did. Topping Howard was born, he didn’t want his name on the outside as in his own words “I don’t care if my name is in lights on Broadway, I know I own one-third of this factory” I had been helping out at my dad’s place during the school holidays over the years and on a weekend so it was no surprise that I eventually started working full-time in my Fathers tailoring business just before I reached the age of 16.
My Father had worked from a young age for the late Sir Montague Burton (1885-1952) the ‘Tailor of Taste’. So when I left school I took an apprenticeship at my Father’s company.
About UsMenial Tasks
I started with the usual menial tasks such as emptying bins, carting boxes here and there, humping huge bales of cloth around the factory, in general like most first jobs I was a very cheap and convenient dogs body. I messed around for a while until I decided to give this tailoring lark a proper go, so I was given the option of entering the trouser room, the jacket room, the cutting room or to become a designer.
The first two options were full of women; old school hard-core from Burton’s and in truth initially terrified me. The pattern designer element did not float my boat either as it was upstairs and quite isolated from the rest of the employees, plus the holier than thou attitude of the present company designer did not appeal to me as I was a bit of a rebel.
The cutting room was male dominated, all former Burton’s cutters and boy had those boys some stories to tell and in tailoring at this time the ‘cutter sure was King’ – I decided the cutting room was my destiny. I began learning about preparation of cloths, pocketing, Melton under collars, linings, canvas, fusible and generally laying out materials and other smaller menial jobs. The cutting room foreman at the time, Mr John Watson, started to train me how to use shears correctly. He used to slap my hand with a dog-leg yard-stick every-time I lifted my thumb from the shears bellowing “thumb down, not up!” Mr Watson was the cutting room manager – he was a lovely man and a great cutter and very good at his job, I have never forgot ‘thumb down’ and it pains me to this day to see a cutter using his shears with his thumb stuck up in the air.
About UsExtra Tuition
It was decided that along with my good friend and fellow apprentice Darren Barker we had to stay behind for an extra 3-4 hours per week on an evening for extra tuition in the cutting room from Mr Watson. We didn’t get paid for this either and we did it for the love of the company, that’s what we said to ourselves anyway.
Darren and I always used to go to the pub afterwards for a pint, or two. It would always be me cycling with Darren sat on the front of my bike handlebars for the odd 3 miles from work into Doncaster town centre. Me wearing my flat cap, I used to stick the front wheel of my push bike ‘trigger’ behind the bar of every pub we went into. We were well-known in the many Doncaster pubs we used to frequent to say the least.
The cycle home was always interesting to say the least, two of us on one bike drunk as skunks laughing our heads off trying to navigating the busy North Road in the dark without lights. I tell you this, we used to have a great time after work so it always seemed to make the unpaid overtime worth it!
About UsA King Cutter
After a long time training and learning, I was eventually let loose on cutting the various trimmings required for trousers and jackets, trimmings are the small ancillary parts required to make the garments.
My next step was to mark in the garments for the other cutters prior to them cutting them out. I had been with the company two years by this time and my wage had increased from £30 per week to £1.67 per hour. As a comparison my friends working in the construction trades earned more bonuses on top of their salaries than my entire take home month’s wage.
I was taught comprehensively on how patterns were made, how these patterns went together and how to alter stock patterns to make them fit irregular shaped figures.
The first job I marked in was a nice super-100s grey 2-piece for myself ( the first job for all apprentice cutters in our firm was to make their own garment ). I progressed to cutting with the “Misters” where I stayed for a further three years, cutting my teeth with professionals who varied in age from forty to nearly seventy years.
All the cutters at the company were former employees of Montague Burton and they all were VERY skilled cutters, in fact they were as good as I have seen ANYWHERE and BETTER than most I have seen on Savile Row.
One particular cutter that I was paired with for many years, Raymond George Alexander Gaukrodger, was able to cut a marked pair of trousers out without even closing the blades of his shears. His shears were razor-sharp and he would push them along the chalk lines extremely fast. Was he any good? You could place the trousers he had cut out on top of the pattern they were marked off and they would fit EXACTLY, every time, boy was he good!
I loved the cutting room and the company. There were very few work days that I did not laugh so much my stomach hurt while I listened to the old tailoring stories from the other cutters and being the butt of their jokes. I miss those days, they were the best time in my working life. I was part of a team and it created true friendships that still last. I raise a glass to my fellow cutting room colleagues that showed me so much but have now moved to the great cutting room in the sky. Sid Trott, John Girling, Howard Broadhurst and Dave Appleyard.
About UsThe Art of Pressing
I was then pulled from the cutting room and thrown into the deep end of the jacket room and taught how to make jackets. The factory was a CMT (cut make and trim) operation, so the range of different styles we made was immense. There was the normal run of the mill two piece suits through to shooting garments with bellows patch pockets and ‘action’ pleats in the back. At the same time I was being trained a real skill that few today possess, which was how to press jackets ‘off’ by hand, even though the place was full of what was at the time high-tech pressing equipment.
Pressing is an art, a touch that can’t be explained, you feel the cloths requirements and they are all different. To say a good presser can make an average garment look outstanding is an understatement.
After I had finished with the jacket and pressing room, I was then moved into the trouser room for more of the same, which to be fair was far easier than the jacket room. Trousers need a deft hand with the making and pressing process, but to be fair it’s not as complex as coat making. By this time I was lucky enough to be conversant with every garment we made, in every style and every fabric we made it in, – I was also attending day-release college.
The core business of the company at this time was really the wholesale market, we made for the large tailoring firms in the UK which ranged from Marks and Spencer, Centaur Clothes to the high-end designer suits.
I am familiar with most of the production methods of modern factory garments, the machinery has changed, but the principles remain the same. From lay marking, bulk cutting with Eastman knives and bandknives, a machine with a blade running in a circular manner some 20 feet long (which cost me a severed chunk off the top of my left index finger) to machines and manufacturing processes.
Running alongside these wholesale lines we had a made to measure and full bespoke section. I cut my teeth on all three lines.
About UsFriday Fun
The normal working week without overtime was 7.30am – 5.30pm. Monday to Thursday. On a Friday I used to cut for a friend of my Father’s Brian Holden, I had to, my Father didn’t pay high wages. Brian had his own business making country wear, the real traditional country wear for shooting and game keepers. I used to love cutting out the shooting suits and breeks in the most amazing colours and patterns of tweed he had.
Every style of country jacket was made, Norfolk jackets, breeks, shooting suits with every kind of pocket, back and style variation you can’t imagine and then some more, waistcoats, overcoats for shooting, it was unbelievable the amount of styles. It really opened my eyes and garnered me a real skill for pattern matching plaid cloth.
At Brian’s I started at 8am till 5pm on a Friday only and I used to cut all the garments to keep the girls Brian had going for the coming week, some stock clothing, some made to measure clothing and some bespoke clothing, along with ALL the trim for the jobs. Brian had me cheap! He was a former manager for Montague Burton’s and knew measuring and garments but not cutting. This never stopped Brian coming in to the cutting room (sometimes several times a day) giving me his opinion and saying “can you get that lay tighter”? (which uses less cloth) or looking, yes, looking through the rubbish for scraps of cloth making sure I was not using or wasting cloth!
I stood this for almost a year from Brian until one day after taking yet more ‘advice’ from Brian on how to cut, I put my shears down and told him to do the job as he obviously knew more than me about cutting! I also asked him for a pay rise or it was “Adios Amigos” We got on fine after that, Brian never gave me advice about something he knew nothing about again. I stayed with Brian for almost 3 years, I loved it. It was a sad day when I left.
About UsGoing It Alone
I stayed with my father’s company until my father retired from the trade. The building and all the plant and machinery was owned outright by the company along with everything in it and this was a considerable amount.
The workspace was 25,000 square feet, open plan. It was a sad day, but correct from a financial point as the strain from foreign factories undercutting our UK prices, it was Spain and Portugal in those days, were making the margins too tight. Plus the huge orders for hundreds of thousands of garments were getting thin on the ground. The company still had over 60% of the original people who had been there from the first day, not bad considering you always lose staff to marriage and pregnancy within the any trade. I was 29 years old and had worked there for fourteen happy years.
It was impossible for me to take over the company – it employed over 220 staff – and my Father was one of three directors. I had no idea how businesses ran only how to cut and make great garments.
I had set myself up within two weeks of being made redundant and started by myself working from my then Doncaster home in 1997 mainly making coats for other tailors as an out worker, and boy oh boy was I at the sharp end. Long gone was a steady wage, I was now dealing with people who often paid you when they wanted to, and more often than not the cheque would then bounce.
During these unsettled years as a trade maker, I frequently made coats and trousers for numerous tailoring companies up and down the U.K. such as, W P Hine Oxford, Welsh and Jeffries Eton, Gresham Blake Brighton, Geoff Souster Luton, Ede and Ranenscroft Savile Row, Eleganza Manchester, Crichton Bespoke Chester, Rhodes Wood Harrogate Buffs Chelsea and many others.
At this point there were machines and trim all over the house, in the living room, at the bottom of the stairs, behind the front door, on the landing and at the bottom of our bed, in fact I could not get out of bed without banging my bare toes on my 70-year-old singer sewing machine I was using at the time.
But I got by, I had to, I had four children to support. During this out worker period I made for some good tailors and some bad tailors, when I say bad, I mean bad payers and some that couldn’t fit a suit for toffee. It drove me mad. (I have made for some of the biggest London names in the trade) but one thing I realised early on was that I could see that relying on other people’s work was not the answer, and deep down I did not really like it, I hated it. It simply was a means to an end.
In October of 2005, after nine years of trade work I finished my last trade garment and decided to go it alone. I had not one stitch of work to replace the trade work I was letting go.
Over the years I had made the odd suit, looking back they were at a fire sale price, for people who knew I was a tailor, and luckily some of these were successful business men so I took the step of informing them that I was looking for customers of my own now. They very kindly told business colleagues and friends – the phone never stopped in January and February 2006 – with steady orders through spring all coming from recommendations. At the time I was far from swamped but it was only early days and more importantly, I was back loving my trade.
About UsMy Philosophy
I am always looking for new customers to grow my business. I envisage a relationship between tailor and customer that will last 40 years and more. I am true to my roots and my tailoring is the purest form, I cut and make all my full bespoke garments personally.
I really am amazed when people rave about certain tailoring firms, they are dealt with purely by the cutter, nothing more nothing less – the cutter is not the tailor and coming from the horse’s mouth I can tell you which has the skill set and artistic flare.