Look Up For Ghosts
Old Haberdasheries and Why We Miss Them
Sometimes to catch ghosts you have to look up.
In the main street of any town in Europe, however small, sooner or later you will find a glimpse of what was. It might be etched into the tiles, painted on the brickwork, a name above the door in mosaic, obscured behind advertising hoardings, or known only to memory.
But the haberdasheries and draperies of yesterday have gone, taking with them the scent of new material, the glory of colour-sorted buttons stacked end on, the magic of bias binding, or boxes of steel pins and tailor’s chalk, a table of trimmings and a shop window that beckoned possibilities.
Their decline was a protracted thing, as manufactured clothing dropped in price and the internet’s convenience usurped the old stores for the few who still wanted to make and repair their own. But as the haberdasheries dwindled, faded and then shuttered, we lost part of ourselves and our history - a story of women using and often enjoying their skills and talents to keep themselves, and their families, ‘presentable’, as my grandmother would have said.
Half a century ago the haberdashery and drapery on the main street of the little country town where I was at school, in Britain’s West Country, ran from the double-fronted windows of prints and sheers, twisted and folded into curious displays, into the darkness of the big shop at the back, where bolts of heavy furnishing and working fabrics were stored. The undressed floorboards bore the marks of a century or more of the boots of farmers’ wives, country ladies’ slippers, the patched shoes of vicars’ daughters, the clogs of dairymaids and the scuffed lace-ups of a thousand bored children. (“sit still William and don’t touch ANYTHING.”)
At the centre was a big flat table with a wooden yard rule alongside. The assistants who, quite rightly, eyed us coldly, knowing we couldn’t afford much, wielded that ruler at an alarming speed, pinning down four yards of fabric faster than you could say: ”How much does that cost, please?.”
It was a secret world that we didn’t entirely understand, but where we went to learn the difference between poplin and printed lawn, between quality wool tweeds for skirts and jackets and stretch jersey for dresses and slinky tops. Where words like silesian, bombazine, hessian, chiffon, muslin, damask and organza meant something precise, where you could, slyly, test the difference with your fingers and let them tell you by touch which one called to you. It took time to learn that what looked lovely on a bolt or in a window wouldn’t necessarily look nice on you.
Events that rocked the world, or just countries and families, stopped off at the haberdashery first. “Duchesse satin for a wedding dress? You’ll need 8 yards.” “Baby wool is in the second drawer down.” “If he’s going to Africa he’ll need a number of quality cotton shirts.” “Blackout material is at the back, bottom shelf.” “I’m afraid we can’t get that at all at the moment, even with clothes rationing – all the silk has gone to make parachutes.” “The telegram came yesterday? I’m so sorry. We are short of mourning fabrics at the moment.” The ebb and flow of a nation – its joys and sorrows, illnesses and fashions, births and deaths, shortages and gluts, how it earnt its living, where it went and what it did – all passed by the haberdashery.
No one quite knows where the word haberdasher comes from. In American English haberdashery is called Notions. And of course, this being English, there are other names for these shops, describing related functions, so we have Milliners who make hats, Drapers and Mercers, who sell cloth, and in France, the haberdashery is still called a Mercerie. And we have Manchester too. I remember being in New Zealand and seeing in Wellington’s wonderfully smart department store, Kirkcaldy and Staines, a sign that said simply Manchester. I wondered if it was one of those way-posts with the miles underneath (11, 576). But it was a different kind of sign, signalling the way to the fabric and linens department – which of course in the days gone by had come to New Zealand directly from Manchester.
There is a haberdasher in Chaucer’s Tales – although sadly he doesn’t have his own tale to tell and only makes a fleeting appearance in The Prologue. The word itself derives from the Anglo-French word hapertas meaning small stuff, the little things you never think about, but without which life would be infinitely harder, the buttons and poppers, darning wool, zips, pinking shears, ribbons, beading needles, embroidery hoops, silk floss, and sewing thread.
In Europe, these things reach deep back into history to the travelling pedlar, a man or woman around whom folk tales and mystery swirled. They walked from village to village, from farmstead to hamlet, from family to field workers with a pack, filled with cloth that might have travelled thousands of miles from where it was made, and the buttons, ribbons and beads to quicken your heart with their colour and feel.
Across the shtetls of Europe, the small places out on the edge of the big plains, the crofting villages of Scotland, the Dutch polders and the Italian marshes, life was hard and isolated, the community tight and turned in on itself, anchored to its fields. The pedlar‘s arrival chased away the still air with a breeze of news from the city, stories from the next village, scandal and tragedy, tales of different lives. The pedlars saw how people lived, and it was their business to understand what they would and could buy.
In much of Europe, the Jewish community from the Middle Ages onwards was deeply discriminated against, denied full citizenship, and prohibited from different trades. They were often prevented from owning land. Many of them found a trade in cloth, even though they were often forbidden from producing new garments. But they could sell cloth, first as pedlars and then, later, as the cities developed and grew, as knowledgeable and enterprising drapers, haberdashers, clothing producers, and department store owners.
The links between the Jews, cloth, and fashion grew deeper and more tightly bound over time. Take the Ascher family in Prague. By the start of the 20th century the smartest cloth and haberdashery shops there were owned by two separate branches of the family, the Zigmund Aschers and the Jindrich Aschers, with different shops in the city. In Berlin, the smart department stores in the 1920s were Nathan Israel, Valentin Manheimer and Herrmann Gerson. Uwe Westphal, author of the book, Fashion Metropolis Berlin, estimates that by 1930 there were over 2,500 high-class fashion and cloth producers in the city, most of them Jewish. By 1939 this had shrunk to fewer than 150, and the once-thriving industry was thrown to the winds of the Holocaust.
Caren Garfen’s wonderfully moving textile piece, Fragments, documents the fate of some of these firms and their owners. The lucky ones ended up in Britain, America, Australia and Canada, descendants of the pedlars and traders, finding new ways to use their knowledge and talents: people like Bernat Klein, the Scottish fabric designer, Zika and Lida Ascher, London designers and producers, and William Goldstein, one of East London’s best-loved haberdashers, shortened to William Gee: still there, but now a shadow of itself with little more than broken chairs and dusty boxes in the windows.
In Britain, my great, great grandfather was a travelling salesman in cloth, or as they were known then, a Scotch Draper. He criss-crossed Victorian England by train with samples and took orders from the grand houses who clothed their parlour-maids and gardeners, the haberdasheries in market towns looking for the latest colours, prints and quality for their customers, to the orphanages making careful purchases to dress their charges cheaply and the summer agricultural fairs where people hunted for a bargain.
But slowly the drapers’ and haberdashers’ grip on our lives loosened. Year by year we stopped making things for ourselves, as the reckoning of women’s time changed and we entered formal employment in greater numbers. At the same time the clothing manufacturers that drove so many of the little trades like glove and button making, milliners and ribbon weavers, moved east and south for cheaper labour, and the haberdashers lost the clients that underpinned their businesses. Who knows now that in Britain thread used to come from the great mills in Paisley, pins from Redditch, ribbon from Coventry and tweed from Galashiels?
We can still buy all of this, in great abundance and at comparatively low prices, online. But we lose something in doing this: the drape and turn of a piece of cloth, the way it catches the light, or drops from a shoulder. We lose the ability to feel it between intelligent fingertips and judge it. There is a pleasure in letting the buttons slip through your hands as you look for just the right shape and shade, or as you match a length of trimming and the weight of a zip. The pandemic has made these things seem like extraordinary luxuries, things to be savoured and enjoyed. But they are hard to find now, even in the most metropolitan of cities.
There is still evidence though of the haberdasher’s art in the inherited sewing boxes from our mothers and grandmothers. An excavation through one gives you a life memoir more powerful and accurate than any book. It speaks of old holes mended in the toes of hard-worn socks one cold winter, scraps of Christmas ribbon, a patch for a torn baby’s nightdress, spare elastic for recalcitrant underwear, salvaged lace and curious little pieces, rattling around at the bottom, the use of which we no longer understand (rubber stocking grips anyone?). And most of all there are the buttons – each with its own song - dark blue navy ones with embossed anchors for a son who served, pearl buttons from old shirts, cuff buttons, collar buttons, rugged horn coat buttons, 1930s bakelite ones from a dress that once was, Edwardian mock jet buttons, boiled sweet buttons and trendy 1960s plastic buttons in lurid colours – all hoarded for a ‘just in case’ that never was. These boxes tell too of the equality of purpose in women’s lives, everyone sewed and mended, whatever their position in life. But also they speak of the inequality of materials: handmade sewing box, or old biscuit tin? Silks or cottons, pearl or plastic, buttons for overalls or suits?
I haunt charity shops for vintage haberdashery, wondering as I rifle through the sad plastic bins at the tales behind a box of embroidery floss from a project interrupted by life, old crochet hooks and fine wool, lonely darning mushrooms, scraps of fabric from 1950s curtains and disheveled tassels, roughed up by life.
We should value these, not just for what they are, and what we can do with them, but for what they tell us about women’s lives, and how they lived them. We should cherish too the haberdashery shops that are with us still, for the chance to learn through feel and touch, to train our eyes to match shade and hue and to discern between different fabrics and their uses. Or to gauge the weight of a good pair of scissors and select just the right needle for what we have in mind, from delicate beading to tough leather work.
These are the great skills of hand and eye that bring a balance to our lives, and help us mark the way posts of our own journey. We know this instinctively, but, as Maxine Bristow says in The Textile Reader: "touch has been sidelined as a way of knowing." We are starved for it and for the wealth of experience offered by the Haberdasheries, Merceries, Milliners, Drapers, Notions and Manchester stores.
Image courtesy of @swedishlinencupboard- shot in South Wales.
To celebrate the haberdasheries and drapers’ shops that are still with us I have created a list of the ones I know about, below. Please do send me a message at [email protected] if you know of a good one and I will edit the list from time to time, updating it.
All Buttons: 419 King Street, Newtown, NSW 2042. "An extravagant selection of buttons"
Paris: Still the best place in the world for haberdashery.
Au Ver a Soie: 102 Rue Réaumur. They make their own silk thread for embroiderers – a lovely first-floor hideaway full of fabulous silk in every colour you could want.
La Droguerie: 9-11 Rue du Jour. Large old shop transformed into an extensive haberdashery. Specialises in wool, buttons, ribbons, pieces for jewellery making, kits.
Malhia Kent: 19 Avenue Daumesnil. This is where the fabric designer to Chanel and others in the couture industry, sells her fabrics and some of the novelty yarns that have gone to make them. It's a lovely shop. Great bargains. Hear the story of Malhia Kent in the Haptic and Hue podcast #5: Yarn, Yarn, Yarn
Mokuba: 18 Rue Montmartre. Right in the heart of the old couture district, this Japanese ribbon shop has taken Paris by storm. It gives a new meaning to the words trimmings and ribbons.
St Peter's Market 2 Rue Charles Nodier: more fabric than you could ever need, these shops are situated around a small square at the foot of the steps up to Montmartre. If fabric is your thing enter at your peril, there are entire stores filled with the stuff, floor after floor after floor. Take a suitcase.
Textile Tours of Paris: www.textiletoursofparis.com. Run by the lovely Rebecca Devaney, an Irish couture embroiderer living in Paris. She will tell you the history and show you best shops and flea markets. Hear her story and more about the French couture industry in Haptic and Hue podcast #4 Stitches in Time.
Ultramod: 4 Rue de Choiseul. The haberdasher's haberdashery. This is the best I have ever found, there are two shops just across the street from each other: see both! Vintage fabrics, including pre-war Duchesse satins, ribbons, bias binding, buttons, trimmings, you name it they have it. You will never want to leave.
Paris is a centre of vintage haberdashery as well. Several hundred years of a couture industry have left it with a wealth of stuff to recycle.
Emmaus Merceries: These are much loved by French makers, they are charity shops that stock vintage and recycled haberdashery, there are branches at Neuilly sur Marne, Neuilly Plaisance, Le Plessis Trevise, and Bourgival. Check for opening times, this tends not to be every day. Thanks for Barbara C for this information.
Puces des Couturiers: Where the couture industry re-cycles its wares, once or twice a year. There is a well- known one at Montreuil, not far from Parus, with markets in May and November. Thanks to Barbara C
El Almacén de Pontejos, Plaza del Pontejos, C. del Correo, 4, 28012. "Very old crammed with stuff, even on the ceiling and chaotic." Recommended by Suzie R.
Lou Lou Buttons: 71 West 38th Street, NY 10018. The button store to end all button stores. 5 million buttons in stock. Can produce single buttons to your design.
M & J Trimmings: 1008, 6th Avenue, NY10018. "Buttons, buckles trimmings and crystals, and so much more, everywhere you look." Recommended by Joy C.
Aberdashery: 8 Market Street, SY23 1DL. Lovely independent shop in the heart of Wales, recommended by Liz T.
Duttons for Buttons: Oxford Street, HG1 1QE
Bibelot: 2 Sheepmarket, ST13 5HW. Interesting small shop - Recommended by Margaret Y.
Fan New Trimmings: 47 Berwick Street, London W1F 8SG. Great collection of buttons and trimmings. Recommended by Harriet M
MacCulloch and Wallis: 25 Poland Street, W1F 8QN. Competent. A small selection of fabric, good selection of buttons and tools, some wool.
VV Rouleax: 102 Marylebone Lane W1U 2QD. Fabulous selection of ribbons, passementerie, and trimmings. Not cheap!
Truro Fabrics: Calenick Street, TR1 2SF. " A wonderful emporium, stocking all sorts of fabrics, haberdashery, and buttons, like I've not seen in decades." Recommended by Deborah R.
Duttons For Buttons: 32 Coppergate, YO1 9NR