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Tailor Pete has his trade all sewn up
WEAVER To Wearer, John Collier, William Batt, Collards, Billet & Co, Fifty Bob, Thirty Bob, Great Western Clothiers, Foster Bros, Scarboroughs, Rayburns, Sampsons, Collins, Hepworth, Brooks Brothers, Montague Burton, The Big One, Little & Co, Hodges, LS Stone, Langleys, Barrington’s, Russell’s, Harry Fenton, McIlroy’s menswear.
It was impossible to walk through Swindon town centre once without passing a traditional menswear shop every couple of minutes. Old Town had its fair share too: Dentry’s, Henry Best, H. Field, Pakeman, John Treasure.
Some were Swindon branches of High Street chains but most were local businesses; the man whose name appeared on the sign above the door could often be found inside measuring customers for suits or coats or on the phone ordering rolls of fabric.
But they are all gone now, slowly picked off by ever evolving multinational superstores with vast ranges of stock often displayed in row after dizzying row under one gigantic roof.
All except one, that is. Pete Dore, 71, is the last tailor in town. He has been running Jensons in Gorse Hill for nearly 35 years, having immersed himself in the time-honoured art of traditional tailoring after leaving school 55 years ago. Father-of-two Pete, who has lived in Swindon all of his life, said: “When I started my career as a shop boy in 1958 there were over 50 men’s shops in Swindon, excluding the stores.
“Mine is the only one left. I have seen them come and unfortunately I have seen them go.”
In between assisting customers at his Cricklade Road premises Pete goes on: “You only have stores now – no clothiers. You don’t get that one-to-one customer relationship anymore. “This shop is unique in Swindon, which saddens me. Young people aren’t being given the chance to learn the skills required in tailoring – they aren’t being shown the way,” he said.
With a tape measure around his neck and nattily attired in patterned waistcoat, silk tie and lavender shirt, Pete looks the part.
He is a practiced hand who can accurately guess a customer’s chest and waist size within a second or two: the tape measure is pretty much for show, really.
It was entirely by accident – or the luck of the draw if you like – that Pete fell into the age-old profession of men’s clothing which has dominated his life since he was 16.
Having left Moredon Secondary Modern during the flickering years of post-war austerity he cycled to the labour exchange seeking a job.
“Any job of any description would do. A job was a job – you valued it.”
Instructed to visit the manager of a tailor shop, he soon found himself running errands as shop boy at Barrington’s in Regent Street for the princely sum of £2 a week.
There he began to learn the craft of “fitting and cutting” – skills which continue to serve him well today.
Pete explained: “A fitter and cutter was at the front of the house. He was in charge of seeing the customers and advising them on the fabrics and colours available for their new suits.
“He would design the style of the suit and then give instructions in technical language for the tailor to make the suit.”
An important task this, said Pete, as the large majority of customers who came in to buy a suit had no idea what type they actually wanted.
After five years he moved to menswear at McIlroy’s, Swindon’s long-running but now long gone all-purpose department store.
As well as furthering his knowledge of tailoring (which encompasses jackets, trousers, waistcoats and coats) he became well-versed in other arts of the trade: out-fitting (short and long sleeve shirts, braces, belts, ties, bows, cummerbunds, cravats, ruches); hosiery (singlets, assorted vests including “the round neck variety that Americans call t-shirts,” briefs, trunks, long johns, and combinations “now back in fashion as the onesie,” socks and knitwear of all descriptions.) And to cap it, millinery (hats, caps, gloves.) Pete went onto work for a variety of town centre outfitters: Brooks Brothers, Hepworth, AC Millett, Stone Dri, Foster Brothers. He said: “Most shops in those days specialised in different trades – baker, butcher, shoe shop, tailor; there was even a milliner in Swindon called Dunn & Co.
“I had a lot of jobs within the clothing sector in order to gain experience from different aspects of the trade.”
Over the years he has specialised in camping gear, “high-end tailoring,” ladies-wear, school togs and formal hire clothing.
With more than 20 years’ experience in the locker he launched Jensons men’s shop in 1979, catering largely for the upper end of the market.
Bizarrely, the company conveyance was a yellow Reliant which, over the following years, increasingly became associated with Del Boy’s three-wheeler from Only Fools and Horses.
He built up a solid clientele based on his growing expertise in the ‘rag trade’ along with a personal service he offered customers; many of whom became friends.
All the while Pete’s contemporaries were vanishing off the face of the High Street. Pete, whose shop boasts a library of fabric pattern books, reckoned that the gents tailoring lost the thread during the late Seventies when “the multiples” – the big name retailers – adopted a new stance.
He said: “All they became interested in was selling the customer what they had, rather than what they wanted – feeding through the customers as quickly as possible.
“If the required item wasn’t on the shelf then the customer was told to ‘try again next week’.”
The advent of “everything under one roof” stores was another nail in the coffin of the High Street tailor, he said.
Today Pete sells quality suits, jackets and trousers that are made abroad – America, Romania, Germany. He also measures up customers and once they have decided on fabric, style and colour, passes the details to a specialist manufacturer in Leeds. Pete, whose wife Brenda, 68, is a skilled tailor who works for Jensons altering suits and shirts, felt the trade was at its peak around about the time he first joined it.
“There were no ready-made suits then,” he said.
“We measured-up all of our customers.”
In the late Fifties a made-to-measure suit would cost between just under £10 and just over £20; today a two or three piece ‘whistle’ from Pete would set you back £500 to £1,100.
In real terms, however, there isn’t much difference.
“We were always very busy. I remember all the men coming in for suits, blazers – good quality garments.
“A lot of them had left British Rail in Swindon to work for Pressed Steel (now BMW); their pay had shot up from £13 to £20-a-week. And they spent their money on clothes.”
- TELEVISION and films have a major effect on the sort of clothes people buy.
Pete said there had been an enthusiastic run of late on 1930s style jackets as a result of the new cinematic take on The Great Gatsby, pictured above.
“We’ve sold quite a few. There are only two left,” he said.
The Seventies TV cop thriller Starsky & Hutch created a penchant for flared trousers and “wide tulip jacket lapels.”
But when the craze flickered and died, as they always do, Harry Fenton in Swindon was left with countless out-dated jackets and trousers.
“We had a big job narrowing all the flares and lapels,” he said.
- “NOW I’ll show you how to measure the inside leg of a lady who is wearing a skirt and who wants to be measured for a suit with trousers,” said Pete.
“You measure the outside leg from the hip-bone to the foot. You then ask her to sit down and measure the hip bone to the point where she is resting on the chair,” he said, pointing to his backside.
“You take away that measurement from that of the outside leg, and there you have it,” he said, before adding, without really needing to: “It saves embarrassment.”