How we long for a sense of history in our garments; the apocryphal anecdote, the dubious legend, the fabricated fable—we can’t get enough of those little stories that give meaning to the tiniest ingredient of our outfits, be it a buttonhole or a lapel, a turn-up or a stitch.
Among those fads, we cherish the idea that our clothes can manifest some dormant origin. And sometimes, it is actually true. But such lineage rarely follows a straight line and words are treacherous signs that indicate multiple directions.
A word’s literal meaning and the way the same word is used can be very different. As material history moves on, words remain stolidly the same, creating a discrepancy that is sometimes called hysteresis. Take for instance the word jacket: its root is jack, borrowed from the French Jacques (ie, Jacob). The name came to denote a peasant, and then a peasant’s garment; a jacque or jacquette thus became the name of a piece of clothing. Of course, we never ‘hear’ the jack in jacket or view it as meaningful.
In the sartorial field, such phenomena are often compounded by the disloyal use of words to suggest quality or luxury (think of the ubiquitous bespoke).
But most of the time, it is often simply a case of a gradual shift in meaning. Such is the case of the Macclesfield tie.
As Alan Flusser stated “Here’s a classic example of how England came to set the standard in international men’s style for the better part of the twentieth century. The Macclesfield necktie, a silk group of patterns made from small weaves of diamonds, squares, and circles, became especially fashionable among well-dressed British men in the early 1920s. These small geometrics were first made in contrasting tones of gray, black, and white, giving a marquetry effect across the surface of the tie. They were the specialty of the textile weavers from Macclesfield, a small town in Lancashire, northwest England. Among the world’s sartorial literati, the Macclesfield necktie continues to enjoy his long-standing reputation as the quintessence of upper-class English taste. Parenthetically, it is the only genre traditional neckwear to retain its original metaphorical imagery. Referred to as a ‘wedding tie’ in certain circles, this silvery necktie became began its venerable career as the obligatory long tie for formal day attire, meeting weddings and other daytime celebrations. As smart lounge clothes begin to solicit its company, the dressy Macclesfield necktie found its elite services broadened to include the embellishment of other less formal ensembles.” (Dressing the Man, pp. 147-148)
Although Macclesfield is in Cheshire and not Lancashire, Flusser’s account is fairly accurate but amalgamates distinct traits since he defines it as “the” wedding tie, a silk group of patterns, originating from Macclesfield, and as a weave of diamonds, squares, and circles. Those features are all true but should be taken with a pinch of salt.
“Macclesfield tie” can actually mean three different things.
Macclesfield is a town in Cheshire, south of Manchester, in England. In the 17th century, silk imports from Italy arrived in Cheshire and were manufactured there, most notably in Stockport, Bollington, and Macclesfield. Despite the 12 cotton mills at the end in 1795, it was silk that became a prominent local specialty in the 18th century, almost an exclusive one by the end of the 19th century (the last cotton mill closed in 1928).
There were many stages to the development of the town. After Louis XIV annulled the Edit de Nantes in 1685, a wave of French protestants (many of them skilled weavers), settled in Spitalfields, near London (thus avoiding the London taxes). Macclesfield was their next stop as they could bring their skills to the already booming silk industry. They often worked from home while the merchants provided the raw materials.
In 1773, London workers won the right to fixed wages: as the merchants sought a less costly workforce, they moved north and Macclesfield benefited from the thriving business opportunity. In 1832, the city numbered 71 manufactures.
There’s only a handful of them left today and no more active mills. We have heard of RA Smart, silk weavers and printers, based in Bollington, still producing items advertised by the Geoff Stocker brand, but that’s about the extent of the Macclesfield production of silk ties.
So if you’re looking for a Macclesfield tie meaning ‘a tie from Macclesfield’, you should know that it’s a virtually extinct species.
The second meaning attached to Macclesfield tie derives from the specific weaving skills that the town was known for, its small geometric woven patterns. This is probably the most important use of the term: it refers to the unique visual effect of the weaving, making the patterns come alive in a sober and simultaneously eye-catching way. The details are picked up by the weaving while remaining small enough to be hardly noticeable. This is a technical use of the term Macclesfield (‘small woven patterns’) but the actual manufacturing does not have anything to do with the town anymore.
Here are several examples by Turnbull & Asser (hand-made in England, the red and blue stick pattern; the navy blue with sticks and dots), Seven Fold (hand-made in Florence; the blue pattern and the brown squares), T.M. Lewin (hand-made in China; the blue and brown sticks and dots) and Tiemme (hand-made in Italy; the brown herringbone).
It’s a different technique from printed patterns, which are usually called all-overs (two striking examples here with silk prints by the brand Seven Fold).
Lastly, as mentioned by Flusser, Macclesfield is often used to talk about an iconic example of a Macclesfield tie, the hounds-tooth or puppy-tooth pattern in a series of variations (black and white, silver and white or blue and white) that people refer to as a wedding tie. I find this a misleading use of the term as this pattern is just one among many Macclesfield patterns and is sometimes printed and not woven.
Here is a blue and white example (Boggi).
Those three ways of using the word Macclesfield establish a different symbolic connection with the town, showing the evolution of the word and of the craft. The town was first associated with silk, then with a specific woven-pattern technique, and lastly with one iconic model. As the connection with the town itself got lost, the name Macclesfield became a noun. A historical reminiscence with barely touristic relevance, silk weaving in Cheshire no longer defines the identity of the region despite its erstwhile economic glory.
So there’s a whiff of wistfulness when we use the word Macclesfield, reminding us that garments, fabrics, and crafts were once the product of history, of a connection between places, people and skills, materials and roads and rivers. With probably the exception of Biella in Italy, still a thriving place for fabric mills, most textile regions have mutated, their identity no longer defined by their products—even the beautiful productions from the region of Huddersfield in Yorkshire are not as central as they once were.
Globalization may be covering clothes manufacturing with a shroud of uniformity but, in a way, we still want our clothes to come from somewhere and we cling to words that only make our nostalgia more vivid.
Note: the shirt on the pictures is made-to-measure by Rubini (Paris).