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.”

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.

Styleforum Maker Space – I Sarti Italiani

i sarti italiani bespoke suits abiti su misura sicilia sicily

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.

i sarti italiani palermo styleforum maker space quality

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 

Official Website


At The Maker Space, you’ll be able to chat with the tailors and get measured for your Sicilian bespoke suit. Click here to read more about the event and RSVP.

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.

Member Focus: Staying Classic with Andy57

Today, we say hello to another member known for keeping the “Classic” in Styleforum’s Classic Menswear community: Andy57. Whether wearing an odd jacket and trousers or a dinner suit, Andy always takes the time to get the details right. Here, he tells us what led him to men’s style – and what has kept him on Styleforum.


I’ve always been interested in style and fashion, both men’s and women’s. About four years ago, I had to make some changes in my diet and lifestyle to reverse a trend of increasing blood sugar. These changes had a side effect for me of losing around 30 pounds, and so I needed a new wardrobe. Over the years, I had accumulated a number of jackets, some of which now fit me better than they had in years. But even the jackets that fit me were rarely worn and I decided I wanted to change that. so I started to wear them, even though I was still wearing jeans and sneaker, for the most part. But over time, I realized I needed better trousers, which led to better shoes, which led to wearing a tie occasionally, which led to bow ties, and so on.

andy57 styleforum

Although he often shares suits, Andy57 is no stranger to the odd jacket.

Then I began to do some research. I began to learn about how clothes were suppose to fit. I realized that most of my clothes were too big, for example, and as I learned more and came into contact with more resources, from which I learned more, I began to understand.

andy57 styleforum

Suburban life with Andy57: always tasteful.

In addition, I had always harbored a desire to have a suit made for me by a Savile Row tailor. But I did not know which tailor to select and I was somewhat daunted at the prospect. But I heard of a tailoring firm called Steed Bespoke Tailors that is part of the Anderson & Sheppard diaspora and that visited San Francisco regularly and I decided to go with them. And it has been a good relationship.

andy57 styleforum

Here, Andy57 shows off a beautiful white DB suit.

I’ve learned a tremendous amount by being part of Styleforum. Clearly, menswear has standard texts by Boyer, Flusser, Manton, and others. But there’s no escaping that the internet is and continues to be a tremendous tool for learning and for obtaining items that, without it, one simply would not encounter.

andy57 styleforum

Andy57, enjoying the view.

To the extent that I have a style, it’s a combination of what I hope is a classic English style and then at times a fairly unrestrained exuberance bordering on dandyism. I love color and I love wearing things that few others would wear. For example, I bought some of the last few meters of an ivory flannel with a navy pindot windowpane from Fox and had it made up into a lovely double-breasted suit. I wear it on warm evenings, or sunny summer days and I love it. People notice it because you almost never see anyone wearing such a thing. But I have a gorgeous lovat green tweed jacket that is classic and conservative and occasionally people notice it because it is so classic and well cut. But, in the end, style is individual. Style is harmony. Style is beauty. Style is being comfortable in your own skin and having confidence in your appearance. I don’t think you can have style without confidence.

What to Expect from Bespoke

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!

How to Jump Into Bespoke

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.

“Like that.” 

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:

THE ANDERSON & SHEPPARD EXPATRIATES THREAD900x900px-ll-1f6ab035_i-79sdpzv-x2

FRENCH TAILORING THREAD

ANTONIO LIVERANO, FLORENTINE TAILOR

EAST SICILY TAILORS

 


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:

STEED TAILORS

WW CHAN

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.

Set900x900px-ll-2505fe4a_tumblr_mltkm24ltx1rf1jvro1_1280 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.

Why Bespoke Clothing?

bespoke suit example

An example of a successful bespoke endeavor.

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?

bespoke suit styleforum guidelines

All smiles throughout the process.

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

perfect bespoke suit

The Finished Product

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.

SF10: Jack Knife Denim

I met John Alburl and Nick Kemp of Jack/Knife Outfitters in their SOMA (San Francisco) workspace when a friend of mine was getting his jeans finished.  Tailors for the well-known SF shop Unionmade, and former tailors for Levis, John and Nick create custom jeans from paper patterns for individual customers.  While the styles I saw were in the “heritage” and “workwear” vein, they stand the idea on its head. Denim was originally an industrial garment, made purely for utility, and the very idea of unsanforized “shrink to fit” jeans was that a uniform garment could be customized post production.  The trend to buy raw denim, and watch it become personalized with wear, is a natural extension.  This is in stark contrast with the bespoke garment, a piece made for a specific customer, a one of a kind.  Jack/Knife Outfitters makes bespoke versions of uniform garment.  I got to ask John some questions.


Fok-Yan Leung: Could you tell us a bit about how and why you started Jack/Knife Outfitters?

John Alburl: Jack/Knife came about as a desire for us to be professionally involved in a space where the only focus was on quality.  In an age of instantaneous education, the modern consumer has become more savvy than ever—consumers are interested in the “story”; the who, what, where, and why of a piece made are questions the market demands answers to. Companies tend to make up a gimmicky story that ultimately, over time, loses dimension, but with Jack/Knife our pieces are the story.

All the pieces that have ever received a Jack/Knife stencil were constructed for a reason. The use of heavy selvedge denim came not because the blogs thought it was cool, but because it was the only material that wouldn’t keep ripping on motorcycle rides. Bandannas also were constructed for dusty trips on the motorcycles. Bags came to carry tools, and it grew from there. Consumers are losing interest in the workwear/heritage/vintage trends, but luckily Jack/Knife does not technically lie in any of those categories. The influence from decades past for us comes not in fit or design, but more in the quality of construction and materials used.

Now we operate in a work studio in the old garment district of San Francisco. We take pride in doing everything ourselves and taking our time to aim as close as possible for perfection. These days there are very few operations left that design, draft patterns, and construct all in-house like we do at Jack/Knife.

FYL: Could you bring us through the process of how you work with a customer to get him the pair of jeans he wants?  How do you get him to the right denim, the right cut, the right details?

JA: Describing the entire experience for being fitted for a pair of Jack/Knife jeans would be a bit overwhelming to take in all at once. So I’ll give the “cliff’s notes” version:

The process for being fitted for Jack/Knife custom jeans begins with the first visit—a tour of our operations, a showing of our selvedge fabric selection, the machines, etc. The goal is to knock out fabric selection, thread color, rivets/buttons, pocket shapes, etc. There are myriad details to go over and each client is given the opportunity to bring forth their individual detail requests as well. Measurements are taken, and we also discuss with the client the desired fit of the finished jean. There is much more that goes into the first fitting, and overall this stage is the most comprehensive.

After all the necessary information has been gathered from the client during the first visit, we begin drafting by hand the pattern for the jeans. The pattern-drafting phase by far is the most time-consuming step of the overall process. Once we have your pattern, we construct your jeans, which you’ll try on during your second visit. When you come to try on your jeans in the second visit, there is no waistband yet. Trying on jeans with no waistband can be a a bizarre experience, but the second visit is simply for us to see how the jeans are fitting up to that point. Based on how the jeans fit during the second visit, we either adjust as needed or move on to the next phase.

Past the second visit, all that is needed is a waistband, belt-loops, and a final hem. We attach the waistband and belt loops once we are past the second visit phase. The final visit from you will be to try the jeans on one last time to confirm that you are happy with the fit now that the waistband has been attached. We also take a final measurement for your hem. The final hem is done during this last visit, as it only takes Nick about 10 minutes or so to hem a pair of jeans. And lastly Nick dates and signs the jeans at the very end.

FYL: Could you tell us a little about the details that sets your jeans apart?

JA: Aside from being completely custom—the entire manufacturing of Jack/Knife jeans is done using hand-worked, single-needle construction. All of our patterns are individually hand-drafted by us in our studio. We use a cotton twill binding on all our raw seams, because in our minds we would be cheating if we used over-lock or cover-stitches. We hand-hammer all of our USA-made hardware to Jack/Knife jeans. The fabric we offer is all selvedge fabric from either Japan or Cone Mills out of North Carolina. We also incorporate the use of selvedge details in the waistband, belt loops, out seam, and coin pocket. Each pair of jack/Knife jeans is hand inscribed, dated, and signed. Oh, and our jeans come with a lifetime warranty.

FYL: What if I have some really specific details I like on my pair?  If they are really dumb, how would you tell me?

JA: The only time I would intervene in someone’s design is if the idea lacked a functional purpose. We are all very honest at Jack/Knife, you would be able to tell if we thought an idea fell short of making sense.

FYL: On the other hand, there are guys who probably don’t really know exactly what they want.  How do you guide them through the process?

JA: Through a series of dialogue we can guide just about anyone through our custom experience. We try in every way possible to make this this process simple to understand. It is during that first visit that we take the time to play host and develop a sense of understanding of the individual’s lifestyle. There are basic design details that can alter the feel or styles of jeans. An example would be that dressy jeans are different in styling than workwear style jeans.

FYL: Everyone I know loves their Jack/Knife jeans.  What would you say is the secret of your success?

JA: Our unwillingness to sacrifice quality. We will always go the extra mile to make the best product possible. In these early days of Jack/Knife we have done everything possible to ignore the standard industry prompts of “selling out.” We have never outsourced. For Jack/Knife, we could never trust an outsourced entity to follow through on a project with the same passion as is practiced in our shop.

FYL: What vision do you have for Jack/Knife going forward?

JA: To continue growing. The introduction of Jack/Knife for women, a series of reproductions from the old mine finds of Mike Harris and Gang (author of Jeans of the Old West), a collaboration with Tellason, Jack/Knife limited edition pieces, and more are all happening just within the next 6months for Jack/Knife. For those coming to the Style Forum 10th Anniversary event, Jack/Knife will be unveiling a yet-to-be-seen limited edition cotton/hemp Japanese chambray shirt.

Thanks John!

Jack/Knife Outfitters
372 Ritch St.
San Francisco, CA 94107
info@jackknifeoutfitters.com