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Suresh Singh’s Tank Top

March 25, 2019
by the gentle author

Stefan Dickers and Suresh Singh will be in conversation at Bishopsgate Institute next Wednesday 3rd April at 7pm, showing Suresh’s family photographs and discussing his book A MODEST LIVING, MEMOIRS OF A COCKNEY SIKH.

Click here for tickets

Suresh Singh has been wearing this tank top since 1973

Perhaps everyone has a favourite piece of clothing they have worn for years? I always admired Suresh Singh’s jazzy tank top and I was astonished when he told me he has been wearing it for nearly half a century.

Suresh’s father Joginder Singh came to London from the Punjab in 1949 and the Singh family have lived at 38 Princelet St longer than any other family in Spitalfields.

In our age of disposable fashion, the story of Suresh’s treasured tank top is an inspiring example of how a well made garment can be cherished for a lifetime.

“My mum made this tank top for me in 1973 when I was eleven. She had friends who all knitted and they had bits of wool left over – what you would call ‘cabbage’ –  so mum collected all these balls of different coloured wool. Otherwise, they would have been chucked away. She kept them in her carrier bag with her needles that she bought at Woolworths in Aldgate East. They were number ten needles.

Mum said to me, ‘Suresh, I’m going to knit you a tank top.’ I never asked her because dad had taught me that I should always be patient, but I think mum saw the twinkle in my eyes and she knew I wanted one. I had asthma, so it was to keep my chest warm. She knitted it over the winter, from November to January. Mum never had the spare time to spend all day long knitting, she had to do it in bits as she went along and keep putting it away.

Mum did not follow a pattern, she just looked at me and sometimes took measurements. It started getting really huge, so I said, ‘Mum, it’s going to be too big.’ She had a sense of scale, she did not draw round me and cut a pattern. Mum never did that. She replied, ‘You’ll grow into it.’ The idea was you would slowly grow into new clothes.

When my tank top was finished, it hung down to my knees and the armholes were at my waist, but Mum was adamant I would grow into it. I loved it because it was all the rainbow colours. There was red, then yellow, then black, then pink and that really beautiful green. It was so outrageous. No other Punjabi kid had one like it. They all wore Marks & Spencer or John Collier grey nylon jumpers, but I had this piece of art. To me, it was a masterpiece. It was so beautifully made, it was mum’s pride and joy. When I wore it, people would exclaim, ‘That tank top, mate, it’s classic!’ I would say, ‘Yeah, my mum made it.’ Sometimes, because it was too big, I could pull it up and tie it in a knot at the front.

Mum made it with such love that I have always kept it. Eventually, my children wore it, but I am claiming it these days. It is a one-off. What made the tank top special for mum was that she was making it for her son. People often say it is a work of art but mum never went to art school. She picked up the tradition of making something for your child. She put so much love into it and I wear it today and it is still really nice. It gives me comfort and it keeps my chest warm.

It has got swag, you know what I mean?

It fits me now.”

Suresh and his mum at 38 Princelet St

Suresh Singh aged four

Suresh Singh & Jagir Kaur at 38 Princelet St last summer (Photograph by Patricia Niven)

You may also like to read about

A Modest Living

At 38 Princelet St

A Hard-Working Life

Joginder Singh’s Boy

How to Make A Chapati

A Cockney Sikh

The first Punjabi Punk

A Sikh at Christ Church

Three Punjabi Recipes


Click here to order a signed copy of A MODEST LIVING for £20


14 Responses leave one →
  1. Jill Wilson permalink
    March 25, 2019

    Spooky! I was sitting next to Suresh on Saturday and was admiring his jolly tank top but I had no idea how old it was and it’s fabulous back story. Good old Mum…
    Looking forward to his talk with Stefan next week when I trust the tank top will be centre stage!

  2. March 25, 2019

    A delightful story, Suresh’s tank top is genuinely ‘vintage’ !

  3. Phaedra permalink
    March 25, 2019

    Absolutely love this story – and that Suresh grew into his tank top. Not happy about 1973 being described as “nearly half a century ago” – just because I love history, it doesn’t mean I want to feel old myself!

  4. Ros permalink
    March 25, 2019

    What a fabulous tank top and what a fabulous back story! And look how well the colours have lasted and how none of them have run in to each other. It must have been very carefully looked after and washed each time.

  5. Paul permalink
    March 25, 2019

    He looks smart, interesting article ,he could be a place to visit for his jumper

  6. March 25, 2019

    Wait, what is that old phrase? — “Clothes make the man”??? In this case, Mum made the clothes, and now her son is doing her proud. Everything is held together by stories.
    Thanks for this one, GA!

  7. March 25, 2019

    And it still fits him ! I have a pair of shoes like that but thats about it.

  8. Helen permalink
    March 25, 2019

    Oh my! I LOVE this story, and no doubt because I’m an avid knitter myself! I wonder if you’d let me post a link on our knitting Facebook page:
    And the picture on Instagram with a credit? @sartoriusandblot.
    Warmest wishes from Oostende,
    PS. And I love ‘The Life and Times of Mr Pussy’.

  9. the gentle author permalink*
    March 25, 2019

    Be my guest, Helen!

  10. Jim M. permalink
    March 25, 2019

    Ah … “John Collier, John Collier: The window to watch!”

    ‘Tis but a short step from here to Hepworths. 🙂

  11. Marcia Howard permalink
    March 25, 2019

    I love the image of Suresh’s tank top coming down to his knees. Long may Suresh and his tank top survive.

  12. edith douglas permalink
    March 25, 2019

    It certainly has style, but what amazes me is the quality of the yarn that allowed it to last so long & stay in such good shape! It is a lovely thing.

  13. Derek Cox OBE permalink
    March 27, 2019

    I will try and be at the Bishopsgate Institute on 3rd April.

    Suresh, you have played an important part in Spitalfields life over the past 50 plus years, and I always regard you as a true friend,


  14. Suneptula permalink
    May 28, 2019

    I love the narrative behind the tank top. It reminds me of Dolly Parton’s “Coat of many colors”. Suresh is a lucky man to have his mother make a treasured piece for him.I hope he plans to hand it over to his grandchildren some day. 🙂

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