Tuesday, 17 September 2013

The Handmade Advantage

When talking about bespoke suits, it's sometimes complicated to articulate what the advantage is. Partly that's because 'bespoke' is so misused that it can cover a range of options anyway, and partly it's because true bespoke has so many benefits that arise for many different reasons. So in this post I'm going to isolate just one, and look at the benefits of hand-made suits.

Even the term 'hand-made' allows for some variation - there's no harm in doing certain tasks with a sewing machine, but the really key thing is that the padding and canvassing is done by hand. The reason is that this allows them to be not just sewn as 2-dimensional aspects of a 2-dimensional suit, but shaped in three dimensions. Imagine the front-piece of your favourite suit jacket - it's one piece of material which, to all intents and purposes, just hangs from your shoulder. Without canvassing, you're limited to shaping it by roughly manipulating how it attaches to the rest of the suit and, perhaps, by putting in a single seam above the pocket to pinch the cloth in a bit. even with these, it's always going to just 'hang' a little shapelessly. Attaching canvas to the cloth helps add structure and weight but, if it's just attached flat to the cloth, it's not going to help much with shape.

A talented coat-maker, however, sews the canvas to the cloth in such a way as to give it shape as he or she goes. By varying the tension on each individual stitch, they sculpt the exact shape they want, and create the sort of smooth lines around the chest that distinguish a bespoke suit.

Image property of Remodelista.com

The same process is even more important on the lapels and around the collar, where it is almost the only way to create a perfectly shaped collar that clings properly to the back of the wearer's shirt collar. In these areas, even more stitches will be used, and you can often see any of this if you look at the underside of the lapel on a bespoke suit (depending on the fabric used).

The other aspects of a handmade suit are attractive features like beautiful hand-sewn buttonholes, and the sometimes-visible stitching around the lapels and pockets. These, however, are just signs that your suit has been hand-sewn and, especially the lapel-stitching, are increasingly replicated on very poor suits. The hand-stitched canvas, however, directly contributes to the fit and quality of your suit, and is a good and easily-ignored reason to sometimes pay the extra for proper bespoke.

Incidentally, all of the above is easily ruined by thoughtless dry-cleaners who press the suit flat, so it's worth taking your bespoke suits somewhere that knows what they're doing.

Monday, 9 September 2013


Last week I was invited to the launch part of ShirtSmart, a new service being launched by Barrington Ayre, a well-respect Cotswolds-based tailor who previously provided me with one of his beautiful pairs of tweed house-shoes. Aside from enjoying the surroundings of the Century Club on Shaftesbury avenue to which, alas, I no longer have access since they fell out with the Rushmore Group, it was fascinating to talk to Tom about his latest project, and what his plans are.

The service, which is now live, neatly appeals to men who wear shirts regularly and need a certain number a year, often ordering the same selection. It allows you to set up your basic order of 5, 12 or 25 shirts per year and then have them repeat for a monthly or annual fee. Perhaps more importantly, though, these will be custom-made, by hand, based on your individual measurements and with a wide array of options over collar, cuffs, fabrics and other options such as the button colour and even the colour of the buttonhole thread.

As Tom says, it's very difficult with a shirt to get a good fit off the shelf, and inevitably you seem to end up compromising on something. The fact that so many retailers size purely by collar-size (which is pretty much non-negotiable - it has to be right) means that it's very easy to end up with sleeves too long or too short, especially if you want just the right amount of cuff to show under a suit, or a body that is big and billowy. Just having the basic measurements added can remove a lot of these issues and result in a far, far better shirt. In addition, it's always nice to be able to choose all the elements, since I seem to spend an unnecessary amount of time debating whether to buy the slim-fit shirt in the lovely fabric but the collar that's not quite as cutaway as I like, or the shirt with a fabric I didn't really want but the collar that I prefer. A service like ShirtSmart means you can get exactly what you want, and then continue getting it at regular intervals for as long as you need.

Of course, the measurements have to be right and it does rely to a large extent on your own measurements, although ShirtSmart do have their travelling 'shirtettes' who can take measurements when they're in your area. Either way, when the first shirt arrives you can make as many adjustments as you need and then have them applied to all future shirts, so in the end it shouldn't be hard to get a perfect fit.

From the samples at the event, the quality seemed excellent although I haven't yet had an opportunity to try it myself, and some of the customers were wearing other Barrington Ayre shirts which looked beautiful so he certainly has the skill and experience to make this work. Of course, it may not appeal to people who like popping into their shirtmaker a couple of times a year to be talked into some new fabric or to be remeasured to take account of any physical changes over the Christmas period, but it's clearly excellent for people who are increasingly used to being able to order online and still get top-quality service. It definitely has the potential to take a lot of the hassle out of maintaining a decent wardrobe of well-fitting shirts for wearing every day.