I walked out of the first day of my short course at the Fashion and Textile Museum in London thinking a new thought: “I must get a thimble that fits!”
I, who had scored so high in both finger dexterity and small-tool dexterity tests at Johnson O’Connor, was ham-handedly threading a tiny needle with fat basting cotton and then struggling to hand-baste a straight line following tailor-instructor Victoria Townsend’s example. With the black cotton flat on the table, and holding my needle close to the point between thumb and index finger, I would insert the needle and take up about 1/4 inch of the cloth. My tailor’s thimble-clad, bent middle finger was then to push the needle through the fabric in a “flicking” motion, as Victoria put it.
Then I was to pull the thread through the fabric, and lay down a one and a quarter-inch line. Repeat, creating straight, even lines of basting.
The challenge was to baste using the thimble. This was the one thing Victoria said she would like all of us to know how to do, if not expertly, by the end of our short course. It seemed a reasonable request.
I soon discovered, as I have learned from a quick Google search, that using a tailor’s thimble is a stumbling block for practically every apprentice. In the beginning, positioning that middle finger, and the open-ended tailor’s thimble on that finger, in just the right place to push the needle, feels unnatural. That middle finger has to be coiled with just the right amount of tension, and then it must uncoil in that flicking-pushing motion, and then return to its coiled and ready position over and over.
I was game to try. But guess what? Tailors’ thimbles are not widely available for small hands like Victoria’s and mine, as she could attest. I tried hers, but am not sure whether it fit. Wearing the wrong size thimble and trying to learn a hand stitch is like wearing the wrong size shoes and trying to learn dance steps.
Tomorrow, however, our class will be in the neighborhood of haberdasher MacCulloch & Wallis, where I will inquire about a proper-sized thimble. There may very well be a simple solution and happy ending to this story. Then I can just practice, practice, practice.
Our class of seven was introduced today to master tailor Christopher Foster-Hicklin, who marked fifty years in the trade in 2013, starting as a 14-year-old apprentice sweeping up the thread and fabric clippings of the previous workday. I only wish I could recount his stories to you in their entirety about moving through the ranks in various tailoring establishments over the decades, learning different specialties, and the personalities of customers and fellow tailors.
My overall impression, though, is that the work is extremely demanding, and I’m not even talking about knowing the tailoring skills of cutting, stitching and fitting. I mean dealing with high maintenance customers. Holy mackerel. Then there are other customers who are not personality problems but who do present fitting and functionality challenges that test cutters’ and tailors’ inventiveness.
Christopher brought out a shocking pink, Swarovski-crystal-studded jacket and asked us whom we thought it had been made for. Silence all around. He egged us on. Still silence. I thought to myself, “It could be a British pop star I’ve never heard of, but, oh, how about Elton John?”
Finally, Christopher told us: “Elton John, for his Las Vegas shows.”
It was really great to see the construction inside and out, and to see how it had to fulfill esthetic and functional requirements. It had to work for Las Vegas, so it was bright and showy, and it had to work for a performer who can get hot under the lights, so it had some panels built in for breathability, which posed design and construction challenges.
Just another day in the life of a bespoke cutter and tailor.