The tailor as hacker

Thomas Mahon, the tailor for Prince Charles, has started a blog in which he discusses the art of creating a really nice “bespoke” — i.e. handmade and crafted to fit an individual body — suit. It’s hilariously funny and really informative; Mahon has an encyclopedic flair for explaining the subtleties of his craft. My favorite posting so far is where he discusses the difference between the “fused canvas” versus the “floating canvas”. The canvas, as it turns out, is part of a suit jacket: It’s the layer of cloth between the outer cloth and the inner silk lining, which is what helps the coat retain its shape. Machine-made, off-the-rack suits use a synthetic material for the canvas “which effectively turns to glue when heated”. But …

… with a proper, bespoke suit, the coat is canvassed by hand. Yes, we use a real piece of wool & mohair based canvas. And yes, it does take forever.

Why have a hand canvas? It looks better. With a fused coat, there’s no give. Where the outer cloth goes, the fused material goes, and vice-versa. They’re just machine-stuck together. There’s no synergy between the two.

But with a floating, hand canvas, there’s give. There’s synergy. The end result is the suit follows the contours of the body more naturally. There’s less surface tension. The fit looks more relaxed and elegant without compromising form.

The other great thing with a hand canvas is, if it isn’t put in absulutely, 100% correctly, it doesn’t hang properly.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a big fan of suits and ties, and have a stupidly large number of them. (Particularly for someone who works in a home office.) I always tend to freak out my geek friends when I show up wearing a suit at some technology or science event. Yet it always equally surprises me that geeks aren’t into suits.

After all, suits have many of the things that geeks particularly appreciate: Intense levels of engineering, an obsession with structural elegance, physics, totally wicked gear that’s used to create them, topographic geometry, and materials science that burrows right down to chemistry and — these days — nanotechnology. And when it comes to ties, my god, you’ve got the most awesomely realized application of knot theory on the planet. Perhaps most geeklike, the suit is, in essence, a role-playing device — a plus-5 armor vest eminently useful in plenty of situations. (For that matter, the corporate world is only slightly less mannered than the Society for Creative Anachronism, come to think of it.)

As for that stuff about a suit and tie not being comfortable … ah, don’t get me started. That’s an artifact of badly-fitting suits and badly-tied ties. When a suit is well fit and a tie well tied, they’re so sublimely comfortable that you can pretty much play basketball in them. Come to think of it, I have.

Anyway, that’s what struck me about Mahon’s blog: He has a hackerish attitude towards suits.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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