Excavating the East End’s rag trade roots 

There have been at least fives waves of migrants who have made the East End their home in recent times; the Huguenots, the Irish, Russian and Eastern European Jews, the Bangladeshis, and now, the hipsters. Escaping persecution, or in the case of the hipsters, the confines of mainstream culture, has been a common thread within their lives. This thread has in turn been interwoven with their experience of the British textiles industry upon arrival. 

Today, 1 in 6 of the world’s population work in the fashion and textiles industry. However, the scope and workings of this industry remain difficult to fathom with lengthy global supply chains and an undocumented number of workers involved in manufacture. Likewise, hefty doses of smoke and mirrors when it comes to marketing also help to keep this momentous business an enigma.

It’s no wonder then that attempts to feel a connection with who made our clothes can be a challenge – if not impossible – especially in Britain where manufacturing is now slight. We don’t see the sweathouses, cotton mills or tanneries, their workers or their waste. We're distanced from the production process in a way that previous generations were not.

Beginning at the Whitechapel Gallery archives and ending at 19 Princelet Street, Refashion East’s walking tour in May offered the past as a way to connect with the garment workers of today. Unravelling the area’s rag trade roots spun the histories of who made our clothes, showing why and how these workers’ diverse backgrounds have fashioned our fashions.

In the archives of the Whitechapel Gallery, Woven Air, a 1988 collection exhibited the textiles traditions of Bangladesh. A history of colonialism, international trade, labour abuses and radical politics are entangled with the practices and patterns on display. At the time of the exhibition over 60,000 Bangladeshi people had arrived in the UK following the independence of Bangladesh in the early 70s.

Five minutes down the road, Open Space Leathers, a long-standing family business, told of the lifecycles of the area over the last 50 years. Their neighbours are Heba Women’s Project, a unique scheme providing women from diverse cultural backgrounds with a safe and welcoming place in which to make new friends, learn new skills and engage in largely textiles related enterprise activities. This visit confirmed that the demographic of the area may change but the problems of the residents do not. We ‘have different women with the same issues’ said the centre’s Director Anjum.

An important part of the Heba Women's project’s work is to bridge the gap between the migrant populations of East London and the British population. This is done through language and skill sharing sessions, but sewing classes will often come before English, as both a form of connection-building, and a key means of income. The project is one of the few things locally that has benefitted from the demise of the rag trade, having inherited much of their textiles equipment from local closures.

The tour reached its conclusion at a residence that has been both a pickle factory and a synagogue. Built in 1719, 19 Princelet St was the home of the Ogier family, who had escaped from persecution in France and then entered the silk weaving trade in London. 19 Princelet St is not regularly open to the public (get in touch if you’ve got a spare million and this could change). The lack of funding is a darn shame as this Grade II listed building cannot help but capture the imagination of all who pass through its doors into a cavern of Spitalfields’ history. A history of desperate people, cramped sleeping conditions, turf wars, child smuggling and ingenuity when it comes to socialising space, a history which has great resonance for today’s migration debates and the horrors of the lives of many garment workers.

The walk was a celebration of the area’s rich history and resourceful and creative inhabitants, but also leaves the feeling that it’s time to confront the realities of today’s industry, charter new ground and take the steps needed towards a fashion industry that’s no longer underpinned by desperation. 

Thanks to Fox and Squirrel for creating this tour for Refahion East

Title image Images George Rex