Harrisons of Edinburgh: Cloth of distinction
Have you ever read this poem from a time when the English valued Christian work ethic as the ne plus ultra of man’s spirit?
Against Idleness and Mischief (part)
by Isaac Watts
How doth the little busy bee
Improve each shining hour,
And gather honey all the day
From every opening flower!
How skillfully she builds her cell!
How neat she spreads the wax!
And labours hard to store it well
With the sweet food she makes.
Did you know that, through Alice, Lewis Carroll mocked the poem in his books?
How Doth the Little Crocodile
by Lewis Carroll
How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail,
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale!
How cheerfully he seems to grin,
How neatly spreads his claws,
And welcomes little fishes in,
With gently smiling jaws!
That was no accident, the English have a love for parody and pretending to get things slightly wrong. Alice states that she doesn’t think she’s reciting it correctly (she knows she isn’t but pretends) as she echoes the British love for knowing, “unconscious” irony. The bee is busy and the crocodile is idle, reversing the central element of Watt’s message.
Like the bee the English are industrious and yet, like the crocodile they do not seem to move quickly. How can one reconcile these two opposite characteristics? How can one be both crocodile and bee?
Aside from parody, the contrast between the two poems also demonstrates the English love for their traditions but a readiness to mock them without weakening the foundations. To want to be ancient and yet modern at the same time is part of the British duality which fascinates me. They stick to their traditions but they create items of great modernity which they often dare not wear themselves, almost as if they are outsiders to the present.
Harrisons of Edinburgh is a brilliant example of this contrast, they carry the most correct Donegal tweeds for suits; direct descendants of those worn by Oxford Dons of the 1920s and which no other cloth merchant carries, and yet they also offer some of the most up to date (but still correct) worsteds. Part of the reason is that this business is carried on by people brought up in the British tradition but who also appreciate and want to work with the world as it is today.
Indeed, they grew up in the English tradition of the City of London, Oxbridge, the West End, and the Shires, but made a determination that though they would keep these traditions alive they would also catch up with the rest of the world. They wanted to be associated with modern American finance and law, with Middle Eastern grandee-ism, with Japanese ultra corporate consumerism, and current interpretations of wealth and style.
I can picture their logo being that proverbial crocodile; an animal both adorning his antiquity and improving his look to fit the modern era. Deep down we all want to look like we have the style of our greater past, but we also want to live and operate within the modern lifestyle. Similar colors and patterns to the past, but in modern textures, weaves, finishes and, above all, weights.
Speaking with the people who run Harrisons, I discovered that their customers are almost exclusively tailors. Having the local custom tailors report favorably about a cloth is a good standard to set for everyone else around the world. Additionally, Harrisons execs do get new cloths made into jackets and suits and put them through a field test before the cloth is ordered.
Quality is excellent on the cru ranges which aren’t quite as good as the legendary Golden Bale but are approaching it. The 150s they say have supplanted the Golden Bale because Golden Bale isn’t what it used to be, the chief refiner of this type of wool no longer produces a lot of it and the cloth merchant, H. Lesser and Sons admirably handles the little that is available.
Additionally, the generation that adored Golden Bale is retiring and the new custom set is finding a different sort of high quality goods defines their expression. They are satisfied with the 150s and get no reports that it sags or wears out unduly
Harrisons like to offer the same patterns of cloth in different weights and finishes because their customers often become loyal to a particular pattern and want to repeat it for different seasons. As with most merchants in England, Harrisons have a continuing theme of patterns and colors unique to them. In Harrisons’ case a pink or a purple chalk or pinstripe on a navy background is one of their signature cloths.
The English approach to color and quality can be quite simple. The London City business is charcoal grey and navy blue. The West End is a bit more flamboyant but still within the same navy and grey “framework”. As mentioned above, most popular is a navy cloth with either a lilac or a pink stripe. There is however an overall decline in striped fabric sales and solids are most popular at the moment along with non directional patterns; pick and pick, Birdseye, nail-head, hairlines.
Because Harrisons try to deliver goods that won’t lose their crease or bag in the knees after a few wearings, their flannels aren’t as spongy as some other makes but they perform incredibly well. In fact, their flannels wear like a worsted, keep their crease and sell quickly. The navy and the charcoal with white chalk stripe are two of the most popular. Flannel is more of a West End fabric, Old Money and the club set. It is after all easier to lounge in a leather armchair with scotch and a cigar in a soft flannel suit.
For summer the Mystique book is popular. It is a hard wearing 8/9 oz cloth in a breezy open weave;, cool on the body summer weight cloth. The even lighter weight Havana range is popular in places where it is often warm. The colors of most of the suit fabrics are dark even for the summer selections because their stock and trade is the London city set.
The Frontier and Fine Classics bunches are suit cloths for the city boys uniform. Good value, hard wearing and always look smart. Although they are still lighter in weight than cloths from the past they incorporate the same qualities which used to be standard for the City. In the past, City boys used to (Barristers still do) like the heavier 15 oz cloths because to them the suit was more of a uniform than a sartorial indulgence.The idea was that they wore them every day, all day. Doesn’t sound like much fun or even a matter of style and it wasn’t. In part this explains why the accepted pattern and color choices are so limited; the suit literally was a uniform almost no different than one for a regiment of soldiers.
But in England it is now as much about what you can afford as about what is proper. Premier Cru 100s and Cru Classe 120s are currently very popular in England because they combine luxury with longevity. Premier Cru is one of the first top end cloths to become a benchmark for Super 100’s quality; supple, smooth against the body and yet strong. Premier Cru, Mystique and the 13oz Thistle cloth are the choices of the Old Guard Tory who lives and works in the UK.
Tweeds and Coat Fabrics:
Cashmere overcoat cloth is available, mainly in the darker colors. Navy blue is most popular. A new cashmere Herringbone overcoat cloth will soon be available in blue, grey and black. A pure vicuna overcoat cloth is also in the works…don’t ask how much that will cost. But it is their camel hair overcoat material which sings like a Mozart Aria.
Their camel hair cloth has a unique depth of quality and finish giving it a superior appearance. It is the most beautiful camel hair overcoat cloth I have ever seen. Just right to make a half-belted polo overcoat out of in the 19 oz weight, or a topcoat in the 14oz version for those who want something natty to wear over their dinner jacket (or sweater and jeans) when the weather is still mild.
Perhaps a bit buccaneer-like in England, the Polo coat is here considered an aristocratic staple. Which brings us to an interesting point, Harrisons carries cloths that cater to both the English and the Americans tastes. One is not better than the other, they are merely different and it as good to know which notes belongs to which aria, lest the lady with the winged helmet become confused.
The camel hair they offer is created by a company which specializes both in weaving and finishing coat cloth. This company has the unique knowledge and finesse to produce the right look and the proper handle to camel hair. Weaving and finishing this fabric is more complex than weaving suit cloth, it requires a very deft approach and most mills will not take the chance.
Hartwist, Porter and Harding and the other heavy tweed ranges they carry are referred to as “Bullet Proof” but please do not put that to the test. Designed originally for the life of the country gentlemen on their estates, these hard wearing tweeds signal culturally rich associations for the English. They aren’t as heavy on the shoulder as you might think them because of how they are woven which produces a porous-ness in the cloth; making them not quite as hot as you would think them either.
The Hartwist range is all made from Cheviot (a breed of sheep) twist yarn which incorporates more colors than normal (6 or 7 rather than the standard 4 or 5) and makes for a richer looking cloth.
If the true tweeds are too heavy, coarse or warm for you, try the Glorious Twelfth book which is an 11oz fabric that is a worsted cloth but is colored and shaded as if it were tweed. What gives the Glorious 12th cloth this character? The secret to the cloth’s elegance is a weave known as ‘Genuine Twist Worsted’; it is this process that gives the cloth both lift (the plush, spongey quality associated with true tweeds) and sparkle. The result is a lighter, less bulky and cooler worsted cloth which has the “pop” of traditional tweed.The Solway range at 8oz is a similar idea to the Glorious Twelth but designed for a warmer climate. The Solway is a Super 110’s, and yes it is a fine worsted but it only pretends to be a ‘Genuine Twist Worsted.
Incidentally, “Glorious Twelfth” is the first day of the grouse shooting season in Scotland. The English like the Glorious Twelth cloth to make into sports coats which they wear for social occasions in the country.
At the luxury end of the spectrum there are the Cachet cashmere, Millionaire cashmere and now the Multi-Millionaire cashmere and vicuna suit cloths. The Cachet comes in a lot of standard tweed looking cloths but it is sturdy cashmere. The Cachet cashmere, made in Scotland, is for a heavier casual jacket. The Cachet has a different look to the Millionaire but it is still pure cashmere.
Both the Millionaire and Multi-Millionaire cashmeres are made exclusively in Scotland for Harrisons. The Millionaire cashmere is luxury defined. It does pill a bit in the beginning but that will go away soon and will not affect enjoyment of the jacket.
The Millionaire is lighter in weight and softer than the Cachet. Overall it is loftier, plusher cashmere. Probably not a very English choice but perfect for lounging in New York City on a rainy fall day smoking a cigar (watch your ash) and looking like a very updated version of the country gentleman.
The Multi-Millionaire cloth is cashmere with a worsted finish for suits. It sold out quickly the first time it was offered (the navy with a pale pink chalk stripe was so popular they sold out of it almost immediately.) Fortunately they reissued the range and they have again included the basic navy and grey solids, pin stripes and white chalk stripes (Hot) but also the navy with purple pin stripe (Hotter) and the navy with pale pink chalk stripe (Hottest). Although probably too much for English senses of expenditure, they would doubtless admire its understated richness on others and I simply can’t think of a better subliminal way to tell everyone at the negotiating table that you already own them.
What does the future hold for Harrisons of Edinburgh? They will not be as the lilies of the field but will toil and spin both to produce better qualities and update the designs and finish.
Why would you choose Harrisons for cloth? If you are in a mainstream business or want to be quietly admired without being fussed over. Also if you have the occasional leaning for the traditional tweed or heavier suit cloth this firm offers these too. Harrisons presents an excellent balance for men who need to circulate from the most contemporary mainstream circles to those Fogey affairs.
In the meantime, I think the envy caused by wearing clothes from their cloth will quickly dry up any crocodile tears.