Watching a man weave a panama hat is an absorbing experience. First, he takes four thin “straws” (strips of dried toquilla palm) and loops them around each other, then he adds four more, plaiting them in and out, expanding the pattern into a coin-sized circle. More and more are added, with his careful fingers and deliberately long fingernails helping to manipulate the straws.
When the circle is big enough, the weaver places it on top of a waist-high wooden column, ties it with a leather band and slowly lowers his chest. Bent double, he continues to weave round and out, creating the wide brim of the hat. This all happens very, very slowly. A good hat will take weeks to make; a top-end one months.
It was crafts such as hat weaving – until recently a dying art – that inspired me to write my recent book The Finest Menswear in the World (Thames & Hudson, RRP £24.99). If men don’t appreciate the craftsmanship that goes into luxury clothing, these crafts are destined to die out. The masters need to teach young apprentices while they still can.
The Finest Menswear is structured around 14 different items of menswear (pictured) – from suits, shoes and socks, to jeans and bags. Each chapter dissects the manufacturing process, explaining the ways in which the items can be made, and the crafts that raise the very finest examples above everything else.
Some things require more craftsmanship than others. A tie, for example, only needs two things: a good silk and a slip stitch, which runs up the back of the tie and allows it to move. Most good ties have these two elements, and you don’t have to spend a lot of money to get one.
On the other hand, a bespoke suit, which requires 40-80 hours of work – from hand-cutting a pattern and fitting it on the customer (multiple times), to sewing the fundamentals by hand – means it will cost a minimum of £3,000. A ready-to-wear suit might be a tenth of that price, but will have very little in common in terms of how it is made.
Setting out the things that create quality in menswear was core to the philosophy of The Finest Menswear in the World. The research process began three years ago, and the final book has just been published. Its contextualised analysis will, I hope, help men to make truly discerning choices.
Of course, the fun thing was visiting the manufacturers. From the cavernous cashmere lab at Loro Piana in Quarona, Italy, to the leather attic at Zilli in Lyon, France, I had a great time travelling to meet the characters behind the brands, who had some great stories to tell. Hopefully, their personalities will come across just as strongly as the serious business of craft.