Consider This: The Craft of the Umbrella

By Regina Connell.

Beautiful umbrella. Tokyo Rain: Yoshinori Mizutani via It's Nice That

Tokyo Rain: Yoshinori Mizutani via It’s Nice That

Living well = fewer + better … tools for living. The right knives in the kitchen, things like a great hairbrush (don’t underestimate this), the right t-shirt, well-made shoes that last—and that go with everything. But what about the brolly, bumbershoot, aka the umbrella?

As a Californian, the umbrella hasn’t played a particularly big role in my life. When it rains, I grab one from the street vendor (because I’ve left the umbrellas that I DO own in my car, house, or somewhere on public transit). Those street vendor numbers are cheap, nasty, and short-lived—surviving one storm. Maybe. More likely, it blows inside out and then snaps when the first really big gust of wind hits. Then, I trip over the ones that people have thrown into the street in disgust after theirs have fallen apart.

Not only does this leave me wet, poorer, and irritated, but it’s not particularly good for the environment, either. According to Gingko, an Italian umbrella manufacturer that wants to make a more sustainable umbrella, the number of umbrellas discarded incorrectly each year could build 25 Eiffel Towers. Gingko may be missing the point, perhaps, but it’s an interesting stat.

For a person who’s trying to build a life with better tools for living—ones that last, are made with care and quality, yada yada—this is pretty damned unacceptable. And given my love of the wet stuff, and my pleasure in it all, there’s no need to cut into that pleasure and shortchange myself with a crap, ugly umbrella that wastes my money, time, and eye. So now, with the approach of our dry season, I see summer as the opportunity to rectify the wrong and find myself a proper umbrella.

I started with a little research to find out why umbrellas are such crap, and of course went down one of those internet worm holes.

Discovery No. 1. Umbrellas seem to be a guy thing? But no articles on women’s sites. Why is having a proper umbrella the sole province of men? The idea definitely seems to be out there that only men care about quality and longevity, leaving us womenfolk to focus on trend-driven fripperies. Irritating.

Discovery No. 2. Umbrella making is a serious craft: the classic fusion of art and engineering. The best practitioners of this craft are the Brits (unsurprisingly) and the Italians (more surprisingly). In England, the tradition is old and venerable: London’s umbrella market was already well-established in the 1820’s, and some of the oldest stores are still around today, such as the venerable James Smith and Sons, which dates back to 1830. (For a lovely introduction to them, read this piece from Another).

Most firms, like James Smith, or Fox Umbrellas (1868), or Swaine Adeney Brigg (1750), or Italy’s Francisco Maglia still largely handcraft their umbrellas, a process that includes approximately 120 steps for the more hand-made versions. (See this for an overall description of the umbrella making process and some decent trivia.)

Walking into one of these temples of dryness (though still very much alive) is a sensory experience—certainly visual, with the profusion of colors (mostly traditional colors and terribly discreet patterns) and carved handles of all types (think badger, dog, horse heads, etc.), walking sticks (another traditional fixture of these companies and stores), and the smell of wood and wax and varnishes lingering in the air. It is definitely not all utility.

But it all revolves around some basics. In the land of hand-crafted umbrellas, handles are often hand-carved (if wood) or hand-stitched (if leather); shafts are made out of solid wood (or two pieces surrounding a steel shaft); the all-important metal frames, and the all-important task of attaching the canopies (the fabric bit, made of everything from polyester to poly-twill to silk) to the frames.

If longevity is what you’re after (yes, please), it all starts with design. While the automatic foldable ones are incredibly convenient (and I do love the solid thud of a good one when it springs open), they’re almost inherently flawed because they must fold—a natural point of failure. The traditional stick umbrellas avoid that point of failure. So, if the idea is to have something that lasts a lifetime, then stick may be the way to go.

Discovery No. 3.  Having spent a fair amount of time looking at these things, I have discovered that I do not find them terribly attractive. Yes they’re beautiful in the way that I’ve always felt about opera: lovely, honorable, but ultimately not my thing. And I did once own a “proper” umbrella. As a teen I received one made by Swaine Adeney Brigg as a gift from my Anglophilic father. A petite version (presumably for “ladies”), it was burgundy with a polished wood handle, my initials on the metal collar. Terribly, terribly proper. Embarrassed by this odd gift, I stashed it in back of a closet and managed to hold onto it into adulthood—mostly because I never used it. Once I started using it, I promptly lost it (appropriately) on the London Underground.

These things happen for a reason, as we all know. And in my case, I think the problem was that I didn’t love it. (Burgundy?) And I think that’s why I’d left it behind: it wasn’t a part of me, hadn’t really bonded with my consciousness. That umbrella felt like I was joining a tradition, rather than the tradition joining me. A little too John Steed. Not enough Emma Peel. (Of course, she mostly carried a gun, not an umbrella. Tells you tons.)

If I’m going to splash out on a proper umbrella, as I think I should, my next umbrella is going to be big, bad, and handcrafted, but it’s also got to be beautiful all the way through, from handle to canopy. There is so much potential for beauty in color, in form. And for all their practicality, they can be seductive with their ability to hide and obscure, showing only glimpses of what is beneath.

London Undercover Navy Constellation Interior Umbrella.

London Undercover Navy Constellation Interior Umbrella.

London Undercover King of Clubs Umbrella

And that’s where an modern umbrella maker like London Undercover may come into the picture. More modern colors and patterns, a sense that a little individuality might be a good thing. I’m particularly smitten with the idea of a double layer umbrella, where the inside pattern is different from the outside.

Yes, of course, truly bespoke is theoretically an option, but perhaps I’m not quite ready for the investment of time and treasure.

It can be the most exquisitely crafted thing on earth, but if I don’t love it and want to care for it and keep it (basically get a little obsessive about it), all the lovely handcraftedness in the world won’t save it. And that’s a waste.

So bring on the rain. Come the next rainy season, I hope I’ll be ready with something exquisitely made, beautiful, colorful (yes), and annoyingly big. (Oh, and since I can be prone to losing things, I might also want to give it my new brolly its own accessory: one of these.) Maybe I’ll do what the ladies in Asia do to keep the dermatologist at bay: start using the umbrella as a parasol (the original use of an umbrella, don’t you know).

In need of some more inspiration? Find some lovely boards on Pinterest. And see this: a beautiful look at Tokyo in the rain by photographer Yoshinori Mizutani courtesy of It’s Nice That.

 

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