Final curtain for Peter the Pleater's Shoreditch blinds shop
PUBLISHED: 10:51 29 December 2016 | UPDATED: 11:45 29 December 2016
Reporter Emma Bartholomew speaks to Peter the Pleater, who is leaving his eponymous Shoreditch premises - 34 years after setting up shop there
Peter Selvey got into pleating by a random stroke of luck.
Already “in the rag trade” after leaving the navy he “just found” a pleating machine at the side of the road, dumped outside a Stoke Newington Greek manufacturer in the 60s.
He loaded the seven foot wide machine into his transit van with the help of a lorry grabber he flagged over - and then set about learning how to use it.
He rang his friend Vic, who worked as a driver for a pleater: “I said, “What is this pleating game?”” Peter remembers.
“It was so complicated. The machines and the patterns are so intricate. It took a lot of work and ingenuity to do this stuff.”
“Vic said to me, “I’ll help you out. There’s a pattern maker who’s just got sacked. He’s an Irish fella who gets drunk”, and I said, “Get him round my place”.
“One thing is in the old days people with secrets like this - you would never make patterns with anyone else looking over you,” Peter explained. “But he was an alcoholic and I would get a crate of Guinness and feed him one by one. I learned quickly how to make patterns.
“Sometimes they are hard to make – they might have patterns in the pleats, some have a kink, some are A-line skirts or pencil skirts.”
"He was an alcoholic and I would get a crate of Guinness and feed him one by one. I learned quickly how to make patterns. "
Peter found a foreman for the pleating works he planned to set up in Bethnal Green Road, and they managed to connect the boiler with the steam box and alterclave – which takes the material high enough pressures to create permanent pleat which doesn’t come out in the wash.
“Within two weeks we was doing it,” Peter remembers. “We had six tonne of gear. We moved it. It was a rush - it’s the excitement you feel when you’ve got a million pounds for nothing.”
But it wasn’t until he moved his pleating works to the Highway near Tower Bridge that he “really became Peter the Pleater”.
“That was when I really started to get professional. I was doing bits of design, I was doing all the West End pleating - thousands and thousands a week.”
Clients would include C&A, Jacques Vert – and he even made a kilt for the Queen Mother.
How impressive to pick up the trade that quickly.
“I’m an ordinary guy but the psychiatrist told me I’ve got perception that comes off the scale. I can see how things work,” he explains.
He earned his nickname in the early 70s.
“It was the Cypriots who did it. They named me Peter the Pleater. They weren’t allowed to get a job in this country - they were coming over on a holiday visa to see aunty or uncle, but they were taking over the rag trade. If they were caught the tax man would seize their stuff and kick them out of the country. I’d knock on the door. Bang, bang, bang. They’d say “Who is it?” I’d say “Peter”. They’d shout out “Peter the Pleater”. They’d think it was ever so funny. It must mean something in Greek that is ever so funny but I never got that. Everyone started shouting Peter the Pleater and it stuck.”
When pleated skirts started going out of fashion in the 70s Peter “went into curtains” after driving around and coming across “some fella who was throwing out a lot of blinds”. Although there is no pleating knowledge necessary for making blinds his name stuck, and it was what he christened his Shoreditch shop.
He had been looking for new premises in 1982 after a fire meant his London Bridge building was declared unsafe, and a compulsory purchase order was delivered on his Canning Town blinds factory.
He had a vision one day whilst going to the toilet under some railway arches off Great Eastern Street.
“The labourers would always use this place to use the toilet,” he said. “I went for a wee myself one day. I pulled over in the van. I stood in the back and there was polythene where people had pooed over the decades. When I was there on the mounds I though “This is interesting - I wouldn’t mind moving my factory here”.
“It was horrible. It was piled with filth. There was rubbish everywhere. It took me ages to shovel the poo away. I moved all the pleating over here. We had models coming in from the West End.”
Since then the family-run business has made theatre backdrops for West End shows like Les Miserables, and blinds and curtains for Madame Tussauds, the Bank of England - and even London Zoo.
“I remember I was teasing this gorilla with the roller blind and he ripped it off me and he battered it. He smashed it to bits,” Peter mused.
Peter’s wife Bernice has spent the past two years fighting eviction from their landlord Hackney Council.
But now they must now move out for good on Saturday to make way for The Stage multi-million pound housing and retail development.
The business will continue in Brentwood, Essex and Southwood, London.
Bernice explained how they feel as though they are “going through a bereavement” to leave.
“Funnily enough the building hasn’t changed. When we took the arches on in 1982 they leaked,”she said. “They were cold and they were miserable. The conditions are still the same. When I go home at night my hands and feet are so cold I can’t feel them at all. But we’ll still miss it.”