Albert the Umbrella
This is Richard Ince, sixth generation umbrella maker and proprietor of James Ince & Sons, the oldest established umbrella makers in Britain, founded in Spitalfields in 1805. He is seen here cutting the covers for the manufacture of Albert the Umbrella, his collaboration with Ally Capellino, the bag lady of Shoreditch. It was my pleasure to introduce Ally and Richard to each other recently, and Albert is the happy outcome.
At the end of the Summer, Ally cycled up from her studio in Calvert Avenue to Richard’s umbrella factory in Vyner St next to the canal. Behind a nondescript facade, Richard makes umbrellas here by hand in the same way his family have done for generations, still using many of the old tools and equipment from their former factory in Spitalfields. The cutting table in the picture above was salvaged after an incendiary bomb hit in World War II and is charred underneath, evidencing its dramatic history. Even the weight that Richard uses to hold the template in place while cutting the covers has been in the business at least three generations.
Ally – a designer with a fascination for the technical processes of making things – was immediately intrigued by Richard’s factory and, within half an hour, she was selecting fabrics and considering what kind of umbrella might complement the elegant simplicity of her bags. The result is a model of understatement – with a beechwood shaft, a chestnut handle, copper handsprings and discreet leather detailing, Albert the Umbrella sports a plain cover of soft grey or brown.
A few weeks ago, I visited the factory when Terry Coleman, the East End’s most senior umbrella maker, came in to fit the copper handsprings for Ally’s umbrellas, using an old stock of springs that were manufactured in the nineteen fifties. Then, last week, I returned to see Richard cut the covers and follow the process to completion. The machinist sewed the triangular pieces together in pairs and then niftily combined them to make the eight-panelled cover. Next, the metal tips were attached, then the cover was sewn to the frame and the leather strip which holds the umbrella furled was stitched in place. Finally Richard himself fitted the metal ferrule and the handles, and – Hey Presto! – a new umbrella by James Ince & Sons, designed by Ally Capellino and carrying a little bit of the history of the East End with it.
Since most of the archives of the family business were destroyed in the London Blitz, Richard has begun collecting examples of his forebears’ handiwork ,and he brought out some magnificent dusty specimens and laid them on the cutting table for me to photograph. At first, he showed me snazzy patterned umbrellas from the fifties and forties, and then cool colonial sunshades from the thirties. He has a stack of huge old patio umbrellas, all faded by Summers long gone – even an early fishing umbrella from the very beginning of the twentieth century – that we did not venture to open in the tiny workshop.
Even as I was taking my pictures, Richard produced more and more umbrellas, and unfurled them to magical effect. He produced parasols and carriage umbrellas from the nineteenth century, many in tattered silk and whalebone yet still luxuriant in their colour and design. He produced umbrellas with exquisite handles and unusual frames. It was a whole lost world of umbrellas.
A naturally modest man who carries his expertise lightly, Richard probably knows more about umbrellas than anyone alive, yet he does not advertise that he makes the trick umbrellas for Mary Poppins and Hagrid. In fact, when Richard manufactures umbrellas, he does not always sew his “James Ince & Sons” label in them. So I am very proud to have been the one to put Ally Capellino and James Ince & Sons together and announce that – as a result – you can now go into a shop in the East End and buy an umbrella made by hand in the East End, by the oldest umbrella maker in this country. Ladies & Gentlemen, please welcome Albert the Umbrella!
Cutting the covers.
Sewing the covers together.
Sewing the cover to the frame.
Tipping the umbrella.
Fitting the ferrule.
1950s art silk umbrella by James Ince & Sons Ltd.
1950s umbrella with cover by James Ince & Sons Ltd.
An unusually structured decorative frame from the early twentieth century.
Silk parasol from the 1880s.
Silk parasol from the 1850s.
Carriage umbrella from 1830s.
Colonial umbrella from 1930s.
Nineteenth century silk umbrellas with frames made of whalebone.
From Richard Ince’s personal collection.
Albert the Umbrella, designed by Ally Capellino manufactured by James Ince & Sons.
Albert the Umbrella is available in either brown or grey, and for sale exclusively at Ally Capellino’s shops in Calvert Avenue and Golborne Rd.
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