The Jewish British Rag Trade
The first time I watched Fiddler on the Roof, I fell in love with the tailor Motel Kamzoil. Those sweet round glasses, the cute curls poking out from under his cap...his sewing machine, hubba hubba.
I’ve always loved and taken pride in explaining the story of how my family ended up in the UK as ‘basically Fiddler on the Roof’ because for myself and a lot of British (and I’m sure American, French etc. Jews) it is as close to reality as musical theatre gets (apart from Funny Girl, can I get a “Hello Gorgeous!”?). But this story of the Jews, who after years of being terrorised by pogroms had to pack up everything they owned and leave their homes for new and unknown lands is also the origin story behind many British retail and fashion brands that still rule our high streets today.
Jews have long been associated with the clothing trade, one of the reasons for this is because of certain kosher laws in Judaism. Extending beyond what you can eat, the laws of kashrut encompass all areas of life and one of those laws of exclusion is which fibres you can wear together. The law of shatnez prohibits blending different species of animal together or planting different types of seeds together; the result of which is that it is forbidden to wear linen and wool in the same garment. Because of this, religious Jews have long had to make their own clothing to ensure that they were keeping kosher.
As Jews were having to master tailoring and dressmaking within their own communities, and they were disallowed from entering many other trades and industries, over time they slowly became the centre of the rag trade in cities across Europe. Within this practical skill, great creativity and artistry was nurtured. Last summer on holiday in Florence, in the sweatiest heat (my cotton lawn Flora dress soaked through) I took solace at the Uffizi Gallery. At the end of the main exhibitions, tucked behind the gallery shop (I almost missed it) was a separate, modern exhibition hall where a show called The Colours of Judaism in Italy was on show. The most stunning works in this collection showed pieces from Genoa, Florence, Pisa and Rome showing decorative work that were made of the fibres and remains of soiled cloth from the upper classes that were salvaged during repairs and reused to embroider and embellish and to adorn the Jewish torah scrolls and synagogues.
(Some images I took of the embroideries at the Uffizi while the security guard wasn’t looking)
Back to the Great British High Street. With centuries of rag trade training and tradition, many of the Eastern European Jews of the late 19th and early 20th Century who fled Eastern Europe arrived in the UK with little to no English and whatever they could carry from their homes. The rag trade was booming and it was relatively easy for immigrants to get work even with little experience in London on Commercial Road (not too far from where I live now) or up north in the Bradford wool industry or Leeds. So these Jewish tailors quickly took to sewing and pattern cutting, often in dark cellars, using up cloth that was salvaged from all over the country.
One Lithuanian Jewish immigrant was Sir Montague Maurice Burton who fled to the UK in 1900 to escape the Russian pogroms. Starting out across Manchester, Leeds and Bradford, he bought and sold ready-made suits and by 1913 he owned five men’s tailor shops in Sheffield, by the time the company went public in 1929 he had 400 shops, factories and mills and eventually made a quarter of all British military uniforms in the war. In 1939, shortly before the war broke out, someone had scratched the word “Jew” onto the glass of one of his shops and in the following police report Burton had said that he would like to have written after it “and proud of it”. Burton’s company became the still standing Burton Menswear.
Another story of Jewish immigrants on the British High Street is none other than the home of Colin the Caterpillar, Marks and Spencer. Founded by Michael Marks, a Polish Jew who started working in clothing factories in Leeds, building up to run his own permanent market stand in Leeds covered market, where he invited Thomas Spencer to become his partner. They started off selling everything for a penny (their slogan was “don’t ask the price, it’s a penny”) and made their name selling only British-made goods. Thank goodness for M&S, am I right? Frankly I’d be lost without their 3 for 2 on full high waisted cotton knickers.
Of course it isn’t just the UK and Europe where Jewish immigrants made their stamp on the garment industry, just take a look at Manhattan. The most glorious (fictitious) example of this is The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, if you haven’t drooled over the stunningly choreographed scenes of her flitting through her father in law’s garment factory in Manhattan, well frankly, you haven’t lived.
The Marvelous Mrs Maisel!
This is just a tidbit of the history of the Jewish British rag trade. I think for anyone who grows up with immigrant blood in them it’s important to have pride in the positive changes and input your community has had on your family’s chosen home. Whenever I use my sewing machine and I think of the long tumultuous journey it took my ancestors to get here, well, it makes my stitches that much more important.
Francesca, thank you so much for such a fascinating article! I had absolutely no idea about the religious and cultural origins of the Jewish rag trade, and it's so inspiring to learn how such a prosperous industry was born. What a great read!