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Bown's Bespoke - Shirts - Washington Tremlett, Mr Fred SmithQuiz shows are never going to be my thing.  I could just about cope with, “Who wrote Handel’s Messiah?” (a genuine question recently on television), but I fear my Achilles’ heel is always going to be pop music – the subject which appears to be the sine qua non of the big money contests.  Unable to differentiate between the Spice Girls and the Bee Gees and with my hearing too poor to catch the answer being screamed by the studio audience, I would be an abject failure.  Better for me (in my imagination) to stick to setting the questions.

So here’s one for you.  Who invented the modern tie?

Answer: Washington Tremlett.  How do I know?  Because I have just availed myself of the said gentleman’s company to make me some bespoke shirts.  Very fine they are, too.  But let me first tell you about the circumstances of the invention – so that you will be fully equipped to win the big prize.  In 1892 our friend Washington was asked by an American customer – his very own Mr Wright – to design a piece of original neckwear for a visit to the Paris Opera.  (The normal wear at this time would have been a cravat or a limp bow.)  He came up with what he called the ‘seven fold cravat’ – hanging from the neck, stitched at the edge, narrow at the top and broad at the base.  Thus was born the tie.

Odd, then, that ties have never been the company’s forte.  For most of the 20th century it was for shirts that the great and the good came to its premises in London.  Washington House in Conduit Street welcomed kings, princes, film stars and comedians – all anxious to be shirted by this most prestigious of makers.  The King of Spain, Saudi princes, Katherine Hepburn (Katherine Hepburn? – yes, ladies were catered for) and the likes of Max Wall and Ken Dodd.

Sadly, the recession took its toll and the firm might have disappeared.  But to the rescue came my friends at the tailors, Kilgour.  So it was to their elegant tailoring shop in Savile Row that I went in search of the present Washington Tremlett.

Shirtmaking must be good for you.  Certainly, it seems to keep you looking youthful.  Shirtmaker Fred Smith looks about my age.  But he joined Washington Tremlett in the year in which I was born – 1948.  He explained that he measures customers on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so these are the days to visit (although he recommends telephoning first to arrange an appointment).  Prices range from £164, including VAT, for cotton poplin to £247, including VAT, for silk, with Sea Island cotton at £235, including VAT.

I wanted 2 shirts.  So, from the thousand or so samples on offer, I chose a couple of bold stripes – one black, one yellow.  Both 2-fold 100s.  (2-fold means two strands are wound together before weaving; 100 refers to the fineness of the strands, the higher the number the narrower the strand.)  I agonised about silk and Sea Island cotton, but the former creases appallingly and the latter is not sufficiently hard-wearing.

Naturally, I would be having separate collars (cutaway shape) and separate cuffs (to button on).  I was already beginning to suspect that Mr Smith’s knowledge of shirtmaking was encyclopaedic.  The matter of the cuffs clinched it.  Did I know, he asked casually, that such separate cuffs were originally called ‘surgeon’s cuffs’?  No, I did not.  Speak on.  It seems that – in less hygienic times – a surgeon would operate in his normal clothes.  So, in order to avoid having his shirt cuffs soaked in blood, he would have them made detachable – to be reattached after the operation was over.

Fascinating.  As was another feature unique to Tremlett: the 1½ inch centre front hem – through which the buttons appear – with ½ inch stitching (most makers apparently make a 1¼ inch hem).  On such details is the world of bespoke built.  Yet another: did I want a button on the gauntlet (the opening near the cuff)?  This is something I had never tried before.  Yes, why not?

During the next six weeks my paper pattern was made, the materials were obtained, the cutter cut and the sewers sewed.  The pieces of fine cotton came together and the lustrous mother-of-pearl buttons were attached.  Having now worn them I can report that they are excellent shirts: well-fitting, of proper length, comfortable and elegant.  With them I will, of course, always wear a tie.  And I will always remember the fact that my neckwear was invented by Washington Tremlett.  You know, perhaps I ought to enter a quiz after all…


Washington Tremlett

At Kilgour, 8 Savile Row, London W1X1AF, England.
Telephone +44 (0)207 734 6905
+44 (0)207 287 8147
Visits are made to the U.S.A.

Francis Bown 2004
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