PUT TO THE NEEDLE

I thought I had blogged this long ago but it appears that I didn’t.

It is a semi-fictional passage from my book which describes the first time when a tailor’s apprentice is invited up on to the ‘board’ to start learning the actual business of tailoring.  Before that an apprentice would spend up to a year doing chores so that he learned all the background tasks as well as providing cheap labour.

Thomas Sheppard, one of the apprentices in Bazalgette’s tailoring shop, has been informed by one of the masters, Mr. Smith, that tomorrow, after his chores have been completed, he will be put to the needle.  Thomas is pleased at this news, because he has been champing at the bit for some months to be allowed to begin to learn his trade.  He does not sleep too well because he is too keyed-up to settle, so is happy when next morning at half past four he can rise, perform some perfunctory ablutions and hurry off at a gangly pace on the twenty-minute walk to Brooks Mews.  That morning he cheerily performs his chores in record time and is then told by Mr Smith that he may go and join the workmen.

Thomas’s entry into the sewing room, with its long table and large east-facing windows, is greeted with a variety of remarks, loudest of which is: “Here’s the squeaker!  Come aboard, my lad!” which comes from a muscular fellow who extends a rope-calloused palm to help Thomas on to the table. This is Horace, nicknamed Horatio, a name he bears with pride.  Horace was once impressed into the navy, and had to serve two years before managing to absent himself from his ship and return to tailoring.  His language is consequently well-salted with nauticisms.  As the tailors are making room for him he sees a hand flapping at the other end of the board – he is being beckoned by a serious, even studious-looking young man, and uncertain whether by protocol he should stand or not, he crawls over to him.  The man introduces himself as Pierre, though his nickname is Pete, a name he bears with resignation.  Thomas will find later that this clouded face can very occasionally and suddenly break into a sunny smile, showing for a moment the true beauty in his heart.

Pierre tells him that before starting to sew he must learn to sit properly. 

“The cross-legged position is the only way that you can work, both in sewing and pressing.  You will find it painful to sit this way for long, but you must persist or you will never find your way past this obstacle.  You will get used to it in time and it will feel very natural.  When the pain in your thighs or back becomes too much to bear you may change your position a little to get some relief for a while, but you must return to the correct position as soon as you can bear it.  As you become tired, resist the tendency to slouch.  You must keep your back straight, otherwise you will have trouble with your neck.  Here are two small cushions which you must place under your ankle-joints.  If you do not use them your joints could become very sore and swollen.  I repeat that you must not give up – otherwise you will have fallen at the first fence, as it were, and will never become a tailor.”

“I just couldn’t stand it, myself,” whispers the man sitting next to Thomas, “so I kept shifting about and never got settled.  It wasn’t in this shop, but they forced me to sit right by putting a sleeve-board across my knees with a twenty-pound goose-iron on each end.  It hurt like the divil I can tell you!  After half-an-hour of this I begged to be released, and promised to do better.  It was a hard lesson, but I finally made it.  Nothing I did could hurt as much as that sleeve-board!”

Pierre touches Thomas on the shoulder and asks if he feels comfortable. 

“Not bad – I think I must be quite loose-jointed.”  He can see how the position could be much more of an ordeal for a short, stocky man.

“In that case, Thomas, we will try some stitching.  I am pleased to hear that you have shown interest already by watching, and asking some of the tailors what stitches they were making.  Here are two pieces of calico.  First, please baste them together.  I expect you know how to do that, but make the seam as straight as you can.  That is fine.  Now let us try the back-stitch.  Make the stitches as even as you can and do not let them get longer as you go.  The most important point to note is that your seam must follow the line, otherwise the seams will pucker or the clothes will not fit.”

Thomas spends the next two hours practicing some basic stitches until his legs are very stiff and his buttocks have long ago gone to sleep.  He is then allowed down from the board, and has to spend some time trying to get his legs to walk.  He hopes tomorrow will be a little better.

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5 Responses to PUT TO THE NEEDLE

  1. You HAVE blogged this before because I remember reading it. It was one of the first, if not the first post you made

  2. chasbaz says:

    Possibly – don’t remember, mumble, mumble.

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