Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Shelby Knot

An article about Don Shelby and his role in the popularization of "the first new knot in fifty years" from MR Magazine:
How did a local news anchor in Minneapolis become the public face for the “first new knot for men in 50 years”? Pure accident.

As the only living man a neck tie knot is named for, Minneapolis television news anchor Don Shelby should be happier. “This has been the bane of my life,” he told me late last summer. “Please tell them,” Shelby says of my readers, “that I give all credit to Jerry and none to myself.” The knot is known most diplomatically as the Pratt-Shelby, and it was shown to Mr. Shelby about twenty years ago in the television news studio by a 92-year-old former U.S. Commerce Department employee named Jerry Pratt.

Shelby, a two-time Peabody Award-winning anchorman at the Twin Cities’ CBS affiliate, WCCO, had been getting messages at work from someone regarding his tie, but he ignored them. “You could be talking about death and destruction and war, and yet 80 percent of the phone calls an anchor person receives are about his appearance,” he laughs. But one day, probably in about 1986, Shelby had a visitor at the studio. Jerry Pratt refused to leave until he could fix Shelby’s tie. He’d been seeing it on the air, and he didn’t like it.

He was, Shelby recalls, “the best-dressed man I’ve ever seen I my life.” And he walked right up to the anchor and undid his tie. Shelby was stunned. “He attacked me and attacked my tie! He untied my tie when I’m standing there and then he re-tied it and said ‘now doesn’t that look better?’” Maybe it did, but Shelby only humored him at first.

“He took it off and made me tie it, and I’ll be damned if the dimple didn’t – whatever it was – it went in there as soon as you tied it. You didn’t have to mess with it. Some people have to, as they say in the business, ‘dress their tie’ as soon as they’ve tied it so they can create a dimple below the knot. Well the sucker just goes bang, and it’s in there and the dimple’s right there. So I went, ‘all right, I’m going to tie this knot for the rest of your life!’”

Jerry Pratt, who died three years later, had apparently learned the knot in military school around the age of twelve. It was a variation on the Windsor in which the tie starts facing seams out. The end result is a perfectly symmetrical knot that looks fantastic with spread collars. Shelby sketched directions for how to tie the then unnamed knot for his St. Paul shirtmaker, but didn’t think anything of it – until the New York Times called in 1989.

Reporter William Schmidt had been sent a postcard with carefully crafted instructions on how to tie the “Shelby Knot” from the St. Paul shirtmaker, who had taken it upon himself to distribute what he called “the first new knot for men in over 50 years” to people all over the country, including men’s magazines. When it landed on Schmidt’s desk, he checked it out. Shelby remembers the reporter telling him that he had researched knots in Italy, and that the “Shelby” was “the newest knot in the world.”

“What’s that mean?” Shelby asked the reporter. It meant the front page of the Times.

“He proclaimed it the newest knot in the world, and me being the only living person after whom a knot is named, the Duke of Windsor being dead!” Shelby laughs, still amazed.

What followed was a whirlwind of press coverage from Minnesota to Europe. “I have a box somewhere that has something on the order of 700 articles that were written on the Shelby knot, whether it’s Gentlemen’s Quarterly, or Playboy, or Esquire,” Shelby said. People Magazine did a story, so did the London Daily Telegraph. He even appeared on the CBS Morning Show to demonstrate the knot for Harry Smith. But through it all, he maintained that he wasn’t the one that invented the knot. “It’s not my knot. It’s Jerry’s knot,” he says.

But he still gets a lot of mileage out of it; now Shelby uses it for benefit auctions. “Auction off a tie, and I’ll teach the guy how to tie it,” he says to the numerous charities that solicit his help. They take him up on it: “It takes a great deal of my life just to go around visiting people I don’t know, teaching them how to tie a tie.”

Today, a simple Internet search will yield about 1,300 hits for the words “Shelby Knot,” but most experts seem to be calling it either the Pratt-Shelby or the Shelby-Pratt. And it wasn’t entirely new, it turns out. What was heralded by some as the “first new knot in 50 years” was merely a variation on the “Nicky,” an older knot invented in Milan, to others. “Since then I’ve run into, oh, a hundred thousand people who’ve said, ‘yeah, I know that knot,’” Shelby told me.

Don Shelby ties the knot every day. In fact, he hasn’t knotted his tie any other way since the day in 1986 that Jerry Pratt showed him the technique. “I tie it every day. Jerry’s long gone, so I’m going to tie it until the day I die.”

--Harry Sheff
For instructions on the Shelby Knot, search for it online or go here.


Blogger Marit Chrislock-Lauterbach said...

Hi Harry,
Great blog site! I don't know if you remember me - my parents live down the block from yours, and we may have met a few times a few years ago! :) I enjoy your writing and commentary. Very interesting article - my Dad is a big fan of "The Windsor" knot himself, and schooled me about the importance of a "smart" tie when I was younger. Neat to learn something new about Don Shelby and folks back in the Twin Cities. Keep up the great work - I enjoy your writing!

1:41 PM  

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