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Sunday, September 5, 2010

Looking for manchester in Manchester

Never would I have expected that becoming a “man of the cloth” would begin so literally.

For the past few days, my travel and re-settlement to study has been dominated by cloth. I have lugged and shepherded my 30 kilo suitcase, mostly clothing, halfway across the world to an under-furnished student flat, where the most pressing necessity is more cloth.

Linens: towels, bedsheets, duvet, pillowslips, tea-towels and the like. Imagine for a moment trying to live without them.

I have become a walking excuse for cotton, wool, polyester, spandex (don’t ask), and silk to associate and breed and find employment.

The fact that the site of this cloth-gathering should be Manchester is just too apt. Manchester’s textile mills were one of the chief engines of the British industrial revolution. Many people now even call household linens “manchester” the way we call facial tissues “Kleenex”. Manchester is the home of mass-produced cloth. The region’s wet climate was ideal for growing cotton and the north’s rich sheep grazing areas were nearby—a perfect storm for the production of a global cloth industry which has only been eclipsed recently by China’s mass industrialization and low labour costs.

One is tempted to imagine cloth-capped Victorian workers at looms, pumping an array of pedals like a crazed organist, while the shuttle flies through the warp and weft back and forth, darting like a hare in a covert. I once saw a traditional loom in Scotland weaving tartan, and marvelled how the flashes of colour banked up like sediment with each crack of the loom-frame. How the weaver knew how to get the complex pattern to emerge through a seemingly endless knitting-together of individual strands, over-and-under-and-over-and-under, never one strand out of place.
rather like this...

But the only place cloth is made like this anymore—labour-intensive, highly skilled—exists only in theme-park exhibitions or the ashrams of hardcore hippy devotees of “ye olde crafts”. Most of the world’s cloth is now made in Chinese factories on a staggering and highly-mechanized scale, in the new “post-industrial’ revolution made possible by globalised trade and capital seeking the cheapest means of production.

Fun fact: the Chinese city of Datang now produces 90% of all the socks in the world. Read that again.

Gee, conditions for textile workers sure have improved in 150 years...
To the south, Shengzhou is the necktie capitol. Another is the underwear city, another the sweater city. You get the idea--this remarkable specialisation, one city for each drawer in your wardrobe, reflects the economies of scale and intense concentration that have helped turn China into a garment behemoth.

The world needs cloth: it has a thousand and one applications—furniture covering, auto upholstery, curtains, veils, flags of emerging nations, cheese muslin, bandages. Look around where you’re reading this now and count it up.

And of course, it can be cut to fit and adorn the body; we literally embody clothing.

As intricate as the weaving of cloth is, cutting and fitting a man’s suit must be one of the last craftsman-ly arts. Apprenticeships must be served, masters emulated, in this complex work of human hands. The cutting and fitting of a jacket alone takes years of devoted labour.

Back when I was making money, I used to travel for work a great deal, and decided I should have a suit cut by a real Chinese tailor. So into a Hong Kong bespoke tailors’ shop I sauntered one day, in search of that cut-to-your-body authenticity. I was colonialism made flesh.

I did not deal with the master tailor right away, oh gracious no. Benny, the shop assistant would take the several-dozen measurements of every possible plane, angle, curve, and line of the geometry of my form, such as it was.

But this, he assured me, was purely technical, just a matter of “measuring twice and cutting once”, just a matter of getting certain numbers right. The suit really began, he said, with the cloth.

I told him what I was looking for—a navy blue, tropical-weight, fine wool. He led me directly to a bolt of super-140s Patek Phillippe. He stroked it, I remember, as you would the soft thigh of your beloved. He praised its quality, found in its micro-fine merino fibers and its fine “hand”, assuring me of its durability and travel-worthiness. Saying this, he scrunched up a handful of the deep navy material, and closed his fist tightly around it until his knuckles whitened. He opened his hand and the material exploded from it, back into it original form, like a coiled spring, and not a single ghost of a wrinkle.

I had to have this cloth for my first ever bespoke suit.

A dying art...

I came back a few days later for Benny to fit his rough cut. Out it came from behind the shop curtain, inside out, a curious patch-work of the planes and angles he had measured, sizing material sticking out from the seams like lettuce from a sandwich.

“My master will come now and complete the fiting”, he said. And sure enough, Master Lee (for it was his shop), emerged imperiously from behind the curtain, himself dressed like a Don at a gang funeral, flashes of tasteful gold jewellery accenting the deep black of his suit. Mr. Lee walked around me putting in the odd pin, making a swipe or two with a finely-chiseled piece of tailor’s chalk, as Benny danced attendance. Their conversation was quiet but incessant as they coiled around, assessing both Benny’s rough-hewing of the suit, and how Mr. Lee would now shape the end product.

Ten years later, that suit is now in the bag I lug to Manchester, in search, for a while, of yet more cloth to furnish the necessities of what life I am about to have there.

Shakespeare said, through Hamlet, “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will.” It is said he got this expression from the common talk of Warwickshire hedge-trimmers, encapsulating neatly both master and apprentice craftsmanship and the place of human creativity within creation itself.

It's for us to shape what nature gives

Cloth, rough-hewn, then shaped by the master to exquisite fineness, made my suit. Human culture taking the rough gifts of creation, cotton or wool, refines a thing so difficult and essential as cloth itself.

It’s tempting too, to recognise how woven together all creation is. DNA’s double-helix looks like nothing so much as the way wool or cotton fibres are twisted together, transforming the raw material of molecules into the thoughts that can sit here and think of them. Brain cells, molecules, atoms, and sub-atomic particles are likewise bits of matter (or is it energy?) woven together into the fabric of both world and mind, the fabric of creation.

The fabric of creation—not merely a cloth, not even the best cloth. Maybe a tapestry, the supremely artful weaving together of a framed pattern whose beauty is beyond mere function for a mind ready to apprehend it.

For myself (like Francis Bacon), I had rather foolishly believe in every fable, myth, demi-god or fairy-tale from all the crack-pot religions from the dawn of time, than to believe that this universal frame, this tapestry of creation, is without a Mind.

Nor to believe that the creation which our minds apprehend , so complex in its weaving, so elegant in its composition and beauty, is not co-created by our minds. He rough-hews it, we shape the ends.

So into this city of cloth I go, with cloth, in search of cloth, to weave and cut and shape what beauty and use is in my power to effect as a “man of the cloth.”

And I, too, will wait for "my master to come, and complete the fitting".


  1. I'm glad you arrived safely and soundly -- email me your address and I'll send you some necessities!

  2. Jean, that's awfully kind of you! Anything sent can reach me at

    c/o Unitarian College Manchester
    Luther King House,
    Brighton Grove,
    Manchester, M14 5JP


  3. XD

    Glad to hear you've landed on your feet.

    What's the college like?

  4. Rather nice, actually. Leafy, serene...