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Under Every Black Cloud

In a Country Where Rain is the Rule, Umbrellas are Works of Art
| By Harry Rosenholtz | From Matt Dillon, Spring 96

In England, there are two opinions regarding the umbrella. One is that the umbrella is an indispensable fashion accessory that completes a gentleman's town attire. The other is that an umbrella should never fall victim to the vagaries of fashion, but rather it should be a statement of one's taste. Both positions are held as firmly as one would hold, well, an umbrella.

It may have been by chance that umbrellas came to England in the first place, but it is there that they have been produced and perfected to a standard unlike any other in the world.

The umbrella probably was first used in China, although it has been around for thousands of years in Egypt, as well as India and other Asian countries, primarily as protection from the sun. It frequently had ceremonial and religious significance.

Its introduction into Europe was relatively recent. A late-eighteenth century Englishman named Jonas Hannaway is credited with being the first gentleman to carry an umbrella in England. Of course, he came under considerable ridicule and antagonism, particularly from sedan-chair carriers who saw it as a threat to their trade. (They were right.) Its use was gradually adopted, and in time England developed a very special relationship with the umbrella.

The most venerable manufacturer of fine English umbrellas is the firm of Swaine Adeney Brigg & Sons, a company that started as whip makers. Around 1750 Captain John Ross left the army of George II and founded a business making carriage driving whips at Piccadilly, close to the Royal Palace. James Swaine, a virtuoso craftsman, later bought the business from Ross. The excellence of his workmanship was such that King George III presented Swaine with the Royal Appointment of Whip Maker.

In 1816, James took his son, Edward, into partnership. By 1835, the firm of "James Swaine" had moved to 185 Piccadilly (just last June the firm relocated to 10 Old Bond Street). After his father retired in 1845, Edward made his son-in-law, James Adeney, a partner. Known as Swaine & Adeney, the firm enhanced its reputation winning prize medals at the London Exhibition of 1851. It soon began to produce other articles such as attaché cases, luggage and fine handcrafted leather goods.

A year after Swaine opened his Piccadilly shop, Thomas Brigg established the Brigg Umbrella Co. at 23 St. James Street in London. Brigg also manufactured walking sticks and hunting crops and later patented the "Perfect" shooting stick and the "Brigson" telescopic shooting stick--the kind of concealed weaponry with which we would all become acquainted through James Bond. In fact, until it was recently outlawed, an umbrella with a working shotgun was produced by the Brigg company. The problem was that the shotgun would fire only while the umbrella was opened, which made for rather inaccurate aim, especially on a windy day.

Brigg Umbrella opened a Paris shop in 1899 that became so successful that it led to the establishment of agencies throughout Europe and in Buenos Aires. In 1908, Brigg's international reputation was crowned when it captured the Grand Prix, the highest award at the Franco-British Exhibition.

Brigg lost its Paris shop during the German occupation of France in the Second World War. Fortunately, a formal alliance with Swaine & Adeney was completed in 1943, and the new firm of Swaine Adeney Brigg & Sons moved to consolidate manufacturing facilities and to market its products under one umbrella--so to speak.

In the small English village of Great Chesterford, Essex, Brigg converted an old schoolhouse into the firm's manufacturing plant, which is still in use today. To walk through those doors is like being transported back in time, when everything was done by hand. Craftsmen perform specialized tasks: bending the wooden handles, applying the lacquer to the shafts or cutting and sewing the fabric for the hood. While time alone does not confer greatness on a product, one suspects it is why Brigg has the confidence to offer the same guarantee one would expect from Rolls-Royce--that the umbrella will last a lifetime.

A premium umbrella is a work of architecture. It is the efficient combination of exotic woods, tempered steel, brass and nylon (or, in some cases, pure silk) used to perform a logical function: keeping rain off your head. If you look inside an opened Brigg umbrella, you see the ribs as an intricate latticework, perfectly stretched by tension, looking for all the world like the cables of a great suspension bridge. As with all good architecture, the completed product has a wonderful elegance born of simple design.

Ian Eastwood has been the director of production for Swaine Adeney Brigg since 1980. He understands the appeal of a fine umbrella and talks lovingly about the "glow of the woods" when discussing the carefully selected handles. He describes the painstaking process of crafting a single Brigg umbrella, which can take from one hour to three days. "You need a master's eye and a steady hand," he intones. "Selecting the right runner [the brass piece that slides along the shaft] is a case in point. There are 50 sizes of runners, each a different circumference. The worker must select one that will have the right tolerance to allow for absorption of moisture and the expansion of the shaft."

How is a Brigg umbrella made? Production begins with the most commonly used woods for handles--malacca and polished chestnut, Eastwood says. The ends of the stick are dipped in wax to protect the soft interior wood. Then the hard silica shell of the outer wood is removed by dipping it repeatedly into acid. Residual acid is rinsed off, the wax is removed and the wood is ready for bending.

Bending, or hand-crooking, is accomplished by controlled application of heat and steam, resulting in a unique crook for each umbrella. The craftsmen use a torch to achieve just the right amount of softening to facilitate a perfect bend. Certain woods such as whangee, a gorgeous bamboolike wood from Japan, are beautifully detailed with the slow burn of the torch. The wood is baked overnight, then carefully inspected and hand-sanded to remove any imperfections. After sanding, varnishing begins until, as Eastwood claims, "the wood retains a heavy viscous coat with a lovely satin gloss."

Some of the most distinctive umbrellas have exotic leathers stretched around the wooden crook and then carefully stitched by hand. These include crocodile, ostrich and lizard, but even more common leathers, such as calf or pigskin, have a certain smartness when combined with an elegant black rolled umbrella.

The shaft of a Brigg umbrella can be constructed in two ways. The first is a solid, one-piece construction; the umbrella is essentially a walking stick with an umbrella built around it. These are generally made from coarse woods such as cherry, walnut or ash. In England, their additional heft and sturdiness make them ideal for country use.

Other umbrella shafts are made of two elements, combining an exotic wood handle with a shaft made from straight-grained Swedish birch, a high-density wood that is very consistent in quality. Each stick is turned to size, graded, sanded and stained to match the color of the handle. Even the insides of the slots are stained.

"Brigg insists on using the very finest fittings to complete the umbrella," says Eastwood. All the runners and notches are made from solid brass and finished with a bronze coating to prevent tarnishing. These critical moving parts are built to withstand many years of the stress that occurs when an umbrella is opened and closed or is subjected to high winds. "These umbrellas simply do not turn inside out," assures Eastwood. The ferrule at the tip of the umbrella is also bronzed brass and capped with steel to withstand wear when the umbrella is used as a walking stick.

Perhaps the only part of the umbrella that Brigg does not make from scratch is the frame, which is produced by the famous Fox English Frame Co. It is made from oil-tempered Sheffield steel, which ensures even tension and flexibility throughout the hood. The springs in a Brigg umbrella are made of hardened nickel silver and never fail to respond. Instead of being riveted, which is a common point of weakness in most umbrellas, Brigg's ribs and stretchers are wired together by hand. Rust can't intrude because all the metal parts are coated with a protective finish.

Even though the frames are made elsewhere, Eastwood insists that the distinctive domelike shape is Brigg's alone. "It is because the patterns employed in cutting the fabric to fit the frame have been perfected for over 100 years." The fabric for the hood can be nylon, a pure cotton twill or even silk.

Owning a silk Brigg umbrella was a fairly common experience as recently as 20 years ago, but today it is a more rarefied pleasure. Brigg still manufactures these umbrellas to order, making them of taut, waterproof, three-ply silk yarn, but it is becoming harder to find one at a Brigg retailer. If you are lucky enough to locate or order one, be prepared to spend $450 or more. Of course, you might ask to have your initials engraved around the sterling silver or gold-plated collar, right under the Royal Warrants.

There are, of course, other manufacturers of fine umbrellas today. The one that most closely matches Brigg's attention to detail is the Italian maker Maglia Francesca. In a small factory in Milan, every umbrella is handmade to a very high standard. However, instead of bending the umbrellas in-house, Maglia buys all of its finest woods pre-bent.

What makes these umbrellas so wonderful, aside from their beautiful construction, is the unique Italian fabrics that Maglia uses for the covers. Chino Maglia, the owner, prides himself on his ability to manufacture the unusual. "We once were asked to make umbrellas with whangee ribs," he says. "That was difficult, but not impossible." Today, Maglia produces umbrellas mostly for private-label customers such as Barneys New York, Gucci, Loewe, Bergdorf Goodman and Paul Stuart. "The challenge," he says, "is to make exclusive designs for each."

What is the allure of a great umbrella? Eastwood believes that "umbrellas are an instrument of power. They are tactile, visual, sensual reminders of achievement. They are, after all, substantial."

Certainly, Brigg has had its share of powerful clients. Timothy Johnson, a retired manager of Brigg's Piccadilly shop, recalls, "Neville Chamberlain was known for his umbrella. He used it as a prop during speeches to Parliament." The governor general of the Falklands allegedly surrendered by placing a white flag onto his Brigg umbrella.

Brigg umbrellas are also carried by celebrities, from Patrick Macnee to Henry Kissinger to Clint Eastwood. Johnson recalls the day the kings of Spain and Greece came into his shop together to purchase their umbrellas. With typical British reserve, he recalls, "That was an odd day, indeed."

In a way, an umbrella signals a person's preparedness and perseverance, always ready to deflect what nature has to offer. Thus the umbrella maker's credo: "Outside every silver lining is a great big black cloud."

Harry Rosenholtz is the owner of Worth & Worth, a men's hat and accessories store in New York City. He often writes about men's fashion, jazz and ice hockey.

Where to Find the Best Selection of Brigg Umbrellas:

Swaine Adeney Brigg & Sons
10 Old Bond Street
London, England

Uncle Sam Umbrellas
161 West 57th Street
New York, N.Y. 10019

Worth & Worth
331 Madison Avenue
New York, N.Y. 10017 and
208 South Lasalle
Chicago, Ill. 60604

Where to Find Umbrellas by Maglia Francesco:

James Smith & Sons
53 New Oxford St.
London, England

Paul Stuart
Madison Avenue & 45th Street
New York, N.Y. 10017

Bergdorf Goodman Men
754 Fifth Avenue
New York, N.Y. 10019