A Spitalfields weaver’s stool
I found this in Brick Lane yesterday, disregarded on the pavement outside a leather shop that was being refitted. I walked past and stopped in my path and turned back, I could not believe my eyes. I knew what it was but I never expected to see it there. Nearby stood a couple of workmen who were stripping out the shop and I asked the men if they had cleared out the stool and if I could buy it. Withholding my excitement, I offered five pounds and after a little negotiation my cash was accepted. Maybe they put the stool on the pavement hoping someone would simply take it away and I was a fool to pay – but this question was of no consequence to me because I had found a Spitalfields weaver’s stool. In spite of its bare utilitarian construction, knowing the meaning of this object, which exists as an illustration of the history of this place, makes it an object of fascination to me.
I knew it was a weavers’ stool because Danny Tabi, the last furrier in Spitalfields has one that he found in the Gale Furs factory in Fournier St when he began working there in the nineteen sixties. He remembered the day of the shooting of The London Nobody Knows in 1967, regretting that he never left his work to be filmed in the travelling shot along Fournier St, in which today he can identify all the faces. When I visited him early one morning last Winter, he proudly pulled the weavers’ stool out from under his sewing machine bench and placed it on his worktable, explaining what it was and pointing out the standardised aspects of the design.
These stools date from an era when it was cheaper to knock together something by hand than get it mass-produced. Essentially constructed from three pieces of one plank, with a couple of cross pieces, and sides to the seat added, this was something a carpenter could make in ten minutes. The “V” cut into each of the side supports created an approximation to four legs, making it stable upon irregular floors, as there are to be found in the old houses that were appropriated as factories here.
Originally used by weavers at looms, Danny explained that these stools became the standard for machinists in the clothing industry in Spitalfields. The close similarities between the stool I found and Danny’s suggest that the design was honed over time to arrive at a standard stool. The splayed angle of the legs and depth of the “V” is consistent, and the sides of the seat have their ends cut away on both stools. A little higher than a chair, it is tall enough for my thighs to be parallel with the ground when I sit upon it.
Although, in most illustrations I have found, the weaver stands or sits upon a cross piece attached to the loom, I am aware that there were different looms for different purposes. Maybe when Danny described this as a weaver’s stool, he referred to it as a common design used in the weaving industry? I cannot know the story of this stool, it can only exist as a general reminder of those who worked with their hands here for centuries in the textile industry. For an object of such cheap manufacture it has fulfilled its purpose well, outliving those who made it to become a relic of an industry that has all but vanished from these streets.
My stool declares its recent history through the printed plastic tape with the words “Future Designs” taped along the wooden edges of the seat. A name that possesses aspirations in absurd contradiction to the mundane wooden stool it graces. Should I remove this tape? Pasted upon the seat itself are closely lettered documents containing the date 1956 as part of the Conditions of Carriage by Road Act. Should I remove these? The stool has been mended with an extra cross piece added to stabilise it, more crudely done than the originals, and it has wood blocks glued underneath the seat to keep the structure rigid. Just the wear of hands upon the sides has worn the ridges in the woodgrain into relief.
I like this sad old stool for its functional austerity and evidence of wear. I shall not alter it. Commonplace objects that are used by many people in the course of daily life always speak to me more than rare precious artefacts. I cannot tell if this stool is fifty or one hundred years old, but I do know it has seen a lot of use and thereby carries the story of countless thousands of hours expended upon the weaving and sewing of cloth here – where I shall keep it – in Spitalfields.
You might like to read Charles Dickens’ account of visiting a weaver’s loft in Spitalfields in 1851 that I published in the Spring.