Saturday, August 10, 2013

Fabric Retailing: The Rag Fair

Recycling is a new term for an old cog in the wheel of textile consumption.

The center of the used clothing market in England for centuries was a street market named Rag Fair, originally situated in Rosemary Lane in London. When the Tower Bridge was built in the 1880s the Rag Fair moved to Houndsditch. Rather than being a temporary fair it was an open air market lined with shops specializing in reselling used clothing.

 (Don't you love it when all the thrift stores are in one neighborhood?)

Rag Fair on Rosemary Lane
Late 18th century Thomas Rowlandson

In writing about Rosemary Lane in 1842 James Grant found Rag Fair's origins impossible to ascertain.

 "That it has existed for centuries is beyond question.... It is held every day in the week, Saturday and Sunday excepted. The reason why there is no fair on Saturday is, that the Jews, by whom it is chiefly frequented, hold their Sabbath on that day. The reason of its not being held on our Sunday is, that the law, or rather the local authorities, will not allow it."

We'd call it recycling now, a name rather recently applied to re-using waste. 

High Change Rag Fair
by Thomas Bowles

 A new term had to be generated because many of the old names cast aspersions on the fabric aftermarket. 

Pushcarts moved used clothing and fabric around
New York City, about 1900
Library of Congress
Rag picking is an insult that comes to mind.

It was never a noble occupation and often confined
to African-Americans, Jews and women
who were not permitted to work in other occupations.

 In the past no one above the sheer poverty level admitted they bought used clothing.

You can see the outside display in London has caught
 the eye of the woman on the left walking by.

Here's an exception:
Twenty-one year-old Lady Charlotte Canning, who would be one of Queen Victoria's ladies-in-waiting, wrote her grandmother in 1838 of a trip to Venice. She and a friend "have come to great disgrace among the connoisseurs here for insisting on going two days running to the Old Clothes Shops...I know very well that you & Mama would have followed our faction---so I may confess that we bought 4 beautiful old gowns, not very dirty...They assured us that all of them belonged once to the Doge's wives!!"

I'd take Charlotte (and her grandma) along on a road trip.

See friend Rosie's impressive collection of thrift-shop shirt fabrics at Deb Rowden's blog:

Log Cabin by Rosie Mayhew


  1. I love the name of Rag Picking, sounds so fun. I am a thrift store junkie, you never know what you will find. I have even found wool yardage on occasion.


  2. My late husband loved flannel shirts. I have made three nice throws from them. I did a 4 patch with solid blocks between. On the solid blocks I appliqued bears. Very warm and a nice memory for my children.

  3. I make a lot of quilts with re-purposed fabrics. It is so much fun to come up with a creative design.