How to Be the Ultimate Technical Fashion Designer and Other Esoteric Skills

Technical fashion design as a ‘career’ is a pretty new concept (and suddenly everyone wants technical designers.)  Could it be, maybe, because a good technical designer has the ability to get product manufactured with minimal sidesteps and decreased wastage (and therefore, lower costs?) GASP! what a concept.

Anyway, I was inventorying my skill set recently and discovered that I really do have some very nonstandard skills.

Beyond the sort of basics one expects (e.g., Photoshop and illustrator, Excel, and an array of design-ish sorts of software). there’s some moderately esoteric stuff: Designing and programming Excel forms, sometimes with the built-in tools, sometimes with Visual Basic. It’s the only thing I can do with Visual Basic, but I do it really well. If you asked me to do anything else with Visual Basic, I’d suddenly discover a screaming need for coffee in another state. But developing programmed Excel templates for fashion design collection development, yeah, mami is down with it and mad skilled.

Visual Basic, however, is a skill one might expect to find out there. Let’s look at a really weird-ass skill: French table-cutting.

There’s really only two ways to handle leather for finer leather gloves: pull-down or table cut. Pull-down is what is used for probably 99.99% of the finer leather gloves produced today. It’s easy and requires no more skill than to lay your leather out on your cutting table and spread it so there are no wrinkles. That’s all the prep that goes into the leather before it’s cut.

French table-cutting, however, is a skill that requires practice.  Used to be, finer leather gloves were cut from ultra thin (glove weight) leather, usually from lamb or kid. (Baby animal skins, in other words).

Now, the thing about skins from baby animals is they are very soft and tender and squishy (elastic). Skins from older animals are thick, tougher and less elastic, because they’ve gotten their growth in. Baby animals, not so much. So you have this soft, elastic, tender leather and you want to make gloves out of it.  You could go ahead and pull-down cut the leather, but when the leather was made up in a glove and worn, what you would quickly find is that the leather would get baggy and droopy and not fit well, especially around stress areas like fingers, knuckles, palms, and the thumb crotch.  This is because pulled down leather still has all that squishy elasticity left in it.

French table cutting is a method by which the elastic squishiness is mechanically removed through a series of process that the table cutter performs on the leather.  To whit, the leather is gently moistened to loosen and soften the fibers. Then, the leather is carefully straked over the edge of the cutting table. (Sometimes people use an actual frame called a strake, hence the term, ‘straking’, but strakes are even less common than people who know how to table cut.)

Straking is nothing more than gently grasping the leather skin in two hands and carefully pulling it from one end to the other over the strake or table edge.  The slight heat generated by being pulled over a hard edge coupled with the energy of the pulling helps remove the extra squishy elasticity from the leather – in other words, you are hardening and toughening the leather.

Sounds easy, right? Not so much. You have to learn to gauge how much elasticity to remove – the French call the reduction amount ‘zolles’ and they measure it in length. As you remove the squishiness, the leather gets a little longer.  The key to being an expert is to be able to judge the age and quality of your skin, and to be able to consistently harden and lengthen the skin by straking. Because fine gloving leather is very thin (1/2-1 ounce weight) and the wetting process makes it delicate, French table cutting requires a good eye, careful application of strength, and a good sense of when you’ve removed enough squish. It’s very easy to rip a gloving skin if you pull the leather over the strake too hard (yes, guilty as charged!) and this is a skill where practice does make perfect!

And the amount of squish you want to remove isn’t all that much, on average, you want to ‘grow’ your skin 7-9 zolles or so. I don’t have my glover ruler handy, but as I dimly recall a zolle was a little short of a millimeter. so, you want to make your leather skin ‘grow’ by perhaps 1-2% overall. The precise amount of course is determined by the skin itself.

There’s a nuance you want to get to, where the leather retains enough elasticity so it will fit well and conform to the wearer’s hand when made up as a glove, and yet not be too elastic and squishy so that the glove becomes baggy and droopy by the end of the first wearing.

French table cutting is just one of those weird-ass skills I picked up along the way. I don’t even recall why I thought it would be a good idea to learn it other than at one point I did actually make gloves from scratch, and why I thought THAT was a good idea I will never know.

But weirdly, I use this skill tangentially when I am evaluating leathers for pull-down cutting – because the amount of elasticity in a leather will determine how it will wear as a garment or accessory.