Last week I was in Brussels visiting the headquarters of cloth merchant Scabal. They moved buildings two years ago and now have an attractive, open-plan space on top of their warehouse.
That warehouse stores a lot of cloth. Most of the people are responsible for cutting it up and sending it to bespoke and MTM clients around the world.
But there is also a large group dedicated to making swatch books (or bunches) – the samples of cloth that customers can pick from.
It’s quite a labour-intensive process. Cloth must be cut up into little rectangles on a press. Thick glue is used to bind these swatches to a piece of wood.
And one person puts a little sticker on each one, to identify it. She does them all one at a time – with a pair of tweezers.
“Why do we make our cloth books here?” Scabal executive chairman Gregor Thissen asks rhetorically, just as the same question occurs to me. “Why don’t we just outsource it and make them overseas?”
The answer is control, and to an extent service. Although swatch books might seem an odd thing to employ people to make in the middle of Brussels, it allows Scabal to do small runs, to personalise bunches, and to apply more levels of quality control.
This has parallels with the theme that runs through most of my visit: the role of the cloth merchant.
As a consumer, it is easy to identify with a mill. It weaves raw material; it has a long history; it is the place where the cloth comes from. (Not always, given the farmers/spinners/finishers also usually involved, but you see why it’s a nice story.)
The role of a merchant, like Scabal, is a harder one to empathise with. Don’t they just store the cloth and send it out to clients? Isn’t it just logistics and customer service?
Part of it is about service. The fact Scabal re-checks every piece that comes in (even from its own mill, Bower Roebuck), for example, or the fact that it invests a lot in stock, so that it can guarantee a piece will never run out.
But there’s also design. Scabal designs 600-700 new cloths every season, across the various weights and categories, with a total book of 5000.
Walk into Scabal on Savile Row – or in Brussels or Paris – and you can find anything from the super-number worsteds it is known for to heavy Irish linens, all designed by the same team under Michael Day, and all of which the salesman should be able to pick from and recommend alongside each other.
If that’s your aim, it’s easier to see why you make your own swatch books. Plus Scabal invented them, back in 1938, which is a nice reason to carry on doing it.
(Back then their pioneering line was called ‘Superlana’. The company wouldn’t be known as Société Commerciale Anglo Belgo Allemande Luxembourgeoise – or Scabal for short – for another eight years. Oh, and in 1971 they commissioned Salvador Dali to design what men would be wearing in the 21st century. He predicted we’d all be dressing like peasants; he wasn’t far wrong.)