Shoes as explained by Styleforum members

This article was published on a thread on Styleforum by the user A Harris many years ago, and we are reviving it here, implemented with pictures, for everyone to enjoy.

Throughout the years, Styleforum members have shared a wealth of knowledge on the forum pages, and if you have the time and patience to browse through them, you can check out the list at the bottom of this article. Bonne lecture!


Most classic shoe models can be traced back to bespoke shoemakers. Nearly all of them first appeared at least 75 years ago, and some have been around for more than one hundred years. They have evolved and have been refined, but most are still obviously connected to their original form. The driving force behind shoe design is really the silhouette of the clothes they are meant to be worn with – especially the trousers. Slim pants with a narrow (pegged) bottom require a slim fitting shoe unless you want your feet to appear larger than they actually are. Conversely, fuller-cut clothing requires heavier shoes. As a general rule, your trousers should cover the lacing of your shoes – approximately two-thirds of the shoe’s length.

The most important factor to consider when choosing a shoe is the last. The last is the wooden form that the shoe is constructed around. It determines both the final shape of the shoe and its fitting characteristics. Master lastmakers are, in a way, part scientist, doctor, architect, and artist.

Also crucially important is the leather that the shoe is clicked (cut) from. The leather used to make the shoe upper is almost always chrome-salt (mineral) tanned in large rotating vats. Most fine shoe uppers are made from high-grade calfskin. Thicker cowhide is sometimes used for pebble-grained uppers and to a lesser extent, you will see fine shoes made from shell cordovan (horse leather) and even exotic leathers like alligator and crocodile. A fine shoe will have an insole and sole of thicker pit-tanned cowhide. This leather is vegetable-tanned using actual vegetable matter, not vegetable extracts. Most shoe linings are also vegetable tanned.

There are a huge variety of methods used to construct shoes. Most require mass production and lots of glue – we will not concern ourselves with those. Most truly high-quality shoes are either welted, reverse welted or a variation. Some fine shoes are Blake-stitched or use an Italian moccasin construction. Let’s examine each method:

GOODYEAR WELTED SHOES OR HAND WELTED SHOES

goodyear welted shoes men construction

Photo: crockettandjones.com

Welted shoes consist primarily of a leather upper, a welt, an insole, and an outsole (sole.) First, the insole is tacked to the bottom of the last. The insole is the thick (usually about 1/8″) piece of vegetable-tanned leather that your foot rests on. It has a “feather” on the bottom of it. On a world-class bespoke shoe (and on a few elite ready-to-wear shoes like those of Vass) the feather is “skived” into (cut from) the insole itself. However, most all ready-to-wear welted shoes use a glued-on feather made of linen.

Next, the upper (with its inner stiffening layers and lining already attached, which layers are either natural leather or celastic depending on the quality of the shoe) is stretched around and tacked to the last. On a really fine shoe, the upper is splashed with water and beaten with a hammer to compress the leather fibers, and to permanently mold them to the shape of the last. The leather is then allowed to dry completely and the process is repeated, often multiple times. It should be noted that the majority of shoes, even very expensive ones, are lasted by machine.

Once the upper has been shaped the shoes are welted. The welt is a thin strip of leather – often two feet or more in length, about three-quarters of an inch wide and an eighth of an inch thick. In this step, the shoemaker uses a single row of lock-stitching (two interlocking stitches) to sew the welt to the upper leather to the feather (in that order.) Generally, this is done with the aid of a Goodyear welting machine. In a very few small workshops, the shoes are welted by hand. Once the shoes have been welted, the excess leather is trimmed away from above the seam, and the whole area is compressed with a hammer. Then the shallow, hollow section in the middle of the shoe (created by the attaching, and in some cases the skiving, of the insole) is filled. In most cases, a shank (thin metal or wood strip that stabilizes the sole and heel,) and a leather covering used to hold it in place, fill the back half. The front half is sometimes filled with cork.

The sole is then affixed with glue and sewn to the portion of the welt that protrudes from the front and sides of the shoe. The sewing of the sole is almost always done on a machine, with very few exceptions. On a top-quality shoe, the sole stitching is hidden in a “channel” and is not visible on the bottom of the sole. Finally, the heel is either built from layers of leather fixed together with wood and brass pegs, or a pre-made heel is attached, and the shoe is finished.

Closed channel vs open channel shoes.

Closed channel vs open channel shoes.

WHY ARE WELTED SHOES SUPERIOR?

Welted shoes are considered superior by most because they are very durable and are easily resoled. A top-quality welted shoe can almost always be sent back to the maker for resoling, or even re-crafting. The heel can be removed, the sole stitching undone, and a new sole and heel can then be attached. In cases of more extreme wear, the insole and welt can be removed as well. The shoe can then be stretched back over the original last and remade. These processes can be repeated many times. As a result, a truly great pair of shoes can, with proper care and rotation, be worn for 10-20 years. And in some cases, men get 40 years or more out of them.

HOW ARE WATER-RESISTANT SHOES MADE?

When a shoe needs to be highly water resistant, it is made differently. There are many methods – reverse welted, double-stitched, Norwegian-stitched, norvegese, veldtschoen etc. For the sake of brevity, I will not go into the specific differences. The main similarity is the welt and/or the upper leather curves out and away from the shoe, instead of down and in – the advantage being that that water cannot easily penetrate and wet the insole, like it can with a regular-welted shoe. Thus, reverse-welted shoes are more water-resistant and more casual than a regular-welted shoe. They can generally be recognized by the double or triple row of stitching on the outside of the shoe where the upper meets the sole. It should be noted that some Italian makers will add a braided stitch just for looks, so buyer beware.

alden reverse welt bluchers

Alden reverse welt bluchers.

 

BLAKE STITCH AND MOCCASIN

Blake-stitching and moccasin constructions are used primarily by Italian shoemakers. A traditional moccasin is made without an insole. The upper leather wraps all the way around the foot and is sewn by hand to a flat vamp that sits on top of your toes and instep. The sole is then sewn directly to the upper on a machine. The most famous example of this method is the classic Gucci slip-on.

Blake-stitched shoes have an upper, an insole, and a sole – like a welted shoe. But they do not have a welt. The insole (which is flat – no feather) and upper are attached to the last. Then the sole is glued on and a single row of machine-stitching is used to stitch through and attach the sole, the insole, and the upper. The one advantage of this method is that it can make for a very light, thin-soled shoe. However, Blake-stitched shoes are not as water resistant, as durable, or as easily repaired as a welted shoe. If the manufacturer has not covered the insole with a full-length insole-cover, you can recognize a Blake-stitched shoe by looking inside it. You will see a single row of stitching around the forepart of the shoe.

Blake stitch construction

Blake stitch construction || Photo: matthewdack.com

Italian shoemakers are also incredibly good at coming up with alternate ways of making shoes. They employ a bewildering array of methods and combinations of shoemaking that I could not possibly cover here. Some of the methods are labor-saving shortcuts that allow for a combination of machine and handwork, and some involve very complicated handwork that can make for exquisite shoes.

CLASSIC SHOE DESIGNS

While the last, the leather, and the construction of the shoe are vital, you must like its design as well.

Most high-end shoes are variations on a few classic models. Lace-up shoes are generally divided into those with open lacing and those with closed lacing. Before I indicate the difference between open and closed lacing, I must define two crucial terms. The vamp is the forepart of the shoe that covers the toes and instep. The quarters are exactly what they sound like – the two back quarters of the shoe, which extend from the center-back seam and generally end at the midpoint of the shoe. On a shoe with closed lacing, the vamp is sewn on top of the quarters, and the tongue is usually a separate piece. On a shoe with open lacing, the quarters are sewn on top of the vamp, and the tongue is usually an extension of the vamp. Shoes with closed lacing are often called oxfords or balmorals, and shoes with open lacing are called derbys or bluchers.

On derby shoes (open lacing), the quarters are sewn on top of the vamp, which also makes the tongue of the shoe.

In addition, formal lace-up shoes are often referred to as “plain,” or as “half brogues” or “full brogues.” A plain shoe is just as it sounds – there are no decorations other than perhaps a double row of stitching on the toe-cap. Brogueing refers to a pattern of decorative punched holes along a shoe’s seams. “Half-brogue” usually indicates a shoe with a straight toe-cap and extensive brogueing. “Full-brogue” indicates a wingtip shoe with extensive brogueing. Half-brogues and full brogues almost always have a punched “medallion” decoration on the toe.

Lace-up shoes can also be whole-cut. This means that that the entire upper is cut from a single piece of leather. This takes a lot of skill and usually increases the price of the shoe. Shoes can also close with a buckle, in which case they are referred to as “monkstraps” or “monks.” Generally, monkstraps are a variation on the derby. Another version of the derby is called the “Norwegian.” Most Norwegians have three-piece vamp with a hand-stitched apron-front and split toe. In some versions of the Norwegian, the quarters extend all the way to the front of the shoe and join at the middle of the toe. Finally, there are slip-on shoes. They can be made in any number of ways – moccasin, welted, reverse welted, Blake-stitched etc. They can be constructed and decorated in many ways, can resemble brogues or Norwegians, can have saddles or tassels, or they can be completely plain. There are innumerable variations.


Check out these shoe-related threads on Styleforum:

Shoemaking techniques and traditions

The official shoe care thread: tutorial, photos, etc.

Vintage dress shoes: maintenance, tips, and advice

 

Sicilian Tailoring

When Vittorio Palmisciano was 11 years old, he starting helping a friend of his father’s at a tailoring shop in his spare time after school.  His mother already knew how to sew trousers and shirts for his father; the trade seemed logical. But it took him a long time to open his own sartoria in Catania.
“There’s a saying in Italy,” he begins. “Impara l’arte e mettila da parte. I worked with several tailors in my youth. There’s a lot to learn. First, you master straight seams, then curved ones, then important parts of the jacket like the collar and shoulders. You can’t master everything in a few years. I didn’t start my own business until I was 27.” Now, almost 40 years later, he admits he’s still learning. “But I like the suit I made for you. Send me another picture of it when you get the chance.”
 
A brown fresco suit from Vittorio Palmisciano in various stages

Drafting the pattern for a straight-to-finish (no fittings) sport coat
The final product

Grey fresco suit, straight-to-finish (no fittings)
The final product

At a cafe in Palermo, Guido Davi and I are engrossed in caffè and conversation. As a child, Guido would accompany his father to the sartoria and help.  When Guido was in his 20s, he started working with his father full time.
“It takes years just to master a buttonhole,” he explains. “My father was truly un sarto maestro – he had 60 years of experience. My father wouldn’t let me cut a pattern for a suit for the first seven years. These guys that say they are tailors after a couple years…” he puts his thumb and fingers together and shakes it up and down in that quintessential Italian way. “They are not tailors.”
Salvo Ioco works at I Sarti Italiani, a Sicilian tailoring house, as designer, fitter, and operates the day-to-day activities and projects. The laboratorio employs about 10 tailors, each doing several jobs in various stations and with different machines. “We have sewing machines that our tailors use for straight seams,” Salvo says as we walk among the workers, “but certain parts are only done by hand using needle and thread, like attaching the sleeves to the armhole and stitching the canvassing to the chestpiece.” Although he takes the lead in most of the projects and lends a hand in the construction from time to time, Salvo is quick to deflect. “We’re a team. There are tailors, office workers, and those who deal directly with the clients.  Everybody has an important role in the sartoria. Together they have over a hundred years of experience,” he proudly says. “They are very good at what they do.”

The sartoria has been an integral part of Italian culture for parts of three centuries, faithfully passed on from one generation to the next. Originally transferred to Italy via Britain, Italy’s jacket differs in at least one aspect: canvassing. Guido, who has worked for a designer on Savile Row, comments: “The jacket in London descends from the uniform, which is very elegant but generally uses stiff canvass to create more angular chest and shoulders. Italian tailors took the British jacket and mellowed it.”
Vittorio concurs: “I have a client from London, where the style is more rigid compared to what we do here,” he says. “Not any more or less comfortable, but definitely softer.”   
After being imported to Italy, regional subtleties began to manifest themselves. Sicily’s style developed more or less at the same time as Naples and both share similar characteristics: a clean body, high armholes, open quarters, and soft canvassing. Differences may exist, but if so, they are very small.
“I’d say our jackets are usually less substantial than that of Napoli,” declares Guido. “But not by much. Sometimes not at all.”  Not only do Sicilian tailors favor light fabric (at least two have called my 10oz fresco “winter cloth”), but they also use lighter canvassing.
“The Sicilian summer is deathly hot,” Salvo says as he waves his hands. “You want the lightest jacket possible.”  
To put things in prospective: whereas British tailors may use several layers of horsehair cloth from top to bottom, most Sicilian tailoring houses and tailors typically use just one layer in the chest and shoulderscrine di cavallo – enough to give a suit its shape, but keep the weight down. The rest of the canvassing is far lighter. Pelo di cammello (camel hair cloth) is layered along with the crine and comes in various weights. The lightest is tela, which has a consistency similar to linen. All of these together are used to give shape to the jacket. 
“It’s like reinforced concrete,” describes Franco, Salvo’s father and the founder of I Sarti Italiani. “Without rebar inside, it won’t retain its shape. It’s necessary to give the jacket its form and structure, but it shouldn’t be so heavy that you notice it.”
Many think that a lean chest and narrow, rounded shoulders are part and parcel of the southern Italian style, but it would be more accurate to say they are currently di moda (a trend)A full chest does exist: Guido, for example, calls drape cannello but says it’s also called piega (“a fold”). Elsewhere in Sicily it’s known as lama (“a blade”), and strangely enough, drappeggio. As for extended shoulders, tailors are intimately familiar with them. In truth, one need only give a cursory look at Detective Montalbano – one of Italy’s most popular series and set in Sicily – to dismiss any notions of their scarcity. Like all trends, they may very well swing back into fashion.
Another notable difference between Britain and Italy is the method in which suits are produced. Whereas larger tailoring houses that employ many tailors exist in Italy, they are uncommon. Mostly you find the hole-in-the-wall family-run sartoria, with one tailor doing most of the work. The advantages to smaller shops, the theory goes, is that there is less chance of miscommunication if the same person takes your measurements, makes the pattern, cuts it, sews it, and fits it on you. In my experience I’ve found this to be true – sometimes. Vittorio once made an entire suit just based on my previous measurements and a few messages on WhatsApp. When it arrived at my home in San Francisco, it fit perfectly.  
Speaking of his experience on Savile Row, Guido remarks: “Their way is different. They have one person who is the pattern maker, another who is the cutter, still another who is the fitter. Then there is a trouser maker, a separate vest maker…there is a specialist in every area. And they do it exceptionally well – very precise. In Italy though, a tailor is a tailor. You do it all.” 
This doesn’t mean that he always does; currently, his mother and brother help him. “But If I need to make pants, I can. A jacket, a vest, an overcoat…everything. That is a true tailor.”
Noteworthy is the fact that the word for the job of cutter or fitter in Italian is virtually unheard of in Italy.  Only sarto.
 
Guido Davi’s work in various stages

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For well over a century, the general population of Italy had one – maybe two – nice suits made from the local sartoria, designated for church or festive occasions. As the suits for church started to show signs of wear they became suits for the field, another suit was commissioned, and so on. Before mass-produced suits became the norm, local tailors were in constant demand in Italy. Things are much different now.
“In the old days,” Guido recalls, “there used to be, without exaggerating, one tailor on every block.” Now there remains only a handful in Palermo, and he notes that the average age of a tailor in the city is in the 70s, as it is in most of Italy.  When asked about the future of tailoring in Italy, he shrugs.
Boh.  Something has to change.”
He’s not talking about demand; there’s plenty of that. The resurgence of interest in artisans has grown the client list of many tailors. Some have even raised their prices, something they haven’t done in over ten years. He’s talking about the continuation of the craft by the next generation, and it doesn’t look good.
Most trades in the United States have a program that provides classroom instruction and connects the students with contractors so that the majority of their training is working on-the-job alongside a journeyman; I followed such a program by the IBEW to become a Union Electrician. Apprentices are paid a percentage of the wages of a master tradesman based on their time in the field. The reasoning is that an apprentice’s output is a fraction of that of a journeyman, especially at the beginning. As their speed progresses and expertise grows, so does their salary, and when they have enough experience to become a journeyman and pass the state test, they are certified in their trade and can demand a full wage. Thus the continued availability of qualified craftsmen and women is secured, without being an economic burden on either the teacher or the trainee. Everyone benefits.
Such a program doesn’t exist in Italy. On the contrary, the law stipulates that everyone working a particular trade must earn equal salary, regardless of their experience. This means that master tailors have to pay an apprentice the full wage of another master tailor, not a percentage. Since becoming a master tailor takes at least five years – taking on an apprentice is an expenditure they can’t afford, and so the craft is dying out.
“It didn’t used to be that way,” Guido clarifies, “But since the change, hardly anyone has taken on an apprentice. If they do, there is an agreement sotto tavola but they risk getting a fine.” He then tells the story of a fellow tailor who was fined more than 15000 euro for doing so, despite having paid the apprentice a commensurate salary.
A few tailoring schools do exist, but they focus more on teaching theory than real-world field experience. “I have kids that come to me after graduating from these schools,” Guido relates, “but I have to turn them away because they have no technical skill. It’s sad, but they’re really no better than anyone else.”
Vittorio agrees. “These schools last two, maybe three years,” he remarks, “and they don’t even cut a suit. It’s better to get experience first, and then go to school.”
Salvo contends the law has to change to allow programs similar to the ones in the States, and then deliberates for a moment. “Everything happens slowly in Italy,” he says finally. “I don’t see change happening anytime soon. But how else are we going to be able to afford training apprentices?”
All the tailors I talked to learned their trade when they were still young, either because their parents made them or they themselves were interested. Guido, though, has no children to whom he can pass on the trade. Vittorio does have children, but when asked about them, he sighs. “It’s hard work. I have to work eight, ten, sometimes 12 hours hunched over.  They don’t want to do that.” When I ask him whether he thinks children or parents are to blame, he pauses to reflect. “I don’t know, but if kids do anything now, it’s just school. That’s fine, but what if you can’t find a job in the field you spent so much time studying for?  You need a skill that you can fall back on.  Like I said: impara l’arte e mettila da parte.”

In his sartoria, Guido shows me the various stages of a suit as its being made. The first one has all the tell-tale marks of the first fitting: no sleeves, collar, and uncovered lapels.  
“Did you notice there are no pockets?”  He asks.  I didn’t before, but now the detail screams at me. 
“A first-time client will always have the prima prova like this,” he says as he points. “You must see how the jacket fits the client before the pockets; a returning customer can skip this step. And when the pockets are put in, a good tailor will put the pouch behind the canvas. This is very important. It’s more difficult and time-consuming, but when you put something in it – like a pocket square or sunglasses – the jacket lays more flat.” Then he smiles. “I have just told you a tailor’s secret.”
Salvo concedes that his experience is relatively shallow. “Because of my age, I’m always looking to others to better myself,” he says. “There is an indispensable coalition of tailors that I can learn from, and I only stand to benefit from their experience. When I meet another sarto who doesn’t mind sharing his knowledge, I take advantage of it.”
 
First fitting of a corduroy suit from I Sarti Italiani
Final product
Another suit from I Sarti Italiani in summer tweed from Die, Workwear!
It’s true, you do learn from your mistakes,” Vittorio observes. “But I had guidance, too. I worked for fifteen years with different tailors before starting my own sartoria. They would share their experiences, I’d get together with them for coffee to talk shop, and sometimes I’d cut open a pair of trousers so I could see how they were made.
Really, tailors learn – no, steal – from each other. And after you’ve mastered the basics, you need to have a little imagination and make everything that you learned your own, with your own sartoria. Hopefully, you can pass that on to the next generation.”

Buying your first suit: a guide

By shawea

Wondering about suits and how to fit them? You’ve come to the right place. First, what is a suit? A suit comprises a jacket and pants in the same fabric. Do not buy a jacket or pants separately and then go looking for a matching piece whose fabric is just “close enough”. A suit is bought as two (or three) pieces together, in exactly the same fabric, from the same bolt. That settled, how to decide between the myriad suits available?

There are four basic areas in which to assess a suit – fabric, construction, fit, and styling. You should consider all these aspects of a suit before deciding on which to buy.

The advice in this article will be geared towards someone buying a small number of suits that he hopes will serve him well in a variety of different settings.

The suit should be made of 100% wool, no elastane, no polyester. Do not be tempted by cotton or linen or cashmere suits. They do have their place in a large wardrobe, but they are not for starter professional wardrobes.

Since you’ll be starting off with suits that you’ll want to wear year-round, get a medium-weight wool (say, somewhere between 9 and 13 oz). Most suits on the market fall in this category so don’t get worried unless the suit seems particularly thin or heavy.

The fabric should be worsted wool, meaning that it is smooth to the touch instead of feeling wooly and hairy like a sweater. An exception to this is woolen flannel, which is acceptable as an alternative to worsted in all but the most formal of office settings. The difficulty is that woolen fabric is quite warm, so if you live somewhere with hot weather, is a less attractive option. But if after 3 medium-weight worsted suits you purchased a woolen as your 4th and a lighter weight suit (with some mohair in it, for instance – mohair makes a suit wear cooler) as a 5th, you’d be better prepared for particularly extreme days and have somewhat more variability in your wardrobe. Avoid fabrics that are above “Super 120s” as they will wear out too quickly. To learn more about different fabrics check out the cloth thread.

As discussed previously, the fabric should be a solid color, at least for your first three suits. Again, you want to be ready for all suit-wearing situations. It helps if each suit goes with as many different shirts and ties as possible. Patterned suits go with fewer shirts and ties than solid suits. And there are virtually no situations in modern life where the more casual patterned suit is appropriate, but a solid suit is not.

buying your first suit guide
A solid worsted flannel is a very versatile choice, at least in cooler climates.

Further Reading: Fabric

The Cloth Thread

How to choose the fabric for your suit

The fabric you see on the outside of a suit jacket is far from the only cloth that is used in its construction. Inside the chest and the lapels are pieces of cloth that give the jacket its structure. What these pieces are and how they are attached to the rest of the jacket is the main differentiator of construction quality between suit jackets.

The guts of a fully canvassed jacket

The guts of a fully canvassed jacket

Guts of a half canvassed jacket​

Guts of a half canvassed jacket

The lowest quality jackets are made with a piece of “fusible” interlining that is glued to the front of the jacket. This results in a stiff chest and roll of the lapel. Fused jackets also may have reduced longevity, although there has been significant improvement in fusing technology in recent decades, such that this may no longer be true. Older fused jackets were infamous for having the interfacing separate from the body fabric after many dry cleanings, with awful and obvious ‘bubbling’ ruining the jacket.

Higher quality jackets are made “half-canvassed”, meaning that the chest piece and lapels are constructed with a canvas interior, which is then sewn to the rest of the jacket. Below the chest, fusible is used, but this is less problematic in the “skirt” (lower part of the jacket) than upper areas. Finally, jackets of the highest quality are fully canvassed, but most of these will be extremely expensive.

Of course there are many other ways in which one jacket can be better made than another, but the divide between fused and half-canvassed is by far the most important one, and is also highly correlated with the others. If your jacket is half-canvassed, you can be sure you’re buying at least a decent quality garment. If your jacket is fused, you can be equally sure it is of shoddy construction.

Construction quality has a loose correlation to price. Many highly priced brands (e.g. all but the highest quality Armani, Hugo Boss) sell fused jackets. Spending even $2,000 is no guarantee of avoiding a fused jacket. So you have to do your own investigation. You can employ the “pinch test” around one of the higher buttonholes to see if you can feel a third piece of fabric floating in between the two sides. Alternatively, you can ask the salesperson. It’s possible they won’t know or won’t even know what you’re asking, in which case you should not listen to anything else they tell you. But the minimally informed salesperson will be able to give you this information.

Commonly recommended brands that offer half-canvas suits at a reasonable price include Suit Supply (~$500), Brooks Brothers 1818 (~$1k retail, but frequent sales). eHaberdasher’s Benjamin line (~$500) offers fully canvassed suits which are very reasonably priced.

Further Reading: Construction

Canvas and Suit Construction

The Styleforum Working Hierarchical Suit Quality List

Suitsupply Design Your Own Program Review

eHaberdasher – Categories

Now we get to the hard part. Everyone’s body is different. Even at a retailer with a wide range of different fit types like Brooks Brothers, there may not be a jacket that fits you particularly well, no matter which size you choose. You may have to try a couple of makers before you find the one that suits you best.

Some of this misfittery can be remedied by any tailor. Almost every suit you buy will need to have the length of the sleeves and the pants changed. These are simple operations. Everyone has their own method for determining the correct sleeve length. The estimable Guido Wongolini suggest that you begin by standing straight with arms at your sides, then lift your hands so that your palms are facing towards the floor, perpendicular to your body. The jacket’s sleeves should then just rest on the back of your hand. This should result in ¼” to ½” of your dress shirt’s sleeve showing. Pants should be hemmed so that they have little or no break, if they have an appropriately tapered leg (a leg opening of no more than say 18” in circumference). The waist of the trouser can usually be taken in or let out by about 2”.

Adjusting the collar is a more complicated procedure. Your suit jacket’s collar should remain affixed to your shirt’s collar behind your neck at all times. Separation between the two is referred to as “gapping”. In a bespoke Savile Row suit, you might be able to play a round of golf without experiencing any gapping. This is harder to achieve with a ready-to-wear garment, but at least see if you can get the jacket not to gap, then walk around the room, sit down, stand up, and see if you’ve got any gapping. If gapping is a problem, a tailor may be able to fix it, but you might be going down a road with no end. Your life will be easier if you buy jackets that have no gapping problems off the rack. To examine the next part of collar fit, you’ll need a mirror or a friend for this one. Look to see if there are horizontal lines on your back, underneath the collar. If so, you’ll need the collar lowered. This is a reasonably simple, low-risk procedure. This could be accomplished by most tailors, but probably not your typical dry cleaner’s/alterations shop. It should cost around $40-50.

The next three points of fit are crucial. If one of them is off, step away from the jacket. No tailor can help you. They are the waist, the shoulders, and the length.

These are the basics of fit, but the topic is nowhere near exhausted. A large fraction of discussions on Styleforum is based around how different garments should fit. These threads should get you started:

The Tailors Thread Fit Feedback and Alteration Suggestions
Official Fit Critique Thread
Get Foofed

Further External Reading: Fit

Most Exerent – Cover Your Ass There is a Common Misconception
How Much Can My Clothes Be Altered

Styling refers to the decorative elements of the jacket that are unrelated to fit. Number of buttons, pockets, breasts, that sort of thing. If you’re starting out buying suits, you’ll want to buy a classically styled suit. Pants can be single-pleated, double-pleated, or flat front, cuffed or uncuffed. Once you get more experience you can decide whether and in what way to deviate from what is below.

The suits that will never elicit any raised eyebrows are two or three-button single-breasted jackets, with two flap pockets, notch lapels, and dual back vents. Generally on SF two button or three-roll-two (meaning the top button is never meant to be buttoned) are preferred, but a “hard three” (roll to the top button, with the top button intended to be used) is perfectly acceptable, especially if you are tall. Lapels are of moderate width, reaching approximately half-way to your shoulders.

A "two-and-a-half" button lapel - it rolls above or through the top button

A “two-and-a-half” button lapel – it rolls above or through the top button

A three-roll-two lapel - the top buttonhole is folded over and the roll goes to the second button

A three-roll-two lapel – the top buttonhole is folded over and the roll goes to the second button

Relatively innocent deviations include the absence of vents, ticket pockets, welted pockets. If you like them, go for it on one or two of your suits. Double-breasted suits and peak lapels on single-breasted suits are dandifications. Hold off on them until you know what you’re doing. A single vent, though acceptable, is an inelegant deviation, as it creates an awkward splitting of the rear of the jacket when you put your hands in your pocket.

Here are some further readings in book form if you would really like to delve into the art of the suit:

The Suit, by Nicholas Antongiovanni
Clothes and The Man, by Alan Flusser


This article is an edited version of an article originally published on Styleforum.net in 2011.

The Difference Between Fused and Full Canvas Suits Explained

by Jefferyd (Jeffery Diduch)

A few years ago I wrote a post about canvas suit construction which some of you may remember. As a continuation of the featured articles on StyleForum I thought I would update and condense some of the information to reflect current trends in manufacturing, and also to bring the information to newer members who may not have seen it.

The illustrations below show where fusible, if any, is applied for the different techniques, as well as where and how canvas is used. In-depth exploration of the various layers hidden beneath the chest felt can be found all over my blog.

First, a word about canvas.

Canvas is typically a blend of wool, often cotton, and animal hair, mainly horse and camel hair. The principal characteristics of the wool and animal hair are that they can be molded using humidity, pressure, and heat, and the fibers will retain a shape; think of how a woman uses a hot curling iron to shape her hair. Horse and camel hair have the additional benefits of being lightweight but very resilient- hair from the mane is softer while hair from the tail is quite stiff and wiry. Different types of fiber will be woven in combination with the wool and or cotton to produce various grades of canvas and haircloth which are used in combination to build the foundational structure of a coat.

In the photo below, from left to right, are haircloth, which has a lot of roll due to the horsetail strands, wrapped hair cloth which is softer and less expensive than haircloth, wool canvas, and the black item is fusible.

canvassed suit vs fused suit

From left to right: haircloth, wrapped haircloth, wool canvas, fusible.

The wool canvas forms that main foundational layer of the coat, then smaller pieces of haircloth or wrapped hair are used to build structure to the chest and shoulder, and these are covered by a piece of felt, domette or flannel to prevent the hair, which is wiry, from scratching the wearer. Sometimes the horse hair will poke through the layers, sometimes protruding out of the garment; this is an annoyance more than anything and can either be snipped away or pulled through.


 

FULL CANVAS GARMENTS

 

canvassed suit difference fused jacket full canvas

what is canvas suit

A garment which has a canvas structure running all the way from the top of the shoulder to the hem is known as a “full canvas garment”. It is very easy to determine whether a coat is fully-canvassed- take hold of the lower front of the coat and peel the two layers of wool (the front and the facing) apart- if you can feel a third layer floating between the two, that is the canvas. There were instructions floating around for a pinch test in which you pinch the chest and pinch the sleeve, but for reasons which you will soon see, this is not a reliable indicator.

Fashion has skewed toward lighter, finer, and more delicate cloth weights (a trend that I see starting to reverse itself) and these fine cloths can be very difficult to handle in construction, and be very sensitive to humidity. The Japanese, whose weather drove the march toward lighter cloths but whose humidity was detrimental to those cloths, were champions of a fairly recent technique of “skin fusing” the front- a lightweight fusible would be applied to the front part of the coat to give it stability when basting the canvas to the front, and to help prevent puckering from humidity. Some western manufacturers have adopted the technique for problem cloths so it is entirely possible to come across a front which has soft fusible on it, despite it being also fully-canvassed. More on fusibles shortly.

Notice that the canvas covers the front, including the lapel- the canvas will be rolled and padstitched in the lapel, which gives a certain amount of bloom or roll to it, which can be seen in better garments.

PROS:

• Hair canvas gives a roll and support to the front that fusibles can not;
• Floating canvas will never delaminate (bubble).

CONS:

• Expensive in terms of both materials and labor required;
• Poorly-inserted or shrinking canvas will case the fronts to pucker which is extremely difficult and often impossible to fix on a finished garment.

[For more information, check out How Much Does a Quality Suit Cost?]


 

FULLY FUSED GARMENTS

 

fused suit

And now a word about fusibles.

Fusible interlinings have come a very long way over the last 40 years. A German company developed the technology whereas an interlining would have a special resin applied to it which, when heated, would melt, and if another piece of cloth was pressed very firmly against it while the resin was soft, a bond was formed and the interlining was fused (or glued) to the cloth. The early days were horrific because the resin which bonded the interlining to the front failed often, causing delamination, or that infamous “bubbling” along the front. The technology has advanced greatly and these days, delamination is very rare (which is why it’s not considered a problem to skin-fuse a full canvas garment). It can still occur, however, if the garment is improperly handled.

Once the interlining has been bonded in a special machine, care is taken to make sure that the area is never heated without simultaneously applying pressure; during construction irons and presses are used, but there is always pressure accompanying the heat. If we want to remove the interlining, however (because of a faulty application, for example), we apply a bit of steam which softens the resin’s bond, and makes it easy to peel the interlining away. Any time you subject your garment to steam without pressure you soften the bond, creating a risk of delamination, which is one of the reasons I warn people never to steam tailored clothing (there are others).

Fusible interlining (a much heavier version than the skin-fuse variety) replaces the main canvas portion of the understructure of the garment, then a chest piece made of canvas, haircloth and felt is affixed along the roll line of the lapel, and tacked into the armhole but is otherwise left floating (thus the moniker “floating chest piece”). This is a quick, easy, and inexpensive way to stabilize the front and requires no skill on the part of the operator.

PROS:

• Quick, easy, inexpensive.

CONS:

• Stiffens the cloth slightly, does not provide the same type of support that animal hair does;
• No canvas in the lapel so the lapel is somewhat flat and lifeless;
• Slight risk of delamination.


HALF CANVAS GARMENTS

hlf canvassed suit how to recognize
how to tell canvassed suit fused

Half-canvas garments are becoming more and more common as they combine the advantage of both methods– a cost-saving in terms of material and labor for the application, reduced risk of distortions on the lower fronts, but the benefits of canvas in the chest and lapel, where they are needed the most. The front is fused (something, whether canvas or fusible is required to stabilize the fronts), but the fusing does not extend into the lapel area. It used to be common for the canvas to extend below the pocket, or at least to the second button, but most manufacturers now only extend it to the first button. Since there is no canvas in the lower portion, you can’t use the pinch test to determine whether a garment is half-canvas or not. When canvases were heavier you could feel down the front of the coat and sometimes tell where the canvas ended but many are using softer, lighter canvas now which is harder to detect. On finer wools, you could look for dimples under the lapel which would suggest pad-stitching, but this will be invisible on more robust cloth. In fact, the only way to know for sure is to ask a well-informed salesperson (not all salespersons are well-informed). (There are variants on the half-canvas method but for simplicity, I will consider them all the same)

PROS:

Less expensive than full-canvas, less sensitive to humidity, good lapel roll.

CONS:

Stiffens the cloth slightly, slight risk of delamination.

While purists will insist that only full canvas garments should ever be considered, there is a significant cost involved and so it is a little disingenuous to insist, particularly to newbs, that fused or half-canvas garments should be avoided outright. Someone who is just starting out his career will likely not have the means for full canvas, nor is he likely to be familiar enough with suiting in general to risk purchasing something off the internet in order to get a good deal.

[Check out this article to explore full canvas garments that won’t break the bank]

Half-canvas is a more affordable alternative, and if he is really on a budget, a fused garment makes an inexpensive first step; considering how our tastes and preferences evolve once we have been wearing and trying on suits for a while, it is perhaps wise to start off with a less expensive purchase and work up to the better makes once we have a better fix on our tastes and what fits and suits us.

Addendum

A padded lapel refers to the fact that there is a separate layer of canvas which has been gradually rolled while stitching the canvas layer to the cloth, giving this result

full canvas canvassed suit pinch lapel

A flat-fused lapel will roll a little bit, but never as much as a padded canvas lapel- compare the limp, black stuff in the photo above (fusible) to the canvas next to it.

Seam Allowances: a Guide to Alterations in Tailoring

Words and Illustrations by Jeffery Diduch

Alterations are a fact of life when buying tailored clothing. No two bodies are alike and seam allowances are necessary and provided so that a garment can be altered to fit better. Likewise, bespoke garments will also have seam allowances built in to allow for changes in weight over the life of a garment. The types of seam allowances, or inlays, will vary whether the garment was ready-made or tailor-made and so the types of possible alterations will also vary.

We will look in-depth at the allowances given for garment alterations. The illustrations show typical seam and inlay allowances – where bespoke differs from RTW; the extra is shown shaded in grey. Exact amounts vary from cutter to cutter so no detail has been given. Keep in mind that the minimum seam allowance recommended is ¼” so when looking at an allowance of 1”, for example, you have ¾” left to let out. Also, keep in mind that were are discussing one half of the garment so allowances should be doubled in most cases. For instance, if we can let the waist out 1/2” at a certain place, it gives a total circumference of 1” to let out.

coat back seam allowances tailor measurements let out bring in how much

Manufacturers vary slightly on the allowances on the neck, center back and side seam.

Neck
there may be only 3/8”, but better makers will have 5/8” allowing the collar to be raised up to 3/8”.

Shoulder
There is no allowance for changes to the shoulder width: it can be narrowed but not widened. Bespoke garments will generally have an allowance for widening here. The shoulder can be sloped or squared (squaring will shorten the garment slightly).

Center back
Between 5/8” and 7/8” is typical – bespoke cutters may leave more here.
Total to let out – ¾” to 1 ¼”

Side seam
Between 5/8” and 7/8” (bespoke may have less here).
Total to let out here – ¾” to 1 ¼”.

Hem
Generally 1 1/8” to 1 ¼”. Bespoke garments may have more. We will see that in most cases this does not allow the garment to be lengthened, but does give us some wiggle room for passing up the back for a stooped figure.

seam allowances tailoring suit pants trousers allowance tailor measurements let out bring in how much side body Armhole
RTW has only a small allowance for changes at the side seam. Bespoke generally has a generous allowance to either increase or decrease the width of the armhole. The armhole CAN NOT be raised without altering the length of the jacket and the position of the gorge and the pockets. While not strictly impossible, raising the armhole should not be attempted on a finished garment.

Side seam
Between 5/8” and 7/8”. Bespoke will have considerably more.
Total to let out here – ¾” to 1 ¼”

Front seam
Generally 5/16” or 3/8”- no room to let out here. The pocket will intersect this seam so in most cases it must be dismantled and remade in order to take in this seam here; this is difficult and costly.

Hem
Generally 1 1/8” to 1 ¼”. Bespoke may have more.

seam allowances tailoring trousers suit blazer sport coat

front jacket allowance tailor measurements let out bring in how muchNeck
There may be only 3/8”, but better makers will have 5/8” allowing the collar to be raised up to 3/8”.

Shoulder
There is no allowance for altering the shoulder in RTW garments, other than to narrow it, slope it, and, to a small extent, to square it. Bespoke generally has an allowance to drop the front (for a longer front balance) and to widen the shoulder. Crookening and straightening the shoulder (to a small extent) is also possible in bespoke garments.

Side seam
Generally 5/16” or 3/8” – no room to let out here. The pocket will intersect this seam so in most cases it must be dismantled and remade in order to take in this seam here; this is difficult and costly.

Hem
Generally 1 1/8” to 1 ¼”. Notice how the front edge is cut off where the curved edge meets the hem- this prevents lengthening the garment in a consistent, back-to-front manner, impossible.

Lapel and front edge
It is sometimes possible, though costly, to narrow the lapel – the buttonhole creates certain restrictions. It is not possible to widen it. In some cases, a peak can be converted to a notch, though never the reverse. The lower part of the front edge can be cut away more beneath the lowest buttonhole.

seam allowances tailoring trousers suit blazer sport coat

top sleeve jacket allowance tailor measurements let out bring in how muchHem
Generally 2” to 2 ¼” given to lengthen the sleeve from the cuff – no allowance is given to lengthen from the top, but the sleeve can be shortened from the top.

Inseam, elbow seam
The sleeve can be narrowed (should really be done at the elbow seam) but no allowance is given to widen the top sleeve: extra width would be necessary to correct most sleeve “divot” problems so it is best not to attempt to have those altered.

Vent
Some RTW garments have a narrow vent, others have a wider vent. Making functional buttonholes on a narrow vent is impossible without either narrowing the sleeve or piecing in more cloth.

seam allowances tailoring trousers suit blazer sport coat styleforum

undersleeve jacket allowance tailor measurements let out bring in how muchHem
Generally 2” to 2 ¼” given to lengthen the sleeve from the cuff. No allowance is given to lengthen from the top, but the sleeve can be shortened from the top.

Inseam
No allowance for changes given here.

Elbow seam
No allowance is given in RTW (Oxxford is the only manufacturer that I am aware of who do give an allowance here) but bespoke will generally have seam allowances for widening or narrowing the armhole, as well as widening the bicep and elbow. The cuff can be narrowed.

seam allowances tailoring trousers suit blazer sport coat

trousers pants allowance tailor measurements let out bring in how muchNo allowances for enlarging the trouser front are given in RTW; bespoke often has seam allowances to lengthen the rise from the waist.

The leg can be narrowed easily; narrowing at the hip requires recrafting the pocket.

seam allowances tailoring trousers suit blazer sport coattrousers pants back allowance tailor measurements let out bring in how much Waist
Generally, 1 ½” given to let out the waist.
Total to be let out 2 ½”.

Outseam
RTW trousers have no allowance to let out the outseam, most bespoke trousers do.

Inseam
Generally 1 1/8” to let out the back thigh, bespoke may have more. In most cases, this allowance is tapered to nothing at the knee, though some manufacturers extend it all the way down to the hem.

seam allowances tailoring trousers suit blazer sport coat


If you’re thinking about altering a garment and need some advice, check out the Tailor’s Thread: Fit Feedback and Alterations on Styleforum.

What it Means to Be “Made in Italy”


My Italian has gotten good enough that I can understand pretty much everything the locals say to me. The only words I consistently miss are the English words that they insert into conversation like french fries stuck in a spaghetti carbonara. WTF is “Nike” when it rhymes with “hike”? “Levi’s” when it rhymes with “heavies”? “Ee Red Hot Keelee Pepper?” But one English phrase comes up so often in conversation, at least within the rag trade, that I can pick it up on the first take: “Made In Italy.”

Cosa Vuol Dire “Made In Italy”?

To understand the meaning of “Made In Italy,” you have to go back to the genesis of the Italian nation, in the second half of the 19th century. Before that, Italy was a geographic concept, but not a political or cultural one. There was no real sense of an “Italian people” in the same way as there was already for the Germans, who formed a nation around the same time. Italy became one country not through collaboration, but through conquest by the Piedmont in the far north, which might as well have been Sweden as far as many Italians were concerned. If you think of Italy as a boot, the Piedmont would be the knee. A knee the rest of the peninsula would feel at their throats.

Citizens of the newly formed Italian state had little shared history, so newly-crowned propagandists created one, often relying on Roman iconography. Over the following decades, nationalistic myths hypertrophied into fascism – also largely a Northern phenomenon. Italy’s defeat in World War II broke this fever, but at a huge cost. The War was, for Italy, also a civil war, mostly pitting North against South, breaking open all the fissures that had been plastered over at the nation’s birth.

Two industries recreated Italian identity following the war – the film industry, and the fashion industry. Film helped the country understand its experience with the war and the poverty that followed. Fashion gave Italians a new nationalistic myth. Its appeals were more to the artistic achievements of the Italian Renaissance than the empire-building of the Roman era, and it helped that the industry’s first successes were in Tuscany, birthplace of Michelangelo. The Sala Bianca in the Pitti Palace hosted the first Italian fashion show in 1951, as well as Brioni’s men’s fashion show, famously the first of its kind, in 1952. Italian designers were able to capture something of the uniquely Italian approach to luxury and craft that had eluded the stuffy couturiers and tailors of Paris and Savile Row. As post-war realist film gave way to Fellini’s surrealist fantasies, Marcello Mastroianni became the guy everyone wanted to look, dress, and act like. And he wore Italian suits.

Allure, but Insecure

By 1980, the industry had grown tremendously, but had become something different. It had mostly moved to Milan, the industrial behemoth of the North. And it had begun to shift its focus from brands like Brioni to emerging giants like Armani and Ferre’. It was at this point that the “Made In Italy” campaign began, with the ambitious goal of branding an entire country. As one politico at Pitti’s “Opening Ceremony” said this year,” ‘Made In Italy’ is not just about selling fashion – it’s about selling Italian quality of life.” “Made In Italy” was intended to convey more than just the country of origin, but elegance, sophistication, craftsmanship – as if Leonardo DaVinci himself had blessed every stitch.

The campaign has been a massive success. Armani remains one of the most valuable brands in all of fashion. Gucci, Prada, and Zegna aren’t far behind. The manufacturing infrastructure that supports these brands is now also used by brands from Huntsman to Tom Ford to Ralph Lauren Purple Label, all of which are Made In Italy.

But the future is uncertain. At the Pitti’s Opening Ceremony, politician after politician announced their full support for the Italian fashion industry, for Pitti as a trade show, and their belief in the enduring allure of Italian luxury. Each one pledged a re-investment in “Made In Italy”. Which is what you do when you’re worried that a good idea’s time is running out.

The worries come mostly from China. A decade ago, there were no Chinese factories that could produce an approximation of Italian goods. Even if you stuck a “Made In Italy” label on a Chinese product, it wouldn’t fool anybody who cared enough to know the difference. Today, that’s no longer true. Chinese workers can produce high quality – they just can’t sell it at a high price without the “Made In Italy” label. As a result, there’s a lot of money to be made by someone who can figure out how to get that label on a Chinese product.

The Competition

A few miles outside of Florence is a town called Prato. The Pitti Opening Ceremony panel referenced it a few times as a major player within the Italian fashion industry, as in “Milan, Florence, and Prato.” I had never heard of Prato, and you probably haven’t either. But it is home to about 3,500 workshops that produce clothing, textiles, and accessories. The majority of people working in these workshops are Chinese.

Nor is it the only population of Chinese workers within Italy. There’s even a Chinese neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples that includes garment workshops. Of course, their work gets the “Made In Italy” label – how could it not?

But other products can get the label too, even if only some of the manufacture occurred inside Italian borders. It may not even take very much work on a product within Italy to make it “Made In Italy”. This is because the percentage of Italian work that goes into a product is calculated based on cost, rather than time (which would be difficult to measure anyway). Since wages in Italy are much higher than in China, you could have most of the work done in China for $4.90, pay an Italian $5.10 to put on the finishing touches, and the entire thing can get stamped “Made In Italy.”

It goes without saying that Italians have no monopoly on craftsmanship or design taste. There is no reason a well-trained Chinese person can’t do at least as good a job as an Italian. One way to view this development is that Italians traded for decades on a promise of inherent superiority, and Chinese workers have now proven that promise false. Not only have they become just as good as “Made In Italy,” they have become “Made In Italy.”

But it’s difficult for native-born Italians to be so generous. For one thing, competition from immigrants eats away at Italian wages and profits. Heirs of businesses that span multiple generations worry that they will have to choose between keeping their companies afloat and maintaining the quality and integrity of their product. For another, if customers hear about Chinese workers in Italian factories, the mystique of Leonardo’s blessing seems to lose its luster. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it’s hard to maintain national pride in “Made In Italy” when many of the workers behind it are foreign. So opinions are strong. Companies that dilute “Made In Italy” by employing immigrants or moving production overseas are considered traitors who don’t respect their product or their heritage.

Protecting the Brand

The backlash prompted some political movement in 2010. The Italian government raided factories in Prato and found illegal immigrants working there. It also passed a law restricting further the products that can use the “Made In Italy” label, including creating a new “100% Made In Italy” label that can be used only by products completely made in Italy.

But this is a losing battle. Illegal immigration is difficult to prevent. Italy’s national laws on product labeling are constrained by EU rules, since there is a free trade agreement among all member countries. The new levels of “Made In Italy” only confuse the consumer and sound defensive. Consider this Pitti booth insistently declaring itself “Absolutely Made In Italy”:

Doesn’t exactly instill you with confidence. When they start using intensifying adverbs, you know it’s bad.
The most encouraging development for Italian manufacturing in the past few years is not new regulations, but rising prices elsewhere. Alberto Merola told me that his glove company, Merola, saw some of its private label clients take production to cheaper countries a few years ago, but now many are coming back. “If the workers are good,” he said, “they get paid, no matter where they are.”

Claudio and Stefano Merola

Even if “Made In Italy” is eventually doomed, it can look forward a long and stately decadence. Right now, Italy is still sexy. Pitti has been such a huge success that the Italian government is trying to replicate it with other trade shows – further support for the Milan show, and collaborative shows with the US in New York and with China in Shanghai.

Italy already exports 62% of the clothing it makes. In the end it may be this that finally dilutes the Italian national brand beyond recognition. Many of the Italian brands I spoke to at Pitti were there hoping to attract Asian buyers. At one stand, I was shown a wall of double-breasted plaid waistcoats, complete with watch chains. After some discussion, they brought out from hiding a very nice plain navy overcoat that they planned to show the Italian buyers the following week in Milan. I wonder how many of the chained waistcoats they have to sell before they stop producing the navy overcoats. How much “Italian quality of life” can you sell and still have some left?

-David Isle


This article was originally published on Styleforum.net on Feb. 4, 2015.

Going Bespoke in Palermo, Sicily

There are a million and one places in the world to visit, each with its own unique beauty. But I keep finding myself going back to Sicily.

Perhaps it’s because it reminds me so much of my home state of California: a semi-arid terrain with an incredibly varied landscape full of jaw-dropping natural beauty across the spectrum. Within Sicily’s borders are craggy mountains, some reaching over 10,000 feet with snowy ski slopes, and sandy beaches with crystal blue coves and serene waves lapping at the shore. Sure, it has its share of problems – the plumbing in the old part of centuries-old cities often sucks, work can be scarce, lame graffiti is commonplace, and the many of the tunnels need lights. Sicily is not perfect, but really, what place is? Things may take a little longer to accomplish, but that’s not always a bad thing. On the contrary, many, including myself, find opportunity to appreciate the hidden gems that the region has to offer.

One of these gems is classic men’s tailoring. A dying art all over the world, only a handful of tailoring houses still remain, with prices that preclude most from enjoying it firsthand. Nonetheless, viable options can still be found in Sicily, with a few sartorias offering a bespoke suit well within the means of most. The last time I was in Sicily, I visited and commissioned pieces from two small tailoring houses in Messina and Catania. This time, on the recommendation of a dear Italian friend in Marsala, I visited a sartoria called I Sarti Italiani. Their main factory is in Montelepre, with two showrooms in the center of Palermo and Marsala.


going bespoke in palermo, sicily styleforum  bespoke palermo

Up to this point, my experience with bespoke has been with small shops, with one guy doing everything – taking measurements, cutting, fitting, and finishing, with the help of one or two family members. I Sarti Italiani is a much bigger operation, employing a group of tailors, each devoted to doing one or two specific steps of the bespoke process. I first went to their main factory to meet up with Salvo, who manages the place and also serves as one of the main fitters. He was kind enough to meet up after working hours, where he walked me around the first floor factory of numerous workstations, peppered with padded desks, ironing boards, steamers, and sewing machines of various types. Everything is made in-house, with a combination of machine-stitch and hand-stitched parts.

Salvo himself is a young man with a renaissance flair and a vast knowledge of tailoring. Whereas most younger Italians only subscribe to the mega-slim cut that has been en vogue for the past 20 years, Salvo knows and appreciates time-honored styles and proportions. When I tried to explain in my limited caveman Italian that I’m going for Gianni Agnelli, with slightly extended shoulders and a lower-than-current notch lapel gorge, he immediately nodded his head and smiled in recognition. “Capisco perfettamente,” he responded, “Lo stile classico.” The fabric being corduroy, he asked which way I’d like the fabric to run. This is because when you rub corduroy in the direction it falls, it stays dark; rub it the opposite way and you’ll feel a little resistance and see the color brighten a bit as the light hits it differently. Small, but important details – you don’t want the top and bottom to run different ways on a corduroy suit, or it’ll look off, and not in a good way. I chose the fabric to run down, so that when I or others rub it (as they often do with corduroy) it’ll feel softer.

After a few days I met up with Salvo at the showroom in Marsala, where Marco Bono manages and oversees the fitting. Outfitted in a perfectly proportioned double-breasted navy suit, semi-spread collar and plain navy tie, one can easily see that Marco recognizes how menswear should fit. “Most suits are too tight,” he lamented, “but everyone looks better in a classic suit.”

When Salvo arrived with the basted suit, we talked about the shape of the patch pockets (come una melanzana), and after ripping off the sleeve and opening the suit to check out the innards, he explained all of the components (horsehair, canvassing) and how they’re attached (sewn, not glued). Since the fabric was a dark brown corduroy, I opted for horsehair canvas to go about 3/4 of the way down, giving shape where necessary in the chest and torso while keeping the overall weight and silhouette soft.

The jacket was to have a 3-roll-2 closure with straight 11cm lapels, shoulders were to have minimal padding, the sleeves manica a camicia, two sleeve buttons spaced apart, and pick stitching a little away from the edge in the same color as the fabric. Pants were to sit just below my navel, with one pleat, slightly fuller thighs, no belt loops, side tabs, buttons for braces, an extended front closure, and 5cm cuffs. He chalked several marks on the back and sides, another to turn the right sleeve to accommodate my lower shoulder, and we made plans to see each other again.


going bespoke in palermo, sicily styleforum bespoke palermo

The day before my departure, I met up with Salvo at the Palermo showroom for the second fitting. That way, if anything needed to be tweaked, he could have it done before I left. However, after putting it on, nothing needed to be done. After his colleague brought an espresso over from the cafe next door, Salvo pulled out the suit for me to try on, and any doubts I had immediately vanished.

The jacket sits just past my shoulders, the sleeves have minimal pleating, and the arms fall almost straight down, with no divots. The notch lapel is a little closer to the classic height, the back of the jacket covers my rear, and the pants sit so that the back of the leg falls straight down – “a piombo.” It stops at the middle of the shoe in the back with a very slight break in the front. Everything fits perfectly, all details and requests were followed exactly as requested, and I got a personalized wax-sealed guarantee covering any future alterations, in case of over-indulgence of pasta and gelato.

going bespoke in palermo, sicily styleforum bespoke palermo

In mainland Italy and abroad, you’d pay anywhere from $1500-$4000 – or even more – for the work involved in the bespoke process. At I Sarti Italiani, I paid full price at less than 500 Euro, excluding fabric. Needless to say, I left the showroom on such a high I wondered if there wasn’t something else in the espresso.

San Francisco is my home, and despite the grime of the Tenderloin, the crazies on Market Street, and the tent encampments strewn about, I still think it’s the best city there is. It’s not perfect, but there’s so much to love that I love it anyway, warts and all. Sicily may not be perfect either, but if I could choose a place to retire, I’m placing my money there, where I can enjoy my golden years with views of the Mediterranean, a short walk away from a sandy beach and an amaro and a short drive away from a bustling city and a tailor.


Just to be clear, I paid full price for the suit, and no plans are being made for “reimbursement” by the sartoria later.

Fall’s Best Transitional Fabrics

The Autumn Equinox for 2017 in the northern hemisphere fell on Friday, September 22, and menswear aficionados couldn’t be happier – shorter days and cooler temperatures allow for heavier fabrics, which generally drape and tailor better.

My first real experience with autumn was in ’95, after suffering an intolerably muggy summer in the Hudson Valley in New York.  The absurd amount of sweat that poured out of my glands in that heat could have produced a small lake, but I often found respite at the rope swing at Pawling Reservoir.   Finally, the temperatures gradually fell in late September, until it was tolerable, even pleasant, at the beginning of October.  It’s at that time that the white oaks in Putnam county change first, the edges of the green leaves yellowing slightly, from a muted amber to a bright gold, then mellowing to dark saffron orange just a month’s time.  The sugar maples, though, were the real showstoppers, with their striking crimson red and yellow foliage carpeting the whole valley in fiery beauty, from Sleepy Hollow to Mohonk.  That’s the season for fall, that window of time when you can see your breath in the crisp autumn air, before the leaves fall in surrender to the impending bitterness of winter.  
Heavier than summer dress, lighter than winter gear, transitional clothing is 45°-75°F (7°-24°C) apparel, taking you from autumn’s cool mornings, through mild afternoons, and all the way to brisk evenings.  In other words: San Francisco weather.  With the average daytime temperature in hovering around 64 degrees (with the exception of the recent inferno that sent temperatures soaring to their highest ever recorded), the City is the perfect place for transitional fabrics. Here are a few ideas.

Flannel – My favorite fabric of all time.  Flannel’s unparalleled softness and ample warmth is so seductive it might make you look forward to cooler weather, just so that you can be cradled in its alluring coziness.  Woolen tweed is magnificent, but might run too warm for fall.  In such a case, look for worsted flannel.  Andy57 has several pairs of 8.5oz Fox Bros’ Queen’s Award worsted flannel, which he vouches is wearable up to the 80s.  Generally speaking, though, heavier fabric is superior, as it usually drapes and tailors better and is best for suits. 
Stick to 12 ounces or lighter for transitioning into fall and save the heavy stuff for winter.
Faux tweed – Woolen tweed announces that you have decidedly embraced the upcoming chill, but might be overkill for some temperatures.  For less extreme weather, look for a faux tweed to carry you through the shoulder seasons.  These fabrics look like the real thing, but since they are worsted, they run cooler and softer traditional tweeds and are perfect for fall.  Usually reserved for sport coats, but can also be used for suits, especially in subdued patterns like herringbone or birdseye.  Abraham Moon has a relatively light weight faux tweed in their Heritage Collection, and many swear by Minnis’ Worsted Allsport II range (what they call “town tweeds”), which hovers around 12 ounces.  Look for colors in autumnal tones in dusty brown, burnt orange, and olive green.
Corduroy – Often overlooked, corduroy has texture and comfort in spades.  However, the traditional cotton fabric can feel like stiff cardboard, and needs to be tailored quite precisely for ease of movement.  If you can find it, look for corduroy made with other fabrics.  The cotton-cashmere stuff can be prohibitively expensive, but Gus (@GusW) has a moss green corduroy sport coat made for him by Ring Jacket in a reasonably priced Zegna fabric comprised of cotton with 2% stretch for comfort.  I just purchased a length of 10oz chocolate brown corduroy in wool from Sultan’s Fine Fabrics in Canada.  Described as a “tweed”, its ribbed weave makes it essentially the same as corduroy.  It should arrive just in time for my visit to my tailor in Sicily at the end of the month.

Grenadine Fabric: History, Tradition, and Ties

But what exactly is grenadine?

First of all, grenadine is a small miracle of sartorial tradition, since its making employs, even today, machines that originated in England during the Industrial Revolution – or their direct descendants.

Grenadine fabric is produced with a gauze-style weave, often referred to as a Leno or Cross weave. It involves two warp yarns twisted around the weft yarns in order to provide a strong yet sheer fabric. The structure is similar to the English gauze bobbinet tulle; bobbinet tulle was the first machine-made gauze to be produced, when John Heathcoat invented the bobbinet machine (also called Old Loughborough) in 1808.

However, everyone knows original grenadine is produced exclusively in Como, a small town in northern Italy you may have heard of because rich celebrities do love a mansion overlooking a beautiful lake.

The wooden looms used in Como to produce grenadine weaves are usually referred to as Jacquard looms, but they are in fact descendants of the English gauze machine invented by John Heathcoat – only upgraded to produce a more elaborate weave. Even the Italian word for grenadine is a tribute to the English gauze: “Garza a giro inglese” means “English weave gauze”, and the two varieties of grenadine are respectively referred to as Garza fine (or Garza piccola) and Garza grossa.

It’s not clear how this technique travelled from the Old Blighty all the way down to Como, but it seems to have passed through France:

“Lyon: an important French center for silk machine laces. […] A fierce competition begun between France and Britain: the English inventions – the Warp Frame (1775) the organ barrel for automatic patterns (1780) and Dawson wheels, also for patterning (1807) – were quickly copied in France, while the English were also quick to apply the French Jaquard. In 1885 an old Loughborough was smuggled across the Channel. In England, Heatcoat had used these machine for cotton nets. In France, because of import restrictions on cotton, silk was used, with great success, and nets such as Meklin, tulle illusion, and black grenadine were soon being made.”1

The Industrial Revolution and two wars played a crucial role in shaping the economies of many countries of what todays is known as the European Union – and the history of many traditions born in the 20th century are certainly worth researching and upholding.

Como’s tradition of silk-making, however, dates back to the 16th century, when the Duke of Milan – under whose jurisdiction Como fell at the time – made the decision to promote sericulture. At first, Como established itself as a crucial part of the initial process of silk-making through the breeding of silkworms and the yard spinning, whilst the weaving process used to be almost exclusively executed in other European cities (Lyon above all).

Only in the 20th century and especially after WWII did Como become the sovereign maker of silk in all aspects of its process – from sericulture to the spinning of the yarns. Other European cities did not survive the aftermath of the wars and ceased to be textile centers, propeling Italy – specifically Northern and Central Italy, and the centers of Como, Biella, and Prato – towards a second Renaissance of the textile production.

Today, sericulture is no longer part of the silk-making process that happens in Italy, due to the elevated costs of an activity that cannot be supported by technology and remains reliant on principally human labor in a hands-on job. In modern days, the silk yarns come from China or Brazil, and they are dyed and woven in Italy.


Fermo Fossati and Seteria Bianchi are perhaps the most renowned and appreciated makers of grenadine in Como.

The former is the oldest silk-making company in Italy – the third oldest in Europe after the British Vanners and Stephen Walters & Sons. They have been associated with neckties since the early 1900’s, when ties made their appearance as an accessory to embellish the necks of European gentlemen.

However, you might be more familiar with Seteria Bianchi, which produced the fabrics for the Brioni jackets worn by Daniel Craig in 007 Casino Royale. If you’re a car aficionado, you might know that Seteria Bianchi also provided Mercedes Benz with the interiors of the concept car F125. The list of prestigious clients goes on, culminating with Sartoria Gammarelli, which is the official supplier of clothes for the Church and, by extension, the Pope. On their website, they state that they can provide over 100,000 patterns for their fabrics, and that the selection of textiles is just as broad; they even offer a mind-blowing textile fiber made of silk wrapped in pure gold.

Ettore Bianchi, the former owner of the Seteria, wrote the International Dictionary of Textiles, published in Italian in 1997, from which I took the liberty to translate “grenadine” (“Garza a giro inglese”): “A fabric quite common in the past, now forgotten, which was employed to make shirts and colonial uniforms in Tropical areas due to its incredible breathability. The fabric employed is cotton, and the weave is an English gauze in which two warp yarns are twisted around the weave and around the weft. The weight is between 150 and 250 gr/m2, but the open gauze weave makes it a quite light and breathable fabric that is excellent in presence of harsh climates such that of the Tropics. This fabric has been also employed to produce curtains.2


There is still much for me to discover about this incredible fabric, and my sources in the United States are limited to what I can find on the Internet. I am certainly going to research the topic further the next time that I return to Italy, and I hope I’ll be able to provide even more details about grenadine and its history when I get the chance to talk with those who make it.

Or, perhaps we should just enjoy the beauty of grenadine and only wonder what brought it to us throughout the centuries of textile traditions in Europe. Sometimes I am torn between the desire to acquire knowledge and to indulge in the poetry that lies in the unknown.

The Romantics felt outraged by Isaac Newton’s theory of light, as they thought he stripped poetry out of the rainbow; the moment magic had a name and an explanation, it stopped being inspiring. The recent solar eclipse made me reflect on this exact thought; we all knew what was coming and why, but perhaps in our knowledge we missed the poetry of the event. Darkness overcoming light, only to let light forcefully shine again – so bright that the human eye cannot even stare at it.

“Philosophy will clip an angel’s wings,” reads one of the most beautiful poems of our era.

For the time being, let us enjoy the things we don’t know, even if it is just the obscure history of a woven fabric coming from a distant, lake-side city in Italy.

vanda styleforum grenadine tie grenadine fabric


1. P. Earnshaw: A Dictionary of Lace (Dover Knitting, Crochet, Tatting, Lace), Dover Publication, 2012, p. 103.

2. E. Bianchi: Dizionario internazionale dei Tessuti, Tessile di Como, 1999.

The Milanese Buttonhole: Beautifully Unnecessary

I don’t remember the first time I saw a Ferrari, but I do remember the one from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, because every kid dreams of ditching school someday, and what better way to do it in style?  It doesn’t matter if you’re not into cars, or if you’re too young to remember the scene.  I mean, just look at it.  You just know that day was going to be the best day in hooky history. 
Except it was a fake.  More on that later.
The Milanese buttonhole is one of the finer details of menswear.  Gaudy to some, fetching to others, its glossy, lustrous lines add a bit of finery to suits.  After all, since the lapel buttonhole once served a purpose but not longer does (other than to hold a boutonniere), might as well make it look pretty, right?  Think ornamental china and decorative soap bars.
Once, when jackets closed all the way to the top, the only thing you saw through the buttonhole was a button.  Then they started to fold over, because how else are you going to show off that amazing cravat?  The buttonhole that once was buttoned was now left naked, which is likely the reason that flowers started to be slipped in there.  Still, unless you also wear a monocle, your buttonhole is likely to remain unadorned with flora.  However, you can still ornament your lapel, albeit subtly, with the Milanese buttonhole.  
A hole is a hole, right?  Yes, but why not decorate it?  Possibly originating in central Italy, the Milanese treatment makes an otherwise inconspicuous buttonhole visually striking, an objet d’art sitting pretty atop the jacket’s lapel.  After the hole for the button is cut, a length of silk thread called a ‘gimp’ is laid around the edges.  A glossier buttonhole thread is then wrapped around the gimp and sewn through the cloth surrounding the buttonhole, and there you have it.  Easier said than done, of course, but leave it to the Italians to gussy up a pointless, but handsome, element of menswear.  JefferyD has detailed instructions on his blog, which is a treasure trove of sartorial gems.  Or check out this video:
 

There are many ways that a buttonhole can be made by hand, but the Milanese method is more time-consuming and arguably more recognizable than others, due to its post-cutting application.  The lowly buttonhole – once strictly utilitarian, now purely ornamental – has upgraded its status, inasmuch as it is regarded as one of the telltale signs of quality, like an automobile’s crest. Since this type of sewing and application can only be done by hand, the logic is that if such a meticulous production was done for a triviality, the rest of the suit must have equally as much effort and craftsmanship put into into it. While this is usually the case, it may just be hiding mediocre goods, much like the leaping black stallion of Ferris Bueller’s faux Ferrari.
The car shown in the movie is actually a kit car with a Ford V8.   Does that change how you feel about it?  Maybe, maybe not, but the same thing can be (and is) done on many suits.  I knew a guy in San Francisco who could put a Milanese buttonhole on any jacket for $50.  Since most people aren’t incredibly keen to strip your jacket off you, they may take your jacket to come from good stock.   Who cares if you pin an earring on a pig’s nose, as the saying goes, if all you notice is the earring?  On the other hand, a gilded turd is still a turd.
The fact is that the Milanese buttonhole, like most menswear ephemera, should be appreciated for what it is – a charming touch of glamour – and nothing more.  While generally found on higher quality suits, it can be added as a finishing touch to any jacket. Who cares if you slapped it on your H&M suit?  It’ll still look nice.  
 
The buttonhole, that is.  Not the H&M suit; they never look nice.

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All photos from JefferyD’s website tuttofatoamano.blogspot.com