Words Gordon Ritchie
Photography Kirk Truman
“There are treasures to be discovered everywhere you look.”
I’d always been slightly intrigued by the window displays on Berwick Street, up near the Oxford Street end. What exactly went on at the Cloth House? Was it an undercover meeting spot for a secret tie-die society of Soho, or a triad of sewing ninjas who specialised in reading illegible messages printed on the squares of delicate fabrics strung along lines in the window? “The collection is sourced all over the world. It is an inspiring mixture of new and vintage products, always changing, and carefully curated.”
I’d always walked past, despite being a man of the cloth myself. Brought up in the land of wool, tweed, and cashmere I spent many an afternoon from a young age in material shops, factory stores and mill shops, waiting while my Mother picked skirt lengths, yards and metres of cloth to make her own clothes from paper Burda, sometime Vogue patterns. The whirr of the sewing machine, brown paper shapes being laid and pinned onto cloth, pinking shears cutting through cloth, it was a regular feature of my childhood home. These shops were filled with older women, or younger girls who looked like they wanted to be older. My parents eventually opened their own fabric store, and I helped with the buying. Trips to warehouses in Edinburgh, cloth merchants in Manchester became part of my days, helping out in the shop when I could. It was just something I did.
In Soho the Cloth House seemed to have been there forever. “Cloth House is a family run business established in 1984 by husband and wife Jay and Niki. We are one of the original Cloth Stores in Soho and have been in the street for over 25 years. Many things on the street have changed over the years, but the fabric shops are what Berwick Street is famous for, and we feel part of the original Soho.” One day I walked in. This wasn’t the remnant kings of my childhood, the shop felt bright, felt vibrant, felt right. Whitewashed brick walls, wooden floor, and rolls and rolls of cloth. Tubes of buttons in old wooden furniture, the shop was busy and there was a buzz about it. Young girls buying, and the staff, young girls selling. Bikes parked in tucked away corners and up on platform mezzanines. This was the spot for fresh faced girls who made their own clothes for cycling down country lanes, or at least cycling home from Soho through Clerkenwell to London Fields. Spots, daisies and repeat pattern prints on the dresses they had sewn themselves.
“Our customers range from home sewers and crafters, to design students, clothing and costume designers for film and theatre. We have such a wide range of customers, it’s always inspiring to hear about what visions each individual has for a material – one customer may imagine a material into a jacket, whilst another might plan for a quilted blanket and cushion from the same fabric. We love to see what’s been fashioned from our materials. Every week we meet new sewers and first time visitors to our shop, and every week we see old customers and friends who have been buying from us since the 80s! Many of our customers are from overseas. Being in London we have a large fashion student clientele. We’re also lucky to meet fashion students who visit us from all over the UK, and the world! Our student customers never fail to surprise and inspire, manipulating our products to create their vision. Some of our staff members are also current fashion students, and the majority of our staff have completed fashion/textile courses.”
You could see it was the spot for fashion students putting together their toiles and their graduate pieces at Central St. Martins Though now not so central over in Kings Cross, once it had stood as a cornerstone of Soho looming over Charing Cross Road. “Cloth House stocks a huge variety of beautiful fabrics, but we are perhaps best known for our collection of cottons and linens. From hand printed cotton to washed linen and crisp denim we have a huge variety of natural cloths. The Japanese and Indian collections are perhaps some of the most beautiful, unusual and inspiring fabrics. It is important for a shop to have personality. A unique feature of Cloth House is the vast mixture within the shop. Japanese materials sit next to French, and beautiful polyesters drape alongside crisp cottons. The longer you look, the more you will find, from the bejewelled Indian sari trims to vintage buttons.”
The fabric selection at The Cloth House is inspiring and stunning. Cottons, poplins, chambray and selvedge denim, prints that I kept thinking would look great on a shirt. “I think it’s possible to walk into Cloth House with absolutely no idea or inspiration, and find a print or a texture that really gets you thinking and wanting to design and make.”
There is huge choice, a massive selection. The staff provide friendly smiles and hellos and group themselves around the till. Down the stairs and others hold court over small batches of girls in the corners, helpfully, and with a smile offering advice, choices and options. It’s a happy place, a happy atmosphere, I had to stop myself from smiling. “Our staff are always available to help and inspire. All of our staff have a creative background/interest, and one of the most fun aspects of the job is discussing projects with customers, and coming up with creative ideas and solutions. We offer a sample service for customers where we send out swatches and take telephone orders. We have a blog for textile inspiration and making ideas and recently started a ‘what are you making?’thread where we invite customers to send us images of their creations using Cloth House materials. To inspire and be inspired is such a rewarding part of this creative industry, customers like to share pictures on Instagram and email us.”
Wandering amongst the props around the shop, you might find girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes, others with the knowledge to tell you what the pattern is or piles of old books that are tied up with string, but these are not my favourite things. In the Cloth House it is definitely the cloth. The fabric, a social fabric that brings together a fresh young sewing circle of people to Soho, at the House of Cloth.