The Making of an Icon: The Hermès Silk Scarf | SENATUS



The Making of an Icon: The Hermès Silk Scarf

13 November 2018

By Allyson Klass

One of the most sought-after accessories from the French brand since its first square silk scarf or carré was created in 1937 (named Jeu des Omnibus et des Dames Blanches, see below) by Robert Dumas, it's interesting to note that it was not his intention to create it as a fashion item.

"From the beginning, the Hermès carré was imagined as an object, and not as an accessory," his grandson and artistic director of the Hermès group, Pierre-Alexis Dumas, recalls.

Although Robert Dumas was fascinated with the rigour of printing on silk and designing was his true passion, directing the house of Hermès didn't allow him to realistically do everything. This led to him calling on talented artists to create memorable collaborations, which the house still does today.

"Carrés are not produced as works of art, but as our own particular way of employing a talent," explains Pierre-Alexis Dumas.

With its 90 cm sides and rolled hem, the seemingly innocuous blank canvas has passed through the hands of thousands or so artisans who have created completely original motifs over the past 81 years.

To date, over 2,000 designs have been created by more than 100 artists commissioned by Hermès, a testament that the creation of this silk square doesn't go round in circles.

The Creation of An Hermès Carré

As with all things Hermès, the process of producing a carré is intensive, laborious and painstakingly detailed, taking upwards of 18 months to create just one scarf. Here's an insight to the making of the fashion icon.

Renowned for its incomparable softness, Hermès carré silk hails from a Brazilian mill. A fascinating fact: A carré needs 450km of silk thread, which makes the length of thread needed for 1,000 Hermès silk scarves equal to the distance between the Earth and the Moon.

Engraving A Design

Each season, more than 10 new paper designs arrive at the Lyon workshops, waiting to be transposed onto silk. At the engraving workshop, the scarf design starts off as a life-sized mock-up painted by hand on a 90 x 90cm card, where it is broken down into as many films as it has different colours.

This is where the engraver's skill comes into play – interpreting the design's nuances and translating them into combinations of colours, which determine the number of films needed. Bent over a light box, he traces each colour on a transparent film placed over the mock-up of the design. The work is time consuming – a design with 30 colours requires 400 to 600 hours of engraving, while a more complex one can command up to 2,000 hours.

From Print to Final Hem

Colourists propose colour schemes using the mock-up, producing 10 or so different harmonies for each scarf design before arriving at the winning combination that will be printed. This step is so labour-intensive that it can take up to four months to register all the nuances of a motif on frames that are each different. Armed with a chart of about 75,000 hues, colourists must also give the recipe for each hue – the exact proportion of pigments, and binder or fixer. Behind the magic of the colours, there is chemistry and mathematics.

Next, the work of the craftsmen in charge of making the colours using the colourists' formulae is still largely done by hand. Cooking pots, mixers and precision scales are used to “cook” the mixtures of pigments and vegetable gums that simmer on stoves. 

After the colours are prepared, rolls of silk twill are stretched over the printing tables and each screen or frame is applied one after another, leaving a new colour behind after each one passes until the final pattern is built. Once the colours are dry, they are fixed by steam cooking; washing, to draw off the residue of glue and unfixed colours; and finally drying, which is carried out flat on a hot air carpet.

The final step, which gives the Hermès carré its unique rolled hem – the roulotté – is done by hand. Finished in 30 minutes by an experienced seamstress, she uses silk thread of an identical colour to that of the border, creates a hem on the right side, and finely rolls the edges of the scarf.

Fashion and the Carré

The creative minds from the silk division regularly shake up the carré – whether in its size or fabric – and they've covered both bases this season with the introduction of Carré Wash and Twillon.

The Carré Wash 90 x 90cm is washed by Hermès artisans, each piece undergoing a special sequence of treatments: A unique soaking and washing process that softens and transforms the twill into a relaxed, velvety soft, and ever so slightly faded piece. The exclusive treatment also gives each scarf a unique patina with an irresistible downy touch. Not only does the slight vintage look and feel make it perfect for daily wear, the scarf is machine washable and safe for the dryer.

Joining the small-format family is the Twillon. A longer, slimmer cousin (193 x 3cm) of the Twilly, the pretty silk ribbon is made from this season's scarves and lined with plain twill. With your imagination as the limit, wear it any way you want as it's the perfect illustration of the creative fantasy of Hermès and silk.

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