Pedalling down Commercial Street on my bike, past trendy bars and single-speeders, I almost miss the turn off onto the quiet Quaker Street, home to the last remnant of the East London textile trade – Crescent Trading Ltd

The entrance to the last surviving cloth merchants in Spitalfields is discreet, but our hesitant footsteps received a warm welcome. Phillip Pittack, co-owner with Martin White of Crescent Trading, greeted us against the backdrop of colourful cloth rolls. From fashion fabrics, fine suitings, woollens, silks, denims and linings, Crescent Trading boasts an impressive array of quality materials, all surplus stock from British mills.

Phillip had a fascinating yarn to spin that spanned many decades, having 60 years of experience under his heels. His grandfather had been a weaver in Poland before following the path of the Huguenots silk weavers who emigrated to the East End in the 17th century, later followed by new waves of immigrants, to work in textiles and tailoring. His grandfather entered the ‘Rag Trade’, the textile waste trade from cloth cutting factories. As patterns are cut out the ‘in-betweeny bits’ are left, forming ‘New Rags’. This differs from ‘Old Rags’ which come from old clothing. Once sorted, rags could be shredded back down into their original fibres and recycled. 

‘It was only 20-25 years ago since every doorway was a garment factory’ recalled Phillip. From Cheshire Street, Flour and Dean Street, Wentworth Street, Corbett Place….the area was thriving with its textiles economy. ‘The factories were happy places where people were kept busy, and earning a few quid, whistling and singing as they worked’.  

Today however Crescent Trading is a lone island in a sea of largely residential properties. ‘Factories got bigger and there was public demand for cheap clothing’. It was Richard Caring who first identified cheap labour abroad on a visit to Hong Kong, and began taking orders for vast quantities of clothing at next-to-nothing prices. Buildings in the local area were sold as businesses moved off shore, unable to compete with the new market. Phillip remembered how ‘there was a sign on Commercial Road advertising - 50p per square foot’.

How did Crescent Trading survive? Passion, perseverance and a change of tack. Realising there was no profit to be made from volume trading, they decided to appeal to niche markets, selling smaller quantities of cloth to costume designers. Their customer base of students grew, to whom the warehouse was, and still is, a ‘sweet shop’ of couture-quality fabrics. A magnet for young fashion designers, Phillip and Martin have had many through their doors; from Alexander McQueen to Christopher Raeburn; ‘There was one time Alexander McQueen didn’t have the £16 he needed to buy his cloth so had to come back the following week’.

Crescent Trading doesn’t scrimp on quality, and as I reached my hand into the rare roll of 100% Guanaco, apparently a distant cousin of the camel, I was reminded that these were ‘fabrics you’ve got to feel’. Reasonable rates for classy cloth enable designers to create luxury bespoke products at reasonable prices. The atmosphere is just as bright and vibrant as the fabrics themselves, filled with humour and friendly cheer. It’s no wonder the place has such gravitas, and one couldn’t help feel a real reluctance to leave.

As I cycled back down Commercial Street I had a distinct feeling that I’d discovered something special, a treasured pocket of preserved history. With knowledge, skills and values passed down to the students and young designers from these veterans of cloth, there is hope that the memory of the East End textile trade will remain and the demand for more home-grown better-quality manufacturing will rise.

#RefashionEast

Refashion East on 9th/10th May will celebrate the heritage of the UK’s fashion industry, starting with East London. A collection of workshops, human libraries and a Huguenot to Hipster walking tour will reconnect people with the areas textiles history, how clothes used to be made and will give people the chance to learn new skills. See full event details and tickets here.