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At Rayner & Sturges, Shirtmakers

July 11, 2011
by the gentle author

When Boyd Bowman of Alexander Boyd, the Spitalfields tailor, introduced himself to me as the last shirtmaker in England – I knew at once that I needed to visit his factory, next to the old dockyard at the mouth of the Medway near Chatham in Kent. Here at Rayner & Sturges, in a handsomely matchboarded nineteenth century building, tall and narrow like a ship and with light coming from windows on both sides, the finest bespoke shirts are made for Savile Row and Jermyn St. And if you walk into Alexander Boyd’s tailoring shop at 54 Artillery Lane, Spitalfields, and order a shirt to be made for you personally, this is where it will be cut and sewn.

On a rise up above the Medway stands the heroic shirt factory, established here in 1913 by Messrs Rayner & Sturges as part of a local clothing manufacturing industry in Kent that has all gone now, apart from this. Many of the staff trained and worked in other companies in the vicinity, but now the remaining skilled garment workers are all concentrated here, quietly making the very best shirts together.

You walk straight from the street into the factory floor where a rack of magnificent Italian and Swiss shirt cottons greet you on the left and paper patterns hang on the wall to your right. I set out to follow the path of a shirt, leading me to Anthony Rose, dignified cutter of fifty years experience. “You spent three years laying the cloth out and measuring the lengths before they let you cut it, “ he told me, “You’ve got to understand how the pieces go together in the finished article. We make the full-matched shirt for stripes and checks, which means the pattern matches at the shoulder, the sleeves, the pocket, across the front and the cuffs.” A master at work, he took out a length of bold blue-striped cotton, folded the cloth carefully in half and arranged the patterns strategically, cutting with a sharp pair of long, old scissors, to ensure an perfect symmetry of the finished shirt.

From the quiet of the cutting room, I climbed up to the sewing floor, echoing with the sound of machines and filled with dazzling morning sunlight. Here, Carol Williams, the cuffmaker, introduced herself, explaining that she began her career as dressmaker in Spitalfields at a factory on the corner of Toynbee and Commercial St in 1959, earning three pounds a week. The queen of cuffs today, she sandwiches the layers of shirting and liner together, sews them and turns them inside out to produce a perfect cuff every time.

Commanding the centre of the floor are a small posse of machinists, each specialising in different aspects of the shirt whether making collars or attaching sleeves. These lively ladies dressed in different colours welcomed me to their territory where they work with relaxed concentration and self-respecting perfectionism. The pieces of each shirt are gathered in a tray that gets passed along the line, as each member of the team works upon the garment until a beautiful new shirt emerges at the end. The skill and experience of these women working closely together, gossiping, amusing each other and taking pride in their exemplary work is a rare contrast to the sweatshops of mass-manufacturers.

Up on the top floor, in a room with a lofty aspect and a splendid wooden pent roof,  I met Ryan an apprentice pattern maker, whose job is to translate the measurements and other specifications for a shirt into a paper pattern that can be sent down to Anthony on the ground floor to set the whole process rolling. Ryan’s father John, who is also his master, was eager to talk about all the famous names that wear the shirts made here, but I was more intrigued by this unusual and harmonious father and son team.

Not only was the building reminiscent of a ship, but the employees were a top-notch crew in which everyone contributed their different skills to a single end, permitting mutual appreciation and respect, sharing pride in the finished result. While there is no doubt that the age of mass production can sublimate and degrade the individual – that is what you read everywhere – here in Chatham at Rayner & Sturges, I found another story which by its existence proves that a different way can be viable. People work in decent conditions, without cutting corners, and create beautiful shirts for which enough customers are prepared to pay the price. It may be the last shirtmaker in England, but it is a new song of the shirt.

Anthony Rose, bespoke cutter of fifty years experience.

Carol Williams, cuffmaker – started as dressmaker in Spitalfields in 1959.

Nirmal Sopal, attaching the sleeves

Amlesa Ahluwa, making the backs, attaching labels and doing hems.

Maria Nazaresova, making the front.

Gurmett Kaur, sewing on the collars.

Lin Kendrick,  quality control and buttonholing.

Ryan Carroll, pattern making

John Carroll, pattern maker and his son Ryan, apprentice pattern maker

In 1913, Mr Rayner & Mr Sturges set up their factory in a former printing works.

Fifty years ago, an outing from the Victoria Works, where the factory still operates today.

14 Responses leave one →
  1. Ros permalink
    July 11, 2011

    What a wonderful piece! A contemporary song of the shirt indeed, and at a much less dolorous pitch. Informative and excellently illustrated as usual.

  2. July 12, 2011

    That workroom is just beautiful!
    The ‘art of the shirt’ is incredible. I hate doing two piece collars so I am in awe of these makers.

  3. July 12, 2011

    Long may the good workers at Rayner & Sturges continue – as an amateur seamstress, I know just how difficult it is to create tailored clothing.

    Once more, a lovely post – a pleasure to read.

  4. Natalie Ryan permalink
    July 25, 2011

    Such an inspiring piece! I am so pleased to read that these lovely traditions continue on in London town, all the way from Australia.

  5. Peter Dimond permalink
    November 4, 2011

    I own a couple of Alexander Boyd shirts and they are superbly made, long may the craft of shirtmaking flourish in England.

  6. November 10, 2011

    Thank you for such an interesting piece about the Rayner & Sturges factory

  7. Jan permalink
    April 18, 2012

    What an interesting piece. I lived in the next house down the hill for the 1st 5 years of my life (1945-1950). I didn’t realise the factory was still open.Long may you keep up the tradition.

  8. Rob permalink
    May 11, 2013

    Such a shame the factory’s been sold off, the staff laid off, and Charles Boyd-Bowman is up in front of the courts for tax evasion…mind you, they’ve been treating the staff terribly for years

  9. Mark Carbutt permalink
    December 11, 2014

    I was Factory Manager and Production Manager for about 18 months during the time of Nigel Sturges being Director.
    It is nice to see the company doing so well and Tony the cutter.

  10. May 17, 2020

    Nice one Tone, just as i remember you over all the years there.

  11. August 31, 2021

    I worked in the work room during 1969 – 1973 from when I was 19 until I was 23 I left to get married.Nigel Sturges was the director .We saw him maybe once or twice a week.Terry Henly, ( I think that is hi surname ? ) maybe 21yrs who worked upstairs he was the cutter.There was also a man which came in part time,no name.Maybe he was the Master cutter. ???
    Also Elain worked in the office with another older lady,no name.The other names I
    can remember are – Jean Masie Marther and Joan. Joan has a daughter Christine she very kindly stepped in to be one of my brides when I was seriously let down less than a week before the wedding. She had red hair.Does anybody remember Joan ? her husband work on the railway.
    I loved working there. The craftsmanship was next to none.

  12. Angela Twyman (nee Sturges) permalink
    May 11, 2023

    How lovely to see the old sepia pictures of my grandfather and the team. Sadly grandfather passed before I was able to know him, although grandma Sturges and uncle Nigel would tell wonderful stories.

  13. philip saunders permalink
    September 2, 2023

    I have some Alexander Boyd shirts. Nicely made and, if I remember correctly, cheaper than Jermyn St equivalents.
    A long while ago (mid 2010s?) the business moved to Chard in Somerset.
    I have a feeling that was through a merger with the Turnbull and Asser (I think ).
    I bet none of the Chatham workers relocated to Somerset ! I hope their skills were preserved somehow!

  14. Mark Carbutt permalink
    October 30, 2023

    I was Factory Manger for 18 months at Brompton, Gillingham Factory
    Lovely people

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