I believe that I’ve read every post you’ve written about shirts. Italian, Spanish, British, even the one on Charvet in How To Spend It. I’m always looking for the same thing but still haven’t found it. Maybe I missed one, maybe I didn’t.
What makes a quality shirt? Not fit, but the construction specifications that make quality. Are collars and cuffs fused or how are they supposed to be made? What parts need to be hand stitched? What are the materias that get used to make a quality shirt? How does a quality shirt manage to hide the top button flap underneath the tie knot (poor quality shirts always seem to show some cloth and don’t allow the tie to sit between both sides of the collar).
I really hope you can help me with this because I’ve been puzzled by what makes a quality shirt for a long time and haven’t found any proper answers yet. Anywhere.
It’s a good question, and the reason you haven’t found much so far is that there isn’t that much to say – at least not compared to a suit. Here’s a list of the many things that don’t make a difference to quality, and those that do.
– Material: material doesn’t really matter, but it’s what you pay for in many luxury shirts. There is little benefit in terms of comfort, and what you are paying for is usually a finer (thinner) cotton, which makes it lighter on the skin but also more delicate (like big Super-number suitings). It can also give the cotton a sheen that is rather showy.
– Buttons: mother of pearl is nice, and certainly preferable to plastic. But where that mother of pearl comes from is pretty irrelevant, and more expensive ones just tend to be chunkier, which again is rather showy.
– Machine stitching: some shirts have more stitches to the inch. This is certainly better, but it makes little difference to longevity. If looked after properly, even cheap shirts can last you 10 years or more.
– Closeness of stitching: Fine French side seams, with the material folded over three times and then sewn together very closely, are to some extent a sign of quality. It certainly looks neater; but who do you know who has had their side seam rip open? (Same goes for single-needle stitching.)
– Gussets: the little bits that end the side seam, stopping it coming apart. As above.
– Off-set side seams: when the side seam and the sleeve seam don’t line up, because the sleeve has been turned to change the pitch. This certainly has a functional advantage, but I’ve worn both and never noticed a difference in look or comfort.
– Pleats up the sleeve: when you attach a cuff to the sleeve, there is excess that must be taken in somewhere. You can do this through a number of pleats, or in constant gathering like the Neapolitans do. The latter is harder, but in no way better and too effeminate for some. There is an argument that pleats can through fullness into the right places – perhaps around the elbow, where you need room – but it’s very minor.
– Aesthetic hand-sewing: hand-sewn buttonholes; hand-sewn buttons; hand-sewn side seams; hand-finished bottom hems; hand-attached plackets, etc. Some are purely aesthetic, some claim to be functional. Only pay for them if you want the aesthetics.
– Fit, as you mentioned
– Style, which is largely the collar length, shape etc, and highly personal
– Functional hand-sewing: having the collar and sleeve attached by hand. It gives a natural roundness to both, which is particularly useful with the collar, and a softness to the seams that is one of the first things people comment on when they have a handmade shirt. The softness is mostly due to the increased width of those seams
– Fused/floating collars: this is a personal choice, but it is one of the most fundamental aspects of a shirt’s construction. Floating collars take more time, and for that reason are often held up as a sign of quality. I find them uncomfortable when buttoned and too ready to collapse when open. A good fused collar will not bubble when wet, or in any other way age badly. It is more likely to require collar stiffeners when worn buttoned.
– General care: a lot of the details in the first section above are used as short-hand for the general care that has been taken in the making of the shirt. Care is important. If buying a brand for the first time, there may be weaknesses in the way the shirt is sewn that you can’t see easily – such as the way the thread is knotted off after a button is sewn on. But then again, a manufacturer may also add fancy gussets and so on in order to distract from all the shortcuts he has taken elsewhere.
Buy shirts for their fit, then their style, then functional hand-sewing. And look after them. Don’t dry clean; hang dry; tackle stains quickly. Most shirts get stained long before their side seams rip.
Image courtesy of Drake’s