In some ways this post is an extension of the last Briefing for Bespoke post (Line, shape, proportion), but this time with a slightly more light-hearted tone as befits the Christmas season.
Strange as it may seem I first came across the Tailor’s Rule of Thumb when talking with the artist Kristin Newton, who uses a selection of ‘body’ parts for estimating proportion when teaching her drawing course at the Right Brain Research Centre in Tokyo (hence the notes in Japanese). This is an example of the way in which the width of the eye is used as a preliminary means of mapping out the proportions of a face.
Before accurate measuring systems were in place the body was often used as a measuring system. For instance for the Egyptians a common cubit was the length of the forearm from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger, whereas a span for the Ancients was the largest distance between the points of two fingers measured on a man’s outstretched hand; around 22.9 centimetres, 9 inches or 1/4 yard. The measurement of an inch is gauged as the distance between the base of the thumbnail and the first joint, and from this connection, in French and Portuguese both the words for thumb and the unit of measure have a common derivation; respectively un pouce and polegada (from polegar – thumb).
With the Tailor’s Rule of Thumb however, the purpose is to establish comparative proportions so that by taking just one measurement, irrespective of one’s size, it should be theoretically possible to map out the basic elements of a body’s contours. Jonathan Swift has Gulliver refer to this during his stay in Lilliput (Gulliver’s Travels ):
“The Seamstresses took my measure as I lay on the ground, one standing at my neck, the other at my mid-leg, with a strong cord extended, that each held by the end whilst a third measured the length of the cord with a rule of an inch long. Then they measured my right Thumb, and desired no more; for by a mathematical Computation, that twice round the Thumb is once around the Wrist, and so on to the Neck and Waist, and by the help of my old Shirt, which I displayed on the Ground before them for a Pattern, they fitted me exactly.”
There is an anecdote in the tailoring community about a client who came in to buy some trousers, wrapped the waistband twice around his neck and left with them over his arm with the pronouncement that they would be a perfect fit. An interesting snippet but one that perhaps needs a grain or two of salt. Much of the art of the tailoring process lies in the accurate measurement and the subsequent balancing of a pattern. A highly skilled job needing a critical eye, so perhaps this novel method should be left with the Lilliputians.
It might be fun however as we are in the midst of party season to find some alternative proportions that would work for everyone. Of course the true test would come once the post Christmas dieting has kicked in.
Let me know what you come up with! And of course… a Happy New Year to all.
Photo: thanks to Glasgow University, RBR (Tokyo)