Ties That Bind: A Fable About the Little Tie That Could

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It is not the time of the tie. It is not the time of the felt hat. To some, a tie is not progress. The tie seems rarely modern. It is when you wore, not what you wear. It is, do I have to wear a tie? much more than, how lovely, I shall wear a tie.

It is not the tie’s fault. The tie became a symbol, of politics and labor and privilege and a certain class and restriction. And twisted itself, like its knot, into an obligation and insinuation. It is scoffed at more than beloved. It is shunned more than sheltered.

The tie did not do it, the times did it. The tie is still, at its heart, a lovely ally — a quiet subscription to the history of art and design. It finishes a shirt — an open dress shirt is a shirt without a tie.

A tie is the link to the very heart of pattern. It can signal the points of a bird’s wing, or the ripples of a wave, or the gown of a thousand year old dynasty. It is a Rothko, a Monet, a Byzantine, a cave painting.

The tie is not going away. One day, perhaps, it will quietly slip from its disadvantaged reputation and come back, as a palette of design and color, of craft and talent. Worn properly and well, the tie is the first detail that you see. 

To not wear a tie is sensible and normal and hip. To wear a tie is all of those things and a small bit more.

This is a true story, the story of a little tie. This little tie was born 60 years ago, in a small factory in the Tuscan region of Italy, near the capital Firenze. To be a tie, you must first be a fabric, with many other fabrics. It will not be certain you are even going to be a tie — you could be a shirt or a scarf, a purse or jacket liner, a pillowcase or even pajamas.

There is a small group of flower patterns, little flowers and big flowers, and they come in the brightest colors, sunny and soft colors, greens of course and reds and yellows and blues. The flower patterns seem to stick together and have a certain confidence. They are not loud, like the stripes.

A few of the patterns come in only one edition. The little tie was such a pattern. They called it a harlequin, a pattern of diamond shapes, repeated and repeated, but the color of each diamond, that could be different. The harlequin pattern made everyone smile, even if only a tiny smile and even if they did not realize they felt like smiling and even if they did not know why they felt like smiling.

Many years ago, more than 400 years ago, the harlequin pattern was the pattern of the clown. A serious clown or a silly clown or a foolish clown, it mattered not. They would wear a harlequin costume and that is how you would know they were going to cause trouble and be silly and be slippery and make fun. They might also wear a mask and have very pointed shoes and a high collar and even carry a stick — but it was the diamond pattern that told you they were in the business of making trouble and fun.

The little tie was born in as quiet a harlequin pattern as the harlequin could be. The colors in its pattern were soft and shy, even the blue and the yellow and the red and the green, they each sat quietly in the pattern. 

One day, the buyers came. In preparation, the factory swept the floors and cleared the long wooden tables and restacked the bolts of fabric, so the fabrics would look fresh and new and at their best. The buyers had many needs – linings and shirts and scarves and blouses and ties – and they were in a great hurry. It was already early afternoon and they had two more factories to visit before the end of the day.

But this was a particularly good factory, famous for its patterns and the quality of its material. The buyers were very pleased with the stripes and they loved the flowers so much, they held the fabric to their nose, as if they could smell the flowers deep within. Everyone was very happy, and they were nearly finished, when one of the buyers held up the fabric in the harlequin pattern and asked, “ but what do you think of this one?”

“If you like it, get it” said the head buyer and off he went to the next factory and that is how the little tie was born. 

Three months later, the fabrics arrived at a warehouse in the north of Italy, where they would be cut and sized and sewn into what they would become. There were fabrics from all over Italy that arrived at the warehouse, every manner of smooth and rough and nubby and silky and wild and gentle and quiet and loud. The little tie had never seen so much of the world and did not know it came in such variation.

There was a great deal of waiting at the warehouse. The loveliest flower patterns seemed to be the first to be chosen – off they went to become lovely blouses and, for a few, lovely bathrobes. The stripes went everywhere, lining long jackets and even some briefcases and wallets. But their favorite outcome was to be a tie and they jockeyed and jostled with each other to get into the Becoming a Tie line.

The Tie line was the busiest line in the factory. There were six lines of production, with a person at the head of each line. It was their job to choose a fabric and then make as many ties as possible from its length, sometimes hundreds of ties from one bolt.

The little tie nearly did not become a tie at all. Its harlequin fabric was first chosen to be the liner of a lovely grey woolen jacket and looked so lovely and everyone was so pleased that they made sixteen more of the jackets than they had planned. There was not much of the harlequin fabric left to make into anything.

It was near the end of the day when one of the tie makers noticed the harlequin fabric. She looked closely at it — the soft colors and pattern pleased her and she took it over to her line. She had only enough fabric to make one hundred ties but they were lovely.

NEW YORK

The little tie woke up, so to speak, in New York City. What a loud place New York City is. Everyone, it seemed, talked loudly or looked loud or touched loudly or smelled loud. It was, to the little tie, simply loud and far away from Italy.

There were hundreds of ties about, all folded at the waist and laid out on a long table. People came, mostly men, and held each particular tie up and said, “let me have six of these, and twelve of these, in all three colors, oh, these are wonderful, twelve of these” and they would go through the lineup of ties. Some people chose the little tie but in smaller quantities and with smaller enthusiasm. 

One buyer picked up the little tie and it reminded him of something. He was distracted with the work of running his clothing store and being a husband and raising three young boys and today he felt like he was late for all of his tasks. “No one will buy it but let me have six of this harlequin pattern, put it on the rest of my order” and so, officially, the little tie became a tie, a tie in a shop with other ties, the Big Leagues, Broadway.

At first, it was quite exciting. The ties had their own table. The shirts were right next door and the scarves as well and everyone who came in would look at them, muss them up, hold them up to their neck, lay them out on a jacket or even pant leg. It was a very heady time and the little tie had some moments of true drama. “How does this look?” they would say and everyone would nod or hmm or squeeze their lips in some doubt and indecision. 

But it was a very difficult league for a little tie in a very modest harlequin pattern. And at the end of the fall season, in the dull times of winter, the little tie was taken off the table. And put into a cardboard box, with other ties that had also found it to be a difficult league. It was a discouraging time for the little tie and the company of other ties was even discouraging. And the box smelled a little.

In the middle of February, the little tie was lifted out of the box and laid out again on the table. Not quite as elegantly but at least back on the table, out in the shop, next to a small sign that said SALE. The sign certainly brought people but they seemed a rougher crowd for they handled all the fabrics with less care, picking them up almost without looking and then tossing them back.. By the end of the first day, the tie table was all in a jumble. 

By the fourth day, the tie table had lost much of its elegance. Most of the stripes were gone ( bankers and lawyers!) and no one left had enough OOMPH to bring discipline to the table. The little tie despaired that the smelly box was close. At the end of a Friday, a young man stood over the left-over ties. 

“How lovely” he said, as he softly held the little tie. He added the little tie to the two others he was buying, ( two squawkers, if you want the truth), plus a pair of pants and two shirts and paid for them all with a check that just barely cleared his bank.

For the next couple of days, he wore the squawker ties to work. He knew they were a little loud but he admired their color. No one else at his work wore ties, nor did they have to but he liked it, he liked the wearing of a tie. On the third day, he put the little tie on. It took the folding and tucking perfectly and as he looked at it, he thought, to his surprise, how handsome the little tie was. 

The young man lived in an almost rundown section of the city. As he waited to cross the street, a man in a tattered raincoat and open galoshes ,with two ripped sweaters on, a ragged beard and carefully lugging two overstuffed plastic bags, came shuffling across and just as he was nearly past the young man, he nodded and smiled and said, “nice tie.” 

Two blocks later, the young man caught the subway going downtown. He daydreamed a bit and almost missed his stop and had to hurry to exit at all. He was still hurrying as he came into work but nearly stopped completely when the receptionist said, “Nice tie.”

At the day’s end, the young man met up with his girlfriend — she of course noticed the little tie immediately. He told her the story of finding the tie on the sale table and then finding that people could not help but admire it. She laughed and said, “You are perfect for each other, all it wanted to be was a tie and now with you, it can get out and be a tie!”

It turned out she was more than a girlfriend, and he was more than a boyfriend, and they were married a year later. The little tie, of course, was the tie of honor at the wedding — a proud moment for the young couple and for the tie.

Remarkably, the little tie continued to attract true admirers and the young man could only shake his head when three or four people a day would go out of their way to say, “Nice tie.” He would carefully wear the tie once a week, or for special occasions.

One day, at a cafe, he sat next to the shopkeeper who had sold the little tie to him. He thought about saying something, but the waitress greeted them both and then added, with a smile to him, “Great tie.”

He stopped telling his wife how many people had noticed the little tie. She had other things on her mind, for they now had a young daughter named Nina and would soon have a son named Joe. But he did tell Nina about the little tie — he told her many stories about its magic and she understood perfectly. He told her that people who wanted to be happy were happy to see the little tie. When he would have an important meeting, she would always remind him to wear it. 

Nina was a skinny young girl, but she liked playing baseball with the boys. One day, she asked her dad to try to come to their game on Thursday, it was an important one, and he had not yet seen her play on this team of boys. The games were always in the afternoon, and he was always working.

He knew he had to try. He left work halfway through the afternoon, and he raced to the baseball field, out in the park and got there just as Nina was about to come to bat for the third time. There were a few bleacher seats behind the backstop, and he went up and sat. Nina was just stepping into the batter’s box and he yelled, “Get a hit, Nina,” and she kind of frowned. 

There were two women sitting nearby, with seat cushions and thermoses, smoking cigarettes, and one of them told him flatly, “She never hits.” He looked away — he was mad they were smoking cigarettes at a children’s ballgame and mad they had dismissed his daughter. The young father stood and yelled his daughter’s name again – “NINA! “ and (he could think of nothing else that might work), “NICE TIE.”

Nina laughed, pulled herself together, took a big sigh, patted home plate with her bat, looked back at her dad and hit the next pitch, not hard but pretty hard, for a single, just past the second base bag. The two women both coughed, and one said “You should come more often.”

The little tie enjoyed a long and wonderful career, rescuing incidents of little humor, times of little hope and moments that were slipping away unnoticed. The tie was always quietly a factor.

When the young man would travel, the tie was part of the assembled equipment. It sat, folded, next to the passports, the wallets, the keys and the itinerary. Somehow, the customs inspectors at the airport seemed less ferocious once they had said, “Nice tie!”

The little tie loved to travel – the great mixup of people and colors and customs and formalities. It was much more unpredictable than a typical work day. The excitement of new sights on the way and new bumps and rocks in the road. People to hear, people to touch.

The young man always wore a tie when he was flying on a commercial airline. Typically, he would choose a tie that already had a few damages from food and stain — it was tricky to eat on a plane, silly to inflict more risk on a good silk tie. But now, of course, he would only wear the little tie. In the close confines of a crowded airplane, the little tie was a decided advantage. The young man ate very carefully and handed the various drinks, from the aisle, with particular care.

One winter day, there was a problem. The plane sat, out on the tarmac, seemingly unable to move. You could feel the tension in the maintenance crew that rushed about and in the cabin crew, as they held their smiles closely. The young man was seated beside a grandmother. She was flying, for the first time in several years, to a gathering of her children and grandchildren.

“I am afraid this business of flying is becoming too difficult for me,” she told the young man. “It once felt very special but now it seems more mean and crowded than special. Why are we sitting out here on the runway — what do you think the problem could be?”

He honestly had no idea what the problem was but he thought he could be a distraction and began telling her stories about the little tie. He told the story of his daughter getting a hit in baseball. He told the story of protesters causing all kinds of trouble but laughing when they met the little tie — “Cool tie, man!” He told her of the meetings he had gone to, important ones, where the tie seemed the only voice of reason.

“Young man, you are very kind to tell me these tales – and they have indeed distracted me from worrying. I shall tell them to my grandchildren. And I shall keep your true secret a secret. You are obviously an air marshall, in disguise as a passenger. It has made me feel much safer. In truth, I could tell by the tie.”

That made the little tie smile.

The young man and the little tie were together for years and eventually, they grew old, a little frayed, as they say, at the edges. But they did take one last walk, just to see. It would be fine if no one said a word. It was a late Saturday in October and nearly dark when they came out of the park, and the man could only smile. How silly it is to take a tie for a walk. The little tie thought it was silly as well. But lovely to get some air.

They hurried now, toward the lights. There was no time left in that day for musing, they had work to do.

A woman who was blowing her nose on the way into the Pioneer Square 7-11 early this morning saw me coming down First Avenue.

” Young man, I love the tie, sweetie.”

“Thank you, ” I said.

Now I am 75, so not young, and remember when my father bought a tie for me, a Zegna from Butch Blum, 40 years ago. My father was a clothier and at one time was as good as any in the land, he knew fabric from all the angles of sight and touch. When he said “pick a tie” and I picked this one, he slightly frowned, I remember it exactly, but later that day, wearing the tie, he said, “now I see, it is a helluva tie.”

I put it on this morning when I saw the spring rain and the grey, after so many days of sun, and thought it would be just a little lift. Tales of ties, and time, of mornings and all of us.

To make a day of a day.

My brother in law, Jim, who died unkindly and unexpectedly four years ago, loved his ties. This was one of his favorites, an Armani from the ’90s. I wore it this morning, as a nod, and went into the bus tunnel at Benaroya early morning. One of the people down there, who was not waiting for a light rail, said, “great tie“ as I went by. Salut, all of you, salut. What a tie.

Peter Miller
Peter Miller
Peter Miller is an architect and the proprietor of Peter Miller Books in Pioneer Square. His book "How to Wash the Dishes" written with wife Colleen has just been published.

12 COMMENTS

  1. Great piece! My father, a Seattle lawyer, always gave his tie to anyone who complimented it. Sometimes he gave it to them on the spot. Sometimes they had to wait until he got back from court or some other meeting for which he needed to retain it. By the end of his life his closet contained only a few dozen ties, not a single one that anyone would compliment. I never knew whether they were simply the residue of his practice of giving away ties that others complimented, or whether he eventually began buying ties that he knew he’d never have to give away. In any event, I often (not always; he was a better man than I am) followed his generous practice myself — back when I wore ties.

  2. The weirdest garment ever. Is it to tie up your collar? Is it to keep you from bending over, lest your tie fall into the soup? Is it a sort of symbolic leash?

    I like the ornamental aspect, really. I have a eye catching red and yellow tie that I got in the Hawaiian Islands, and I have some lasting memories of positive reactions. But why did we have to settle on this weird way to do it? This ungainly appendage that flaps absurdly in the breeze if you aren’t wearing at least a jacket and preferably a waistcoat.

  3. I enjoyed reading this story. Some of the ties in my closet might also have a history like that of the little harlequin tie, as they are Italian silk and date from the 60’s. People may think it odd that the author would choose to tell the story of a tie rather than some more substantial piece of masculine attire, such as a suit, a pair of shoes or an old but reliable Bulova, but I think it’s a perfect way to tell a story that spans many years – the story of a piece of clothing that never goes out of style.

  4. A wonderful story about the humble necktie! In recent travels I learned that the tie originated from a shop called Kravata in Zagreb, Croatia. Today Kravata is noteworthy for the giant tie that graces its exterior signage.

  5. Politicians always wear ties. Do you think this may have something to do with it? Trump’s red one sometimes hangs down to his thighs. Not a nice tie.

  6. I love how you make small things matter. I sometimes wonder when rock music will end, and something else begin, or when, ties, which were around before I was born, will be replaced by something new. Hopefully it will be by something equally beautiful!

  7. Stories like this one — something unexpected — are one of the pleasures of reading postalley. Thanks to you Peter Miller and the editors.

  8. One of the (many) reasons I married my husband is that he’s a tie guy down to his bones. He has a dazzling collection of ties, all nice, none squawkers. Charlie is often the only person in the room wearing a tie, and I couldn’t begin to estimate the number of times I’ve heard people say, “Nice tie,” to him.
    Once, when we were driving back to Seattle from Spokane, we got a call from a friend who was introducing a distinguished science luminary who was speaking that evening at Town Hall. When he realized that the occasion probably required a tie and he didn’t have one, he decided that Charlie was his best chance of finding the perfect tie on short notice. We delivered the tie (dusty blue with a very subtle pattern of pale steel-blue zebras–yes zebras; our daughters picked it out) to him in time for the talk. Charlie told him to keep it and our friend still wears it, on the very rare occasion when he feels it necessary. He also has many fine qualities, but he’s not a tie guy.

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