Stendhal Syndrome

The great writer Stendhal, author of The Red and the Black, once wrote that he was so overcome by the beauty and culture of Florence that he had heart palpitations and “walked with the fear of falling.” Two centuries on, dozens of other visitors to Florence have similarly experienced what doctors now call “Stendhal syndrome,” a general term for overwhelming emotional response to art.

I am tempted to say that David & John Anderson cloth, now woven in Italy, provokes a similar response in me. However, hypersensitive though I am, it does not make me faint. It makes me pause and marvel.  Founded in Scotland around the same time as Stendhal’s Florentine fit, the company claims another connection to Stendhal too.  A character in The Red and the Black criticizes the dress sense of main character and social climber Julien Sorel, advising him to get a cravat from “John Anderson of Burlington Street.” While Erich Auerbach didn’t cover this aspect of The Red and the Black (yes, reader, I’m making a reference only @dirnelli might get), it’s a pretty safe bet that the mention is only a coincidence: John Anderson is a very common name; it’s unlikely that the founders of a weaving mill in Scotland had the opportunity to open a haberdasher’s in London’s West End (Old and New Burlington Street are in Savile Row) only a few years later. I’m happy to be corrected, though.

The David & John Anderson name itself was purchased (along with that of English cloth weavers Thomas Mason) by the Italian company Cotonificio Albini in the 1990s.  Prior to its purchase, it had been a quality weaver of cloth, that had produced, among other things, oxford cloth that Brooks Brothers once used in its infamous buttondowns.  Albini now uses the David & John Anderson name for its very finest cloths: surprisingly fine linens grown in France; Sea Island cotton hand-picked in the West Indies, and a selection of the finest cotton now available, Giza 45, grown in Egypt.  

Giza 45 happens to be the descendant of Brazilian and Sea Island cotton seeds that Mohammed Ali Pasha first cultivated in Egypt in 1820, three years after Stendhal suffered the sublime in Florence. DJA uses it to spin and weave cottons of extremely high yarn numbers. There’s an arms race in both shirt cottons and suit materials for higher and higher numbers, which is only one metric among a number of qualities that make for a luxurious and durable cloth.  A well-finished simple 100s or 120s cloth can feel excellent and have a more pleasingly substantial body than some of the very fine cloths out there, and DJA offers its Sea Island cottons – genuine, rather than the “Sea Island Quality” cottons that are offered by many shirt brands – in those excellent, simpler weaves.  As fans of the original Bond novels know, the original Sea Island cotton was the old version of today’s carefully bred superfine cloths, as it was a fine, silky yarn that grew in regular lengths with few of the irregularities known as neps without requiring the sorting and spinning technology needed for today’s superfines. 

It was one of those old cloths that drew me in to DJA and that years later still brings me to a Stendhalian fascination, if not transport.  Zendaline, a trademark DJA cloth whose strange name comes from the “Z” shape twist of one of the yarns used to weave it.  Broadcloth yarns are woven in one axis with highly twisted voile yarns in the other.  Because the twist of voile yarn causes it to kink and thus weave less densely (than normal broadcloth yarn) in a cloth, it is often used to make semisheer, lightweight and soft cloths for tuxedo shirts. I first ordered Zendaline when I was trying all the types of soft cotton material that seemed unavailable in ready-to-wear, and thus exotic in bespoke.  I moved from Sea Island to zephyr (a lightweight breathable cotton weave) and Zendaline.  At the time I first ordered shirts in each cloth, I had no idea how all the explanations I’d read online translated into the actual materials, nor how each was different.  Quite simply, Zendaline seemed like a miracle cloth: like silk in its beautiful sheen and exquisite handle, but lighter and far cooler.  Despite being light and thin, it’s opaque and quite surprisingly durable – shirts that are a decade or more old still look pretty much new.  All this using technology and finenesses that the arms race of ever-finer cloths long left behind.  Perhaps that’s why DJA no longer produces Zendaline regularly.  Most people want an easy metric, and assume a 240s or 300s cloth is better and more prestigious than one with a lower yarn number (the number has to do with how many 840-yard “hanks” of the fibre it takes to weigh a kilo, and is not the same as the thread count used on sheets, since you were wondering).  An American shirtmaker who prided himself on being the world’s most expensive (I think Berluti may now have topped him) laughed at me when I told him how much I liked Zendaline cloth.  It was old-fashioned, he said, and the new 300s cloth coming out was the new wonder.  

To make a long story short (Clue cast: “TOO LATE!”), sometimes our uninformed quest for a supposed best, like mine among thousands of bolts of cloth years ago, can lead us to discover what we actually like along the way.  Continuing to chase someone else’s diktats is just self-punishment. I learned that the hard way, even if it didn’t involve fainting in Florence or losing my head, John Anderson cravat and all, to Mathilde de la Mole.

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