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Originally published Sunday, July 21, 2013 at 5:06 AM

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‘The Coat Route’: what it takes to make a $50,000 overcoat

Journalist Meg Lukens Noonan’s new book “The Coat Route” tells the story behind the making of the finest of fine garments — a $50,000 overcoat.

Special to The Seattle Times

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“The Coat Route: Craft, Luxury and Obsession on the Trail of a $50,000 Coat”

by Meg Lukens Noonan

Spiegel & Grau, 244 pp., $27

What, exactly, goes into the making of a $50,000 overcoat? The question intrigued journalist Meg Lukens Noonan — and the result was a trip around the world for Noonan, and a delightful book for the rest of us.

Fourth-generation tailor John Cutler, of Sydney, Australia, made the ultimate coat for one of his wealthy clients: crafted from vintage vicuña cashmere and hand-printed silk lining, detailed with perfect buttons from a 150-year-old English firm, sewn entirely by hand, from patterns created specially for this garment.

The finished coat, shown in a small photograph, looks elegant but unremarkable; its lines so classic as to render it almost invisible. But its story, told with first-person flair by Noonan, is a stunner.

We watch vicuñas being sheared in Peru; live la dolce vita in Italy with a legendary silk designer; tour textile finishers and button manufacturers in the English countryside; visit Sydney, where Cutler tends to his small but devoted clientele; and finally find the coat tossed over the back of a couch in the posh Vancouver apartment of its owner, a wine-company executive who’s mad for tailoring.

Along the way, we learn that it took silk makers centuries to learn how to tint the fabric without destroying it; that Louis XIV spent $5 million on buttons during his reign; and that gentlemen in bespoke suits protested the recent opening of an Abercrombie & Fitch in London’s Saville Row by chanting “All we are saying is give three-piece a chance.”

Some of this tale feels elegiac: That struggling English button factory must compete with far cheaper plastic buttons from China; and Cutler sadly notes that his business will end soon, as his sons have no interest in tailoring. But “The Coat Route” celebrates those who work with their hands, creating something beautiful and lasting.

Moira Macdonald is the movie critic for The Seattle Times.

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