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Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Meet Robert Keyte - A Very English Interview With A Very English Silk Tie Company

I was introduced to Robert Keyte some time ago by an English silk printer who is, to my understanding, one of the backbones behind English printed silks. I am inclined not to mention his name because it would put a few noses out of joint. Suffice to say his silks have been worn by the Duchess Of Cambridge amongst other well-heeled Britons. I am a big fan of English printed silks, only that I am not sure that they necessarily fit in with what we created at Le Noeud Papillon. Often they are a little dusty to the eye and the designs, especially from English brands like Drakes Of London, sell a design ethos which is perhaps too stiff for my taste. Think of a Ralph Lauren tie in an aged yellow with pheasants flying across it. Think of little fly fisherman on a stream or a very basic floral pattern on a subdued pink. They are extraordinarily beautiful in their conservative and classic way, and often our customers complain that we don't do enough ties in this vein. I agree, we don't, but mostly because brands like Robert Keyte do them well enough already. Even E. Marinella ties, I was told by the team at Marinella in Hong Kong, are made from English printed silks. The biggest buyer of Robert Keyte silks, is in fact Italian workrooms. The mind boggles. Yes, at the top of their trade in Italy, are tie makers that purchase their printed silks from England. And the height of Italian sophistication and style is an Italian industrialist wearing a tie made from English printed silks. Well, so it seems.

It was great of Robert Keyte to find the time to answer some questions in between a trip to Japan for business. His answers are about as English as they come. Succinct. Stiff upper lip. No time for bullshit. By the tone and brevity of his answers he seems to me the very essence of 'Keep Calm & ...." . Without further ado, Robert Keyte.

Robert, I have always found it so astonishingly difficult pronouncing English names of things and places because it always seems to me that the English like to catch you out by changing the pronunciation of something just slightly just so that they can check if you are a local or not. I recall ‘Beauchamp Place’ was the first time it happened, I went full French but then my English friends made it sound like they were going to the beach. Your name, I would read it like ‘kite’ but it in actual fact is sounds like ‘Keats’ as in the poet but you drop the ‘s’. As an Englishman, do you find that you have trouble with this in your own country? For example, do you find yourself in a village and go to pronounce the name and the townsfolk start laughing?

With regards to how you pronounce my surname, it is as you suggest like Keats the poet but without the 's'. Secondly with regards to English pronunciation, I don't suffer particularly but maybe that its due to being a native.

You have been working in your current craft since the late 1960’s I understand; can you tell us some of the significant changes in technology that have occurred in printing silks in those years? Clearly the computer is one, but can you explain to our readers how that, for example, has changed your business?

When I started in the late 60's printing on silk was by hand block and screen printing but as screen printing was advancing hand block was on the decline. This was mainly due to  the fact it took a 5 year apprenticeship to learn how to hand block print and also pins were used for pattern registration. This was unacceptable to clients and lastly the slow process was not cost effective. Currently digital printing is now overtaking screen printing, in speed, accuracy and small minimums.

I am very proud to be making in Australia as I understand you are equally proud to be making in England, but there is always a temptation to move production over to a low cost country given the improvements in technology and production quality out of these countries. Can you tell our readers about the pressures businesses like ours face in a growingly competitive market place?

The pressures are always from Italy and China, hence it is important to offer high quality fabrics, flexibility in design , quantities and made in England is an asset.

British designs are so British that I have to be careful not to go near them because they seem to belong to British brands and those that print, weave and sew for them. Even when you see American prep labels borrow from the British, or when Italians replicate them for their customers, it lacks the same authenticity. Can you tell us and show us some of the hounds, horses, pheasants and paisley designs that really suggest something very British and do you think this is a function to some extent of the printing and weaving houses that remain in Britain?

British designs, compared to Italian have a masculine hand whilst the Italians have a fine and more feminine hand. Our largest export market is to Italian makers.

The American menswear writer Will Boehlke once told me in an interview that he believed that one of the reasons British men and women were inclined to be subdued in their dress is that after the First World War there were so few men and so many women that out of respect for the fallen, the men did not wear anything too bright and that a man didn’t need to bother wearing anything bright in order to attract a lady given the shortage of men. It seemed bizarre to me, like an old wives’ tale, so I thought you might be able to shed some light as to whether this is the reason that often British ties and accessories seem to be less razzle dazzle than their Italian counterparts.

I am afraid I cannot agree with Will Boehlke's point of view, the British are just more conservative in their dress.

Can you tell our readers about the work that is involved from the process of choosing a design to colouring it and then printing the silk? Obviously with screen printing there are many constraints both in colour and in definition. Can you explain to readers how difficult this process can be to get right?

We create two collections per annum for Spring/Summer and Autumn/Winter. We have an in house design team that  produce the artwork using a CAD system. For each design we will create up to 24 colour combinations which are then presented to our clients. Once the design and colourways are approved we give instructions for the screens to be engraved, the silk fabric will then be put on to a self adhesive 24 metre table. This enables the printer to move the screens manually down the table without the fabric moving, whilst printing the design on to the cloth. After printing, the silk is steamed, washed and a gum finish is applied. This gives the silk the luxurious feel we know and love. Unfortunately this traditional technique is liable to cause imperfections however in my opinion that is the beauty of a hand made product.

Between the disciplines of printing and weaving silks, you seem to have chosen printing over weaving. Can you explain why you have a preference for screen printing and is this a cultural phenomenon as companies such as Drakes tend to also do a lot of printing of silks?

 I am biased towards print: As I started as a printer and weave came later. Also I personally feel that a printed tie has a softer quality. Plus printed silk is more versatile as it can be made into ties, scarves, gowns, pocket squares etc.

Woven jacquard silk tie versus printed silk twill pocket square - source: Robert Keyte

 Are you open to the public and can you tell is some of the more enjoyable things that there are to do around East Sussex if someone was ever to take the day trip from London?

Sadly we do not have our own shop, however we are based in the beautiful East Sussex countryside near to the border of Kent. We are lucky enough to over look the village of Bodiam which boasts its own castle, steam railway and offers boat trips along the river Rother.  This attracts more than 90,000 visitors each year.

SILKFINAL1280 720 from Robert Streeter on Vimeo.

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