The way Keith tells it, in the late eighties the Royal Household had a decision to make. The livery of the Household and Royal Mews was in pretty poor shape. It had largely been made in 1902 (for the coronation of Edward VII), some had been remade in 1937 (George VI) and there were some alterations and repairs in 1953 (Elizabeth II). But since then it had sat in storage with no planned, regular maintenance.

They could decide to replace like for like, replace the gold lace with synthetic, or pare down to a genuine but smaller collection. “Admirably, they decided to replace like for like, which has kept us in business pretty consistently,” Keith says.

Keith Levett is head of the ceremonial department at Henry Poole and the only person still consistently making livery on the Row. It’s a far cry from the days when Poole’s had a separate department with over 60 tailors on the corner of Clifford Street (now Richard James).

It would have been a shame to switch to synthetic lace, or Mylar. Gold lace behaves in a certain way. It fades over time, in unison with the ageing and darkening cloth. Mylar starts unnaturally bright and stays that bright forever, even as the red cloth around it ages. Most of the military uniforms use Mylar now, and it looks noticeably brighter.

You can see how real gold ages in the three shots below, showing a new coat, one from the 1930s and one from 1875.

For those that are interested, the gold lace is in fact a core of linen warp and silk or cotton weft, wrapped in a base metal that has been gilded with gold. It is called orris lace. It is about 2.5% gold, and worth £60 a metre. You can see the core and gilded metal being unravelled here:

Below are the three types of woven lace, which correspond to different formalities of dress – the widest is ‘full state’, the middle ‘semi-state’ (or undress) and the thinnest is a navy lace. The first two are only woven for the Royal Household and Mews, by a firm in Lyon.

Hand & Lock, the most famous English embroidery firm, doesn’t weave its own royal lace any more. But Keith was fortunate enough to see the old Hand & Lock looms on Lexington Street in 1989, just as he started at Poole’s and a few weeks before they were closed down. “Most were early nineteenth century, but some were the old Jacobean looms,” he says. “They made beautiful stuff, though so slowly and in such small quantities I could probably stitch in on quicker.”

The lace ages very well. The base metal just gradually oxidises. What falls apart on the old coats is the silk stitching that holds it down. As you can see on the shot of the shoulder of a walking groom’s livery below, a strip of velvet is sewn onto the cloth first, and then the lace is stitched down on either side. The lace is heavy but malleable, and the velvet has a deep pile, so the former tends to move (‘walk’) as it is sewn. Matching up all the rows of lace on the front of the coat can be tricky.

Those silk stitches aren’t really worth repairing, because it would “be like painting the Forth Bridge”. As soon as you sew up one area and turn the coat over, another would come undone. The job would be endless.

Another challenge is sewing areas like the cuffs shown below. In order to remain rigid, they are sewn onto a layer of buckram. This has been glued to the cloth, and as it is sewn the glue slowly melts with the heat of your hands and the needle. The more it melts, the harder it is to get the needle through, until finally it starts to squeak as it is pushed. Then it’s time to stop and cool down.

“People say that livery work is coatmaking taken to the next level, but I’m not sure I’d agree with that,” says Keith. “It’s heavy work, but the biggest challenge is getting the aesthetics right – the waist height, the shape of the pockets and the overall cut. If you get it wrong, it just becomes very expensive theatre costume.”

That might sound like a relatively abstract differentiation, but once Keith points out the differences between three models – 1875, 1930s and current – you can see how the shape of the waist and flare of the skirt has changed quite dramatically.

The liveries that result are gorgeous, both in their designs and the painstaking handwork that stitches on each row of lace. The number of these stitches, and the way they can be seen on the surface if you look closely (as with the cuff pieces above), gives each piece great character.

The refurbishment of the Royal liveries, as well as preparations for the Jubilee in 2012, will keep Keith busy for a long while to come. And if you look down into the basement of 16 Savile Row (Poole’s owns the basement next door to the main shop), you will see Keith’s workshop itself refurbished over the coming year, including the more prominent display of its royal warrants.

[It should be noted that the top image is of an old Gieves coat, being repaired by Keith. All the rest were made at Poole’s.]
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Worth a look: (Henry Poole YouTube short)
–John Wesley

Michael A.

Dear Simon,
If you had to commission ceremonial/formal dress such as black tie, morning coat and white tie, which house on Savile row would you chose?
P.S. I am asking here as I didn’t know where else