People sometimes state, “tailoring was in my blood” well for me it really was.
My late Father 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 Montague Burton’s, but until he eventually became the chief engineer, like many of us now he also had to do several other jobs to make ends meet.
This is how I really got started onto the tailoring path. My earliest tailoring recollections are as a young boy aged about 6 running in and out of the various Jewish tailors’ workshops in and around the Leeds area.
Particularly the once bustling tailoring area of North Street, Cohens, Zimmermans, Feldmans, Freemans, my dad did them all, repairing and maintaining their sewing machines on Saturday mornings for a bit of extra cash to support our family.
Sir Montague Burton
Not only do I have these recollections of small independent tailors, but whenever I wasn’t at school or during the school holidays my dad would always take me with him to work at Burton’s huge factory which was on Hudson Road in Leeds and sometimes to the other Burton’s factories he was also responsible for.
These other Burton’s factories were at Doncaster, Gainsborough and Goole. The Leeds factory has always stayed with me as it was immense and I can still see the rows and rows of old men and women hand sewing not only the normal suits Burton’s made, but all the beautiful and varied garments including some that were embossed with the most beautiful Russian braid that were bound for the Royal household. My late Mother also worked for Burton’s in Leeds and Goole for many years, she eventually ended up running the training school for new employees to Burton’s in Goole 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.
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.
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!