What makes quality in machine-made clothing?
Best investment product: Private White VC
Runners up: Alden, Edward Green
What makes one machine-made product better than another?
At Permanent Style, the fact we cover mostly smart clothing, and mostly high-end, means handwork is often a sign of quality. Whether it’s sewing the welt of a shoe, or the chest of a suit.
But what about clothes that are entirely sewn by machine, and have no need of handwork? What makes quality there? Is it anything beyond cloth and consistency?
I spoke to Mike Stoll (below), the head of production at Private White VC - and importantly someone who has made for dozens of brands over the decades - to start answering that question.
This is also by way of acknowledging Private White’s award for best investment product, voted for by Permanent Style readers.
Readers say their PWVC clothes have worn well, been enjoyable to wear, and rewarded the investment. But why?
First off, the relevant comparison here is between humans on sewing machines, and automatic machines prepared and monitored by humans.
Large-scale production of outerwear, mostly in China, involves the control of a machine that cuts all the material according to a pre-set pattern, and then sews it in sections.
“So for example, one side of a coat might be laid flat, with pockets laid on top, and then fed into the machine,” says Mike. “The machine will cut the cloth, sew the pockets in place, and finish the edges. Then it will come out completed on the other side. For shirts there might be five people in the entire plant.”
This is opposed to a factory like Private White, where one person is using a regular sewing machine, picking up the pockets, positioning them, and moving the coat around a needle.
It’s not dissimilar to how shoes are made in Northampton and elsewhere - often referred to as ‘benchmade’. One human carefully manipulates the product in a machine, usually holding it throughout.
“The result of the mass manufacturing is garments that feel stamped out,” says Mike. “You see this from outdoors brands, and most high-street brands as well. It’s hard to describe exactly, but they’re simplified and two-dimensional.”
Pressed for an example, Mike talks about curves. Big machines aren’t great with curves. A pocket will pretty much always be square, and aligned with a square edge.
But someone working a sewing machine can position the curve of a welt breast pocket by eye. They can see where it fits nicely. Same goes for the curve of a collar.
Another example is complicated things like bellows pockets. You’ll rarely see them on products made on automatic machines - again, everything is simple and flat - and when you do they often don’t function as well.
The only risk of this human production is inconsistency. Automatic machines are more consistent, so a factory like PWVC is heavily dependent on skilled workers, good management, and quality control.
“Manufacturing is also a question of picking the most suitable process,” says Mike.
“For example, all labels are rectangular, and they all go in the same places. It’s quicker and actually better for an automatic label maker to do it - because they won’t leave a join at one corner.”
“We’re looking at investing in machinery to do that at the moment, because there’s no advantage to doing it by hand. But with most of these other processes, particularly on the outside of a coat, it’s better to have a person do it.”
But do any of these things actually lead to longevity - to something lasting longer, rather than just looking different?
Stitches per inch don’t make much difference. An automatic machine can do just as many stitches per inch, and faster. Sometimes a very cheap garment might be sewn more loosely, but it’s rare.
What a person can do, though, is vary tension and needles as they work a garment, and realise different things are needed for different parts. They can alter the tension manually, and switch from a fine, pointed needle to a ballpoint if required.
This allows them to adapt when a particular seam shows it needs to be worked differently - or if the cloth itself varies. If you order a 750g melton, some of it will be 760 and some 740 (one reason large-scale production uses more manmade, consistent materials).
That adaption can make the garment stronger. And, interestingly, on those materials it can mean that the large-scale machine is actually more inconsistent - because it always does the same thing, no matter how the materials vary.
“I’ll give you a mad example. Say we’re making a heavy coat, in 800g wool for example. At the bottom the coat, the hem, you’ll get a bump, where the material is doubled back,” says Mike. “Our workers will take a hammer and whack the bottom, to flatten the fabric before they sew it.”
“Now you can create an automatic machine to do that too, but no one’s going to, because it applies to such a small part of just one type of coat. It’s not worth adding a whole extra piece of functionality. So the machine will just sew over the bump - or the factory just won’t make that weight.”
This last point is interesting because it echoes part of the recent article on Uniqlo knitwear. The older machines used by traditional knitters are more flexible, easier to adapt. That doesn’t mean they necessarily produce higher quality, but it does mean they can make a greater range.
Which is one reason cheaper products (particularly outerwear) all look the same.
How about pure strength in a garment?
Well, Mike has a couple of examples. First, automatic machines will usually just do a ‘back tack’ at the end of a seam to make it stronger. Private White will also bar tacks, which are more reliable for not being part of the same run of stitching.
Second, the rivets they use (most noticeably, on the back of the collar) are not one rivet that punches through the cloth and the lining. Rather, they are two rivets, on the front and back, which screw into each other.
It’s unlikely the hanger loop that they secure will ever come under enough pressure to be tested. But maybe, 20 years down the line, it will. And then it will save the cloth from being ripped.
The quality of hardware like this is also fundamental.
In fact most factory managers would say that although make is crucial, it’s cloth and hardware that make the biggest difference to longevity.
Good hardware is not easy to identify, particularly as brands of hardware such as YKK offer a range of qualities. But Mike says you should trust your instinct.
“Rather than look for a name, just try the zip, try the pockets,” he says. “You should be able to tell between the top and the bottom of the market, how strong and functional those pockets feel. Do they seem like they’re intended to take real weight?”
How does he feel about synthetic mixes in materials?
“We avoid using them. Some people say nylon is added for strength or water resistance, but 95% of the time it’s just cost,” says Mike. “The strength is in the yarn and the weave, and the water resistance in the finish. I could put Teflon on wool the same way it’s put on most nylons.”
He also likes using pure materials because they avoid ambiguity. The customer knows a synthetic hasn’t been added just for cost, or just for weight, for example.
“Look at the country of origin too. If something is made in Italy, rather than Romania or Portugal, it still means the vast majority of the time that the quality is better.”
In conclusion, Mike says: “When you’re a brand looking around at factories, there will always be a cheaper option. “But is that really the attitude you want from your manufacturer? To always be looking for the thinnest material, the fewest steps, in order to be the cheapest?”
“Or would you rather have someone whose aim is to make the best garment possible? Someone who picks the best sleeve lining, the best pocketing, even if the customer will never notice for years?”
Fortunately, it seems PS readers are noticing that, and rewards Private White as a result.
Full details and lists of the awards here
I nominated the Edward Green Dover in dark oak as the best investment. But I totally support Private White. I now have four different pieces of outerwear from them that all are timeless and fantastic. My nomination was more of a specific piece than a brand/company.
Very interesting post, thank you. Good to see Private White V C thriving
‘Private White’ are an outstanding company.
They take a pride in what they do and produce great designs with quality built in.
I have 5 pieces from them (PS/PW Trench, Spring Field Jacket, PS/PW Donegal, crew neck sweater, submariner sweater) and can’t speak highly enough of them.
Wether you buy from the store or on-line the service is first class and the staff really care.
Viva Private White and bravo on your win !
Well deserved win. I have mentioned to you before that the Bridge Coat in one of the best items of clothing i have ever bought and i know (weight depending obviously) that i will have this item in regular use for many many years. I am now looking at either the Ventile Mac or Harrington – cannot decide. I vaguely remember an article a while back where you discussed these items but couldn’t find anything. Have you tried either of these before?
Lovely to hear Adam.
No I haven’t, sorry.
“Look at the country of origin too. If something is made in Italy, rather than Romania or Portugal, it still means the vast majority of the time that the quality is better.”
Would be good to understand exactly why this is ?
My impression is it’s a big mixture of reasons, Robin. There’s EU regulation, which makes it hard to really compete with mass production. There’s also just inertia – the make has been at a higher level historically, so that’s what you carry on doing. And also what the market is – if China is taking away all the cheap production, that shuts down in Italy and only the high-end producers are left. That’s certainly happened recently with some shirting mills for instance.
I think there is a lot of positive prejudices towards Italy and Germany.
When you take a German machine, put it in Romania and put a Romanian worker to operate it, why would you expect a result of lower quality then when you take the same German machine, put it in Germany or Italy and put a Romanian worker to operate it? Because this is what most of the time happens.
The truth is, that in 21st century Europe we have a huge mobility of workforce from countries with lower standard of living to countries with higher standard of living. And chances are that a product made in Germany or Italy is actually made by a worker from Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Portugal and so on.
Or somebody forgets the city of Prato in Italy where the Made in Italy garments are made by Chinese workers?
The Italian manifacturers know the facts very well, so they desperately try to market the Made in Italy label with romantic stories.
Of cource there are cases, where a worker in Portugal might get a worse training than a worker in Italy. But this must not be necessary the case so with equal training and using the same machines, Italy has no advantage.
I’m not convinced that there’s sufficient difference in durability between hand-manipulated machine work and machine-only production for me to take the distinction into consideration when making purchasing decisions. I’ve never seen any evidence beyond conjecture to suggest significant differences in longevity, and most of the potential problems with the latter identified here can be easily repaired. Companies aiming to actually distinguish themselves in the quality of their wares should simply offer a repair/return guarantee on their products.
Private White do precisely that.
On many items they offer a lifetime guarantee and repair service !
I take issue with the point regarding nylon, nylon is added not for abrasion or its tensile strength but for its elasticity, when added to a yarn its heat set to allow the garment to maintain its shape when improperly cared for or through heavy wear, think hung off the back of a chair and elbows and knees bagging out in open weave cloths, this is something big brands think about allot more than a smaller operations. If I’m wearing a pair of levis jeans and they’re bagged out at the knee and seat it doesn’t reflect well on levis by the owner of the garment or by other people who see the big levis patch on the back.
I believe it’s also added for those other reasons Seb – certainly those in manufacturing have told me that in the past.
As to Levi’s bagging at the knees, that is the look of working jeans in many ways, and second it’s easy to iron it out if you want. Comfort during wear is a better case for elasticity
It’s a nice sales pitch but a small amount of synthetics really won’t make a difference to how it wears on a fashion piece, if it were a technical garment sure but not a fashion piece. When I refer to elasticity I’m not referring to elastane, nylon is elastic because the heat setting of the yarn gives it memory, its not noticeably stretchy it simply recovers well. Levis was just an example, you’ll see Tom ford with polyester in jeans because it keeps them looking good as you wear them, or you may have Ted Baker include nylon in a open weave spongy tweed jacket, when selling to the public having a jacket bag out at the elbows isn’t acceptable you can’t expect them to look after their clothes.
Thanks Seb. Yes I realise this isn’t elastane, and still wouldn’t recommend any stretch in jeans.
I remain stubbornly optimistic that we can make a greater proportion of the public understand how to look after their clothes – if only because of the thousands of new people that read Permanent Style every week
Very pleased to hear this. It was only really mid way through last year that I stumbled across Private White (and PS for that matter). What impresses me is their ability to cover a wide spread of menswear, which is actually quite hard to find. Their pieces, for the most part, suit tailoring and can, in my opinion, help add a modern edge to classic tailoring and bespoke, particularly for those that don’t go to work everyday in the most formal of environments (a lot of us these days) adding a piece of Private White outerwear, to say, a well tailored pair of trousers, shirt, knitwear and fine shoes (more or less my daily uniform currently). I have a few pieces already, and plan to add more this year, the PS/PW Donegal being one I’m particularly looking forward to.
Much appreciated as always Simon.
A very educational post. Whilst of the points made would seem intuitively correct, it is informative to see these explained factually. The ethos of PWVC as exemplified by Mike Stoll is a good balance between some top end (arguably over priced) brands and the mass produced end of the market – both of which have their place. This is in my opinion what sustainability in clothing is really about, responsible whilst neither overpriced or condescending. A great article and more like this would be appreciated.
Mike Stoll (to my mind) epitomises an attitude towards quality that both respectful of the process and the end customer- a real gent.
p.s I must do the factory tour some day.
Interesting point Stephen, I would like to do something more about pricing. Particularly around why some companies make no money and some lots, despite looking the same from the outside
I like a lot of Private White’s products but two things put me off from ever buying their clothing. First thing is that it is too fashion forward and not classic menswear. It seems to be pitching to the hipster fashion buyer, things are tight fitting, but main thing is outerwear is too short. I notice that when you worked with them on a collaboration you lengthened pieces which was a wise move.
Second thing I don’t like is the metal work they use all over the place. The rivets you showed in one picture is an example. The heavy brass zips which flap against your privates no pun intended aren’t very appealing either. Get rid of these things please.
I am surprised you think things are right fitting. I cannot comment on the knitwear and shirts but the outerwear is regular fitting and boxy. With the exception of the bridge coat which is a slimmer fit I have just ordered (arrived today) a Harrington and Mac and the regular pea coat I have tried before. I could have sized down easily as the cuts are generous. I won’t because I prefer the more comfortable fit on most outerwear to allow for knitwear etc but I would definitely say they are not tight fitting.
This is a great post. Much like other makers I’ve met, they are not afraid to say they utilize human-manipulated machines because, generally speaking, they’re at once more precise than handmade-only manufacturing and at the same time able to handle more variety during the process. Personally I appreciate small companies that are open about technology, both when it’s useful and when it’s not.
I have their old twin-track in the waxed cotton and it’s very nice. One recommendation though is that they make the sleeves a bit wider so it is easier to get over knitwear and such.
I remember Private White implementing a no sale policy on all their products and the owner put out a long instagram post explaining why- I believe this was roughly a year-ish ago.
They were really proud of this approach
However, they have started to go back on sale………. do you happen to know the reason why and maybe this is evident that no body was paying full price for their items?
I guess business is business.
I don’t know the details of it, no, sorry.
I do think that it’s hard as a large business to never put things on sale though.
What colour/material should the cuff be if you have one on a dinner jacket? The same colour and material as the lapel?
No, generally the same as the body of the jacket
Have you look at say RRL made in China stuff, they’re not “flat” (not very classical menswear though)
I wonder if they just have better machine or more human touch (RRL has a lot made in China hand knit sweaters as well, love them though absurd pricing at retail)
I have, and I have a really nice overshirt that’s like that. I assume that is not made on large, automatic machines – there’s a huge amount of work done in China that’s people and sewing machines, as well as the large automated plants.
On a dinner suit should the silk on the lapel continue on the collar? I’ve seen a few jackets where this isn’t the case and it doesn’t look odd
No, generally it doesn’t
I haven’t been overwhelmed by the service and quality of products from Private White. I bought a Ventile Frobisher Parka and in the cloth there where places which differed significantly from the rest and were much paler, and when getting wet weren´t waterproof. The real disappointement was, when I tried to get PW to repair the coat, they answered that there was nothing to do, and such differences were to be expected. I find that highly unsatisfactory from a company, which prides itself of quality and service.
I’d love to see a comparison from a range of high street brands to check the quality.
I consider that to be M&S, Polo by Ralph Lauren, Hugo Boss, Primark, Levi’s.
In my opinion I’m not sure one is much better than the other generally.
I definitely appreciate when the thread used to put something together is natural and not synthetic, something I noticed when ironing.
Thanks Joel. I think always keep in mind this piece about the kind of company it is – that and the price of the thing will always be the best guide
Thank you very much. I was trying to find that.