It's about ties, guys

Made by insects, popularized by French royalty, perfected by an American tailor - and given by the millions on Father's Day

Have you ever watched your father tie a necktie and wondered why men wear these things, anyway? Ties have been part of the business "uniform" for more than 100 years. This week our thoughts turn to ties because some 4.5 million of them are bought around Father's Day (which is Sunday, by the way).

If you laid all those Father's Day ties end to end, they would stretch from New York to Rome - about 4,120 miles of ties. And the 90 million ties sold each year in the United States would wrap around the globe 3-1/3 times. That's quite an investment in neckwear. So let's take a closer look at the necktie:

In 1924, American tailor Jesse Langsdorf patented a process for making a tie. Until the 1920s, ties were made of silk that was cut "with the grain." Ties made this way had an annoying habit of curling to one side once they were tied.

Langsdorf discovered that if you turned the material 45 degrees and then cut across the grain, or "on the bias," the ends of the tie (they're called "the aprons") would hang straight down. Cutting the silk fabric "on the bias" stopped the curl.

Langsdorf introduced some other modifications still used to this day. In addition to cutting out the silk on the bias, Langsdorf sewed a tie together in three sections - the two long ends are connected to a shorter piece that goes around the wearer's neck. Examine a good-quality tie. The seams connecting the pieces run across the fabric diagonally. See them?

Now look at the back of the tie. Can you look up under where the two sides of the tie are sewn together? You might see a long black thread with a knot at the end. This is the slip-stitch. If you pull on this thread, the tie will bunch up. (Ask the owner of the tie first if you intend to try this.) The slip-stitch gives the tie some elasticity when it's tied around the neck. It also helps the tie retain its shape when loosened.

Quality ties are made from silk, wool, or linen. One of the more common silk weaves is called "rep" (sometimes "repp"). "Rep" somehow evolved from the word "ribbed." A rep tie is made from silk that's woven in such a way as to produce tight diagonal ribs that make for deep, brilliant colors. Often, striped ties for schools, clubs, and regiments are rep ties, leading many to believe that rep is short for "reputation." Not true.

There's wool in that silk tie

Ties today are made of an outer shell and a lining. Years ago, silk ties didn't have linings. They were made of silk that was folded seven times and then hand sewn. Ties made this way used a lot of silk, took a lot of work, and were very expensive.

Today, instead of being folded seven times, silk ties are lined with wool. You can see it if you look up under the back of a tie. Notice any gold bars or stripes on the wool cloth? The number of bars corresponds to the weight of the wool. The more bars, the heavier the wool. But heavier wool doesn't necessarily mean a better tie.

Tug gently at the place where the tie is sewn all the way up the back. You'll probably notice that it's loosely sewn. If so, it was probably sewn by hand. Machine stitches are very tight. Loose hand stitching allows for more "give" when the tie is tied.

Thin is 'in,' then out

Over the past century, the width of a tie at its widest part has grown and shrunk. Ties were really skinny in the 1950s - no more than an inch or so. Ties in the late 1960s and early '70s were nearly five inches wide. People who know about these sorts of things say that the width of a tie should be in proportion to the width of the suit jacket's lapels, the collar of the shirt worn with it, and how the jacket fits the wearer. When lapels on coats and shirt collars got really wide in the late 1960s, tie widths ballooned. According to today's fashion, the "perfect" width for a tie is 3-1/4 inches at its widest point. A properly knotted tie should hang down just to the top of the belt buckle. The narrow end of the tie should be a bit shorter than the wide end - never longer.

China keeps a secret for centuries

When you hear the phrase "Silk Road," don't think of a single highway stretching from southern China to Damascus, Syria. Think of interconnected roads weaving from east to west bringing new ideas and merchandise to all the towns and villages along the way.

This important trade route had its beginnings more than 2,000 years ago when a Chinese emperor sent an emissary west in search of better horses. Within a couple of decades, Romans saw their first silk fabric and wanted more. Pliny, a famous Roman intellectual, opined that "silk was obtained by removing the down from the leaves with the help of water." The silk merchants of China had a valuable commodity. They tried to keep the details of silk production secret. For centuries, they succeeded. Everyone was searched at the borders of towns where silk was made.

Eventually, though, the secret got out. One story tells of a princess who was going to marry a prince in a far-off western region. She smuggled silkworm eggs in her hair and mulberry seeds in her medicines.

Commerce along the Silk Road reached its height in the Tang dynasty (AD 618-907}. The Chinese sent silk, furs, spices, jade, bronze, iron, and lacquer objects west in exchange for gold, gems, ivory, glass, perfumes, dyes, and textiles. The Silk Road trade route experienced a sharp decline in the 10th century, but Europe's demand for Asian goods picked up again in the 1200s.

Europeans found a sea route to Asia in the 1400s. It was safer, cheaper, and quicker. By this time, Persians and Italians had perfected the art of sericulture (raising silkworms and spinning silk). That lessened the demand for silk from China.

Fabric made by insects

Silk is produced by the silkworm (Bombyx Mori). The silkworms - caterpillars, actually - feed exclusively on leaves from the mulberry tree. Silkworms eat mulberry leaves nonstop from the time they hatch until the time they start spinning their cocoons a month later. They shed their skins four times to accommodate the weight they gain - 10,000 times their weight at hatching. A ton of mulberry leaves will feed about 36,000 silkworms.

To create their cocoons, silkworms secrete a liquid from two glands on their heads, which hardens into a filament of silk upon contact with the air. They spin this silk around themselves in a figure-eight pattern, creating a cocoon from the outside in. A cocoon is made of a single filament more than a mile long. A gummy substance called sericin sticks the cocoon together. Left alone, a silkworm moth would emerge from the cocoon in 10 days.

The cocoons are soaked in very hot water. This dilutes the sericin and loosens the end of the filament. Eight to 10 filaments are combined to make a silk thread that's strong enough for weaving. It takes hundreds of cocoons to create enough silk thread to make a single tie.

How it came to be, and what it's for

We know that some Roman legionnaires wore clothes tied around the neck. But the real history of the tie begins in France in the late 1600s. At the conclusion of the Thirty Years' War in 1648 (a long and tangled conflict that included Austria, England, France, Denmark, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and Germany), a military regiment of soldiers from Croatia was presented to King Louis XIV of France. The King liked their colorful neckerchiefs and ordered his tailors to create some cravates for him. Cravate (kruh-VAHT) is the French word for "tie." It probably comes from the word "Croat" (CROW-at).

Soon all of French male royalty were wearing cravates (cravat, in English). Over the next 100 years, the fashion spread throughout Europe and to America. Neckwear included anything from piles of lace at the throat, to long droopy bows, to tightly bound cloth.

What we would recognize as a necktie came with the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the business class. As the uniform for business developed - coat, shirt, trousers - so did the long tie. With the appearance of shirts with permanent collars (collars used to be detachable), long neckties became easier to wear.

Ties haven't changed much in 100 years. They get wider or skinnier, and the length may change, but the idea of something that emphasizes the vertical has been a constant principle.

Do ties serve a function? Well, they cover the buttons of a shirt.

A knot from the past

The most common tie knot is small and precise - the four-in-hand. This cool name comes from horse-and-buggy days. It may refer to how the reins fell when a coachman was driving a four-horse carriage. Or it may be the knot the coachman used on his own tie. All we know is that it has something to do with a four-horse carriage. The Windsor knot (named for the Duke of Windsor in the 1930s) is much larger. It looks best with a cut-away suit and a shirt with a wide collar. The half-Windsor knot is smaller than the Windsor and larger than the four-in-hand.

Rivalries create bonds - and ties

As more and more private schools in Britain began competing against one another in sporting events, students looked for ways to display their school colors. First it was with ribbons around their hats, then with scarves. Finally someone thought of a school tie. School ties show the colors of the school displayed in diagonal stripes. (A curious fact: In Britain, tie stripes slope downward from right to left, like this: ///. But in America, the stripes slope down from left to right, like this: \\\.)

Military regiments and other organizations soon followed suit, creating ties with their colors or symbols on them. There are many stories on how the colors were chosen. For example, the Royal Tank Corps tie has colors representing the brown mud, red blood, and green fields of Flanders, a famous battlefield of World War I.

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