2018_07_02 Sheep to Suit Pt1 - Andy Barnham

I’m rarely one to run with a new idea on first hearing. It normally takes me a few sleeps to process anything new and this instance wasn’t any different. ‘Why don’t you document all the processes involved in the making of a suit?’ My wife suggested to me. My first reaction was neutral, it wasn’t a bad idea, but it didn’t excite me. Until a week later. A week later I was driving around England, in a loaned Jaguar, visiting various brands and factories and two things happened. While visiting cloth mill Abraham Moon & Sons, a touch north of Leeds, I noticed a number of images which turned out to be a series of portraits of employees at the mill. And then later that same afternoon at a nearby cloth merchant, the same idea was mentioned, ‘it would be great to photograph all the processes from a sheep being sheared to the final product of a suit’.

Bang! Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. And throw in the portraits already completed by Moons… well, it felt like the universe was trying tell me something, and who I am to argue with that? I’ve photographed on and around Savile Row for almost a decade and know most of the tailoring houses. I’ve done my fair share of factory visits and the trip I was on added a few more (BarbourAbraham Moon & Sons, CJ Antich, WT Johnsons). And I’ve taken the odd portrait so I could also include an end user in their finery into the project. Suddenly I couldn’t shake the once neutral idea out of my head. The project combines tailoring and portraits with British craft, of which many of the companies involved have an incredible and long heritages.

Abraham Moon & Sons

Where to start? The idea has got to have a start and a finish, both in terms of what is being photographed but also as an end result. It must have parameters; it’s not feasible to trace every material in a suit and, quite frankly, I don’t see the utility in trying to trace every single or even artificial materials for this project. So let’s start with wool. An initial search has returned processes such as shearing, sorting, scouring, dyeing, weaving, finishing and tailoring (to name but a few). If you take the starting point that a sheep is sheared only once a year, and if you then include the time it takes for all the other processes, the quickest it takes wool from being grown to being on the back of a client is approx 18 months with a minimum of 35 people involved. Of course with the reality of delays, the time line is probably closer to two years.

After the list of processes, is the search for who provides them (did you know there are only two wool scourers left in the UK?). While I’d like the project to be as geographically diverse as possible, various nexus points in particular industries have appeared. For cloth and finishing, it’s hard to avoid Huddersfield. For tailoring the same can be said of London and Savile Row. There are other options per process, The London Cloth Company (East London) and Campbell's of Beauly tailors in Scotland, for instance, and I hope to do my best to be as inclusive as possible. I’d like to show wool, fresco, tweed, mohair and the end result isn’t necessarily a two or three piece suit. It could be evening wear, morning dress, kilt, trews, military uniform for example. And I’d like the end portraits to be as diverse as the people involved along the way; a gillie in his estate tweed in Scotland, a sportsperson in their club or national blazer. A musician, chef, explorer… the list goes on.

London Cloth Company

What’s the end result?I don’t see people buying prints. Maybe the person in each portrait may want that image of themselves, but an image in isolation won’t be representative of the project. Which leads me to believe the ideal end result should be a book. It puts all the images into context and may be interesting to people who perhaps weren’t involved in the photographs but works in one of the industries mentioned. Also, what better way for a tailor to show to a new client the quality of what they’re investing in and manage the time expectation of potentially a few months from first to final fitting?

Now the basic idea is in place, I need external help. There’s only so much I can do by myself. The obvious starting point is the global authority on wool, Woolmark. As it turns out during my initial phone call to Woolmark, they were busy video’ing something similar to Sheep to Suit. Woolmark also sponsor Campaign for Wool, which is due to finish in 2020 and this project would fit nicely into that time line with the book being a fitting end result of ten years of work. If the universe had been trying to tell me something before, it definitely had my attention now.

Campbell's of Beauly

In addition to Woolmark, a few tailors I have talked to are interested. Aston Martin’s Chief Creative Officer Marek Reichman (who is the owner of a natty driving suit from tailor Henry Poole) is interested, as is David Gandy. It’s not a bad start.

For now, here’s the current elevator pitch;

A photo essay of portraits, processes and craftsmanship involved in the making of a British suit. By doing so, promote Best of Britain and Made in UK and showcase the heritage, the amount of people, the skills and time required across the breadth of the UK before ending with portraits of clients wearing the finished products.

Focusing on wool; following the journey from sheep farmers to wool merchants, scourers, weavers (incl dyeing, mixing and spinning) to finishers and tailors before being worn by the end user. Taking portraits across the length of the country from the Shetland Islands and the tweed cottage industry in the Hebrides, to the cloth heartlands of Huddersfield before being presented in the form of fresco, mohair and cashmere in tailors around the UK.

Aim to be geographically diverse, showing both large and small scale. Men and women.

If you’d like to be involved, please let me know. I feel like I’ve opened Pandora’s Box and am now waiting to play the world’s largest Tetris game. Game on.

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