‘I don’t think we’ve ever lived in such a throwaway culture, where everything from clothes to furniture is seen as short-term and disposable,’ says Su Mason. ‘But living like that is anathema to me. It’s far more interesting to be surrounded by things that have been made with care and have stories to tell.’
Su’s home is a flat in a converted factory in east London but, in contrast to some slicker conversions nearby, her home isn’t a shrine to designer furniture and fast fashion. And it still has a working life. With two bedrooms, a small bathroom and a walk-in kitchen, the main living space doubles as a store-room for rails of clothes and stacks of fabrics that Su sells at markets and antiques fairs.
Her stock includes mongrammed French linen sheets, women’s workwear from the Second World War and then more carefully sought finds, such as peach silk nightdress from the twenties, a glittering Biba sheath and a dusty hemmed Miss Haversham-like embroidered gown. ‘I’m surrounded by the “stuff” of life,’ says Su. ‘Many of these clothes were made for special occasions and then packed away in a trunk in an attic. They make you think about the story behind it – not only who wore it, but the seamstress who measured up, selected a particular silk thread and then stitching it by hand.’
Su also specialises in utility wear: women’s dungarees and thick overalls that, conversely, would have been worn day-in, day-out, but women liked to patch with brighter scraps or embroider, to make them a bit prettier and more individual.
Su moved into this rented flat in December 2013 and shares it for part of the week with her eldest daughter Romilly, plus Pepper, her pug. The building used to be a Clarks shoe factory and is close to what was once the heart of the East End rag trade. The flat’s industrial past shows in the exposed pipes and ducts, bare brick walls and high Crittal windows designed to let in lots of light for its one-time factory workers. Other signs of its working history are the extra high and wide doorways, made that way so stock could be moved around easily and, in Su’s seating area, a set of double doors open to a sheer drop to the old loading yard below, where goods were once winched down.
Su and Romilly have decorated this flat in a style that suits its unvarnished appearance, with second-hand market finds and hand-medown furniture. The big farmhouse table was passed on by a friend while other items were bought in markets here and in France, where Su travels a lot to buy fabrics. The entomology (framed butterflies) and few pieces of taxidermy are antique. ‘Romilly buys dilapidated collections and restores them and the boxes,’ she says. The flat’s seating is decorated with cushion covers made from squares of vintage linen, toile and dyed cloth that are too small to sell, or too special to part with.
Su has a stall under the canopy at London’s Portobello Road market and is a regular at antiques and vintage fairs. Her customers include fashion students and designers: ‘I’ve sourced workwear that has been a big inspiration for Margaret Howell’s designers,’ she says. ‘And I’ve just got in some beautiful fifties ballet pumps with a neat shape that I think a shoe designer friend will love.’ Seamstresses for the theatre and TV also come to Su for antique clothes, plus era-accurate original buttons and thread, so that costumes look as authentic as possible.
One room of the flat is full of haberdashery drawers, containing immaculate cards of pearl buttons, military epaulettes and spools of thread, many bought in French markets. ‘There’s something so lovely about their intactness, some with the price – a few sous – pencilled on the back.’
Sadly, Su and her daughter will soon be on the move, as this former factory is being sold to developers. ‘A very familiar story around here – which is a great shame – but we’ve had five good years,’ she says philosophically. ‘I just hope the next owners love this setting as much as I do.’
Excerpt from the article, East West, Home's Best: Su Mason's East London Home, written by Jo Leevers in Issue 85 East.
Linen, made from the flax plant, has a history that extends into antiquity. The Bible references this fibre and its cloth as a noble and valuable product, and linen production is depicted in wall drawings from 2,000 years ago. Although easily creased, linen's silky surface matures as it is worn. Few other fabrics improve with time, meaning that linen can be reused, revived and reworked, as it often was throughout history.
We're delighted that Su Mason will be joining us for an evening of discussion on linen on Wednesday 8 June 2022. The talk will bring together linen producers, antique linen dealers, curators and linen experts to tell the story of linen and the future of flax as an environmentally and sustainable fibre.
Find out more about our Linen online talk, and book your tickets here: