Steely Seamstress

Sewing for life


A trip to Brum in July

It seems that this month I’m doing a bit of catching up with my blog and this is a write-up of a trip I made back a while back.

Rachel of Rach against the machine suggested a Brum meet-up for a bit of fabric shopping back in July. I thought this was an ideal opportunity to wander a little further than my local fabric shops and have the advantage of local knowledge to help me out!

I haven’t been to Birmingham for many years. All I can remember is the subterranean dungeon that is Birmingham New Street Station and a building site around the Bullring. I imagine I haven’t been there for about 15 years. I was pleasantly surprised when I emerged above Birmingham New Street. There is an atrium full of shops above the platforms and the streets around the Bullring have been transformed into a pleasant pedestrian area.

I met up with the other sewers and we spent a pleasant rime browsing the Rag Market. There are lots of fabric stalls. I was particularly taken with the stall selling trims. They were really unusual and looked like they might be intended for Indian clothing. I bought a metre of three different trims. I’m planning to use the two colourful trims for tunics and the lace will look good on the hem of a knit top, I reckon.


I picked up some fabric too. I bought 1.5 m of a sheer knit fabric, which is probably polyester or viscose, but at £1.50 I thought it was probably worth it. It has an interesting embroidered stripe and has sequins on it too. I’m planning to make this into some sort of loose cardigan. The second length of fabric (also 1.5 m) is 100% cotton and a bright corduroy print. It cost £7.50, which I thought was good value. The pattern is floral, but is quite abstract and looks to me like firework bursts. I can see another corduroy skirt for this fabric. I wear my grey corduroy skirt a lot, especially at work and it will be good to have another similar skirt.

Rag Market Fabric

Clearly I’m not a serious shopper, as I only came away with those two fabrics. I’m quite a slow stitcher, and I know it will take me a while to get round to using those fabrics, especially as I have quite a stash already at home. My fellow brum shoppers had huge bags full of fabric and trims by this point!

Rag Market

After exploring the market, we headed to Barry’s. I must admit, I found this store completely overwhelming. My usual experience of shopping in a fabric store is usually a bit more “Let’s find something that will do for….” and now I was confronted with too much choice! Perhaps I need more preparation before entering a store like this. I should have a specific sewing plan in mind, so that I can focus better….. Needless to say, I didn’t buy anything, but this shop definitely, deserves another trip.


Birmingham is quite a way from home, and I felt that I needed to make the most of my day trip and not just shop. I had been browsing “things to do” in Birmingham on the internet and thought that the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter looked interesting. I am fascinated with learning how things were made in the past and I think a knowledge of the traditional methods leads me to appreciate craftsmanship. The Museum of the Jewellery Quarter is built around a jewellery workshop that belonged to the Smith & Pepper jewellery manufacturing firm. The aging proprietors retired in 1981. They struggled to sell the business and when they ceased trading and locked the door, the workshop remained untouched, exactly as it was the day they left. The workshop wasn’t updated after the 1950s and it’s a perfect time capsule. The best thing about the museum is that you’re taken on a tour of the workshop by one of the very knowledgeable staff.

The tour started in the office on the top floor, where complete with old-fashioned typewriters and phones, orders were taken and the jewellery was packaged to be posted to the customers. Smith and Pepper, sold wholesale to businesses rather than directly to the public.

Museum of the Jewellery Quarter (Office)

Unbelievably, they just sent these small anonymous brown boxes via first-class post!

Museum of the Jewellery Quarter (Office)

In the workshop, the day started with the proprietor, Mr Tom Smith weighing the gold out for each of the jewellers. The gold had to be weighed out and weighed in at the end of the day. The jeweller was only permitted a certain percentage loss of gold, depending on the type of work being undertaken. Gold was swept up from the floor at the end of the day and even the sinks led into a reservoir so that any gold from the workshop could be recovered.


The craftsmen’s benches were lit by natural light from above or they were positioned near the windows. Here the craftsmen of the workshop assembled the stamped parts, set stones, soldered and engraved. The jeweller’s workbench is cut out with a jeweller’s apron, made of leather. The apron sat in the jeweller’s lap and serves to collect fragments of gold and stops the craftsman being burnt if anything is dropped.  Work was carried out on the jeweller’s peg. This is the wooden piece that juts out the front of the bench. It is used to balance and stabilise whatever the jeweller was working on. Each bench was also equipped with gas taps. Our guide showed us how the jeweller could change the temperature of the flame and direct to to finely manipulate the jet.


One wall of the workshop has an array of steel dies. These were used to stamp out the gold or silver components for the jewellery. Our guide demonstrated how the presses (below) were used to stamp out shapes. These could be used as pendants. I’d never really thought much about jewellery manufacture before I went on this tour and I hadn’t expected to see that even mass-produced jewellery was made in such a manual way. Unbelievably, Smith and Pepper used to supply jewellery to High Street chains, such as H. Samuel.

Museum of the Jewellery Quarter (Workshop)

The jewellery was polished using these horrific looking machines. I like the “No Smoking” sign behind the machines; a small concession to health and safety, perhaps? Apparently, there was a lady who did gold-plating, in a small room to the left of these machines. This task didn’t take up all her time, so she also doubled as a tea lady. The gold-plating uses a cyanide compound. Would you like to be served tea from a room that has had gold cyanide slopped around in it?


I admit when I got home, I took out my magnifying glass to see if any of my jewellery was made by Smith and Pepper. Sadly, none of it is, although I have quite a few pieces made in Birmingham. This isn’t surprising, though, as Birmingham is still the biggest volume producer of gold jewellery in the country. Altogether, I would thoroughly recommend a visit to this museum. The tour is a very interesting insight into a by-gone era.

It was a very busy day for me, but enjoyable. Thanks to all the Brum sewers who showed me around the fabric haunts of Birmingham! See you again soon.