Shetland Ponies in the Shetlands wearing Shetland knits.
A++. Would view again.
Shetland Ponies in the Shetlands wearing Shetland knits.
A++. Would view again.
Ghillie and Flannel
This photo is a perfect illustration of the power of flannel trousers.
See how pleasing the contrast between the soft finish of the flannel and the hard finish of the shoe is?
I have to admit that I’m also drawn to the audacity of the ghillies. Ghillies are a traditional Scottish shoe - the distinguishing feature is the unusual lacing system. True traditional ghillies, which are worn for Scottish dancing, don’t have tongues. This shoes off the hose, but like brogueing, its roots are practical - the lack of tongue left an easy egress for bogwater. They’re also tied around the shin, so the knot doesn’t get muddy.
The tongue-less style are really only practical to wear with other elements of traditional Scottish dress, but this toned-down version looks beautiful, doesn’t it?
A Basic Cashmere Wardrobe for Men
It doesn’t get much more versatile than a simple v-neck sweater in a basic, solid color. It doesn’t get much more classic, either. Build yourself a wardrobe of three pieces, and you’ll be set for years.
Above are three of the most basic colors: burgundy, navy and gray. If you wear a lot of monochromatic palettes, or want something to wear out at night, you could add black to that list (though gray is more versatile, and can usually fill in fine for black). Camel can also be a nice choice. These are pieces that go with everything from jeans to a suit, and add sophistication and comfort to every outfit you wear.
I like cashmere for my v-necks. It’s warmer relative to its weight than wool, and of course it’s exceptionally soft, as well. It’s also one of the few fabrics that gets better with age. High-quality cashmere, with reasonably attentive care, can last very nearly forever. I think that this is a wardrobe element that’s essential enough that you should look for the best.
But where do you get the good stuff? I wrote a quick guide to finding quality cashmere, but I’ll summarize (OK, probably expand) here.
There’s plenty of passable cashmere on the market today - far more than ever before. You can buy cashmere sweaters for $80 at Costco, $150 at Lands’ End or $198 at J. Crew. That Lands’ End sweater is decent quality, but it’s still expensive, and it’s not the good stuff. It won’t last, look as nice, or feel as good.
As the cashmere market has exploded over the past fifteen years or so, the breadth of quality available has expanded dramatically. All cashmere is not created equal. Cashmere’s quality depends on the quality of the fiber, the quality of the milling, and the quality of the garment’s construction. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that there’s no difference.
Good cashmere is made from the longest fibers. It is dense, resilient and lightweight (though it may be offered in multiple layers, or plys). The texture should almost approach a cotton jersey. It will also (new) be a little less soft than the cheap stuff. The short fibers in cheap cashmere are loose right from the start, so they feel soft to the touch. They’ll pill and tear. The best cashmere feels smooth as much as it feels soft. Go to a super-fancy store, and touch some Loro Piana branded cashmere, and you’ll get a feeling for what I’m talking about.
Of course, great cashmere has become surpassingly expensive. A Loro Piana cashmere sweater can cost as much as $1500, and one by a less-well-advertised maker like Drumohr can still go for $500 or more. Perhaps you can swing this, in which case more power to you, but for most of us, that’s cost-prohibitive.
There is good news, however. Because good cashmere wears so well, and because almost all cashmere was top-of-the-line until fifteen or so years ago, used is a tremendous option.
For $30-60, you can buy a pristine Scottish cashmere sweater (Scottish cashmere, by the way, is what you want), from a luxury maker. Look for something from the 1980s or earlier, with a smooth, tight hand. It should be made in Scotland, either for a fancy store (Saks, Nordstrom, Brooks, Wilkes, Niemans, that kind of thing) or by one of the big Scottish cashmere brands (Pringle, Drumohr, etc.). Look for something sized by chest size, not S-M-L-XL. Focus on the basic colors we’ve identified above. If it’s pilling, has holes or stains, leave it be.
When you’re shopping, take your time. The perfect piece may not come along right away, but it will come. These are basics, after all.
Once you’ve got your sweater - or sweaters - care for them gently. Hand-wash them only when they really need it (once a year or so). They’ll actually get softer with age. If you wear through the elbows, add patches. If you get a snag, have it rewoven. Take care of them, and they’ll keep you warm and stylish for a healthy chunk of the rest of your life.
PTO Pal Nick Sullivan of Esquire teams up with joins with Patrick Grant, owner of the Savile Row tailor Norton & Sons for a drive around the UK to visit the places where some of the world’s finest clothing (and the constituent parts of the world’s finest clothing) is made. Check out more at Esquire.
Q and Answer: What’s the Difference Between Plaid, Tartan and Madras?
Michael asks: I have looked for an explanation of the difference (or relationship) between plaid, madras, and tartan. The results have been less informative than I had hoped for. I was also curious if there was a definitive way to tell the difference between the three.
Scotland has always been known for its weaving, and particularly its weaving of wool. Scotland is also known for Highland Dress, the combination of kilt and other elements that is the country’s national costume. Banned by King George II in the early 18th century, these outfits became a powerful symbol of Scottish and Celtic identity.
One of the most important characteristics of Highland Dress is the distinctive checked patterns of its woolens - tartans. These patterns came into vogue throughout the commonwealth in the early 19th century, and have stayed popular ever since.
The tartan emerged in Scotland in the 16th century. Over the course of the next three hundred years, these distinctive patterns gained symbolic associations. Today, a specific tartan pattern can “belong” to a clan, an organization, even a company. In the United States, when we say “tartan,” we’re usually referring to a pattern that has a specific association, like the famous Stewart tartan, above.
In Scotland, a “plaid” is a specific part of Highland Dress: a sort of pleated blanket-wrap that’s sometimes twice as long as its wearer is tall. This plaid is worn over one shoulder and under the opposite arm, as seen in the photo above. As you can see, the effect is quite impressive.
In the United States, the word plaid is a generic word that describes checked patterns of all kinds. Here in the States, we generally use “plaid” to describe pretty much any such pattern, and “tartan” to describe a pattern with a specific Scottish symbolic meaning. (We also tend to chuck out the window the symbolic meaning of the tartans, unless we’re in a Scottish person’s wedding or at a Highland Games.)
Madras is something else entirely. It refers to a type of cloth, originally made during the British colonial era in Madras, India, (now Chennai). The cloth is a very lightweight cotton, decorated with plaids that are typically in loud colors. The most famous madras fabrics were dyed with natural dyes, which bled when washed - “bleeding madras.” These fabrics were particularly prized by Americans in the middle of the 20th century, and the Ivy League revival has made them popular again today. Today’s madras, largely made with artificial dyes in places other than India, tends to be even brighter than its forbear.
It’s On eBay
Vintage Pringle Cashmere Sweater (42)
I’ve said it before, but there is no better second-hand target than high-quality cashmere. If its in good shape and of good quality, it will be better than new. An older Pringle or other Scottish-made cashmere will be of a quality that is tough to buy in stores for less than four or five hundred dollars. Choose v-necks in staple solids like navy, burgundy and gray.
Shetland Hand Knits: A Recommendation
It’s rare that I offer an out-and-out product recommendation on this blog, but I want recommend Louise Irvine and her Shetland Hand Knits.
Shetland Hand Knits make real hand-made sweaters, and they make them in Shetland, Scotland. With legendarily wet and chilly weather, Scotland has long been one of the epicenters of the world of knits. This is especially true for traditional Scottish styles like the Shetland and the Fair Isle, which just so happen to be Shetland Hand Knit’s specialty.
These Fair Isles are made traditionally. That means they’re worked in the round, with two colors per row, and a pallette of muted colors that reflects the Scottish countryside. The knitters, an email suggesting patience reminded me, are largely elderly. These sweaters are truly hand-made to order, including custom sizing specifications, and the results are simply spectacular.
They aren’t cheap. My Fair Isle vest, in the Prince of Wales pattern (pictured above, and inspired by this famous sweater worn by the P of W himself) was over a hundred pounds - about $175. Luckily, mine was a Christmas gift from a loving mother. (Specifically, my loving mother. Thanks mom!)
What you get for your money is an heirloom. If you manage to avoid any big spills, this sweater will last your life… and it will be a life of elegant country style. So drop Louise a line and buy yourself (or someone you love) something truly special.
I just bought two cashmere turtlenecks on eBay. One is gray, by Black Fleece. The other is cream, by Pringle (and old). I’m pretty sure I can wear them. Pretty sure.
eBay user Lulabel167 is offering cashmere scarves this year - she lists them as by a “luxury Scottish mill,” but we happen to know they’re by Begg, which is one of the finest “luxury Scottish mills” in existence. These often go for quite reasonable prices, and the UK-based seller is willing to ship worldwide. Check out her stock here.