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.