November 2023

The Nation Reviewed

Strong suit

By Paul Grover
Illustration by Jeff Fisher
A visit to a master tailor in Albury was like a step back in time, and decades later the resulting suit is still good for all occasions

My first suit was for my brother’s wedding. It was the 1970s. I was in my early 20s and surviving on a meagre student allowance, so the suit was bought with strict economy and maximum fashion firmly in mind. Unfortunately, it was the height of flared trousers, wide lapels, and green and yellow pastel stripes. By the mid 1980s, friends and work colleagues began marrying, and by then flares, wide lapels and pastel stripes lived only in fading polaroid prints. I wanted a suit to outlast short-sighted fashion.

In Albury’s central AMP Lane I found the only professional tailor between Canberra and Melbourne. Robert Saville’s small workshop had opened in the New South Wales border town in 1949, and, by the 1980s, was quietly nestling in a laneway filled with hairdressers, beauty salons and florists. Robert’s window display was from another era, with faded curtains surrounding a tailor’s dummy wearing a half-completed jacket. An ageing painted sign announced “Robert Saville – ladies and gents tailor”, and a handwritten card displaying opening hours dangled from a piece of string against the old glass door. Inside was a small, dark and silent foyer, with bolts of cloth and fabric swatches spread on top of an ancient glass cabinet. Against the yellow wall leant faded cardboard signs advertising quality suit fabrics, and along the cabinet’s glass shelves dusty sample books were stacked beside tattered cardboard boxes. A single wooden chair, an old hatstand and a simple curtain separated the workshop beyond.

Robert Saville drew aside the curtain and stepped out, a long, yellow measuring tape around his neck. He was a small man in his 60s, balding and round shouldered, smartly dressed in a tailored sportscoat, fitted cardigan, shirt, neat tie, pressed trousers and polished leather shoes. His friendly eyes glanced up and down, assessing my shape and size.

He listened for some time and then quietly explained he could make a suit that would never go out of fashion, could be worn for all occasions and tailored for any future alterations. But this relied on selecting the finest pure wool cloth, the best suit colour and the right cut. He recommended Dormeuil English pure wool fabric, as it wouldn’t fade over time, didn’t crease, never attracted lint and was resistant to moths. With a handmade suit it was worth spending a little more on a fabric to last a lifetime. The colour: navy blue. The cut: straight leg, single pleat, no cuffs, lining inside the knees and seat, outside jacket pockets decorative-only to prevent sagging, two jacket buttons, mid-size lapels and blue satin lining. Additional fabric would be included inside the jacket and trousers for alterations in later years. Three fittings were required: the first for measuring, the second to adjust the jacket and trousers for the final cutting and sewing, and a final fitting prior to sewing in the linings. And the price? A quote would be provided after the first fitting.

A week later, I was ushered through the curtain and into the master tailor’s workshop. Here, decades of experience lived in Robert Saville’s tailoring scissors, measuring tapes, brass rulers, tailors’ dummies, partially sewn jackets, chalks, bolts of cloth, tissue pattern templates, fabric remnants, order books, interfacings and rows of tailoring tools spilling out of makeshift cupboards and spread along a wooden table in the centre of the room. Cardboard boxes, on crammed wooden shelves, were filled with spools of thread, offcuts of fabric, pincushions, scissors, notebooks and receipt pads. In one corner was a large Victorian-era sewing machine, and beside it two mannequins fitted with half-completed blazers.

At this first fitting Robert was again dressed in his neat cardigan, shirt and tie, pressed trousers and polished shoes. He briskly circled with his measuring tape, pencil between his lips, moving me back and forth, measuring shoulders, neck, arms, waist, body and legs, whispering to himself as he swiftly jotted figures. Finished, he stepped back, put down his pencil and tape, looked me up and down, and examined an old order book on his workbench. The total price would be $750. In the 1980s, this was my salary for two whole weeks! But I was captivated, convinced by Robert’s craftsmanship, his masterful knowledge and skill, and certain I would now possess a high-quality handmade suit to last a lifetime. It was to be four weeks before the second fitting.

At the second fitting, the suit coat was in pieces, sleeves and jacket held together by dozens of pins. Robert circled around me, measuring and making chalk marks on the cloth, keenly focused on how the jacket sat on my shoulders, the lie of the collar, the length of the sleeves, the position of button holes, the fit of the jacket. The trousers were loosely sewn to hold them together for the fitting. At the final fitting, two weeks later, the suit coat was finished except for its blue satin lining and buttons, with Robert making a few final chalk marks on the jacket and trousers. The coat’s lining would take a week as it was sewn by hand.

Over the next 20 years this tailor-made suit was everything Robert Saville had promised, worn at weddings, christenings, baptisms, funerals and other formal occasions, and always fashionable. Sewn on the inside suit pocket was Robert’s own label – beneath a crown, “Robert Saville / high class tailor Albury” – and on the other pocket a Dormeuil London label. Robert’s final advice was that when the suit required dry cleaning, it could only be taken to Madins Dry Cleaners in Townsend Street, and they should be told it was a Robert Saville suit.

By 2007, some of those anticipated alterations were needed – the jacket had become a little tight around the shoulders, the trousers sat too low on the hips (in the 1980s, I foolishly insisted on a fashionable jeans-style waist when Robert had strongly recommended a standard trouser waist). Was Robert Saville still in AMP Lane? Would he make these alterations?

His shop was still there but looking decidedly tired, with its yellow paint quite faded, and it was now surrounded by outdoor cafes, nail salons, giftware and high-end fashion shops. His window display had hardly changed. And Robert looked much older – now in his late 80s, cardigan sagging a little, shoulders a little more stooped, the jacket not sitting quite so neatly on his ageing frame. But his bright friendly eyes were still the same. Yes, he could make these alterations – he would only do it for one of his own suits, as he had to laboriously unpick and then later hand stitch all the satin lining of the jacket. If he was to make this suit today, he would need to charge me more than $2500, but the alterations would cost only $600. An appointment was made and the suit delivered with grateful assurances that all of Robert’s claims had been fulfilled: it had been a wonderful suit for more than 20 years, though I was not certain of the exact year he made it. He picked up the jacket, reached inside and pulled out the lining of an inside pocket. Sewn at the bottom was a plain white label, and in indelible pencil: “Paul Grover November 1985”. I had never known it was there. I asked him if he recalled the earliest jacket brought back for alterations – yes, a sports blazer he made in 1948 was brought in for adjustments more than 50 years later.

In 2012, at the age of 94, the local newspaper reported that Robert Saville was to be evicted from his little AMP Lane shop, a master craftsman no longer fitting the upmarket cosmopolitan central business district. Before Robert left his shop I visited this master tailor one last time. He asked if I wanted to buy his old Jaguar saloon, as he and his wife didn’t drive anymore, and his son didn’t want it. He was going to work from home but was sad to leave AMP Lane.

Robert Saville, high-class tailor, continued working. He died in 2015, aged 97. I still wear his suit.

Paul Grover

Paul Grover is a lecturer in education, and a former English teacher and writer.


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