Carol Alayne

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Tools of the trade

Da VinciI make no secret of my love of craft – the special skills, the attention to detail, the creativity. This week I’m privileged to speak at a meeting of the City Women’s Network (London), a forum for female professionals from all sectors and I’m going to return to my favourite theme of craft in the guise of tailoring. Quite by chance I came across an episode of the UK cult TV series ‘The Dragon’s Den’ the other day. The programmes observe would-be entrepreneurs and inventors trying to convince a panel of financiers (the Dragons) to invest in their new products or ideas. They have only a few minutes to make their pitch. Mostly they go away empty handed, and sometimes with their enthusiasm well and truly demolished. I have to confess a sneaky link to the Dragons since I was recently featured alongside one of them in NatWest Bank’s Business Sense magazine.

I was astonished to come across a young man who claimed to have invented an ‘automated’ bespoke measuring tool! We were blinded by science – well not really. We were bemused by technology. His invention was a portable digital measuring tool which was able to scan an entire body in seconds and provide over 1000 measurements, thus to achieve the perfect body-garment match. A personable-looking young man was persuaded to demonstrate the process in his underwear… The selling point was that this would enable hundreds of busy professionals (probably entirely male, for obvious reasons – see above) to acquire ‘bespoke’ garments for a minimum of fuss and time. The same system is apparently used by the army to provide instant uniform size read-outs for new recruits.

The clever part of the presentation however was to link this superfast digital tape measure to a range of suit styles and up-market fabrics which the customer can customise or choose from catalogues, thus aligning mail-order with bespoke in a unique way!

I sighed with relief when the Dragons unanimously saw through the flaw in his concept almost right away. One pointed out that for £40,000 (the cost of the equipment) he could employ a full time cutter who would be on hand to take measures, pamper the client,  establish a long term relationship, fit the garments, discuss the amendments with the client and tailor, close the deal, and sell more suits. With nothing more than a pair of scissors on the service charge bill.

Another was more direct: ‘The measurement takes minutes. It’s about personal service. When I spend that sort of money I want to be pampered,’ (and not in my underwear, he might have added…)

Here was a painful (for the entrepreneur) reminder of the difference between craft and technology. He had been seduced by technological possibilities – 100 measurements in seconds! – into completely ignoring the point of bespoke. It’s in the analysis during the small talk, when the customer is relaxed (not puffed up to impress a laser beam), that most of the information on what to do with a certain figure is absorbed by the craftsperson. It’s the interpretation of the data that counts. A great tailor (like a surgeon, or a weather forecaster, or mechanic) doesn’t need huge amounts of irrelevant information. They work on experience, intuition and a heightened ability to interpret.

And human bodies are not static objects. They move and change and contort, daily and over time. The craft of bespoke is in using the basic measurements to anticipate the dynamics and personality of the person inhabiting the suit. You have to predict how it is going to change shape and adapt to the daily life of its wearer. A machine would need to take sample measurements every few seconds for weeks on end to achieve the same accuracy.

Phew! I was genuinely sorry for the young entrepreneur. He was engaging and enthusiastic but so completely misguided that I felt angry at those who had advised him up to this point. I’m not anti-technology, but with no understanding of the bigger picture and how it should be used, it can end up largely as junk.

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One Response

  1. Cynthia Baker October 19th, 2010

    An excellent article! The human element is what makes a “craft” as opposed to “manufacture”.

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Recognised as a pioneer of bespoke tailoring for women, Carol Alayne has over 25 years experience of creating striking garments for arts, sports and media personalities and business wear for professionals and executives.



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