I mentioned a few weeks ago that I would soon be announcing an exciting new project. Well, it went live on Friday: Gentleman’s Corner.
The site is dedicated to craft in menswear, with much of that looking at shoes but also including suits, knitwear, trainers and indeed anything that dresses a man. The philosophy is Ask Another Question – in other words, dig a little bit deeper than the normal PR found in men’s magazines.
While I will be the editor-in-chief, we also have a range of different contributors from vastly different backgrounds – shoe designer to fashion journalist, sneaker freak to clothing novice. Please have a look, any feedback is appreciated.
Below is my first feature for the site.
The craft of tweed: Harris and Norton
Patrick Grant loves tweed. That’s evident from the length and depth with which the owner of Norton & Sons will talk about tweed. Indeed he was recently asked to speak about tweed, by the Harris Tweed Authority. He is making a documentary about tweed, with the BBC. Hell, his grandfather was a yarn designer.
But he loves one particular tweed in particular: Harris tweed. And more specifically than that, the Harris tweed made by Donald John Mackay in a small hut, on the edge of the beach in Luskentyre.
“If you look at it under a magnifying glass it’s amazing. Most yarns are very simple, they usually contain one or two colours. But a Harris tweed yarn will routinely contain seven or eight different coloured wools, which are blended together and then spun,” says Grant. “So at a distance it might look like a blue, a pale blue. But when you get up close you will see little bits of green and turquoise and navy, perhaps a touch of yellow. There’s an amazing richness of colour.”
That’s one reason Harris tweed is so easy and creative to wear with other clothes. All the different colours in the tweed can be picked up in your shirts and your ties and your handkerchiefs.
Mackay doesn’t make his own yarns, they are supplied by the main mill on the island. But it is the art of spinning them and creating individual patterns that impresses Grant.
“It’s hard to be prescriptive about what makes a Harris tweed beautiful. Some people just get it right. There is a science and an art to it. Weavers spend years and years learning the science, but then they have to create art out of their own imagination. Donald John Mackay just has a good eye.
“It’s hard to analyse. You could apply all your colour theory to it, a colour wheel etc, but often that doesn’t work. One combination will just resonate, while another that worked in your mind will look drab. In that way it’s much like combining colours in all areas of men’s dress. You need to learn from experimentation and experience.”
Mackay has other champions as well. In 2004 his company landed a contract from Nike to update a trainer called The Terminator – a basketball shoe from the eighties. Nike wanted to use a swampy green tweed to relaunch the shoe and Mackay ended up supplying over 10,000 yards of the fabric.
That led to something of a renaissance for tweed, with it being championed by Ralph Lauren, Madonna and Sarah Jessica Parker over the next few months. Then in February this year Mackay was asked by Clarks to supply the tweed for two ranges of boot it was launching, with an initial order of 1000 yards.
The two boots – a ladies high, seventies boot and a desert boot – were commissioned as part of Clarks’s celebration of 60 years of the desert boot, and will be available from August.
But for tailoring, the cloth is only found in two places. From that hut on the beach and at Norton & Sons. The 2000 tweeds that Nortons has available range from very lightweight cloths that aren’t really tweeds at all, referred to as worsted tweeds, to insanely heavy, 32-ounce tweeds that seem bulletproof. But the Harris tweed is by far the most popular.
“Of those 2000 cloths in all those weights, the Harris bunch is probably about 20. A tiny, tiny fraction. But the number we sell is 10 times that proportion,” says Grant. “We have tweeds from some fantastic mills: from Scotland, from Huddersfield, from a mill in the Cotswolds and Donegal tweeds that are now made over here. But Harris outsells them all.
“People connect to Harris tweed. They understand the history and the provenance of the cloth. There is something about the Isle of Harris, Lewis and that northern chain of Hebridean islands, that creates in people’s minds something quite special and romantic. The materials and the colours are redolent of the sea, and the grass, the rugged life, the farming.”
Not every client knows this when they walk into Norton & Sons. But they are inquisitive people and interested in what they are buying. And Grant admits he has some pictures of Mackay’s shed on the edge of the beach.
But it’s the people that make Grant want to go to the trouble to buy it himself, rather than just sourcing it from the bunch – from Harrisons of Edinburgh or a similar supplier. This is backed up by the sourcing of other products sold by Nortons, such as knitwear from William Lockie & Co and jewellery from Clive Burr: both small, independent British manufacturers. Or indeed the products under the relaunched E Tautz.
Grant is also heavily involved in the tweed industry – making the series for the BBC, as mentioned earlier, and speaking at an event for the Harris Tweed Authority that took place “in the aftermath of some rather unpleasant upheavals in the industry”. He is referring to the buying up of Kenneth Mackenzie and Parkend, two tweed manufacturers, by entrepreneur Brian Haggas in 2006. Haggas closed down the latter and reduced production at the former to four designs, refusing to sell to anyone else and producing exclusively for his own production. Since then Mackenzie’s has been mothballed also.
Says Grant: “I was there as the man from Savile Row, the man who loves the cloth and is there to tell people that they have fans and supporters all around the world. That they are not alone.”