I looked at my beautiful jumper with disbelief. Prime Hugo Boss collection, light wool, as burgundy as a glass of an aged Bordeaux wine, and a moth had lunched with half a centimetre of wool and left a tiny hole. And so I took it to Jacki, a former Savile Row tailor, or so his business card read, and, for the cost of five pounds, ruined my jumper.
I couldn’t believe how unskilled this guy was: the thread used to sew the hole was a different colour to the jumper (more of a cheap Tesco rosé wine) and the stitching was nothing but gross. And this has not been my only encounter with third rate tailors in Britain. There is one that comes to our office every now and again to show his sample collection for bespoke suits and shirts; all the colours, patterns and clothes you could dream of. He takes your measurements, your money and off he goes to your next bespoke suit. So, after a colleague recommended it to me, I gave it a try.
With hindsight, the fact that this colleague is from a country I’m not too sure how to spell and, worse, wears brown pointed shoes meant that my money was going to crash into a well signalled bend. And so it did. The suit measures were all messed up and the slim cut I picked translated into brutally semi-circular flanks. That cutting was more suited to a butcher than a tailor; a Savage Row.
In both these cases the only solution lay in my hometown in Italy. This summer, I took the garments with me to Maria, a seamstress as old as the town itself with hands of gold. Her needle brought more justice than a sword; the stitching turned invisible and the suit became a city slicker uniform. All that magic for a packet of duty-free tea with a red London bus on it. It was like Christmas in July.
Oddly enough there is another business where I find talent is a rare bird in the London woods and that is the barber shop. I still remember the time I went for a little trim to Vincenzo, my regular barber back in Italy, and nearly insulted him because whoever had done my previous cut had left uneven shades in my hair. ‘How could I possibly have accepted such a low standard of haircut?’ he kept asking with contempt. To spare me a long scolding and to avoid looking like a complete idiot in front of the other amused customers listening to Vincenzo, I decided not to tell him I had paid five times what he charges for a haircut.
The truth is he was right. There really is a different degree of competence in certain trades involving a mix of manual skill and taste, be it barbers, tailors or carpenters. Italians really do it better.
I remember watching my grandads in awe, one of them a carpenter and the other an office clerk turned artist, when they were busy in their trades; both exquisite craftsmen. At Christmas, they would rival each other, carving and assembling every sort of material to recreate the Nativity scene: white stuccoed domed houses, papier-mâché shepherds, tiny stores selling goods, the traditional cowshed. All built and painted by hand.
Something they once said struck me. ‘You need to have “brains in your fingers” to be a proper craftsman, and Italians have plenty of that’. That saying came to mind when I was planning a bit of a travel adventure to the Orkney. I could never have imagined that even in that faraway place laid a testimony of that sentiment. During the Second World War, Italian prisoners of war were employed as labourers in Britain to build infrastructures and compensate for the lack of manpower deployed on the front. Italians were employed to build and strengthen the naval defences on the Orkney and the prisoners needed a proper place of worship. British authorities allowed them to build one, but no proper materials was made available to them. The materials for decorations were scavenged from every possible source: wood from a shipwrecked boat, plasterboard, metal sheets and slabs of carved concrete from other decaying buildings. Yet, the result is a masterpiece of delicate beauty and the most visited attraction on the islands. More than a tribute to God, it is a tribute to skill, intelligence, nostalgia and faith.