The Macclesfield necktie

Dr John SLAMSON

The Macclesfield necktie

We are usually not content with just beautiful garments: we also want to sport the verbal distinction of the beautiful names they have, as if we needed to convince ourselves that the knowledge of the clothes we’re wearing was giving them an added value.

But marketing shortcuts and loss of memory create many confusions. The accumulation of metonymies and the international use of specific words sometimes obscure the meaning of simple sartorial terms. Let us try and be clear, if indeed that is still possible.

For Alan Flusser, « 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, the description is more or less exact but Flusser’s description of the tie as “the” wedding tie is rather confusing.

Macclesfield 3

The phrase “Macclesfield tie” is usually employed in three distinct senses :

Macclesfield is first and foremost a city in Cheshire (south of Manchester). Silk weaving had been practised since the XVIth century on a small scale (especially for silk buttons). Silk was imported from Italy and woven in Cheshire (Stockport, Bollington…). Depending on the economic situation (especially the duties on silk imports) manufactures also wove cotton although at the end of the XIXth century, cotton had completely disappeared in favour of silk.

After the revocation of the Edit de Nantes by Louis XIV in 1685, French Protestants fled to England. There were many skilled weavers and many of them settled in Spitalfields, near London, so as to avoid the London taxes. They then moved to Macclesfield because silk industry was already present. Those French Protestants are responsible for bringing the technical development of silk weaving. Most of them worked at 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 work force, 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 (two in 2015) so it is not relevant to look for neckties “from Macclesfield” as their existence is very unlikely. Actually, there has been a small resurgence as RA Smart, a silk weaver and printer based in Bollington, created a partnership with the John Douglas menswear store in Stockport to create and sell locally produced silk ties and scarves. That is about the extent of ties ‘from’ Macclesfield.

Macclesfield 1

Macclesfield 4

Macclesfield is a generic name to describe ties with small geometric woven patterns. This is the most important use of the term, depicting a unique effect whereby the patterns are thrown into sharp relief by the weaving: chevrons, little sticks, dots, diamonds or disks are especially frequent. The dense precision of woven silk sets off the details while remaining very sober. Let us stress that those patterns should be woven—small printed motifs are usually called all-over.

Lastly, Macclesfield often characterizes (as hinted at by Flusser) an iconic example of Macclesfield tie, the houndstooth in black and white, silver and white or blue and white. It is sometimes called a wedding tie. This is misleading use as houndstooth is just one possible Macclesfield pattern and is sometimes not woven at all.

Macclesfield Houndstooth

Houndstooth Tie

Those three ways of using the word Macclesfield correspond to three different metonymies (the city/ the silk; the city/the specific woven-pattern technique; the city/ one iconic model). One should remember that the technique that had become the emblem of the city is now completely detached from it. The historical connection between Macclesfield, silk and Cheshire have more or less disappeared. A mere touristic trace, silk weaving no longer bear the economic weight it once had.

It is probably nostalgia that makes us use the word Macclesfield.

We are thus reminded that fabrics, clothes and techniques are the product of history, of an era when places were defined by their skills, their resources, their roads and rivers. Globalisation has but covered with a veil of uniformity the production of clothes, all but eradicating our failing memories. And yet, despite our technical and historical uncertainties, we still want to use the word Macclesfield, because words ground us in history.

It is then our responsibility to refresh the memory carried by those words, by taking a little time to think about the past and about the process that makes the past evaporate.

— — —

John Slamson Tumblr

Opening Photo © No Man Walks Alone