At the launch of London Craft Week, Keith Levett, Director of Henry Poole & Co, tailors of Savile Row, was making a state postillion’s jacket – it was in pieces when The Prince of Wales and The Duchess of Cornwall looked at it (click on the link and scroll down to see photos of Keith at the London Craft Week launch). When Keith finished it, he very kindly invited me to see his incredible craftwork and take some photographs. The jacket is a real tour-de-force in red and gold, and the style of it has remained unchanged for years.
The wool cloth comes from the Abimelech Hainsworth Mill in Stanningley, Pudsey, West Yorkshire, and is the only ‘vertical’ mill there. This means that the fleeces go in at one door and the finished lengths of cloth out of another. The red wool is a rich, vibrant and dense colour and provides a real contrast with the extensive gold decoration. Here is Keith showing the back of the finished jacket.
The 80 decorative gold buttons and the 13 buttons that actually secure the jacket are saved from one garment to another. They are covered in gold, first by electro-gilding in 18 carat gold, and then there is a second coating of frosted 22 carat gold. This makes them rather orange and so they are burnished back on the high points to give a depth of burnish. (This reminded me very much of the layers of gold I add to mediæval illuminated miniatures to give a depth to the shine of the gold.)
Some parts of the gold braid on the cuffs are padded and raised, giving another 3-D effect to the jacket and a real richness to the look. Historically this was done with sheep’s fleece, which was substituted in the later twentieth century with cotton wool as it was more readily available. A visiting Australian wool farmer suggested that sheep’s wool may be better, provided it, and this is what is now used. The fleece, straight from the sheep is first washed in a pillow case, to keep the fibres all contained, and then spread outside to dry. This can be done only in the summer as it is rather smelly! When I was there, Keith reached over for a bodkin-like long needle and pulled up a piece of the gold fabric to make the gathering more even; his eye is that keen!
On the left sleeve is the badge of The Queen. It consists of the Order of the Garter motto in a circle (Honi soit qui mal y pense – Shame on him who thinks evil of it), and the circle is made to look like a garter with a buckle at the bottom. The Order of the Garter is the oldest order of chivalry, and was founded in 1348. In the middle of the circle is the cipher of The Queen, EIIR, and above all this is the Royal Crown.
This badge is made by Claire Barratt at Hawthorn and Heaney, and Claire is actually featured in the first photo at the launch of London Craft Week on this link. I thought Claire’s work was exquisite, even though, apparently, she had far less time to create this badge than she would normally have had.
I was intrigued by the fastenings additional to the gilded buttons and ribbon loops. A row of strong hooks and eyes were sewn in down the front, but instead of having all the hooks on one side and all the eyes on the other, they were alternate. I asked Keith why this was and he explained that if they were as I had expected, when the rider leans forward or pushes his arms together, all the fastenings would come undone; this way, though, they were secure. It is little touches like this that come only from years and years of experience!
The jackets usually take 3–3•5 weeks to produce, but this one had to be rushed through, and Keith worked long hours into the night to get everything done in 16 days, though you would never know to look at, even as close as I was able to get. Keith produced a completely new jacket, but the one I tried on (see my March 2015 newsletter on my website) from the 1930’s clearly had a number of wearers who had each written their names inside!
The jackets are worn by the riders who guide the horses that pull the state coaches. The rest of the uniform can be seen right – white riding breeches, long black boots with a buff cuff, a white shirt and cravat, and finished with a grey wig and riding cap.
And when they’re not being worn? I rather liked this image of the jackets hanging up in a cupboard at the Royal Mews. What workmanship there is there, and I wonder if those who wear the jackets are aware of the huge skill and craftsmanship that has gone into their making.
Henry Poole & Co have held the Royal Warrant for producing livery since 1869, and are now the only tailors working to the old standards and producing like for like. Their standard is so high that, when presented with a cupboard full of jackets as above, they can actually pick out the ones produced by them.