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 shoulders – crine 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
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
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.”