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.
Manufacturers vary slightly on the allowances on the neck, center back and side seam.
there may be only 3/8”, but better makers will have 5/8” allowing the collar to be raised up to 3/8”.
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).
Between 5/8” and 7/8” is typical – bespoke cutters may leave more here.
Total to let out – ¾” to 1 ¼”
Between 5/8” and 7/8” (bespoke may have less here).
Total to let out here – ¾” to 1 ¼”.
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.
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.
Between 5/8” and 7/8”. Bespoke will have considerably more.
Total to let out here – ¾” to 1 ¼”
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.
Generally 1 1/8” to 1 ¼”. Bespoke may have more.
There may be only 3/8”, but better makers will have 5/8” allowing the collar to be raised up to 3/8”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
No allowance for changes given here.
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.
No 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.
Generally, 1 ½” given to let out the waist.
Total to be let out 2 ½”.
RTW trousers have no allowance to let out the outseam, most bespoke trousers do.
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.
While Neapolitan, Milanese, and even Roman tailors are world-famous and respected, we can’t possibly ignore the fact that tailoring schools flourish all over Italy – even on the southern island of Sicily.
I Sarti Italiani has been making bespoke suits, trousers, and shirts since 1986; they focus on precise, careful stitching, and they only use the best quality materials for their suits. The lining is always cupro bemberg, the buttons are either corozo, horn or mother of pearl, and the canvas is in camel hair or horse hair.
The selection of fabrics is on point: Ermenegildo Zegna, Loro Piana, Cerruti 1881, Draper’s, Vitale Barberis Canonico, Bottoli, Larusmiani, and Scabal are only few of the names you’ll find in I Sarti Italiani’s fabric book.
Sicilian tailoring features the same, relaxed characteristic of Neapolitan tailoring, without the flairs typical of the Partenopean tradition. I Sarti Italiani offers bespoke solutions and blends Italian craftsmanship with unique Southern taste. Our very own Peter Zottolo has recently written an article about his recent experience with I Sarti Italiani in occasion of a recent trip to Italy.
You can find I Sarti Italiani in Sicily at these locations – but they also do a home or office bespoke service for those who are too busy to stop by the showroom:
Sartoria Montelepre (PA) C/da Vallotta s/nc
Show-room Marsala (TP) Via Mario Nuccio n°10-12
Show-room Palermo Via Isidoro la Lumia 27/A
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.
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.
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.
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.
So you’ve decided to “go bespoke.” Great! From now on, everything you commission should be perfect, right?
I decided to ask some of StyleForum’s members to elaborate on their bespoke experiences to give the “n00b” an idea of what to expect during the first (and hopefully continuing) foray into bespoke. Their combined familiarity helps create a balanced prospective of what one should be looking for during the process.
Granted, it may take some time before finding a tailor that suits your needs. Forum member @Slewfoot, AKA David Beckwith of Grand Cru Wine Consulting, had tried several tailors before he found his current favorite: Steed. “A big reason I settled on them was seeing all the amazing photographs of their work online. Additionally, many people on StyleForum and London Lounge that I trust use them regularly.”
Once at the tailor’s shop (or at a traveling tailor’s temporary shop space), what do you ask? Indeed, where do you even start? David continues:
“I think it’s a very good idea to take the long term approach to the relationship with your tailor. At the beginning you are really getting to know one another. You’re getting a feel for making sure you all are on the same page aesthetically and philosophically. The first handful of items you get from a tailor you all carefully discuss the specifics of the fit and details, but after a while much of that becomes second nature and you then just do tweaks here and there depending on the specific garment at hand.”
Andy Poupart, known as @Andy57, on StyleForum concurs:
“My first suits came out fine, but that first commission was also a learning experience for me. What I didn’t know to ask about were the many stylistic and detailed choices that one can make when commissioning a garment. Since then, I have come to know such things as I almost always want a ticket pocket, I want at least two narrow inside breast pockets for my reading glasses, I don’t want belt loops on my trousers, nor do I want rear pockets or a coin pocket in the waistband.”
During the process, the learning curve for both client and tailor can leave certain details to chance. What happens then? @Manton recalls one such incident:
“I once ordered a dinner jacket, as a double breasted shawl collar, and I thought the lapel buttonhole should be angled up, as is typical on a double breasted jacket. In this instance the tailor angled it down, as on a single breasted jacket. I was sort of miffed at first, but I solved the problem by always wearing a flower in the lapel.”
Small tweaks are to be expected, even after the initial commission. However, the process does get easier with time. David explains:
“I used to overthink things too much when I was first getting into it. At first, it’s like re-doing a room in your house – you’re presented with dozens of options for paint and drapes, and start running around in circles. These days I just let my gut take over and make much faster decisions. One thing I’ve noticed that’s a big help is physically seeing the fabric in person first. Holding it in your hands, you often suddenly get hit with how the finished garment will come out. You inherently know that patch pockets will be great for this fabric or that this suit should be a 3-piece vs a double breasted kind of thing.”
After multiple commissions, @Manton agrees: “As I’ve gained experience with bespoke, I’ve streamlined the process. I just say, “Just say “Single or double-breasted, two piece or three,” and let them do their thing.”
Take your time to get to know your tailor. Trust them to do what they do best, and trust yourself to make the choices that are best for you. Oh, and try not to overthink it!
Today I’m in a salon in San Francisco with my wife. The stylist asks how she wants her hair, and as she responds, she’s also using her hands almost like paintbrushes, drawing invisible lines here and there to indicate bob and bang length. Then she points to a picture of a model on a wall.
Getting a bespoke suit follows a similar path. We have an image in our mind and say to ourselves, “I want to look like that.” Getting to look like that can be tricky. Where to begin? The following steps should help you on your way.
Decide what style you want. This cannot be overemphasized. When you look at a picture of a suit you like, what exactly about it attracts you? Is it the roping on the sleevehead, clean chest, and precise lines? Or maybe you’re drawn to the roundness of the shoulders, gentle drape and curves, and soft tailoring. Perhaps you like them all, but what do you see yourself in? Nail that down, and proceed to step two.
Find a tailor that makes what you like as the house style. This can be tough. Generally speaking, there are three types of tailoring: British, American, and Italian. The tailoring houses in the respective countries roughly adhere to the local style, but even within there are differences. There are several threads on Styleforum that focus on various tailoring houses and geographical particularities; peruse them to pinpoint the one that most appeals to you. These will get you started:
Decide if you are willing to travel. If so, you can go to any tailor you want, with only time and your budget to hold you back. If not, you need to limit your choices to traveling tailors. Here are a couple threads on StyleForum with tailors that travel to the US:
Plan the logistics of your travel. Earlier this year I went to Sicily and wanted to try the tailors there. When planning for the trip, I started to look for hotels and rental car agencies. Many of these are available online in English, and email communication is also in English. ProTip for car rental: InterRent is reliable and crazy cheap, often $20 a day or less for a car. Their offices are sometimes located away from the airport but they do provide shuttle service. Hotels usually speak English, and depending on your pocketbook, Sicily can provide unforgettable accommodations.
Set up an appointment. Many Italian tailoring shops don’t speak English, so along with other useful questions such as “Qual’è il miglior vino della casa?” you need to learn simple phrases to set up your appointment. In this regard, utilize the many online translation sites, or language apps to use on your smartphone. Or try this: “Buongiorno, mi chiamo Peter. Voglio venire alla sua sartoria il diciannove ottobre alle 3 di pomeriggio. Va bene per lei?”
Since I speak conversational Italian, I called to let both tailors know the dates and general time of day I would be coming, which I did again about a week before my departure date. Most tailors will not discuss prices over the phone, so while it’s good to have a ballpark figure, be prepared for a somewhat fluid policy. Allow at least a week for the first visit, first fitting, a possible second fitting, and the finished product. If staying for less time, most tailors are willing to ship to you at cost.
But what do you do once you get there? What can you expect? What do you ask? I asked venerable StyleForum members to share their experiences, and next week’s Journal will reveal their responses.
Bespoke what? The word itself has undergone changes since its first use in the 1500’s. Back then, “bespoke” was what you called your outfit. Your one outfit, the one that smelled of Western European colonization.
“Why yes, the codpiece was bespoke. No, I don’t know why it’s so small. But the godless heathens should be impressed.”
The idea of having something made for you was nothing strange in those days, but as mass-produced items became commonplace, something made to your particular specifications (such as your particular body) became scarce. Most ready-to-wear suits may not fit you perfectly, but a few may. Most are also made from ugly fabrics, but a handful are tastefully classic. The price range is anywhere from $300 to upwards of $3000 and higher. Something, somewhere, will fit your body, budget, and discriminating bias. So, why bespoke?
Indeed, in order to get something bespoke one has to do quite a bit of research, as few companies even offer such services. Fewer still are the tailoring houses that take your measurements, have various high quality fabrics to choose from, and provide fittings for adjustments. Most have to travel great distances to tailoring houses, across state lines, time zones, and oceans. Others hope traveling tailors visit their city (or a nearby one), but such merchants visit once or perhaps twice a year, which means you may not receive the finished product for one or even two birthdays. In contrast, off-the-rack suits can be found in any department store, ready for you to take home. So again: why bespoke?
One word: romance. Interestingly, a recent article from The New York Times quotes Georgetown linguistics professor Deborah Tannen, saying “bespoke” appeals to our individualism. Which is partially true: more often than not, those who venture into bespoke have a very specific idea of how they want to appear. What better way to materialize your distinct sense of identity by dictating your projected image? Self-love and self-expression often go hand in hand.
But it’s more than that. It’s the enchantment with bespoke itself – a medium which takes far more time than the alternative but, to those who appreciate it, returns far more reward. Even if you never thread the needle, the process of discussing what environment you’ll wear the suit and how you wish to be presented, deciding which fabric you like versus how it will perform examining various technical styles, all contribute to the creation of a unique idea (yours). You’re excited because you get to dictate the particulars. But the courtship continues, because it’s during the fitting when you begin to see your idea turn into something tangible. Sure, maybe a few tweaks need to be made, the tailor makes a note of it, you go out for some coffee, maybe dinner and a drink, shoot the breeze, exchange salutations, make another appointment, and part ways smiling with eager prospects of the next encounter. Finally you see the finished product – the completed suit – and that’s it. You try it on, and you’re smitten.
That’s romance, and that’s the why of bespoke. Sure, that suit makes you look great, but the process, eliciting feelings of creativity, anticipation and discovery, is the reason to choose bespoke. Because you can’t find that in any department store.