Many countries still make shirts by hand, including in Spain with the likes of Burgos and, further afield, someone like 100 Hands in India. But it is Italy that has really kept the flame alive.
Indeed, it’s one of the most most surprising cultural differences in menswear: that the finest shirts in England or France are made entirely by machine, and those in Italy largely by hand. That kind of cultural difference doesn’t exist in any other category – suits, shoes, knitwear, anything.
So why would countries have such radically different views on hand sewing? What is the point of it?
That’s the point of this article. To not only describe the Italian handmade shirt, but explain what the point of each step is: functional, decorative, or perhaps none at all.
Let’s start with the armhole, because that’s where there are a few myths about handwork.
Two lines of stitching attach the sleeve to the armhole of the shirt. The first one is usually done by machine, in order to secure it, and only then is a second seam, which is the one you see, done by hand.
Because the first seam is done by machine, hand sewing does not allow you to work in greater fullness – i.e. squeeze a bigger sleeve into a smaller armhole. This is the case with tailoring, but with tailoring that first attachment is done by hand.
Italian handmade shirts do usually work in much more fullness into the armhole. It’s just that they do that by careful and slow use of a machine. The importance of the hand work is then control of the fullness once the sleeve has been inserted. Excess cloth can be messy, and this handwork gives much greater control in the finishing.
This allows the shirtmaker to create little pleats or ‘shirring’ at the top of the armhole, if they wish. Or, some find handwork means they can get a smoother, cleaner finish to the top of the armhole by hand.
Finishing like this – with small, almost invisible hand stitches – is often what makes a shirt look more handmade, and in some people’s eyes, more bespoke.
One aspect of the armhole that often causes confusion is misalignment of the seams.
If you look under the arm of a handmade shirt, chances are that the seam in the body of the shirt will not line up with the seam under the sleeve.
It’s often said that this indicates that the pitch of the sleeve has been altered: the sleeve has been turned in its armhole so it more closely matches the angle of your arm.
This is not the case.
Armholes are not round, but oval. If you simply turned the sleeve to get a different angle, the sleeve would no longer fit in the armhole properly. Sleeves can be pitched better or worse, but this is done in the pattern making, when the sleeve is sketched and then cut out, to a particular shape.
If seams are misaligned, it indicates two things. First, it shows that the pitch of the wearer’s arm has been considered in the pattern making – which it often isn’t in cheaper shirts, and certainly not in RTW. This is the most important point.
Second, it indicates that the body of the shirt has been put together before the sleeve is attached. This is more time consuming than the alternative, which is to leave both side seam and sleeve seam undone, and then do both in one long line.
Attaching the sleeve afterwards gives the maker more control. They are able to check the fit and finish more accurately, and it’s more common on bespoke shirts for that reason.
So misaligned seams are often a sign of greater quality, but not for the reason often given. (And note that it’s an aesthetic choice – some makers consider seams that don’t join up to just be messy.)
Next is the collar. Don’t worry, these points get less detailed the further we go.
Some shirtmakers put the collar onto the body of the shirt ‘in the round’. They basically put the shirt body on a mannequin, pin the collar on, and sew the two together like that, in a circle. Rather than attaching them when laid flat, on a table.
This gives a more natural curve to the shape of the collar. It sits more naturally on the neck, and is more likely to stay like that when the collar is unbuttoned.
I do think this makes a small difference. But, as with the sleeve, the pattern making is also crucial. If the piece of material that makes up the collar is a slight curve – a smile shape – rather than a rectangle, then the collar is also more likely to curve round the neck.
The same goes for the cuff. It too is circular, and attaching it this way by hand makes a difference, as does the shape of the cuff itself. Being slightly cone shaped can also be helpful.
One thing the hand sewing definitely can do, is give a cleaner look to the finishing of the cuff. Good hand sewing can effectively be invisible, tucked underneath the cloth, whereas a machine stitch will always be visible.
It creates something of beauty: a piece of art. While handwork does help functionally around a shirt – and just as importantly, is a good sign of more careful machine work – it is this aesthetic role which is the most obvious difference.
For me, this beauty is nowhere more obvious than in the hem of the shirt, at the bottom of the body.
On most handmade Italian shirts, this bottom hem is rolled and slowly stitched by hand, in the same way as a hand-rolled handkerchief. It is a lovely process to watch, and it produces something that is truly lovely. (Though some are better than others – see above.)
The side seam of a shirt is also sometimes finished by hand – after a first line by machine – and this looks nice too. But the hem is most obvious, and the finishing around collar, cuffs, placket etc the most subtle.
There is an argument that finishing a seam like this, by hand, creates more natural stretch in the seam and makes the shirt more comfortable.
It is true that a seam sewn by hand will have more stretch, but only in the tiny amount of material that sits between it and the machine line. This is a benefit of handwork I’ve never really felt as a customer.
Finally, buttons and buttonholes.
A hand-sewn buttonhole is an attractive thing, though the difference is much more marked in tailoring than it is in shirtmaking.
It is also arguably stronger, but only because it gives the shirtmaker more control over their work. Different materials require different tension in the stitching, and that’s much easier to control by hand. The result is often a stronger, and neater, buttonhole on less usual materials like jersey or superfine cottons.
Hand-sewn buttons are not usually more secure than machine ones. The difference, however, is mostly in whether the shank of the button is ‘wrapped’ by a machine. This is by far the most secure. You can do it after hand-sewing as well, but few makers do.
Handmade shirts are usually functionally better than machine-made ones. But mostly because they indicate greater care has been taken with both the hand and machine work – as well as the pattern making.
Just as big an advantage is aesthetic: the beauty of small stitches hidden just below the edge of the placket on a cuff, or of a collar. And the evident craft of a hand-rolled hem.
Some of this is also personal and subjective. Most artisans, for example, always finish the ends of collars and cuffs by machine – no matter what else has been done by hand – because it’s cleaner. But there are also some that prefer this by hand.
Frankly, there is a lot of rubbish in this area, with brands using ‘entirely handmade’ to mean anything from buttons and buttonholes, to actually made with no machine involved.
Different countries take different approaches to handwork – at least in shirtmaking – because its benefits are debatable. I find real benefits in a small number of them, particularly the sleeve and collar, but I also understand why others do not.
This article reminds me of a TV documentary where the late Sir John Harvey-Jones went to Morgan Cars and was shocked to find them doing things, more inefficiently , by hand because it was the company ethos.
To the extent that they were using mechanical hand drills instead of powered drills. despite the fact using either made no difference but the latter was obviously more efficient.
Whilst I would accept handwork if it provides better functionality much of ‘handmade’ seems to be used just to charge more from customers who are led to believe the product is unique and the inaccuracies of handwork provide character.
Dare I say to sell people a pretense !
Is a typewritten business correspondence better than a email ?
But is it practical ?
For example, Would you pay more just to receive typewritten letters from your house insurance provider ?
Just to be clear Robin, handwork on shirts does provide better functionality, is a good indicator of quality and care elsewhere, and provides something different aesthetically that is not inaccuracy at all.
I’m not saying it doesn’t get missold sometimes, particularly on the ‘character’ point, but that’s not the case with much of what I’ve spelt out here.
I always enjoy the sort of ‘tension’ that these articles create.
For me, it’s partly a tension about watching PS evolve into a ‘purveyor of luxury’ and yet personally not being able to keep up with such things.
Therefore, what may appear as criticism is actually ‘old PS readers’ like me frustrated by the knowledge that we will never be able to experience such products.
Keep it up ……but don’t leave us, PS veterans, too far behind !
How wonderfully put Robin.
Surely a Luca Avitabile shirt is not that far beyond the reach of an old PS reader though? I’ve been writing about £1000+ suits for over about 12 years!
Personally I think there are certain mental barriers, not to speak for Robin. Proportionally a £1,000 suit is nearer to high street than Luca is to the multi-buy promotional shirts on the high street even if in absolute terms they’re eminently more affordable. Plus someone can get away with one suit plus extra trousers whereas they need a decent number of such shirts.
Personally I did stretch to buy from Luca because of the issues I had with off the peg; though oddly after a few years many cuffs are now far too small…not sure if these are more prone to long term shrinkage? Where you unfortunately always lose me is on casual wear, love many of the looks but cannot justify the price multiplier -v- normal spend
Personally, I’ve come round to spending a lot more on casualwear recently because a) I work from home so I wear it nearly all the time and b) it lasts longer and wears better. Some of the real luxury stuff I can’t wear around my kids but quality workwear definitely feels like money well spent.
I remember (iirc) a letter Hadley Freeman’s fashion advice column Ask Hadley in the Guardian asking how much you should spend on jeans: she joked, based on how much you wear them, about £7k!
It tickled me and I thought she had a point but I never really bought into it: surely, I thought, nothing can wear better than a pair of Levi’s? Obviously it’s hardly news that sadly many formerly respectable big clothing brands have been getting steadily poorer in quality as they race to the bottom.
So for example a pair of jeans from, say Blackhorse Lane, costing £2-300, with their lifetime repair guarantee can easily end up being straight-up cheaper than a new pair of Levi’s each year, without even considering the less tangible aspects of their value.
The one thing I can’t bring myself to spend much on is accessories: I’d love better hats, gloves, sunglasses etc but I lose them so frequently I’d rather spare myself the grief!
I guess on the LA-Shirts from the PS shop the collar is also attached “in the round” on the mannequin, am I right? And the sleeves are attached first by machine (I didn´t know that) and second by hand? Thanks
Yes, that’s correct. So you get the benefits mentioned above, plus of course lots of work that this is a mere proxy for, such as a larger sleeve worked into a smaller armhole by machine, attention to the pitch of the sleeve, making the body first before the sleeve and so on.
Hi Simon, excellent article! May I ask from the shirt-makers you tried who’s handwork is most precise and well executed?
Either 100 Hands or D’Avino
I respectfully submit that Spain, not Italy, has done more to “keep the flame alive”, at least with made to measure shirts.
Having worked in Madrid (with frequent visits to Italy -as well as London and NYC), I saw that the majority of execs, whether junior or senior, sported made to measure dress shirts. The choice was whether to place 3 initials on one’s wrist or breast. My Spanish colleagues kindly referred me to one of several Madrid-based shirtmakers, whose prices were reasonable compared to London or NYC.
In my experience, Italian businessmen rely more on ready to wear shirts. It is possible that the Italian shirt use more of the handiwork you describe (and are more expensive).
Thanks Bagle. I’m not referring to made-to-measure shirts here, but shirts that are handmade – almost entirely made by hand.
Good point about the Spanish though. It’s often forgotten in menswear circles how much the Spanish like conservative style, often British style, and dress well in this respect. I think it’s because so much more menswear manufacturing is based in Italy.
I think it is fair to say that your post is contentious. I don’t doubt that some of the sewing is beautiful but I am failing to see the functional benefits of hand sewing if the shirt is washed and then ironed? Also, I think that some of the techniques mentioned, shirring etc. can be achieved by machine. To be clear, there are no shirt seams that rely on hand sewing alone?
Paul, I think it’s worth maybe going through the benefits again, all of which would be retained even when you had washed and ironed your shirt? The sewing doesn’t change when you have done so.
Some techniques can certainly be achieved by machine, yes, but usually not with the same precision, and never with the same flexibility or control. (This, by the way, is symptomatic of a tendency among menswear fans – just because a technique can be done by machine, it doesn’t mean it’s as good.) And in any case, shirring is a small point.
The shirt seams vary. Only a small number – like the bottom hem – are done by hand sewing alone. Most are done by machine first, some by hand first (like the collar in the round). But a lot of the point is that this is only part of the story. Being by hand or not only tells you so much.
Finally, as ever with PS articles, this is not just my opinion. I interviewed three shirtmakers for the article, on top of existing experience etc.
I have to say the LA shirts designed for PS are amongst the best I’ve experienced.
So, if this is what handmade does – viva handmade !
Conversely, my experience of bespoke (not LA I hasten to add) has been universally appalling .
To digress, when I we going to have your article on neck squares/bandana ?
Thanks David, lovely to hear.
It is only a small part of what handmade does, but I think you know that. Few of the real beauties.
Bandana coming, but not quickly I’m afraid. Haven’t been able to shoot it yet.
Interesting as usual Simon.
Do you have any recommendations on where offers the best Shirts, that are “handmade” and not the rubbish you mention?
Also are they mostly small artisans that provide the true hand sewn shirt?
In general you get most rubbish from the bigger brands, who use ‘handsewn’ freely to mean anything with any handwork.
We’ve covered a lot of the artisans that do this very well. In particular 100 Hands and D’Avino.
There have been many discussions on the themes of value, style, and fit over the years. Setting all that aside for now, how does knowing the handmade process and being able to see the details make you feel when you put it on? In other words, would you say they contribute to a more enjoyable wearing experience? Do you find yourself consciously appreciating these details throughout the day?
Yes, I think I do. Not as much as fit or style, both of which are more important, but I do appreciate them.
I would also say, though, that as with many things of better quality, you do begin to not notice them after a while – until you go into a mainstream shop and try on something nowhere near the same!
I must be totally honest, that I have hardly worn a shirt over the past year due to COIVD and working from home. Those Sunspel Rivieria tees have finally got their £’s of wear!
However, over the previous, 6-7 years, I have had bespoke shirts made by Luca Avitabile and 100Hands as well as from a MTM service offered by a well known brand in India called Raymond. Very important to distinguish between the MTM offering from Raymond as it is run as a different operation to their other RTW shirts.
When I used the MTM Raymond service, their tailor measured me up and his measurements were nigh on identical to those from LA. These shirts were a fantastic value for money purchase and are still going strong.
The point of mentioning the above is the MTM Raymond shirts, while fantastic in the style and cut that I desire, were entirely machine made. Nothing wrong with that.
The LA and 100Hands shirts, where the sleeve head is inserted into the body and is stitched by hand does make a tangible difference in the comfort of the garment, particularly if the armhole is high and more closely fitting to the arm and underarm. To me at least, this is particularly noticeable when stretching the arm, e.g. like working at a desk with arms in front of you. I am no expert but I suspect that this has probably got to do with the fact that stitches with machine made sleeves have tightly sewn seams with greater tension than those that are done by hand; the latter providing that little bit of ‘give’. Whether this is tangible to everybody is an entirely different matter. Whether this is worth paying the extra for is also a moot point. Whether shirts should in fact be so closely fitting is also a design point perhaps for readers to note.
My main gripe, with all shirts (RTW, MTM or bespoke) has been the variable level of shrinkage despite a meticulous washing regime of 30 degrees, no tumble drying, line drying whenever possible!
Thank you JSB, very interesting, particularly the comparison between makers.
I would suspect that the difference is just as much to do with Luca putting a larger sleeve into a smaller armhole, by machine, than the handwork. But I might be wrong.
Hi, an unrelated question to the article, I really like your wrist bands. Do you care to reveal where they come from?
Hi Benjamin – could you tell me which bands you are referring to exactly? I wear a few different things on my wrist from different makers.
Thanks for answering.
Not the metal one. I really like the simple ones with the knitted one. Is that how you say it? English is not my native language.
If it’s not a knitted one, then I assume you mean just the simple friendship bracelets my daughters sometimes make me. I’m afraid you can’t buy those (well, actually she does sell them for 10p each! But only to friends).
If that’s not what you mean then maybe send me an image?
That´s the answer. Thanks again. And many greetings to your daughter!
I have had many bespoke shirts (maybe up to 50 or so) made over the years. I mainly live in Hong Kong and tried David’s Shirts (now closed after the owner retired), A-man Hing Cheong (although mainly a tailor, but their bespoke shirts are not bad at all, if a bit pricey), and Ascot Chang (very expensive for a rather average result in my opinion) there, as well as, in Madrid (where I live for part of the year), Burgos, Langa, and Sanchez Caro. The best ones by far were by Sanchez Caro. The workshop is tiny and looks nothing special but the quality, finishing, and details are really very good. They also have all the usual cloths which you can find elsewhere (and a much better selection than Langa). Prices are reasonable. They also work faster than Langa (where I had to go three times for fittings) – and for a better result.
Good point re Ascot Chang: good quality make but seriously underwhelming service, style and fit for the price you pay – but I am yet to find a good alternative in Hong Kong and cannot travel to Spain or anywhere else at the moment :s Any tips from readers very welcome
I think you are slightly unfair to France where some of the most incredible handwork is done (the famous “boutonnière milanaise”), on suits as well as on shirts (if you are able to pay for it). As a friend who is a (French) tailor said once to me: In Italy they do machine stitching where they set-up the machine to look as it is hand sewn. In France they do hand stitching so perfectly that it looks done by a machine.
I’m certainly not talking about suits here, and as I’ve covered many times in the past, the work on French tailoring is second to none.
But on shirts, not as many makers do handwork as they do in the south of Italy. Charvet being the obvious example – the biggest name, and making all done by machine (even if there is great work elsewhere, such as cutting).
It’s also not really accurate to say that Italians generally use machines to look like hand work. I’m sure some do, but they are very few.
A while back, you noted that the best shirts are made by Kiton, regardless of the fact they are RTW. If I recall, you based that on the quality of work and finishing anectje processes you saw at their factory. Do you still hold this view, or would you rate some others better? Thanks!
Yes, this was going back several years, and my opinion has certainly changed since then. While Kiton shirts are certainly well made, the ones made above from the likes of D’Avino and 100 Hands are certainly made better. And are a lot cheaper.
On re-reading the article, I must point out that when I started buying some handmade shirts – when I was able to get good deals – from e.g. Marol, Barba Napoli, Mazzarelli, the most noticeable comfort issue for me was in the top of the sleeves (armholes). Yes, the collars are softer and fit more nicely and are better unbuttoned, the body fits better too and is more comfortable overall (weaker seams), but the freedom of movement in the arms was amazing. I could literaly lie down with hands behind my head for a long time and have no pulling nor discomfort. Perhaps it was due to a major leap from cheaper RTW, such as Charles Tyrwhitt, my hitherto staple, but I think this difference is huge. You mention, Simon, you never felt this comfort of hand-stitched armhole, but perhaps you had just been using better shirts for longer and forgot!
Absolutely Stephan. That is a major difference. I’m sure you’re right, but where did I say I didn’t notice that difference?
Thanks, Simon! The paragraph just above the handmade buttonhole photo. However, on re-reading, you may have had the side seam in mine 🙂 Although, I must say I do feel a notable difference there too! It could feel that way to me due the jump from two-needle side seams to one needle ones, more than it is due to actual handmade seams!
Yes exactly Stephan, I’m just talking there about seams like the side seam, and potential stretch in it.
I’d be surprised if you could feel a difference in stretch from two-needle seams to one – that’s more about the lack of bulk at the side I think. But the handmade could add a little stretch you might feel.
Simon, thanks, makes sense!
Great article and very informative.
Not really in the same bracket but lately I have taken to having my shirts MTM in by Kamakura in Japan because 1) I can, 2) they look and feel much better, and 3) so do I.
The small things matter, like an extra 0.5cm on my right cuff to accommodate my watch or the extra 2cm on the sides taken in to make them fit and more comfortable. Plus, I get to choose the fabric and shade of colour I want. Worth it and I’m sure handmade versions would be the same.
Thanks Dan, sounds like a great step up.
Yes handmade would add the elements mentioned here, but for a lot of people the bigger benefits are the kind of ones you outline.
Simon, good afternoon!
Just saw your message from about a year ago that you have plans to improve, update and expand in more categories of your book The Finest Menswear in the World and that you’ve communicated with the publisher about this. I fully support this initiative, since such fundamental works are extremely need to community. (Could you do a little spoiler, is it work in progress?)
All around mediocre general subjective ratings like “TOP 10 …..” which do not carry anything other than clickbait. There is a lack of in-depth comparative quality analyzes, like World Car of the Year, where many parameters of the product are evaluated with a specific assessment of experts.
And I would like to advise you to include the highest quality, in your opinion, RTW brands. And the new book can also include the best and highest quality rtw brands at least for reference.
In general, I want to say that there is a lack of large-scale research of world brands on the certification system (like Michelin with restaurants or Forbes Travel Guide with hotels and spas) with the assignment of stars to the best and only high-end high-quality brands, for example, also by category. Perhaps over time, this certification would grow into the same center of attraction and attention from all over the world and would encourage brands to monitor the quality of the product.
Thanks. I’m afraid it’s not currently in production – still being discussed. But good points around ratings of quality. It’s something this site has always aimed to do.
I agree on sleeve and collar.
What was Jean-Claude COLBAN point of view about that when you interviewed him ?
Curious about how he assumes and explains no handwork on collar at this price point ?!
We didn’t talk about handwork actually, as the conversation was largely around aesthetics of shirts, and shirt fabrics.
However, it is generally the view of makers like Charvet and some in the UK that handwork like that is not important compared to time spent in fitting and cutting. So for example, Charvet is one of the few makers that will cut a fitting shirt around you, making slits, sticking back together, and trimming or adding to the collar shape as you wear it.
One question left unanswered is the one you put at the very start:
“ So why would countries have such radically different views on hand sewing?”
Any thoughts on this?
Well, I tried to answer it at the end, saying that they have different approaches because the benefits are so debatable. After that I think it’s just the inertia that comes from local traditions, people being trained in the same places and then training others in their turn, and ages when there was little awareness of crafts elsewhere in the world
I’m going to echo Andrey’s request for a more direct treatment of the specific cultural difference you highlight, whereby the finest shirts in Italy are handmade but the finest shirts in England and France are mostly machine made. Certainly part of this owes to the points you mention–the benefits of handmade shirts are debatable and shirtmakers are usually trained locally and so carry on the techniques they learned. But this only addresses the fact that variance will exist in shirt making techniques in different locations; it doesn’t speak to why the finest shirts in England and France are mostly machine made but in Italy they’re handmade. Have the English and French historically not valued the handmade elements you’ve highlighted in shirts? Have the English and French traditionally frowned upon some of the more decorative elements in shirts that can only be achieved by hand? Is there some sort of industrial explanation here, whereby shirtmakers in England and France were faster to incorporate machines into their craft and were thus quicker to discard handmade techniques? I’m not wedded to any of these explanations. I was only trying to suggest possible reasons why, say, English shirtmakers weren’t primarily making shirts by hand and Italian shirtmakers weren’t making shirts primarily with machines. What accounts for the differences between one region/country and the others?
Thanks Paul. I think realistically, I’m never going to delve deep enough into that to come to a satisfactory conclusion. I’d be interested to hear if someone else has, and will happily report it, but it would take quite a lot of work to do that myself.
I think you bring up the right factors, though, from what I know. Frills and details were less culturally desirable in other places, and the lack of industrial development in the south of Italy kept a lot of handwork going because it was much cheaper.
I suppose this is the end for Budd and T & A .?
Hello Simon. Great article indeed. I’d like to ask your thoughts on the overall bespoke work of three well-known italian shirtmakers, namely, D’Avino, Luca Abitabile and Simone Abbarchi. Of the three, and taking into account the quality/level of hand work, fit, overall shirting quality and price range, which one stands out in your opinion? I must say that i have only tried Luca several times so far. Thank you
I would say that all three are equally good, but offering different levels of products. So it depends more what type of product you want.
I compared the three explicitly in this article a few years ago.
Very interesting topic and read. I realize I am quite late to add to the discussion, but felt compelled to point out something I think is worth consideration. In the process of making handmade shirts (as it is also with handmade tailoring) some processes are hand sewn in basting thread, then sewn by machine, and the basting thread removed. This is very different from only sewing a seam by machine. For example, the shirt sleeve often can be larger than the armhole, and thus need to be sewn in by hand to properly distribute the ease. Then it is sewn by machine, and the basting thread removed. The wearer only ever sees the machine stitch in the finished garment. There also can be a good deal of ease (excess cloth) sewn into the armhole without any shirring at all, but this is only made possible by doing the hand sewing first. There is also a bit more to the offset sleeve seam & side seam but it is a bit too much to explain in detail.
Very good point Darhel, thanks for adding it.
Please recommend me some finest Italian shirt brands!!
Same answer as on the Clutch post!
Very nice article indeed. I just love the handwork done on the italian shirts. May I ask which maker did the Blue and White striped one with the handmade cuff? Never seen a shirt made with that much effort before and I think it looks beautiful. Thanks!
Sure, that’s Wil Whiting. His work is superb
What is the blue shirt with the handmade buttonhole?
It’s from Wil Whiting