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Quality Suit Construction ~ Mediocre and the Best

post #1 of 21
Thread Starter 
This one's out to all the experts online and/or Master Tailors. I am very curious about what makes a suit great in terms of its construction. I understand the fusing and stitching on the lapels for the roll but not as much with chest piece, shoulder pad, thread and others you may suggest.

Thanks!
post #2 of 21
Well, keep in mind that mid-quality work can be done extremely well while work that aspires to be top quality can be executed poorly.

However, I would answer this as follows. The most important thing is sewing, not fusing. The second most important thing is the presense of handwork. Third is the neatness and quality of that handwork. Fourth is quality of the materials that comprise the unseen "guts" of a coat.

Fusing v. sewing is simple. Fusing is faster, easier, and cheaper. Yet it results in, by and large, a stiffer, less fluid, less "alive" garment. Yes, I know the technology has come a long way. It is not so bad as it used to be. At its best, it can even be quite good and offer great value. I know, I know, I know. And yet. It's still not as good as a true floating canvas, made from separate pieces that are sewn together in a way that allows them to retain their individual characteristics while nonetheless working together as a whole.

Sewing can be done by machine or by hand. This is true in three key respects. First, coats made in factories can be sewn almost entirely by machines and still be fully canvassed. Second, bespoke tailors can buy pre-sewn (by machine) canvasses and then put them in by hand. Third, on most bespoke suits and high-end RTW suits with a lot of handwork, certain seams are usually sewn by machine. However, there are a handful of tailors who sew most and in some cases all seams by hand. This is strictly speaking unecessary, but can make for a beautiful garment. It is certainly more work.

Now, for a garment to be really top quality, I would say that pre-made canvases should not be used. The collar and canvases should all be made by hand from scratch, specifically for the garment in question. The canvas should be hand-padded to the lapel. The collar should be attached by hand. The shoulder seams should be felled by hand to achieve the proper fullness over the blades in back. The sleeves should be set by hand. The lining should be attached by hand. Finally, the visible edges (lapels, quarters, pocket flaps, etc.) should be picked by hand. Beyond this, handwork is arguably gravy. If a tailor wants to hand-lap the center backseam, more power to him. But a machine stitch there can't really be considered a sign of inferior quality.

Handwork can of course be done well or badly. Neat sewing is hard to describe in words, but I know it when I see it. Even harder to describe are the qualities that make handwork good and effective, as opposed to merely neat. I guess I would boil it down to a combination of strength and suppleness. Machine stitches are usually strong but stiff, or stiffer than handwork. Handwork can be nice and supple without being strong. At its best, it is both. Hand-sewing also typically has more "give" in the stitches, allowing the garment to stretch and move with you, if ever so slightly. This adds a little bit to comfort (especially in the shoulders). But its real benefit is that handsewn clothes will mold to your body over time in a way that machine sewn clothes won't. Also, certain effects can be achieved by hand that either can't be achieved by machine, or not as well. For instance, a really graceful and springy lapel roll can only be done by hand. Also, the "cupping" inward of a coat's skirt at the bottom edge.

Finally, there is the quality of the materials used the make the canvas itself. Since this stuff is not seen, it is easy to skimp on it. But spending a little more on good linen, silk thread, better wadding, etc., will result in a finer, more comfortable garment that holds its shape better.
post #3 of 21
Manton, why do you place emphasis on handwork on the visible edges? Are you suggesting that it's important in in terms of construction, or just that it's a hallmark of a well-made garment?
post #4 of 21
Quote:
Originally Posted by DocHolliday
Manton, why do you place emphasis on handwork on the visible edges? Are you suggesting that it's important in in terms of construction, or just that it's a hallmark of a well-made garment?
Mostly it's just a halllmark. In terms of function, you could machine stitch those edges, and they would perform just as well. Well, maybe not quite so well. I think machine work there would make the coat marginally stiffer. But the machine stitch there is not nearly so attractive. There are machines that replicate a hand pick reasonably well. However, for a coat to be considered "top of the line", I think those seams ought to be done by hand.
post #5 of 21
Manton, what are common shortcuts to construction and how do you spot them, if not obvious if you know what to look for? Aside from fusing and the feel test?
post #6 of 21
Quote:
Originally Posted by Manton
there are a handful of tailors who sew most and in some cases all seams by hand

Are there any tailors who make a suit entirely by hand, no machine work at all?
post #7 of 21
Quote:
Originally Posted by Tomasso
Are there any tailors who make a suit entirely by hand, no machine work at all?

Yes, who are these 2 or 3 tailors you know of in the US that do this, as referred to in your 2 part radio show?
post #8 of 21
I don't know of any tailors in the US who make an entire suit by hand. There are some in Italy. In the US, the king of handwork is Nicolosi. I believe his jackets are entirely handmade. If he does use a machine, it is not visible at all. And all the seams that are typically done by machine -- such as the center back, the darts, the sleeve underside -- are hand-lapped. Nobody else does that, though some will if you ask them to. Vincent does it without being asked. However, his trousers (which he does not make) are still machine sewn on the sides and in the back. Every single one of the NY tailors contracts out the trousers. Some will ask that the outseams come back basted so that they can sew a hand lap seam later. But even then, the inseams and the center rear will be sewn by machine.

I don't think I said in my interview that I know tailors who never touch a machine. I think what I said was that I knew of only three tailors under 60 who can make an entire coat from scratch with nothing pre-made. That is, they cut, they make the canvas, and they sew.
post #9 of 21
I would like to expand on Manton's excellent response. Regarding the guts of the suit, the canvas is key to the basic foundation of the garment. The best example is found in custom work when the canvas is cut for each individual garment from the individual pattern. The shape of the garment is created in the canvas and this gives form and shape to the cloth. A firm or soft feel is created from the materials used in the canvas and is at the discretion of the maker and client. A well cut canvas gives the jacket its shape at the chest, shoulder and to a lesser degree the waist. Ready made canvas can range from great to average, to mediocre, by the way it is cut, shaped and materials used. In RTW, canvas is rather generic in that it does not reflect the image of the specific wearer, as in custom, but just a general idea/form of an average man. Fusing is more or less just a backing to the cloth that stablizes the cloth but does not help create form or shape and since it is bonded to the cloth it robs the cloth of its suppleness. Lapels padded by hand have a superior roll and create a convex or "full" look to the lapel. Collars when hand padded will contour to your neck and lie flat to the jacket and have a sort of spring to them when flexed. This also keeps the collar and lapel edges and points from curling up. If properly cared for, this workmanship will hold up for the long haul and will extend the life of the jacket indefinitely. Fused lapels and collars look "hollow" and may have a concave appearence where the points and edges may curl up. It doesn't get better. Today, hand picked edges may be a hallmark but it does serve a purpose. Lapel edges can have as many as 6 layers to them. The external cloth or face of the lapel, the underside, and the two outlet seams on the inside that you don't see, makes 4. The canvas and usually an edge tape inside makes 6 layers. The pick stitch holds everything in place and helps to keep the edges straight and smooth. It keeps the edge from rolling over. Another quality sign is when these layers have been properly trimmed and finished, in a stair step manner, the edge will not feel bulky, but thin. When not prepared well the edge is bulky and creates a ridge that will become shiney when pressed. At one of my apprenticeships we prepared the lapel and jacket edges by hand, basted the lapel facing to the jacket body and the top pick stitch was the only stitch holding this all together. We didn't sew the inside edge by machine. You can discern if the pick stitch is by hand or machine by looking at the underside of the stitch. The exposed thread of the machine stitches are all equal lengths. Hand work is I would like to expand on Manton's excellent response. With the guts of the suit the canvas is key to the basic foundation of the garment. The best is found in custom work when the canvas is cut for each individual garment form the individual pattern. The shape of the garment is created in the canvas and this gives form and shape to the cloth. A firm or soft feel is created from the materials used in the canvas and is at the discretion of the maker and client. A well cut canvas gives shape to the chest, shoulder and to a lesser degree the waist. Ready made canvas can range from great to average, to mediocre, by the way it is cut, shaped and materials used. In RTW, canvas is rather generic in that it does not reflect the image of the specific wearer, as in custom, but just a general idea/form of an average man. Fusing is more or less just a backing to the cloth that stablizes the cloth but does not help create form or shape and since it is bonded to the cloth it robs the cloth of its suppleness. Lapels padded by hand have a superior roll and create a convex or "full" look to the lapel. Collars when hand padded will contour to your neck and lie flat to the jacket and have a sort of spring to them when flexed. This also keeps the edges and points from curling up. If poperly cared for this workmanship will hold up for the long haul will extend the life of the jacket indefinitely. Fused lapels and collars look "hollow" and may have a concave appearence where the points and edges may curl up. It doesn't get better. Today, hand picked edges may be a hallmark but it does serve a purpose. Lapel edges can have as many as 6 layers to them. The external cloth face of the lapel, and underside and the two outlet seams on the inside that you don't see makes 4. The canvas and usually an edge tape inside makes 6 layers. The pick stitch holds everything in place and helps to keep the edges straight and smooth. It keeps the edge from rolling over. Another quality sign is when these layers have been properly trimmed and finished, in a stair step manner, the edge will not feel bulky, but thin. When not prepared well the edge is bulky and creates a ridge that will become shiney when pressed. At one of my apprenticeships we prepared the lapel and jacket edges by hand, basted the lapel facing to the jacket body and the top pick stitch was the only stitch holding this all together. We didn't sew the inside edge by machine. You can discern if the pick stitch is by hand or machine by looking at the underside of the stitch. The exposed thread of the machine stitches are all equal lengths. Hand stitching is irregular and the stitch lengths uneven. Proper tension of hand stitching lies gently on the surface of the cloth. Machine stitches tend to be tight and create a depression in the cloth. This will cause edges to look puckered because the stitch is too tight. Everything Manton says about handstitching is so. The elasticity of handsewing gives a jacket its kinetic nature and will improve with age without losing it's shape or form. A critical area is the armholes, the lining is always done by hand in a quality garment. that is the only way to distribute needed fullnes. I see no harm of machine stitching long seams like side seams and center back. These are high stress areas and need strength and smoothness. Regarding shoulder seams, sleeves and even the waist/ seat seam on trousers, I've seen hand sewn and machine sewn and will not take a side either way. I can't say one is better because it is hand sewn or it is not the highest quality because it is machine sewn. I have not seen a suit that was made without the use of a sewing machine, but sewing machines have not existed forever so this must have been done at one time. Trousers are another matter and almost all manufacturers make shortcuts here. The best quality of make is a "hand top". Oxxford is the only maker I can think of that still mass produces in this technique, most bench tailors will. (I have other issues with Oxxford tousers though) To me, the construction of, and the way a waistband is sewn to the trouser has the most to do with comfort and quality. Most RTW trousers use premade waistbands that are sewn to the WB cloth and then sewn to the trouser. Hand tops are made in steps. Banrol (stiffener) sewn to a lining, sewn to the waistband cloth, then shaped and sewn to the trouser. After the waistband is on the trouser the inner lining (curtain) is applied. This type of waistband is thin but firm. RTW, premade WB's seem bulky to me and don't shape as well to the waist. This may be the same comparison as using ready made canvas VS handmade in a jacket. When the band is sewn on well the trousers can fit very close but be very comfortable and not feel tight. Too many ready mades fit tight below the waist (abdomen) or seat and loose in the waist. Everything Manton says about handstitching is so. The elasticity of handsewing gives a jacket its kinetic nature and will improve with age without losing shape or form. A critical area is the armholes, the lining is always done by hand in a quality garment. that is the only way to distribute needed fullnes. I see no harm of machine stitching long seams like side seams and center back. These are high stress areas and need strength and smoothness. Regarding shoulder seams, sleeves and even the waist/ seat seam on trousers, I've seen hand sewn and machine sewn and will not take a side either way. I can't say one is better because it is hand sewn or it is not the highest quality because it is machine sewn. I have not seen a suit that was made without the use of a sewing machine, but sewing machines have not existed forever so this must have been done at one time. Trousers are another matter and almost all manufacturers make shortcuts here. The best quality of make is a "hand top". Oxxford is the only maker I can think of that still mass produces in this technique, most bench tailors will. (I have other issues with Oxxford tousers though) To me, the construction of, and the way a waistband is sewn to the trouser has the most to do with comfort and quality. Most RTW trousers use premade waistbands that are sewn to the WB cloth and then sewn to the trouser. Hand tops are made in steps. Banrol (stiffener) sewn to a lining, sewn to the waistband cloth, then shaped and sewn to the trouser. After the waistband is on the trouser the inner lining (curtain) is applied. The top of the curtain is then finished by hand. This type of waistband is thin but firm. RTW, premade WB's seem bulky to me and don't shape as well to the waist. This may be the same comparison as using ready made canvas VS handmade in a jacket. When the band is sewn on well the trousers can fit very close but be very comfortable and not feel tight. Too many ready mades fit tight below the waist (abdomen) or seat and loose in the waist. This has as much or maybe even more to do with the sewing than cutting. I don't care for the hooks most RTW uses on the waistband closure. They don't seem solid. They get loose or tear away with age and use. I also think a waistband should have an extension and use 2 hooks to secure the waist. This is the most stressed area of the trouser and 2 hooks are more secure. RTW hooks are set in seconds by a machine. We use heavy English hooks, sewn by hand. They allow the extension to lay flat and they feel substantial.
post #10 of 21
Great post, CD. Very interesting and insightful. Could you elaborate on Oxxford's shortcomings?
Quote:
Originally Posted by Despos
I have other issues with Oxxford trousers though
post #11 of 21
Despos' interesting response made me think of a question I was wondering about the other day: What form does the fusible take before it is applied? I've always imagined it being like an iron-on applique, coming as a sheet (a translucent white in my mind) that is then melted in place. But what's the real deal?
post #12 of 21
One more question: Is handwork really best for the purpose of holding a lapel together? Seems like a machine stitch would be preferable to a pickstitch for that. (Some of my older jackets, very good ones at that, have a machine stitch inset on the lapels.) What is the advantage to pickstitching there?
post #13 of 21
Quote:
Originally Posted by Tomasso
Great post, CD. Very interesting and insightful. Could you elaborate on Oxxford's shortcomings?

What ever they call their styling on the trouser back, "Hollywood back" I think, when the back is cut in one piece and has no waistband. Don't like it.
Don't think the trouser will fit as well or be as comfortable.
When sewing the waistband to the trouser, the wasitband should be pulled tight against the trouser top and fullness drawn in on the cloth from the front pleat to the last dart on the back. This gives a drape effect over the hip and creates comfort. The Oxxford style does not allow this. This is the same as a shoulder made with fullness on the back part to allow ease over the blades. A shoulder without this fullness does not hang well over the blades and restricts movement and comfort. Same with the trouser. Never liked the the look of the front and where they start the zipper. Too low on the fork. Does not create a clean front drape.
I do not think there cut is flattering, but would have to reevaluate since they have been updating so many things in their clothing the past few years.


2 types of fusing; woven and non woven. They come on rolls, just like cloth.
There may well be a thousand variations of weights, softness, stiffness, for every application and for the different types of cloth they will be used with.

A machine stitch will hold the layers together. Hand work is aestheticly pleasing and the tension of the stitch is altered to the thickness and or softness of the cloth by the sewer so the stitch will not cause a pucker or a depression in the cloth. Machine stitching will compress the cloth.

I've seen machine stitched edges on custom topcoats, set in about 1" from the edge and I liked it a lot. Also on some Haspel or other brand cotton poplin suits that use machine stitched edges. It goes with the look and feel of the garment.
post #14 of 21
I. Oxxford

I must dissent from my learned friend, Chris Despos, on the issue of Oxxford's trousers.

I have worn its trousers, and I have found them to be the most comfortable as against other trousers that I have owned, both bespoke and MTM.

The single piece trouser waistband is unique. Other makers use a skirt waistband. I find that the single piece waistband makes a trimmer waist since there is less material.

Furthermore, the lack of an exterior waistband at the rear gives the trousers a slimming look. The cloth at the back of the waist is not broken by a waistband, and the result is a longer look in a continual panel of cloth from waist to foot. This is especially so with stripes where a rear waistband has striped cloth on the horizontal.

It is interesting that Oxxford is the only maker of this type of trouser.


II. Quality

I could not offer further comment on the makings of a suit than those incise notes offered by Messrs. Manton and Despos.

However, I would add that the hallmarks of a quality suit are handwork, excellent materials, and skill. Therefore, a quality suit, as well as any other thing of quality, will not be cheap.

Generally, a superior suit will be made by manufacturers and tailors who put a fair amount of labor and materials into the garment. E.g., it takes a couple of hours to hand sew the collar and lapels of a single suit. In comparison, machine sewing takes a few minutes, and the lesser manufacturers buy ready-made collar and lapels. Similarly, fusing rather than full canvasing takes less time, therefore, it is cheaper to make. Lesser suits are almost entirely machine made, and this gives them a stiffness at the various stress points and curves.

Furthermore, a superior suit involves expertise. Certain factories of North America and Italy have the long experience and knowledge of great suitmaking. China does not have the experience, tradition, and knowledge, but eventually it will. Therefore, at this time China can make a cheaper suit than can be produced by Italy, but a Chinese made suit cannot match the quality of Italy's best.
post #15 of 21
The thread mentions construction and construction is important. But in my opinion, cut/fit is very important too. If your tailor did not cut the jacket to accomodate your protuding chest or whatever, all the handwork in the world will not make it as comfortable as a jacket that has been cut right for YOU!

The other key part is viewing from a distance. Much of the handwork is not detectable at say 20 yards. However, the cut and how it flatters you can be seen at a greater distance.

I have a jacket that has excellent handwork but unfortunately that balance is a little off! I have another in which the handwork is not so great but the cut is fantastic. Guess which one I like to wear more?

Ofcourse, both of these run miles ahead of the "custom" where the tailor just could not figure out how to cut it right and on top, did not too great a job finishing.

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