“It takes two years to make and two minutes to buy!” So says Kamel Hamadou, the affable communications manager of Hermès silk, hosting a rare tour of the company’s silk printing facilities in Lyon. Two weeks ago I was invited on a whirlwind trip to learn the many meticulous stages of making one of those familiar silk ‘carrés’ of which I’m the proud owner of a few, neatly folded and stored in their equally familiar flat orange boxes.
My most astonishing discovery? The utter complexity of printing involved in a silk scarf of many colours. The average scarf has around 30 colours, of which each shade has its own precise mixing process. The printing itself has to be seen to be believed, but next week, you’ll have the chance to see it all when Hermès’ Festival Des Metiers lands on the London leg of its world tour.
Arriving from China (and then on to Dusseldorf), the exhibition showing at the Saatchi Gallery will continue Hermès’ mission in sharing the knowledge and skills of its workforce beyond the secretive workshops to a wider and very curious audience. None of this is a coincidence of course. All the major brands are shifting focus from overdone logos to house codes as a way of redefining their brand and heritage to customers new and old. So for a brand like Hermès, that’s the silk square scarf (or ‘carré’) or the Birkin, while for Chanel it’s the boucle jacket, the quilting and the Chanel no5 perfume. It’s not only about product in the store or on the runway but about bringing those codes to life. Hence this exhibition and current Chanel exhibitions (Little Black Jacket and No5 Culture Chanel) that celebrate – at close quarters – the iconic elements of these brands.
But to start the whole process, you have to go right back to the original design. Part one of my Lyon tour began at a giant light box in the engraving workshop. Here, the engraver’s job is to look at the original design, commissioned from artists around the world, deconstruct the image and break it down ‘without betraying the spirit of the artist’, as our guide explains. That is, boil down a sometimes highly complex and colourful design to, at most, 47 colours. This is pretty technical stuff.
For each colour, a clear film slide is drawn, using black Indian ink, gouache, brushes and pens. For the finest detail work, an electric pen is used in micro strokes which Hamadou describes as ‘like putting makeup on’. Sounds complex, right? Well if a scarf has 47 colours then the process happens 47 times, with a new film slide drawn for each colour representing a different part of the overall image. That’s all for one scarf design. It necessitates a careful and sensitive eye and the patience of a saint. A design of 30 colours equates to around 600 hours work engraving 30 films. From here the finished engravings are transferred to computers on which each colour is assigned a number. Wait, did I mention each design might come in ten different colourways? At this point one thinks it’s a good idea to write all this stuff down.
On the printing floor we get to see some printing in action. I love the mix of delicate draughtsmanship one minute, then ultra modern machinery the next. We’re whisked past a spanking new laser machine that is being tried out but we’re not allowed to take photos or even see it. Instead we’re shown more traditional-looking screen-printing – big metal-framed screens of polyester gauze (stronger than silk screens) which are adapted to the design and the fabric being used. (A carré isn’t only silk, sometimes it’s a silk-cashmere mix.) It’s then covered in blue photo sensitive gelatine and the gauze exposed to UV light. The gelatine’s job is to stop the colour landing on those areas.
Also housed in this building are the finishing workshops where the cutting, sewing and hand rolling takes place. Here, heavy tie silks are layered and cut by hand with a lethal-looking tool that looks like a pizza wheel (spot the chainmail glove to avert nasty accidents). Long pins keep these multiple pieces of silk in place but this young fellow showed us plenty of scratches from accidental scrapes.
Everything is measured and cut strategically to minimize waste. The ties are all hand made. Watching these deft hands flying so fast and effortlessly was quite mesmerising. We also saw a natty trick where the seamstress twisted a special stitch that hides inside the tie. Look inside an authentic Hermès tie and you’ll find this unique looped knot inside.
This gleaming, spacious new workshop is where the rolled edges (the ‘roulotte’) are stitched on the scarves, all by hand. The thread is colour-matched to the border and giant pin cushions are used to pin the scarf in place. The roll is exactly 15mm, hemmed on the right side of the scarf (as opposed to the Italian way, which is hemmed on the reverse). At the exhibition you’ll be able to see this hand rolling and tie making happening live.
After lunch we drove to another Hermès facility, Ateliers A.S, where we came to my favourite part of the process – the coloration. This is why it takes two years to make a scarf. Colours are decided two years in advance by the colour committee (yes, it’s actually called that), overseen by artistic director of women’s silks, Bali Barret. Barret collects colour inspirations continuously and for each biannual collection will produce a palette that runs across the brand’s entire product output including Christophe Lemaire’s RTW.
“Bali is like a conductor and the colourists are the orchestra”, Hamadou explains, gesticulating to a delicious array of mood boards, fabric swatches and boxes of coloured card samples on a vast table. The palette has to suit all women, hence the importance of a colour committee, and a scarf design translated in ten different colourways can effectively be ten very different scarves.
Here Hamadou also explains the silk-making process – a chain from the cocoon to the thread to loom to cloth. Alas, this is where I got lost as I just wanted to play with the coloured cards in the boxes, not learn about silk worms. But Hermes silk is not any old silk. It has its own strength and stability and comes from cocoons woven by silkworms farmed at an Hermès -owned facility in Brazil.
On to the most exciting part, the ‘kitchen’ and another much more dramatic printing studio. But first, on with the health and safety footwear – a bulbous toe-cap, strapped on over our shoes like an avent-garde slingback. In a buzzing lab called the ‘kitchen’, we were shown the top secret ‘recipe book’, a file containing all the combinations of dyes to make up different colours.
For just one scarf in one colourway, you might need 25 different ‘recipes’ (mathematical formulae) for each of the 25 colours in the scarf. Where there are big quantities of a particular colour mixed, it can only be kept for two weeks, otherwise the water evaporates changing the viscosity of the dye, which affects the uniformity of the colour. Again, I loved the combo of modern technology and tradition here. A lot depends on computers but the experienced hand, eye and judgment are equally vital.
Here at Ateliers A.S we experienced a different printing experience to the one a couple of hours earlier. Here the designs are printed on a 160m long table on which an equally long piece of 100cm wide silk twill is stuck on with special glue. There are big and slightly scary machines that move along the silk methodically, printing a screen at a time with the technician checking as each square goes along, to make sure nothing has shifted.
The order of screens starts with the outline first, building the design one colour at a time and finishing with the border of the square. If the technician’s eagle eye spots an error, he can halt the process, repositioning the screen. If not, the wonky prints are deemed unusable – a disaster for 100 metres of silk. The dyes dry quickly. As each metre is printed, it’s pegged above the table on a kind of washing line so by the time the last metre has been printed, the first metre has dried. Watching this exacting process happening live was quite a thrill, how on earth do these technicians spot a tiny smudge or splash in this fast-moving process?
Post-printing comes more processes. The colours are fixed by steaming then the printed silk is washed to remove the gum residue. As this stage the silk is still a bit hard so it’s coated with a special substance to soften it and brighten the colours. Little known fact: this is also why Hermès scarves are dry clean only – ordinary detergents can dull the dyes.
Spending a good six hours learning about every stage of the scarf-making process was absolutely mind blowing – in a good way of course. So much information, science and skill to absorb. But that wasn’t it. The tour ended at quality control and here we weren’t allowed to take photos (not quite sure why). Again, a meticulous eye and years of experience are needed to weed out the not-100%-perfect scarves. While checks are made at every stage of the process, this is the place where final checks happen before scarves are packed up to go to the Paris distribution centre. We saw a scarf with a teeny tiny splash of dye (that no ordinary person would have noticed it) and another that was printed one millimeter out of alignment. Out they went, to be shredded and sold as upholstery stuffing!
These insights into the making of hand-crafted luxury items are so useful in understanding the time and skill that goes into their design and production. For Hermès, one of the most authentic luxury heritage brands, it’s important to show how its products are really made and finished. In an age of increasingly digital retail and marketing (Hermès has a scarf knotting app coming in July and I’m currently loving its Tumblr), there seems to be an equal desire for evidence of the human touch. I love digital but I also love phsyical. We’re not all robots yet!
[Above image: Koto Bolofo]