by Joseph Bullmore
What shirt do you pull on when, caught between a rock and a hard place (the ‘rock’ being a bright young American thing by the name of Wallis Simpson and the ‘hard place’ being 200 years of Hanoverian expectation), the time comes for you to abdicate the British throne? Well, there’s a good case to be made for the cloth of Thomas Mason. And before you start accusing me of rummaging around in royal bed chambers again, know this: that the Yorkshire fabric house, mere months before those events unfolded, was named official supplier to Turnbull and Asser, then—as now—shirtmakers to the Royal Family. From there, it’s not too big a leap to suppose that it was into these very fibers that Edward VIII perspired as he delivered his abdication speech.
A big deal? Perhaps. But to Thomas Mason it’s just one of the jewels in the crown of a 265 year (eat that, Hanover) history. Finding himself on the receiving end of both an Industrial Revolution and a burgeoning working class, Yorkshireman Thomas Mason decided to make hay while the sun shone, or, more specifically, make cloth while the smog settled. The docks of Liverpool were soon alive with West Indian cotton; the might of the Pennines* brought low with a grand canal; and the interest of several London tailors piqued by the promise of a better breed of shirting.
When Britain flexed her colonial arm, Thomas Mason was happy to provide the shirtsleeves. And when a far flung Englishman—sent to preserve the order in Ceylon or The Levant—thought longingly of home, the chances are his tears fell as much for Jeremyn street as for a childhood sweetheart or a bosomed matron. By the Victorian era, of course, that small corner of Mayfair had come to be spoken of—in almost broken tones—as the shirting capital of the world. And at its heart lay Thomas Mason’s superior fabrics: the gentleman’s choice from silver spoon to Last Will and Testament. It’s not certain just how many tailor’s houses adopted the Yorkshire cloth for their shirting; but it’s a fairly safe bet that whoever coined the phrase “the whole is more than the sum of its parts” likely hadn’t fingered Thomas Mason fabrics.
Today, the company has built a bridge, of sorts, to another menswear capital, Milan, and to a town just outside its perimeter. Bergamo is the home of the Albini family, a five-generation canon of shirt makers headed up by the beaming Caputo Silvio. Hushed cries rang out from a British corner of the hereafter at the news of an Italian acquisition in 1992; but the ghosts of tailors past need not have troubled themselves with even a half-grave turn. Had it even been his intention, Silvio would have found it tricky to stray too far off-piste: written into the terms of the deal was the acceptance, in person, of nigh-on 700 volumes of sample books and shirting ledgers.
“In the apparel industry, fabrics make a big difference. Colors and models change rapidly, but quality must be constant,” says Silvio. Constant: that’s something of a watch word for Thomas Mason. And while the firm has long since shifted its sourcing from Antigua to Egypt, quality is still paramount. In the cool of the Nile Delta, the clear skies and fertile soil give rise to the finest long-staple cottons in the world. “The best Egyptian cotton; to spin it is very difficult, to weave it is very difficult, to finish it is very difficult, but the result is outstanding,” says Silvio, as the whir of the loom maddens him like wine. This, today, is the lot of the master weaver: a quarter millennium of progress; a cloth fit, literally, for a king; and an international cast of apostles—F.E. CASTLEBERRY among them—happily drawn back by a twitch upon the thread.
*The mountain range running down the centre of the North of England was, during the industrial revolution, cut up to make way for canals that brought supplies (here, West Indian Cotton) from port towns (e.g. Liverpool) to central powerhouse cities such as Leeds, Sheffield, and Manchester.