Peter Smith is the avuncular front-of-house manager at Huntsman. He is rather like the maître d’ at a three-star Michelin restaurant, or a court chamberlain: friendly but dignified as befits the status of Huntsman as the most expensive tailor on Savile Row. I have a soft spot for Smith, probably because in 1999 I almost cost him his job. My tailor, Terry Haste, had just started as senior cutter at Huntsman and, knowing that I liked vintage fabrics, told me that the basement at the tailor was filled with vintage cloths, many of them with checks so loud that you would need a licence to wear them in a built-up area. Of course, I was down there like a shot. Brushing Smith aside, I hurtled down the stairs to the basement, where, like an oenophile given access to the cellars of Château Pétrus, I embarked on a sartorial binge; pulling out rolls of fabric that had lain undisturbed for a generation or more, and unrolling many metres of unsold Saxony and Shetland, tweed and twill.
Only later did I learn that Smith, who had still to rise to his current position, had been given a dressing down for permitting such a breach of protocol. Letting a non-employee beyond the cutting room was a little like permitting a parched and peckish member of a church congregation help themselves to the wine and wafers.
Things are a little different now, as Peter explains: “We have lengths left over from when Huntsman used to have a large wholesale cloth division in the 1960s and 1970s. When customers would order big pieces of estate tweed, there would be samples and remnants, which have sat in our archive. Now some customers are not interested in looking at our bunches; instead, they come downstairs to look at the cloth in the stockroom.”
Vintage is, of course, the epithet du jour; amateur psychologists may say that it is a reaction to economic uncertainty; alternatively, it could be because Doctor Who wears a tweed jacket and bow tie. But the reason is irrelevant, it is the result that matters, and right now tailors are ransacking cloth merchants’ stockrooms in search of the fabrics from 30, 40, or even 50, years ago.
Over the past 25 years, the fabrics favoured by bespoke tailors have changed dramatically, with shifts in weight and fineness. Improved methods of milling and finishing, and greater control over the best raw materials, have resulted in fabrics that make the cloths of a generation ago seem harsh, almost coarse. The super 100s and 120s that used to be brought out for special customers are now regarded as standard, and super 200s, even 230s, are offered as exclusive fabrics.
Weights, too, have come down. Whereas suitings were once averaging at around 14 to 15 ounces, with tweeds of 17 and 21 ounces far from uncommon, now tweeds, even those woven to old patterns, tend to come in at around 14 ounces, with weights as low as seven ounces being used for suitings. But one man’s fine is another man’s flimsy. “When I started in the trade that was the weight of the linings we used,” says veteran tailor, John Kent. He has opened a shop in Sackville Street with Terry Haste and shirtmaker Stephen Lachter. They have had great success recently with a batch of cloth that Haste describes as a “sort of barleycorn”. A real bullet-stopper of a cloth, it is a Saxony that, he estimates, weighs in at around 30 ounces and dates from the 1960s.
“We have a small selection of tweeds and some overcoating, but this was something exceptional,” says Haste. “Incredibly, it was intended to make sports jackets, but even back then it was considered a little on the heavy side, and it had been lying in a corner for some time at the cloth merchants W Bill.”
A subterranean warren piled high with rolls of tweeds and assorted oddments, W Bill is a clearing house for such esoteric fabrics. “When we saw it, we grabbed it. We got it in blue, in grey and now we only have the brown left. Most of it is being used for overcoats, but even those are far heavier than what passes for a coat today,” says Haste. He adds that the stability of vintage fabrics, provided they have been stored correctly (if too dry they feel coarse and do not tailor well), is often superior to what is made now.
“Back then, most fabrics were London shrunk,” says Haste. It was a labour-intensive craft that had changed little since the 17th century and relied on experienced and skilled workers. Although it was time-consuming, the results were superior to what can be achieved today. “Sometimes I look at a modern length of cloth, especially a striped flannel, and I find that the stripes on one side are further apart than on the other, because it has been unevenly shrunk,” says Haste. “And when you work with vintage cloth it does not wrinkle, twist or bubble. I suppose it is similar to old timber in that it does all its warping and shrinking, and after a time it just doesn’t move any more, so it is easy to work with, and you know you are not going to have any problems.”
The analogy with wood, albeit of a different kind, is made by the president of Rubinacci, Mariano Rubinacci. “A suit made with a vintage fabric is like a piece of antique furniture: most likely you have the only one. When I took over the business after my father died [in 1961], I found 8,000 suit lengths of fabrics dating back to the 1930s, and we still have a few hundred left,” he says.
Rubinacci has an almost photographic recall of these vintage treasures, eulogising the particular russet, almost chestnut hue, of an unusual brown chalk-stripe flannel from the 1940s, and remembering with fondness a length of Loro Piana blazer fabric from 1936. “I think we are Loro Piana’s oldest customer in Italy,” he says. Alas, the 76-year-old fabric is now gracing the back of a Neapolitan nobleman. But other vintage fabrics are less easy to sell, such as the Aertex shirting printed with sombreros and cattle. “My father made me a shirt in it when I was five; that was in the 1940s and he had difficulty selling it even then,” he says.
But, though Rubinacci still has tolerably good stocks of this unique shirt fabric and many other period pieces, he is always on the lookout for new old fabrics. His last big find came when the Rome branch of Cifonelli closed a couple of years ago, and he bought the remaining stocks of cloth. “What makes these old fabrics so fascinating is the drape – just look at the old films with Cary Grant, Fred Astaire and James Stewart, and you can see the way these fabrics fall and hang.”
The drape of a vintage fabric holds a similar fascination for Ritchie Charlton, managing director of Mayfair tailor, Hayward. “Quality vintage mohair is a very drapey cloth and has a heaviness to the way it falls. We have a selection of 1970s and 1980s cloth from H Lesser & Sons, and over the years they have produced some of the best-quality mohairs,” says Charlton.
The vintage mohair that so captivates him is a three-ply called Lesslon. As well as making for a heavier fabric, with that all-important drape, the three-ply, rather than two-ply, thread adds body and richness of colour. But because of its weight and the lack of a cashmere-soft handle associated with luxury today, it is what Charlton calls a “connoisseur’s fabric”, another way of saying that it is not the easiest thing to sell to a less-informed client.
The reason these vintage cloths have survived to the second decade of the 21st century is because they were not sold at the time they were woven, so perhaps a kinder way of putting it is to think of such fabrics as wines that required a few more years of ageing before reaching maturity. Speaking of which, there is a mustard, cream and grey open-weave Shetland that I remember seeing on my excursion into the basement at Huntsman at the end of the 1990s. Although from the early 1970s, I fancied it to be a bit “young” back then, but now, rather like a 1982 classed growth claret, it is ready to be enjoyed.