Collar and armhole: How bespoke craft enhances fit

Monday, October 26th 2020
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In recent weeks we’ve done more coverage of top-end made-to-measure – the likes of Orazio Luciano and Jean-Manuel Moreau, Anglo-Italian and The Armoury.

Some of these approach bespoke in terms of the handwork involved, in particular hand-padding of lapels and collar. Add this to the more standard hand-sewn buttonholes and buttons, and you’d be forgiven for thinking this MTM was just as good as bespoke.

There are various ways in which this is not true.

The more minor ones were listed in our article ‘Is Bespoke Worth It’. They include the heritage of bespoke, the consistency, the relationship with a cutter, the ease of care and repair, the longevity and perhaps sustainability.

The biggest ones, though, are fit and quality. It is these that are held up most often as reasons for buying bespoke, and which are most directly challenged by the best MTM.

It is fairly easy to show how the quality of most bespoke is better. It’s visible in things like the jetted pockets, inbreast pockets sewn into the facings, and other handwork that adds strength as well as aesthetics.

We’ve started to cover these more, most recently looking at pockets and jettings.

In today’s article, I want to concentrate on fit. The aim is to explain a few ways in which bespoke tailoring (usually) still excels MTM in how well it fits the wearer.

Let’s look at the collar first.

Any good suit will have the collar attached to the jacket by hand. You can see that in the uneven stitches around the edges, when you turn the collar up. This makes it easier to create shape in the neck, and the fronts of the jacket.

The next step up in quality is to ‘pad’ that collar by hand, basically shaping it into a curve as you attached the different parts of the collar structure (canvas, felt) together.

You can see in the image above how this can be done to create a curve.

Some of the best made-to-measure, particularly made in places with lots of local crafts like Naples, does this hand padding. But bespoke goes one step further, shaping that curved collar to the customer specifically, using an iron.

It is this shaping when the collar is on the jacket itself, which allows the tailor to control how it hugs the neck of the customer.

And it’s different with everyone. Those with sloping shoulders need a rounder collar; those with squarer shoulders need a straighter one. Over two, three or even four fittings, the tailor can tweak each time how that collar sits precisely.

Often you can see this on the outside of the collar, even when an individual is not wearing it.

For example, if you look at the two jackets made by Michael Browne, below, you can see that the collar of the cashmere jacket (left) curves inwards as it runs up the neck of the mannequin, creating a concave line. But the leather jacket on the right does not, because leather can't be stretched and shaped in the same way (other tailoring materials like cotton have a similar problem).

A second important area is the armhole.

It is said that a smaller armhole fits the wearer better, as it separates the sleeve more from the body, preventing the arm from dragging the rest of the suit with it when it moves.

This is true. But in theory, there’s nothing to stop an MTM or even RTW garment from having a small armhole. They always need to make the sleeve smaller to get it into the armhole, after all; they could just make the latter smaller still.

The reason they don’t is that an armhole doesn’t have to be smaller absolutely to fit better – rather, it needs to fit the customer more closely.

And customers vary considerably. If RTW jackets were made with a smaller armhole, they would be too small for a greater number of customers. The armhole would be too tight, making it uncomfortable and causing various pulls and wrinkles.

Made-to-measure jackets can afford to make their armhole smaller, based on the customer, but they can’t afford to go too close, as they don’t have multiple fittings to get it right. So as a result, manufacturers err on the safe side.

With bespoke, the coatmaker will always baste the sleeve into the armhole by hand, allowing them full freedom of adjustment - and the ability to change that repeatedly over multiple fittings.

I compared a few of my bespoke and MTM jackets for this piece, and measured the armholes.

I found the difference was smaller than I thought. My Gieves & Hawkes suit recently made by Davide Taub, for instance, measured 7 inches, while my Saman Amel MTM (shown above) was 7½. (Jacket inside out on a mannequin, measuring distance from top to bottom, inside the sleeve.)

But that half inch makes a difference. I don’t have a side-by-side picture, but you can see in the image above that the Saman Amel jacket does drag at the body of the jacket a little.

Most ready-made jackets are much worse than this. And there is variation in bespoke too: cutters have different views on how tight an armhole should be, and the Neapolitan jackets I measured all had smaller armholes, perhaps compensating for a lack of structure elsewhere.

The way a bespoke tailor works in fullness to different parts of the armhole also makes a difference, though one that can’t easily be measured without taking the whole sleeve apart.

There are a few other smaller differences between bespoke and MTM.

For example, bespoke tailors are better at adding drape to the chest of jacket, I find, because they can use the chest canvas to manipulate where the drape goes. On an MTM jacket, it’s more likely to make the sides of the chest (under the armhole) messy.

Also, bespoke garments are more likely to have chest canvas that runs underneath the armhole, all the way to the side seam – rather than stopping at the undersleeve seam in front of it. This makes the sides of the jacket much cleaner (indicated on the image of my Gieves suit, below).

This is something I particularly notice myself when comparing bespoke and MTM.

However, this point also introduces our first caveat, which is that jackets with more structure benefit more from this bespoke work.

A jacket with three layers in the chest gives the tailor much more to work with, and manipulate. This makes a bespoke garment more noticeable: it is only in these jackets that you notice a real three-dimensional element to the tailoring, which cannot be achieved by MTM.

The side of view of my Edward Sexton coat below shows that, to an extent. The roundness of that sleevehead and the shape of the chest is impossible to create without both bespoke work and greater structure.

Most of my Neapolitan jackets just have two layers of canvas in the chest – no horsehair, no domette. They also don’t run that canvas under the armhole, as mentioned earlier.

As a result, there is usually a much smaller difference between MTM and bespoke with softer tailoring. You’re more likely to look at my Jean-Manuel Moreau, for example, and see little difference to a Solito.

There's also a second, big caveat, which is that all this depends on the skill of the tailor.

As I’ve said in the past, bespoke just expands the possibilities of tailoring – it doesn’t necessarily create something better. It gives the tailor a bigger tool kit, but they also need to be able to use it.

You’ll have noticed in the two major points above (collar and armhole) that both were dependent on the tailor having multiple fittings to play around. There was no need to get it right first time – and so err on the safe side – as there is with MTM.

But some tailors might do fewer fittings, or rather, not make use of the fittings they have. (I had some great bespoke fitted with John Hitchcock - below - in one fitting; some tailors struggled to do something similar in three or four.)

So bespoke is usually better in these respects. It certainly has the potential to produce a better fit, and it really should do.

Houses with more experience are also more likely to get this right, especially with varied body types (a particular problem with that one-shot element of MTM).

There is some wonderful made to measure out there, and some of it is easily good enough for what that customer wants or needs. But there will often be points of fit that could only be created with bespoke.