This piece was originally written for the Tender Stores newsletter. If you would like to sign up for our occasional mailing list please click here.

On Coffee Mugs and Understandable Construction



When I studied tailoring, as an apprentice to a London bespoke cutter and coatmaker, I learnt the practice of ‘clean on the outside dirty on the inside’. Because tailored garments are usually lined (even unlined bespoke garments usually have small linings over what tailors call the ’scaffolding’- pads, canvases, wadding, hems, and darts), seams and fabric edges are usually left quite messy, hidden away behind smooth pieces of bemburg. Done well, this is the magic of Savile Row, manipulating fabric to create garments that don’t seem to be made out of panels of flat cloth at all. Jeans, on the other hand, are more forthcoming with their production methods- sew a patch pocket onto the outside and you see the stitch lines on the inside; hammer in a rivet and it goes straight through whatever’s in its way. Jeans’ magic, to me, begins when their owner starts to wear them- the fabric deforms and the garment becomes more than the sum of its parts.

It may be a bit of a stretch, but I like to extend this idea of jeans construction to cover all sorts of things, not just riveted denim trousers. Most people will follow me to accept a jeans jacket or shirt (in contrast to a formal shirt, with its hidden seam construction and tucked-in yoke), but I would also make a case for the jeans philosophy in products as diverse as socks (where the link yarn between pieces is left on where they were cut from the machine, to be washed away over time) and lost wax-cast brass (the molten metal is poured into a mould, and then cut out and polished, with no coatings or attempts to alter the appearance of the material itself). This quality is sometimes described as honest or transparent, but I prefer to think of it as understandable.

There is perhaps nothing with a more understandable construction than a hand-thrown piece of pottery. Understandable is by no means the same as simple, or easy to reproduce, but a hand thrown mug shows every part of its manufacture, from the slight grooves around the inside and outside where the potters’ fingers pull the clay in opposition to the wheel’s rotation, to the indentation of a handle pressed into the body, and the bevelled base where the piece is turned off the wheel head. Finishing a mug with slip (diluted clay) and coloured glazes accentuates the evidence of these processes, giving barely perceptible ridges colour contrast and gloss.

The Tender brand name in part refers to steam engines and the idea of Victorian machinery. Given the raw materials I like to think that one could eventually build a working steam engine by studying an example, whereas I don’t think the same would be true of a smartphone. Nothing against the magic of smartphones or their philosophical equivalents, but with Tender I try to allow the construction to remain understandable in the finished products. To me, these are the most satisfying things to use and to wear, forming some sort of bridge between the material, the maker, and the owner.



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This piece was originally written for the Tender Stores newsletter. If you would like to sign up for our occasional mailing list please click here.