With overseas summer holidays on hold, we’re all enjoying a little more time soaking-up the sun in our back gardens. To keep cool and protect your skin from the sun’s harsh rays, you can’t beat an outdoor parasol or umbrella. And these super-stylish and colourful options are just the ticket! Now, where’s our piña colada?
What’s the difference between a parasol and an umbrella?
When is it a parasol and when is it an umbrella? There is no definitive answer. ‘Parasol’ derives from the Italian ‘parasole’ – literally, ‘for the’ (para) ‘sun’ (sole). Confusingly, ‘umbrella’ comes from the Latin umbra meaning ‘shade’ with the ‘elle’ denoting smallness. While now we associate the umbrella’s shade with rain, the Romans used umbraculum to refer to both. Slang names range from ‘bumbershoots’ in America to ‘gamps’ in Britain. Some suggest one way to differentiate is to look at the handle; the parasol’s should be straight. But as this silver-handled piece made for the Maharajah of Dungarpur in Rajasthan in 1947 shows, parasols with semicircular handles also exist. The debate rumbles on…
Chestnut parasol in Orange Stripe
£520, The Conran Shop
Barlow Tyrie Napoli round parasol
£1,115, John Lewis & Partners
Parasol and base
£560, Garden Trading
Puebla macramé parasol
£270, Maisons du Monde
Printed tassel parasol
£198, Oliver Bonas
Big William parasol with William Morris fabric
£755, East London Parasol Company
£2,580, Sunbeam Jackie
£298, Raj Tent Club
Technical terms: the parts of a parasol
Canopy – The fabric, paper or other material that forms the main protective element of the parasol. The earliest were made from palm leaves or linen.
Rib – The ribs hold the canopy in its stretched position and are attached by stretchers to the main shaft. Canopies can be made straight when stretched over single ribs or have double ribs that allow a curved shape.
Runner – Stretchers attach the ribs to a runner that slides up and down the shaft allowing the parasol to be opened and closed.
Collar – The collar sits where the shaft meets the handle. Often these, like the handles, can be engraved and highly decorative.
Nose cap – If your parasol has a curved handle, it may have a nose cap. Often crafted from metal, these act as a trim to protect the end of the handle.
Ferrule – From the Latin for ‘small bracelet’ these are usually metal rings at the tip of the parasol or umbrella in order to protect the end.
How to buy (and look after) an antique parasol
Antique shades are delicate, so keep old parasols inside and invest in new artisanal pieces for everyday use…
‘Oh dear,’ is the instant reaction of Richard Ince, a sixth-generation umbrella maker based in east London, when I mention the possibility of restoring antique parasols. ‘Restoration is a nightmare. Pieces get rusty or rotten and it’s impossible to find the parts. Back in their heyday, there would have been hundreds of companies involved in the umbrella business – handlemakers, cloth suppliers, trimmers – and all the parts were specially made. You can’t even get the fabrics anymore as they were specifically woven for the umbrella trade,’ he explains.
The best way to care for an antique piece is to keep it inside and if you do have to take it outside, avoid the wind. ‘I don’t recommend going out with a late 18th-century carriage parasol,’ says Richard. He owns a small collection of umbrellas and Edwardian garden parasols. ‘I love them because they are what our company was founded on,’ he says. James Ince & Son’s two biggest markets to start with, the garden shade and the golf umbrella, grew out of the Victorian and Edwardian invention of leisure time. ‘The drama Downton Abbey should have had period garden umbrellas because they were the height of fashion, but probably the prop company couldn’t get hold of them. There are so few around,’ Richard explains. Today the demand for sunshades, in our soggy climate, is unsurprisingly small. The best parasol makers now exist in the world’s (warmer) fashion capitals.
In Paris, Michel Heurtault of Parasolerie Heurtault has been able to take apart and reassemble umbrellas since the age of eight, describing them as his Meccano. After a 20-year career as a costume-maker, he returned to his first love in 2008 and now makes parasols that are more works of art than sunshades. Take the silk taffeta number pictured here. It has a lacquered beech handle inlaid with mother-of-pearl and eggshell. His skills are so rare that France’s Institut National des Métiers d’Art has declared it an ‘orphan’ craft – one for which training no longer exists.
Another great parasol maker is Pasotti in Milan. Founded in 1956, it specialises in luxury limited edition shades, some of which are even set with Swarovski crystals.