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. 

 

A sleeve attached with two lines of stitching: by machine (inner line) and then by hand (outer line)

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. 

 

Misaligned seams under an armhole

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. 

 

The shape of the top of the sleeve is determined before it is inserted

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.)

 

Hand stitches on the shoulder seam (left) and attaching the collar (right)

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. 

 

A cuff attached by hand (the very small stitches between it and the sleeve) and with its edges sewn by hand too

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. 

 

Hand-sewn hems, by (top to bottom) 100 Hands, D’Avino and Luxire

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.

 

A hand-sewn buttonhole

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. 

 

Careful machine sewing, alongside delicate hand sewing

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. 

 

Subscribe
Notify of
guest
46 Comments
Oldest
Newest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Robin

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 ?
Arguably Yes.
But is it practical ?
For example, Would you pay more just to receive typewritten letters from your house insurance provider ?

Robin

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 !

Anonymous

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

Tommy Mack

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!

Alexander

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

Henry

Hi Simon, excellent article! May I ask from the shirt-makers you tried who’s handwork is most precise and well executed?

Bagle

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).

Paul Boileau

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?

David

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 ?

Alexander McShane

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?

S.H.

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?

JSB

Simon,

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!

Benjamin

Hi, an unrelated question to the article, I really like your wrist bands. Do you care to reveal where they come from?

Benjamin

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.

Benjamin

That´s the answer. Thanks again. And many greetings to your daughter!

Philippe

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.

Jan

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

Anonymous

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.

Stephan

Dear Simon,
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!

Stephan

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!

Stephan

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!

Stephan

Simon, thanks, makes sense!

Dan James

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.

VAL

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.

pierre

Hi Simon
Great article.
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 ?!

Andrey Bokhanko

Hi Simon,

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?