The other evening while waiting for the butcher to tenderize some lamb, I noticed the shop’s curious short-hand for describing its stock of wine. Little placards had been affixed beneath each selection with the following choices: Fruity, Spicy, Earthy, Silky, Flowery, Racy. Red, white or pink, for each bottle one or several of these terms had been circled. Other customers happily went about filling their baskets, but I stood contemplatively, suddenly aware of how abstract the task of choosing is. Of course none of the wines were actually spicy or silken, and what could racy possibly mean—that the wine is partial to skimpy undergarments?
Of course language only provides two options: the literal and the figurative, and the literal would make for a rather scientific description of esters and volatile compounds. So we rely upon the figurative to convey the complex experience of wine, which would be fine if we could all agree what earth tastes like. Wine professionals largely can, and they routinely use familiar figurative terms to accurately conduct their evaluations. The hobbyist is left to establish his or her own lexicon, and I have never been in a room with two who can agree entirely upon a wine’s profile. In describing sensory experience, the gray area is vast and even the broadest terms can become unmoored.
Describing the often ineffable qualities of cloth during the bespoke process presents a similar problem. In fact, many of the same figurative terms used for wine are tossed about when confronted by cloth bunches: dry, body, crisp, refined. To some these terms are ironclad and when crossed about what is specifically meant, exchanges can become prickly. I’ve even perceived discrepancies in meaning of commonly used words amongst professionals. But this only happens when forced to describe their products for promotional material and such; behind the scenes is the science of cloth-finishing, replete with its own semi-scientific vocabulary, unencumbered by the novice’s notions of drape and durability.
The problem in selecting cloth with desirable properties is particularly dependent upon experience: those with it struggle to convey accurate or consistent descriptions to those without, and those without rely too heavily upon the received wisdom of those with. A vicious cycle if I’ve even seen one—and no doubt responsible for many garments that do not see the light of day. Some of us novices are fortunate; under the vast experience of my tailor, Chris Despos, choosing a dog seems very unlikely.
At the moment, my daughter’s favorite bedtime book is an edited collection of drawings featuring a baby encountering edible and inedible things. The idea is that the audience should decide whether the thing in question is yummy (corn, for instance) or yucky (earthworms). Perhaps after the two-hundredth reading the real message occurred to me: acquiring experience is a similarly binary process. A wine, a cloth, or whatever else is either yummy, or yucky. Crucially, both is impossible. The results of your choices—whether strapping Cabernets or mellow Dolcettos, whether gossamer super cloths or dense hopsacks—are what is called preference. And there it was, hiding in plain site all this time.