MATERIAL MATTERS: bread-meat-fabric-fish

Tintype Gallery: Walk and Talk

23rd May, 2019. 3pm.

Visiting local retailers Laura White will lead a tour and discussion looking at the engagement of hands-on processes used by different professionals - Fish monger, butcher, baker and haberdasher. We will explore the different skills, activities, crafts, tools and environments that are unique to these industries, to acquire insight into a range of material engagements.

Laura is interested in hands-on skills used to negotiate different materials (fish, flesh, dough and fabric etc) and the context, social exchanges and environment in which these activities take place. Commercial materials require different approaches and skills for the required industries they serve, which are reflected in the specific products and material operations they provide.


Questions for the fish mongers, bakers, butchers and haberdashers

  • How did you become interested in working in this environment?
  • How did you learn the skills needed (college, apprenticeship)
  • How long have you been doing this?
  • What are the different skills and processes used here?
  • How has this changed over the years you have worked here?
  • Are their fashion? Popular meat cuts, fabric pattens?
  • How much do you enjoy handling the materials. Do you enjoy using your hands?
  • What tools do you use and have these changed over the years?
  • Are there new products that challenge your set skills (new fabrics, unfamiliar fish types etc.)
  • Does the way you work with these materials alter depending on where and who you work alongside. e.g. what is the atmosphere of this environment?
  • Are there demands from the industry that enhance or compromise how you work with your materials? E.g. do you have to work fast?
  • Do you teach your skills to others? And do you enjoy the process of showing others how this is done?
  • What do you learn from others you work with?
  • What do you think the benefits are with working with your hands?
  • Do you think working with your hands and your materials has other benefits such as -  to keep your body fit and supple, freeing your mind from ruminating, is it therapeutic? Helps to developing social skills?
  • Does technology affect what you do? E.g. the internet, tools and machinery.
  • Do you like working with screen technology? Would you like a desk job? Is working with your hands an escape from screen technology?

Fish monger

Steve the head fish monger showed us around - front and back of shop - front is all about fish prep, display and sales, back is about storage. He described how his love of being in the fish shop started when he was a kid - preferring to be in this environment more than anywhere else. He learnt the skill of cutting fish by doing and doing it until he got good at it. It was never a thought in his mind that he would do anything else.

The atmosphere is friendly and loud - Steve has a booming and welcoming voice and there are lots of sounds from moving stuff… boxes, knives, fish, people (customers and staff), chopping stuff and talking stuff...

Steve filleted a sea bream - made it look so easy. I know that it is not, as I have done this a few times, and to know exactly where to cut and the pressure applied to both knife and fish (with hand and body) is very particular and precise, and will determine how clean the fillet is cut away from the bone, not to waste any. He hardly looks at the fish while he is cutting. His colleague said ‘he can do this with his eyes closed’ which I don’t doubt that he can... after seeing with the ease and speed he worked.

I asked him about the presentation of the fish in the window, which looks spectacular - layers of fish lying on fresh ice. He said - ‘I start from the middle and work out - black and white fish alternating with a bit of red in between…’



A very different environment to that of the fish shop - dry floors, warm and comfortable, surrounded by neat rolls of fabric, packets of needles, rows of zips…. Rachel who runs Ray Stitch on Essex Road invited us around a large wooden cutting table and talked about how she set up the business. She had been an architectural model maker before - she has always loved working with her hands. However, that particular environment she did not enjoy whereas the one she has set up here dealing with all things fabric is where she feels most happy and comfortable.

Another woman is folding fabric on the table as we chat, we talk about their taste in fabric and the shifts of fashions in the industry - what designs and colours people go for which can be seasonal, and the increase demand of sustainable materials such as jute, hemp and flax. They run workshops downstairs such as dress making and embroidery courses. These learning environments can often go on to create small communities such as sewing groups. Rachel described the rewarding experience of ‘making’ with others, it promotes a slowing down enhanced by natural conversations between makers.

Different to the fish monger where the product is the most important part of the process - to sell fish.  Often people who make their own clothes want to be engaged with the process and to make something unique and bespoke. This is making for pleasure rather than for sales... Perhaps this environment can afford to be slower and more reflective!? I asked what the customer gender balance was, and was happily surprised to be told that a lot of men visit the shop (knocking my preconceptions!) Rachel observed that the difference was that often guys want to know exactly how to achieve a final outcome - get the kit to do it! Whereas women are more inclined to be cautious, or on the other hand experimental - to see ’how it goes.’ The achievements more rooted in the process than in the final outcome.



The head butcher sadly was not available to talk to us, but kindly two other guys in the shop where happy to have a conversation. Perhaps at first a bit defensive of our questioning, as they stayed rooted behind the counter. They talked about how the industry had changed over the years - such as the meat products they receive - game for example (pheasant, partridge, turkey, goose) all of which arrive plucked and gutted, whereas years ago all of this would have been done on site. They do source all their meat and butcher it on site (cow, sheep, pig) and are renowned for their good quality produce. Like the fish monger when asked about how they came into the industry they also were introduced to it when young and took to it very naturally - enjoying engaging with their hands and the community environment of the butcher shop. They clearly take great pride in what they do and this is reflected in the sumptuous displays in the cabinets and window counter. I also asked how they chose how to arrange all the produce - and this they said had been done the same way for years - ‘why change it if it works!’ I wonder who was the first curator of these cabinets!



Entering the bakers, we were greeted by a friendly woman with her bakers’ hat on, and I ask her about the history of Raabs, which originated in Dalston. This is a family business that has been around for over a 100 years. On first appearance Raabs looks like your average bakery - it has no rustic display units or artisan indicators, such as places like E5 bakehouse or Dusty Knuckle in East London - who pride themselves on organic ingredients and a contemporary approach to baking. This bakery displays it bread in a more traditional way - using told-fashioned trays, the ones I remember from my childhood - no bells and whistles here.  

The main guy whose family has been in baking for generations talked about the range of bread and cakes, all made on site. The baking industry used to be immense years ago, many people going to baking college, whereas now most learn on the job and of course there are much fewer. You can imagine a time when there would have been a baker on most busy streets, everyone in the area relying on it for this stable food.

The head guy showing us around does not make the bread himself, he is the manager - all the bakers come in very early ready for service at 6am, so they had all gone home by now.

The range of bread is substantial here - walnut and sultana, carrot and caraway seeds are some of the more unusual types.

We had a conversation about the changes in demand and the first sandwiches sold some 40 years ago. The lady who was labelling the cakes explained how the odd person would come in and ask for a bread roll and if they had some cheese to put inside - this escalated - cheese rolls escalated to bacon rolls and now a whole range of filled lunch rolls and sandwiches are sold here.

It was now around 4pm and the clientele was mostly parents and children buying cakes for tea. I spotted a sumptuous victoria sponge that was crying out for consumption with a cup of tea…  


Having such amazing independent retailers all in one spot on Essex Road in Islington contributes to all their successes - as the footfall between fish, meat, bread (and haberdasher) is so convenient, attracting regular daily customers. There used to be an amazing groceries also but this has closed down - I do hope this is not a trend… There is a unique atmosphere in each of these places, created by those that work in it - all proud of what they do and the products they sell. The daily conversations had in places like these influences the choices and the products we buy, listening to the recommendations from the professionals to try out new types, cuts, ranges, selections… This way of engaging with materials/food is exciting, experimental and thought provoking - None of which happens when we shop in supermarkets or on-line.