Friday Five – Interview with Brita Hirsch
Originally from Germany and now based in the foothills of the Peak District, Brita Hirsch is a bespoke tailor and textile engineer, with a passion for British wool. Aside from creating beautiful bespoke garments at Hirsch Tailoring, she has managed to capture the spirit of Macclesfield in her successful Kickstarter project The Great Northern Cloth, as well as launching a new Tailoring Academy to inspire others.
1) Where and how did you learn the tailoring craft?
I was determined to become a bespoke tailor when I left school with a full set of A levels under my belt back in 1985. To this day I don’t know what it was that led me to take on the craft, apart from the fact that I wanted to use my hands following years of study. But I clearly needed an antidote to academic study and Germany, where I grew up, has a strong vocational education system. Skilled craftsmen are respected and I was striving to become one. I spent three years with a master tailor and another four honing my skills further with other tailoring houses, as is the custom. I was thrilled and terrified in equal measures to be picked to make a stage suit for the great, late Luciano Pavarotti towards the end of my learning years.
2) What inspired you to set up your Tailoring Academy?
The lack of bespoke tailoring training in the UK, especially outside of London. For every inquiry for a bespoke commission I receive three for training, and eventually I thought I may be at a point in my career where I could enjoy passing on the skill. Finding out more, I realised that, traditionally in Britain, apprentices receive training in one or two pathways: cutting or tailoring. I disagree with this approach, as it doesn’t deliver the full skillset. The two are so closely interlinked that it makes sense to teach them together, enabling young craftsmen to set up on their own, if they so wish. Realising that with the new ABC Level 5 Diploma, a stand-alone qualification had become available, I made clear that I would deliver both pathways to all trainees, and became accredited to deliver the programme as the first and only training centre in the country.
3) How much has your location in Macclesfield influenced what you make?
Macclesfield, as the former centre of the British silk industry, has textile manufacturing written all over itself. Out of more than a hundred former working mills, only two are still operating today, but there is an abundance of skill and knowledge. And of course, the mills are being converted for a new lease of life. The Tailoring Academy is based on the top floor of such a former silk mill. It is flooded with natural light and has a calm feel, detached from the bustling town centre thanks to its lofty position and of course, the absence of the racket of silk looms which used run around the clock in this place.
As a bespoke tailoring house, the town influences my work in that I strive to use local materials; wool cloth from the West Yorkshire mills, which are only a short drive across the Peak District, and silk as lining for suits and coats, which I am fortunate have direct access to, at the two hugely successful mills still located in Macclesfield.
4) What inspired you to launch the Great Northern Cloth crowdfunding project?
A long story, but in a nutshell, it was the astonishing revelation that almost no British wool is being used in the world famous fine suiting cloth that is produced in the West Yorkshire mills. We have 32 million sheep in this country and most of their wool goes to waste. Learning that the coveted Merino breed, whose wool we export from across the globe, namely Australia and New Zealand, is actually a native European breed, I dug deeper and discovered that these sheep thrive in Britain. They produce remarkably soft wool, unrivalled by any other British breed.
As a result, I bought the entire 2017 clip and became an accidental cloth merchant. The Kickstarter was fully funded within 12 hours and it just took off from there. Instead of importing wool from the other end of the globe we are now shipping scarves and cloth woven from the super-soft wool around the world.
5) What are you working on right now?
The big focus is on growing the Tailoring Academy to become a centre of excellence for UK bespoke tailoring training. The UK Fashion and Textiles Association are hugely supportive and the CapitB Trust, funded by UK Textile Manufacturers, acknowledges the new form of training with generous student grants. The Textile Society has recently honoured the Academy with their annual Professional Development Award, in recognition of the highest level of UK tailoring training becoming available in the North of England. The Academy shares premises with my bespoke tailoring company, and right now my apprentice and I are working on a number of bespoke commissions.
One piece that stands out is a female version of a classic military-inspired Great Coat, in a sumptuous charcoal cashmere cloth. I love working for women, as they are massively under-represented in the bespoke sector, both as clients and leading craftsmen. Working alongside each other means that students have exclusive insight and are directly involved in the day-to-day business; they leave the academy equipped as business people as well as skilled craftsmen.