As a boy, my first experiences with morally ambiguous characters were in the pages of Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers and its sequels (Cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin in The Three Musketeers and Twenty Years After, respectively, and finance minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert in Le Vicomte de Bragelonne). Supposedly evil masterminds turned out to be nuanced statesmen by the end of each book, flawed, perhaps jealous, men striving nonetheless for the greater good of the nation against a shortsighted, sometimes self-destructively petty, royal house to which our heroes had, for better or for worse, sworn allegiance. Even Dumas’ deeply romanticized history gave that nod to political reality. Had he not died two years previously, no doubt the real-life Colbert would have reacted with the disgust of a Dumas antihero when in 1685 Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes, effectively legalizing religious persecution of the French Calvinists known as Huguenots, who overwhelmingly left France and took their specialized skills in many crafts and trades with them. The pragmatic Colbert had had the thankless task of keeping the nation from fiscal eclipse during the Sun King’s lavishly building and warring reign.
Among the many places the Huguenots settled were Spitalfields in East London, a center of English silkmaking, as well as, eventually, Macclesfield in Cheshire. Their skills invigorated English silk weaving and printing, so that their history is inextricably part of the heritage those two place-names suggest today. But indeed, what are Spitalfields and Macclesfield silks, and why should we care?
English silks, meaning silk that has been woven or printed in England, were central to classic menswear. This can be in no small part due to England’s dominance in setting the look of classic clothing for decades. The English tiemakers patronized by British tastemakers would have used English product from those Spitalfields and Macclesfield mills. The restrained prints and muted dyes that were typical, perhaps stereotypical, of English silks meant that to this day certain prestigious Italian tiemakers generally confine themselves to the patterns and palettes that are so conservative as to verge on the reactionary, even if they’ve stopped boasting about using the silks of defunct English houses.
For the silk mills of Macclesfield and Spitalfields have largely closed. The good English mills that remain can be counted on the fingers of one hand; the Italians have largely stepped in at the top and middle end of the market, with the vast majority of tie silk coming from elsewhere. Purists, of which I am not one, will also sigh that so-called ancient madder dyeing is no longer done the same way as it used to be (because the real way was poisonous as hell), and will shake their heads as the old printing blocks used by dead houses like David Evans for hand block printing techniques go up for sale as curiosities. As an aside, hand block printing meant that someone would actually go up and down a length of silk with an inked block with which he or she would print part of the pattern. In today’s mechanized age, I find this idea astonishing, even if I probably lack the sophistication to recognize it on an old tie.
The names Macclesfield and Spitalfields remain, however, overgeneralized by pretentious eBay vendors (yes, I trawl eBay for old ties, we all have our secret shames) the same way they misuse the term “soporific”, which I’d originally applied to some boringly hyperconservative ties a friend had received from one of the English-inspired Italian tiemakers. A Macclesfield or Spitalfields tie is either (a) made from silk woven or printed in Macclesfield or Spitalfields, or (b) in a certain type of tightly woven pattern commonly associated with those areas. As to (a), I note that there’s no way to tell if an item is made with silk from Macclesfield, Spitalfields or anywhere else unless its label states that fact. To my understanding, a Macclesfield pattern is a two-tone small-scale woven pattern resembling inlaid marquetry. My Fairchild Encyclopedia of Menswear informs me that it is two-colored woven silk where the small pattern is woven into the silk, and the colors are often black and white for a silvery effect. In my experience, one of the two colors used in the pattern is often silver, giving jewel tones to the other color. Fairchild suggests that a Spitalfields pattern, in contrast, is usually slightly larger-scale and may involve more than two colors. (My understanding was that a Spitalfields pattern was just a larger-scale version of a Macclesfield pattern.) In both cases, silk with such patterns can be called Macclesfield or Spitalfields patterns from having been woven in a style associated with each place.
My first Macclesfield tie had a wonderful weave in the shape of silver and purple chevrons. And at the time, I had no idea what Macclesfield was, apart from a description on the tag. That one suggestive name caused me to go down the rabbit hole of inquiry and research. Was it made out of silk from Macclesfield? Who knows? But let’s be pragmatic: identify what we’re looking at with precision, forge ourselves a right of return, after an absence of years, that those Huguenot weavers never got to have. I don’t put faith in tropes like permanent fashion or style, but know that tastes can evolve to return to something you like, something that hasn’t come out of the closet in a long time.