The background story
A set of 19 boys’ and 15 men’s cassocks had been made (by Val Pitt who looked after Bristol Cathedral choir robes for many years) for the boys and men for their first USA tour in the early 1990s (when Malcolm Archer was choirmaster; he had come from Bristol, hence the connection with Val Pitt). Another 18 to match had been made when the girls’ choir was first formed in 1997, more again (6 or so) when, as an experiment, girls were invited to stay on through their GCSE years (i.e. until they were 16) if they wished to, rather than leave at the end of year 9 (aged 14, by which time of course boys’ voices have almost always broken). There was also a steady trickle of extra sizes ordered from time to time as need arose.
But there were still never enough, so I spent hours altering hems, moving belt buttons and neck poppers, swapping belts. Eventually that fabric was discontinued and the maker retired, so an older, incomplete set (made by a former chorister mum, we don’t know quite when but pre-Malcolm Archer, as the choristers at that time were wearing shockingly old and tatty cassocks) was brought back into play in 1999, and the remaining fabric from that project made into more cassocks for the girls in 2001 so that at least most of them were wearing garments the same shade of blue. Meanwhile a few more cassocks for tiny boys were ordered to meet need, from yet another maker, so by 2010 we had five different makes in three different fabrics, and many of them were grubby and tatty from 25+ years of hard wear. Something had to be done.
What has this complete refit entailed?
First there had to be a great deal of “number-crunching” much of it done by my dear friend Rachel Hewson, briefly a chorister parent, who has a PhD in interrogation of information and re-presenting it in a different format that is easier to understand. Handy that! This entailed a number of terrifying schedules! She worked through my 18 years’ of records that had of course not been kept for this purpose: but they showed who had worn which cassock for how long and what alterations or refits I had done to them all as the terms ticked by. She ingeniously re-arranged the information to give us a huge list of the notional sizes that had been created by alteration to meet need, how often and how many of the same size had been needed at any one time. This was the critical bit.
We then had to cut this down to fit within the sum of money offered, making sure that we still had on the list at least one cassock of each size (or close to it) that had been needed over time: choristers under 42” length are rare, as are those of over 56” length and either very slim (32” chest) or very buxom/stout (40” chest), but they do occur from time to time and they have to have a cassock to wear that is both comfortable and looks smart. Also, they almost all pass through a wide range of middle sizes on their way to adult sizes.
What has this cost?
The smaller children’s sizes of cassocks have cost about £155 each including the belt, and £16 per ruff. The surplices have not been replaced, but if you add on the cost of those, the cost of the whole outfit comes to about £225 per chorister, more for the bigger sizes (they incur VAT) and more again for the men’s: a man’s cassock costs typically about £185, their surplices £65
The fabric of the new cassocks is superior to what we had before: that was 100% polyester, which is a dream to wash but is sweaty to wear, it melts if you stand too close to a heater, and it will never bio-degrade when we have finished with it. So with encouragement from the Precentor, I ordered the new cassocks in the same fabric that the clergy cassocks are made from: 45% wool, only 55% polyester. It also can be machine washed and drips dry without needing to be pressed. Wonderful! (so long as no-one irons one, or washes it too hot, or tumble dries it…)