Philip Pittack & Martin White, cloth merchants
When Charles Dickens visited this corner of London in 1851, he wrote an account of visiting a silk warehouse, so I was intrigued when Miss Willey of Old Town, told me about the last remaining cloth warehouse in Spitalfields, Crescent Trading in Quaker St run by Philip Pittack & Martin White, who describe themselves as clearance cloth merchants. Between them, these two agreeable gentlemen possess more than one hundred and twenty years of experience in textiles. Philip is the third generation to work in the industry and Martin’s mother’s family were in the same trade too.
Philip Pittack, the handsome fellow pictured above with the scissors, began working for his father at the age of fourteen, pursuing the same trade as his grandfather from a premises in Mare St, Hackney. Together they travelled around the country, buying up waste textiles from cloth mills and selling it on to be reconstituted and woven into new fabric. It was in effect recycling, before the term was invented. Fifty years ago, he moved into his current business, being a clearance cloth merchant, buying surplus from mills when too much was manufactured or when it came out the wrong colour. For the past eighteen years, he has been working in partnership with Martin White, operating out of an old stable block backing onto the railway, just of Brick Lane. When they opened here, there were as many as thirty other cloth warehouses in Spitalfields but today Crescent Trading is the only one.
These two men, Messrs Pittack & White, should be on the stage because they both have such a natural gift for repartee, keeping the funnies coming and flirting outrageously with all the fashion students and young designers that are their primary customers, and who are reduced to helpless giggles by the jovial routines. Ten years ago, Crescent Trading sold wholesale, no order less that £100 was accepted and they would not cut a roll of cloth, but today everyone is welcome. And, although Philip and Martin regret the scaling down of the trade, I can see that they enjoy the endless parade of youngsters who come through the door, eyes boggling at the possibilities offered by all this cloth.
Because Crescent Trading only deal in clearance, including clearance stock from their competitors’ warehouses elsewhere in London, this really is the cheapest place to buy fabric – while equally, much of it is excess from mills’ special orders, often for companies like Prada and Chanel, which means you can discover cloth of the highest quality that might not be available anywhere else, and much of it is manufactured in this country too. In fact, Crescent Trading is a key part of our local economy because this is where all the smaller fashion companies and designers-starting-out come, relying on being able to buy tiny amounts of superfine quality at rock bottom prices.
I was honoured to be invited into the inner sanctum of the office, a makeshift construction of a room with a wide window looking out onto the warehouse, a cosy homely place with worn carpet tiles, bottles of HP sauce, jars of cashew nuts, tabloid lovelies taped to the wall, a great big map of Britain with pins in it, Philip’s son’s graduation photo and collecting boxes for Jewish and other charities. This is where I enjoyed the privilege of a conversation with Martin White, who described himself as the Sorcerer of Fabrics. I hope Philip will forgive me if I say that Martin is unquestionably the more stylish of the pair, obviously taking a great deal of care with his appearance, quiffed grey hair, dark raincoat, monocle dangling and pearl tiepin glinting. Philip introduced his business partner affectionately thus, “Rather than sit at home, Mr White prefers to work, utilising his expertise in the textile industry.” which caused Martin to smile regally, raising his eyebrows with pride.
Describing his years in the trade from the pinnacle of his current position, Martin said, “I started in 1946, when there were still coupons on fabrics and I have seen all the changes since that time. I was dealing in fabrics, my mother’s family were always in the business. I started on my own buying and selling. There used to be a lot of cloth mills in this country then, producing woollens, cottons, silks and synthetics but now almost all of them have gone. There are no cotton mills anymore and just a few woollen mills. A linen mill we dealt with in Ireland sold all their looms to India recently. China will take over the textile industry because they can copy anything, but they will never be able to match the quality of wool suiting from the mills in Huddersfield and Bradford which is the best in the world, because of the water. You’ve heard of ‘the old mill by the stream’ ?”
At this point, a female customer arrived and Martin raced out to the warehouse floor, leaving me puzzling over this enigma. So I followed him, to witness the performance, entering mid-dialogue, “You look like an honest girl” quipped Philip, graciously. “I was told about these two charming gentleman,” replied the girl, holding her own creditably. “My friend told me about this brilliant place.” she added with a broad smile, rolling her eyes to take in the vast array of textiles piled in every corner. Then, before she could say another word, Philip turned to me with a gleeful smirk, spreading his arms in extravagant triumph at this spontaneous expression of the evidence of their own fabulousness, “Hear that – Out of the horse’s mouth!” Turning back in an instant to the woman with a theatrically subservient gesture, he said, “No offence intended to the young lady…” The apology was duly accepted with a quiet nod of appreciation and once the comedy overture was complete, and the participants were now as old friends, trading commenced, rolls of fabrics flew around, measured and cut into shape with expert grace.
The young woman sauntered from the warehouse in satisfaction at her unbelievable bargains, just turning at the door as she entered the Spring sunlight, to give a sentimental wave to the fine gentlemen who had made her afternoon. It was a wave reciprocated in unison by the comedy duo, who turned back to me rubbing their hands in satisfaction at the exchange, though I could not tell if it was due to the transaction itself or simply in delight at the social encounter, or both. It was a moment from a classic British sit-com.
I seized the chance to enquire about the specific quality of the water in the North of England that plays such a significant party in the exemplary quality of the wool suiting produced in Huddersfield and Bradford. My query was the cue for an elaborate charade in which Philip and Martin enacted each stage of the process of textile production, from the spinning of the woollen yarn, through the dying and the weaving, every aspect of which requires washing. “Even we don’t understand it,” admitted Philip with uncharacteristic modesty, “It’s like the whisky in Scotland, the water is everything.” taking the opportunity to show me the stack of crates of Springbank malt whisky from the Campbeltown distillery that is his personal supply, stowed in a discreet corner, as a tested and reliable method to keep warm in the bone-chilling climate of the old warehouse. “In Summer, people think we have air-conditioning,” declared Philip breezily, “but it’s just the eighteen-inch thick walls!” always looking on the bright side, even standing swaddled in his duvet coat, as we shivered together in the office that seemed even colder than the rest of the building, if that were possible.
As you may have already surmised, the next chapter in the history of Crescent Trading is already dawning, because the venerable building that makes such a beautiful cloth warehouse is to become a hotel and Philip and Martin have no choice but to leave in a matter of months. This is in spite of an undertaking by the powers-that-be that the area is zoned as for light industrial use, “Money talks and bullshit walks, if you pardon my French!” said Philip, in desultory summary of the circumstance. There is a possibility Crescent Trading can move across the road to a modern unit, with half the space at twice the rent, where maybe they could share with Paul Gardner, the paper bag seller, who is also under pressure to leave his building in Commercial St, where his great-grandfather James Gardner commenced trading as a Scalemaker in 1870.
The rise of the neighbourhood has given landlords an appetite to increase revenue from properties, but if as a result we lose crucial businesses (like Crescent Trading and Gardners) that support the unique small enterprises in the East End, then we destroy a community which gives the place part of its distinctive life. Over all the years, these dignified small tradesmen of Spitalfields have been earning a modest living while providing an essential service to many, and I cannot resist admitting to you that I feel they deserve better now.
In coming weeks, I will report developments in this story but in the meantime you can enjoy this lively short film about Crescent Trading by clicking here.
Bolts of superfine quality wool suiting.
Rolls of silk.
Martin measures out cloth.
The last pallet of silk in a warehouse in Spitalfields?