In a sleepy, sun-dappled corner of a family-run shirt-makers’ workshop at the foot of the Italian Alps, you’ll find the fabric archives. Neatly stacked on vast industrial shelving units – with an enviable view of the mountains beyond – are hundreds of rolls of cottons, linens and silks that were left over after an order had been fulfilled. They were destined to be fashioned into button-downs but never made it to the pattern-making stage. So, like soldiers reporting for duty but yet to be deployed, they have laid in wait. Some are 10m bolts, others mere 2m scraps. Many have been there since the atelier’s beginnings in 1965, relics of another time.
Among the cheery prints, accordion-like plissés, slightly-sheer voiles and bold jacquards there’s a dazzle of stripes. There are blue stripes, green stripes, candy stripes and widely-spaced stripes; faint chalk stripes, fat butcher stripes, and pinstripes finer than a wisp of hair. Dating from the late 1960s to the early 2000s, each presents its own take on striped shirting, that oh-so-classic textile. The way they present a series of lines betrays the tastes of their designers and the manufacturing possibilities of the era in which they were produced. A stripe is never just a stripe.
Splicing together these contrasting, found fabrics in one garment – as seen in Gerbase’s Eden shirt – puts their stripes in conversation with one another. Suddenly, a print from the late ’60s becomes the unlikely bedfellow of a slick noughties number. And it gives these textiles a new role: instead of each one becoming a traditional, starched button-down fit for a banker or lawyer, when combined in a patchwork design, they are twisted into something surprising and fresh.
Yet fusing them together is not exactly easy. The process of figuring out how to marry different bolts of mismatched lengths, textures and shades is akin to tackling a mathematical puzzle. There is an element of spontaneity, of “happy accident,” about the outcome: each Franken-shirt is the result of these particular stripes meeting at this particular moment in time. There is a magical alchemy at play. And, because each patchwork design is created from precious remaining scraps of fabric, it is limited by nature – not by some arbitrary decision to produce a “limited-edition” run. Some combinations will appear in just 10 shirts, and others in a mere three.
Although not all Gerbase shirt collections will feature patchwork designs, all will be stitched from found fabrics. That flips the typical design process on its head. Instead of carefully controlling each step by starting with a sketch and then producing – usually over-producing – a fabric to fulfil that vision, this involves responding to what’s already out there. Like a chef foraging for seasonal ingredients only available at that time and place, it’s a game of discovery and resourcefulness. It’s about making the most of the textile pick’n’mix that can be found in the quiet, hidden corners of workshops. For these seemingly-dusty fabrics can challenge expectations and create jolts of excitement when brought to life. There is beauty in the forgotten.
Jamie is a freelance writer who grew up on the beaches of Perth, Western Australia and is now based in East London. He writes about fashion, culture and science for publications including the Wall Street Journal, the Observer and the Financial Times @jamie_waters
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