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The Alteration Tailors of the East End

January 18, 2011
by the gentle author

The alteration tailors go disregarded for the most part – no-one notices them. It is almost as if they have mastered the art of invisibility, for they can sit in the window of a dry cleaners or a shoe repair business while the customers come and go to the counter without even casting a glance at the tailor, working placidly at a sewing machine in the most conspicuous position in the shop. From this privileged location facing onto the street, all of existence passes like a charade before the eyes of the alteration tailor, screened by the plate glass window and the collective amnesia of the populace.

Yet there comes a moment when they occupy the focus of attention, when life cannot continue because your trousers split or you discover your hem is showing, and your need of an alteration tailor is burning. Then, like a superhero lurking in the subliminal margin of your consciousness, they step to the fore and you thank the heavens you can rely upon them in the hour of need. A brief conversation is all that is required and, with the mere exchange of a few pounds, your self-esteem is restored.

Such is my fascination with the paradoxical existence of the alteration tailors that I persuaded Spitalfields Life contributing photographer Sarah Ainslie to accompany me on a quest to photograph these ethereal beings, and bring them into visibility. Superficially, it might seem that these stitchers are inferior to the tailors that actually make clothes, yet is my perception that the work of the alteration tailor is a subtler art, one of accommodation to flawed humanity, since the two arenas of endeavour for these tailors are those of repair and adjustment and, commonly, both are indicators of fallibility.

In Bethnal Green, at The Ironing Parlour, there is an eye-catching display of old irons in the window which Hussein, the proprietor, told me he inherited from the previous owner, symbolic tokens of gratitude offered up to the altar of the modest alteration tailor. And it explained a certain self-respecting ease, even a mild swagger common to all the alteration tailors I met, acknowledging they appreciate that what it costs to expend their skill is so much less than what it means to us. As Mohammed Abdul Mannan at Needlepoint in Barnet Grove put it succinctly, “I think it is nice job. People like us because they need it.” Consequently, although it was a source of humiliation to me when a fellow-customer came in to get his wife’s dress repaired and negotiated a price reduction from eight to five pounds, whilst also seeking assurances that it would be done well, the alteration tailor reacted with admirable largesse . “I will do my best for you,” was his poignant response, accepting the mean-spirited reduction with grace. “You’re always going to make a living, but you’re never going to make a fortune in this trade,” was the ambivalent summation – accompanied by a weary smile – quoted by several of my subjects of enquiry.

Yet there is little intrinsic melancholy in the lives of the alteration tailors, because the line of the needy is always balanced by the line of the jubilant, collecting their repairs – whilst the tailors mediate the space between, working conscientiously at their own pace. When I was in The Ironing Parlour, a senior lady pushing a trolley came in hopefully on the off-chance to check if there was anything for her to collect, only to leave disheartened when they explained politely that she had brought nothing in for repair. After searching carefully, just to make sure, Shabaz and Chris, who work here, looked at each other in disappointment to send her away empty-handed.

As Vaida who does the repairs at Classi Clean in the Liverpool St Arcade confirmed with a shy smile, “I like it,  from when I was a child.” This week, she is busy taking out the waists for her City gents as she usually does in January, just as she will expect to take them in again next Summer when they lose weight for the beach. Vaida came here from Vilnius eight years ago when she lost her job in a clothing factory after manufacturing transferred to China and Mr Patel, who has run this store for twenty-five years, prizes her for her nimble work. “We were struggling to find a competent seamstress,” he lamented, “They don’t teach it here. Young people in this country can’t even sew on a button.” It did not seem appropriate to tell him of young Ali at Needlepoint in Barnet Grove, six months into the profession with dexterous fingers and an eager personable manner.

Back in Bethnal Green, a different Mr Patel, my old friend at Smarty Pants, did his his best to live up to the name of his shop. “This is what you call philosophical,” he declared, rolling his eyes ironically while seated behind his machine patching a pair of jeans, “The poor man’s necessity is the rich man’s hobby. Here people eat less to lose weight – in the poor countries, they lose weight because they can’t afford to eat. Here people have a Rolls Royce but they prefer to walk – in the poor countries, people walk because they can’t afford the bus. Here people pay to get their old jeans patched – in the poor countries, they can’t afford to buy new ones.” It was a glimpse of the sly wisdom of the alteration tailor, observing weakness and vanity, yet bringing a quick needle and a compassionate sensibility to ameliorate our needs.

Shabaz at The Ironing Parlour.

Hussein, proprietor of Attaboy Dry Cleaners and The Ironing Parlour in the Bethnal Green Rd.

The collection of old irons donated by grateful customers.

Vaida at Classi Clean in the Liverpool St Arcade.

Raj at Dry Cleaners in Middlesex St

Ali at Needlepoint in Barnet Grove has only been in the profession for six months.

Mohammed Abdul Mannan at Needlepoint in Barnet Grove.

Mr Patel, proprietor of Smarty Pants in the Bethnal Green Rd.

Photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie

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6 Responses leave one →
  1. Patsy permalink
    January 19, 2011

    Thank you so much for this, these histories are missing anywhere else and I love reading about them.

  2. January 19, 2011

    Great, now I even want to get my clothes mended in Spitalfields! I have become far too attached to a neighborhood that’s 8 time zones away.

  3. Ros permalink
    January 19, 2011

    I loved this post, in which the spirit of Dickens is palpable – how he would smile at the glimpses, sly but with great depth and insight, into the human condition. The photographs too are wonderful – the first in particular looking like a modern canvas you could hang on the wall. Lovely composition and telling faces in all of them.

  4. January 31, 2011

    Thank you for sharing beautiful

  5. Caroline permalink
    October 18, 2011

    I was sent this article via Twitter earlier today, and am thrilled not only to have read it, but to have discovered such a fab blog! Looking forwards to catching up on all these posts! Thank you!

  6. November 12, 2011

    I run a dressmaking and alterations business from home in Shoreditch, N1. Please visit for more details.

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