In an area of central London close to Westminster Abbey, Church House and the National Churches Trust is a place that is every bit as much a part of the clerical scene.
Watts & Co has been making ecclesiastical clothing and furnishings since 1874. It is associated with beautiful embroidered vestments, in fine silks woven in England, hand-crafted at their premises in Tufton Street.
The company has made vestments for the last two Coronations, and for popes, cardinals and bishops. They recently restored a footstool used by Queen Victoria, for Westminster Abbey.
A family business
The company was founded by three distinguished architects of the late Victorian period: George Frederick Bodley, Thomas Garner and George Gilbert Scott Jr. Successive generations of the Gilbert Scott family have run the business down the decades.
A low point came in the 1960s when Watts’s trademark Gothic Revival vestments became unfashionable. Elizabeth Hoare, niece of George Gilbert Scott Jr, revived interest in medieval-style embroidery and broadened the client base allowing Watts to flourish once more.
The present managing director, her grandson, Robert Hoare, is broadening the company’s horizons though their traditional work still attracts clergy from around the world. Almost all would once have been Anglican, but increasingly, Roman Catholics have discovered Watts.
“There is a big move in the Catholic Church towards beauty in the liturgy and in vestments. Previously, Catholic priests were really into polyester. We’re seeing a really big shift with younger priests – even in places like France – seeking quality.”
With quality comes sustainability
“We looked at some of the Coronation vestments we made over 100 years ago at Westminster Abbey and they still look pretty new,” says Robert.
He leads a team of 21 people including a creative director, and embroiderers who trained at the Royal School of Needlework at Hampton Court, and Central St Martins.
A number of long-serving staff have recently retired and Robert is welcoming new talent. When the showroom was flooded in 2016, he seized the opportunity to open up what had been an enclosed space with the air of a clerical gentleman’s club. The revamp has given the place a friendlier feel and there is room to host special events.
Keeping up with change
Along a wall is a rack of women’s wear introduced six years ago. It includes summer dresses in cornflower blue with clerical collars. These are not shapeless sacks but designed with women in mind and made of organic cotton woven in England. Ten per cent of the profits are donated to the Church Urban Fund.
Says Robert: “Years back, Watts might have been considered unfriendly to women. We have massively changed that. Our tailors are female, we gave women-only events and have developed a range that women like.”
A showroom in Rome
There is now a showroom in Rome opened in partnership with an Italian supplier. Together they offer stained glass, mosaics and other sacred art. They are getting interest from cathedrals in their columbaria, structures with spaces for ashes. These are becoming popular as more people choose cremation.
“Colombaria are a great way for cathedrals to generate cash, year in, year out, as they rent out spaces for the urns,” says Robert.
He still delights in the work Watts is famous for and shows me a photo of a chasuble by George Bodley which Watts is reproducing for a church in Washington D.C.. It is a wonderful confection in cream and yellow silk with a profusion of angels embroidered in gold thread.
“Since I’ve been here we’ve never made anything as embroidered as this. It is the sort of thing that gets all of the people who work here so excited.”
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Profile written by Elena Curti