I met with Jay, on a sunny Tuesday afternoon at my house in South East London. A friend, an amazing Dancer and Jewellery maker was also visiting with her 5 year old Daughter. Her daughter and my two little Girls (2 & 4) were busy running in and out of the kitchen dressed as various characters from our (overflowing) dressing up box.
It would be easy to mistake the scene for any other playdate coffee and chat, but I had an immense sense of pride looking at my two friends chatting about their lives. We are 3 working mothers involved in the world of the Arts, each sharing a passion for what we do, not simply as a job/career but a way of life. Our work unusually feeds our soul and satisfies our creativity and although hard at times to juggle with family life, is so worth every minute.
Jays history in the garment making industry is beyond impressive, she is currently running her own department as the Senior Cutter in Tailoring at Glyndebourne Opera Company, as well as having two (not so small anymore) boys of her own.
I know Tailoring runs through your blood but I’d love to hear more about your history, how you first started sewing and where you trained?
I started my training aged 7 years old, with my dad.
He had a studio in Leyton above a menswear tailoring business. Mum had to go to work. He gave me a collar to sew. I must have done it too well. Next thing I knew, I had more stuff to sew! I thought he would get into trouble with mum when she found out, but instead, mum got me to sew for her too (both used to work in the fashion and costume industry.
I helped out my dad A LOT.
At school I attended sewing classes. One day I decided to do speed up the very long-winded process. The teacher was furious and threw me out of the class. That taught me a big lesson in my career – fast is not good if you don’t have the experience and confidence to complete a well-executed garment.
I attended Central Saint Martens Art School, London College of Fashion, Brahms Independent School and Arts University of Bournemouth. After my education, I was apprenticed to 4 tailors at the company my dad had joined.
I was with them for 3 years previously as a temporary weekend worker when at college and 4 years full time after I graduated.
I learned my craft whilst working on most of the West End productions at the time which included; Miss Saigon, Les Misérables and The Lion King to name a few. After that, I worked for Moss Bros, which did not involve me sewing, but taught me a lot about how to measure people, deal with customers and how to handle staff.
Over the years, every job and educational institute has taught me something meaningful in one way or another.
Over your career you have worked in fashion, costume for the stage, film and television and now you’re an author a lecturer and Senior Cutter in Tailoring. Where have you most enjoyed the work.
I enjoy fashion but not as much as costume. I find fast fashion too fast and haute couture too stressful. Working through the night on a regular basis to meet a deadline on the passing whim of a client is not for me. I like to return home each evening.
I like working on film and tv productions, and being involved in some of the most iconic and exciting productions of the present day is unbelievably fulfilling, but it can also be pressured as it is entirely focused on ever shifting deadlines. Again, it can lead to working through the night.
I really enjoy working in theatre, the array of costumes for each production keeps me really engaged and focused, however I do find after constructing a ballet costume, realising I have to sew on all the fastenings for it when I think my work is done is really frustrating - so many hooks and bars!
Cutting in particular is fascinating to me as it is such a precise science, in order to get a garment to fit the body it is intended to be worn.
The work I enjoy the most is lecturing, mentoring and writing, as it gives me the opportunity to express my individuality at the same time as educating a new generation of tailors and sewing enthusiasts with the tricks and tips I have learned during my career.
How does your approach differ to creating a garment when its for Stage/ Tv versus fashion or a private client.
It used to be the case that stage costumes were not as well made as those for film and tv, as the closest theatre audience are more than 15 metres away ( the orchestra is between the stage and the audience) but as so many productions are now televised in High Definition, and scrutinised, the craftsmanship has had to be constructed to reflect this.
Stage costumes do not have zips as they become faulty as time passes. Some theatre costumes are many decades old.
Film and tv garments don’t always have linings inside them if the deadlines are too tight, as a time saving practice if they will not be taken off on film. Film and tv characters also have duplicate costumes made, depending on what the character does, e.g. if the character does stunts, the stuntmen will need duplicates of the garment to wear, as well as having duplicate garments if the character gets wet, stabbed, bloodied or pushed into mud, etc. to cater for the amount of times the scene will have to be shot.
Private clients clothing normally contain the least amount of fastenings, to help aid easy removal and always has a zip where applicable, as opposed to stage garments which have hooks and bars or poppers/ snap fasteners.
Over your Career have you noticed techniques and approaches change with regard to Tailoring or are the practices we use today largely the same as when your Dad was working as a Tailor.
Yes it has.
When I started out in my career, there were lots of tailors and haberdashery stores in London and the UK in general. There are a lot less now. Some have moved online; some have disappeared altogether.
Really experienced ‘old school’ tailors are disappearing without having trained that many new tailors. Also, there was a time that training to be a tailor was not a popular career choice.
Now that sewing has become fashionable again, there are more people who want to undergo the training to become a tailor/ It takes roughly 10,000hours* to become a fully trained tailor, but in recent years I have seen a shift in the type of people who are choosing that career – from those who go straight into it from college or school, to those who have arrived via training for another career.
With the rise of Netflix, professional sewers and tailors are being lured into working on films, never to return to theatre. The current pandemic has also impacted on the theatre industry too; some costume makers who have not left theatre to work in film have left the costume industry altogether.
New fabrics which have been invented since I first started out in the industry has made garments much lighter in weight without taking away any of the input of craftsmanship in the garment. In fact it has made the construction process easier in many cases.
Diversity and representation of people of colour on stage and screen is often in the media however it is less often highlighted with regard to those working behind the scenes. Could you share a little of your experience of working as a Black Female menswear Tailor over the years?
During my career, in the last 25 years I have only met two other black female menswear tailors.
The first was an alterations tailor 20 years ago. The second was a junior tailor this year, at Glyndebourne.
At the beginning of my career, all anyone in film, theatre and tv who employed me as a freelancer or employee were interested in, was if I could do the work I was tasked to do, and if it could be completed by the set deadline.
Nobody was ever interested in what colour I was, where I came from, or what my background was. They didn’t ask me then. They still don’t ask now - as long as the work is done well and on time!
What prompted you to start writing your fantastic book?
In 2010, I gave a lecture, I was asked to submit a book proposal, but it was rejected as the company had already designated what they wanted to publish that year by the time I sent it to them. They encouraged me to submit it elsewhere.
2 years later, I saw a tiny advert in a magazine. I thought it was a hoax but applied anyway. It was sent to the publisher of the book who commissioned it.
Hit me with your essential Kit list?!?
As a tailor;
Snips/ tiny scissors
Tracing wheel & paper
Box/container to carry everything
As a cutter;
Paper (should already be supplied)
Rulers (lots of them)
Measurements of artists
What can't you live without on a work Day?
MUSIC, LUNCH & MY TRAINERS!
Do you have any advice for anyone starting out of their Tailoring / Sewing career?
Try to align yourself with an established professional tailor, company or sewing person who is in need of help. They are a great source of experience, information and contacts.
Join classes which are not in your comfort zone. You never know what you will be asked to make and it will boost your confidence.
Take some pattern cutting classes, you are more valuable as a sewer or tailor if you can cut you own patterns for projects.
Signed Copies of Jay’s Book are available here in our new Book section.