Minerva: tailor

Estimated reading time:7 minutes, 21 seconds

Everyone on Islington Faces Blog has a story. Minerva runs the fabulous alterations shop, Image, at the far end of fashion fans’ best-kept secret, Fonthill Road, N4. So how did pet dog-loving Minerva, born in a Cyprus village in 1953, but brought up in Rochdale (Manchester), end up running  a boutique repair shop in Islington? Interview by Nicola Baird


Minerva, expert and friendly tailor at Image, Fonthill Road. (Photo/jan 2016)

I got married on my 16th birthday,” explains Minerva as calmly as you can when recalling an unwanted wedding and an unhappy marriage. “I’m no longer married: and haven’t been for the past 30 years… My parents were quite old fashioned. They were from Cyprus and it’s what people did in those days.”

It may seem strange that Minerva grew up in the UK in the 1960s, renowned for it’s feckless liberality, but for many it was still a very conservative world.  Minerva was the eldest of nine children, which meant she had plenty of chores at home – and few opportunities to be a naughty teenager.

Arranged marriage
“I remember we were all sitting around a table – my mother, father, aunt, uncle, grandmother and another family. I was 15, I’d just left school and I didn’t know what was going on. Then someone asked ‘Do you want this woman?’ My husband-to-be and his family said ‘yes’. Then they asked me. I said: ‘I don’t know’, because I didn’t.”

My mother-in-law then said, “What does she know? She’s a child.”

“I’ve thought about that a lot. I really wish I’d had a voice, but it wasn’t done in those days. I’d never had a boyfriend, and then I was engaged.”

What’s in a name
Minerva is the name of the Roman goddess of wisdom, war, art, school and commerce – it’s a lot to live up to (the Greeks knew her as Athena) but it seems our Minerva was well-named.

For starters she fell in love with sewing at school, in Rochdale, when she was about 12. “My mother had some curtains she was going to throw out – they were bright orange, yellow and pink! It was a very loud fabric.  It was the ‘60s and mini skirts were in fashion, so I made my first mini skirt and was so proud.”

Apart from home economics lessons, Minerva, who is just about to be 60, had no formal training as a tailor – she’s learnt everything through work.  Her first job was in a Rochdale factory making dressing gowns. “It was all piece work. Everyone did a section of the garment and my job was to sew one patch pocket. It was quite tedious. You had bundles of work. Then I progressed to making sheets, hemming the top and bottom. Everything had to be precise – it taught me to sew in straight lines.”

Working life
Factory work was dull, and it wasn’t enlivened by friendships either. “My parents were really strict, so I didn’t have friends at the factory. But when I got engaged, he was even more strict,” she adds.

“I got pregnant straight away. I was still 16 when I had my daughter! That’s when I started doing home work – bundles were delivered to my house. I still have the sewing machine I used,” she adds fondly pointing towards a solid looking machine in the centre of her sewing emporium, Image (see photo below).

That sewing machine is one of the few things she has from her 20s. “It wasn’t a happy marriage,” explains Minerva. “My husband put me through quite a lot of abuse. Because you’ve got children I put up with it for 17 years. Then I thought there’s more to life than this… I’d been seriously hurt, had my limbs broken and had tried to commit suicide. But I was one of the fortunate ones, and got the courage to get out of it. I needed to go somewhere he couldn’t find me, so I went to the council.”

She left her home with just the clothes on her back – and the children – and took sanctuary in a women’s hostel where she stayed for 10 months. “I remember arriving there as if it happened yesterday. I opened the door to my room and then shut my door. I sat on the floor. I was so happy, thinking ‘I’m free’.”

Sadly she adds, “My husband harassed me for years and years after that.” At one stage she was re-homed only 10 minutes walking distance from her ex, and the inevitable happened. “He broke in and abused me. I ran out in my bare feet to the police station and reported him.”

This horrible incident led her and the kids – two girls and a boy – to be moved to north London.

Finsbury Park
“In 1985, Finsbury Park wasn’t very nice – it was a lot rougher. The amount of times I was propositioned walking up from the train station! But I was never scared, it was more embarrassing. I’d been through too much in my marriage to be afraid of anyone but my husband.”

At first with no money, and children to support, Minerva kept on sewing at home, but then she began a job in a boutique, which lasted for 12 years. At the same time she was doing repairs for a dry cleaners, dreaming up a way to start her own business.

That dream came true when she took over the lease of an empty pine furniture shop in 1997, which she named Image, where she works along with four skilled staff.

Secrets of a seamstress

  • 20131118_140848I used to make all my own clothes and loved coming up with the designs, now I don’t have time.

  • My children don’t sew, they saw how hard I worked. Often I was working until 3 or 4am.

  • We go to Happy Days in Fonthill Road for lunch. They do amazing chicken and salad. The food is exquisite. I also like the coffee shops on Upper Tollington Park and Petek, a Turkish-owned restaurant on 94-96 Stroud Green Road.

  • I had laser treatment two years ago. It was the best thing I ever did. I need my eyes for work.

20131118_131753All about Image
Image is a feast for the senses. It is filled with sewing paraphernalia, vast vases of scented flowers, china figurines and other nick-nacks.

Buttons are piled into a jar looking as delectable as sweets. Spools of cotton are stacked into colour-sorted columns. There are rails of perfectly altered clothes waiting to be collected, mannequins boasting stylish outfits, and Persian carpets covering the wooden floor. In the cosiest corner Minerva’s two dogs are fast asleep. If they wake and need to go for a walk Minerva pops them into hand-sewn matching red coats and takes them out along the nearby Parkland Walk – a disused railway that is now used as a footpath from Finsbury Park up to Highgate.

20131118_140732“It’s not a normal shop, it’s a vintage boutique,”  explains Minerva smiling. “I made it homely because I spend so much time here. I didn’t want to be working somewhere I wanted to leave. This is my life and social life, I really enjoy it.”

Once you’ve stepped into Image and realised how the ladies can help you, as many of her regular customers know, you’ll be drawn back like taught elastic for “repairs, alterations, redesign, and made to measure.” The sewing whizzes at Image will sew on a missing button but they can also copy favourite garments, create and alter wedding dresses, and take on household commissions such as curtains and cushion covers. Anyone who can sew will be inspired, while anyone who can’t sew should definitely take the gifts this Roman goddess provides for Islington residents…

  • Image, 29 Fonthill Road, London, N4 3HZ, tel: 020 7272 9122, for alterations and tailoring see here and for dry cleaning see here  
  •  If you need a safe place to flee from domestic violence or sexual abuse in Islington, try http://www.solacewomensaid.org/get-help/islington/. Phone advice is available from 0808 802 5565.

Over to you

If you’d like to feature on this blog, or make a suggestion about anyone who grew up, lives or works in Islington please let me know, via nicolabaird.green@gmail.com. Thank you. 

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This blog is inspired by Spitalfields Life written by the Gentle Author.

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