Friday, October 28, 2016
Friday, August 5, 2016
A few months ago I was contacted by Dirnelli who had seen something he thought might be of interest to me. A handmade shirt. And before I go much further let me preface by telling recent readers that one of the original intents of this blog was to explore the merits, myths and mystique of handmade clothing, with a particular focus on suits, sport coats and trousers.
There is a lot of romance surrounding the art of making clothing by hand and I feel that a lot of the techniques have been mythologized beyond what they should be, mainly repeated received wisdom without challenging the shibboltehs of 100 years ago. Such myths as seams having to be done by hand in order to give them elasticity of which a machine is not capable, to which I ask, if a machine is not capable of producing a seam with elasticity, then are bathing suits, underwear and athletic wear all sewn by hand? Or perhaps that a hand-sewn seam will mold to the body in a way a machine-sewn seam can not. It is said that hand tailoring is just better than machine sewing. This is often part of a marketing spiel designed to sell you an expensive product.
It is true that there are certain steps in the tailoring process which are still better done by hand, not because it would have been impossible to create machines which would reproduce the same effect, but that the cost-benefit ratio never made it worthwhile to develop such machines. No hand will ever sew with the same mount of regularity and precision as a machine will. A lockstitched machine seam is far stronger than a handewsn running stitch or backstitch. A machine will always create cleaner, more even, and usually stronger results.
But let's now back up a little bit.
While it is true that a machine will usually create a more perfect result, perhaps perfection is not always the desired result. Would you rather have a perfect photocopy of a treasured painting or drawing, or a rather a less perfect one drawn or painted by the hands of an artist?
When we do away with the silly argument that a handmade garment is measurably better than a machine made garment, there is certainly a case to be made for the appreciation of the craftsmanship that goes in to a hand made garment. When making my own suits for myself will generally do most things by hand even though I have access to the best equipment and machines that exist, merely because I enjoy doing and I enjoy the imperfect result of the work of my own hands.
Back to the story of our shirts.
When I first heard of this handmade shirt my initial reaction was mixed. When I first learned how to make shirts, many steps were done by hand merely because we didn't have the right equipment or the technical expertise to properly and neatly finish them by machine. I have seen beautifully-sewn shirts being made by hand at Hermes but which would admittedly not stand up to a machine washing. I was ready to hear the usual story about this or that step must be done by hand in order to infuse the soul of the mountain in whose shadow the shirts were sewn or some such nonsense. But when I spoke to the founders of the company they were refreshing forthcoming about their approach. They made no pretense about hand sewing being the sine qua non or substantially better than machines. They simply appreciate the tradition, the skill and the craftsmanship.
And that, to me, is a whole other matter. I can definitely relate to that.
So they offered to send me a shirt to look at. Based in Amsterdam, the production is actually done in India. I won't dive deep in to their story here as you can read all about it on their own website. Suffice it to say that a shirt with this level of workmanship would be completely out of the reach of most people if it were done anywhere other than a place like India or China. And perhaps I need to remind some readers that India and China were producing some of the best textiles in the world while the west was in burlap diapers. Some of the most intricate embroideries and handwork that I have ever seen have come out of Asia so we need to suspend our knee-jerk association of Asia with cheap, badly-made crap for a moment.
This shirt truly is hand made. Certain seams which require strength have been sewn by machine using impossibly tiny stitches, but practically everything else has been done by hand. While many hand finished shirts I have seen use longer, lighter stitches usually out of expediency, those stitches are often delicate and do not withstand the kind of abuse to which a shirt is often subjected. In this case, however, the sewing is astonishing, both in the density of the stitches which make for a far more durable garment, as for their evenness and regularity.
The collar is constructed by machine but attached to the body entirely by hand using almost invisible slip stitches, and the buttonholes are excellent.
Perhaps you can see the almost invisible stitches used to keep the placket in place.
The same density of tiny hand stitches is used to finish the flat-felled seams on the side of the shirt and the sleeve, as well as the armscye seam. The cuffs and sleeve plackets have been finished by hand with slip stitching, pick stitching and a hand bar tack.
The hem has been rolled using the same technique we find on the best scarves and pocket squares.
Naturally, buttons are mother-of-pearl and are sewn on by hand. I am going to subject this shirt to the usual indignities of laundering, both domestic and "professional" to see how it holds up by judging bu the density and bite of the stitching I see no reason at all to believe it won't hold up. Only a few washings will tell for for sure. And even though this is made in India, the amount of labor involved is very high so the price will reflect it- this is not a shirt for bargain-hunters. But for people who love craftsmanship and appreciate the details, as I do, there is a lot to love in this shirt and while many of the customers in the luxury market are impossibly driven by brands so might not give this shirt the same consideration they would to a more famous maker in the south of Italy, I think that would be a shame and they might be missing out on a splendid garment.
Having visibly struggled in the attempt to produce decent close-up shots of the detail, 100 Hands kindly sent me some of their photos, shown below.
Monday, May 2, 2016
I just took over an office from someone who left Hickey Freeman. It was the office occupied by former designers and executives of the company and hadn't been cleaned out in, well, ages. It's in the corner of a suite of offices which have remained largely unchanged since they were built in 1912. I figured I might find some little treasures hidden in boxes, forgotten. I never thought I would find something that is so significant, at least in my mind.
There is a little side office adjoined to mine, in which there was a drafting table on which the designers would make their patterns, plus some shelves and two garment bags tucked behind the door. Behind the door and a stack of patterns I found this. This is a morning suit which was made for Walter B. D. Hickey (sr.) in 1929, six months before the market crash which caused the great depression. Mr. Hickey was the chairman of Hickey Freeman in the late sixties and judging by the date and size, it must have been made for him when he was a boy. His son, Mr. Hickey jr., now retired, was in last week for a visit- I will give him a call to see what he knows about this garment.
What is particularly exciting about this is the provenance and the condition. When looking at vintage garments we often have no idea for whom it was made, by whom, and when we do, there is often little information about them. In this case, not only do we know when it was made, for whom, exactly who that person is (and that person has a prominent place in the history of the clothing industry in America), but this garment was never worn. It is in mint condition. The silk lining in the sleeves has started to deteriorate a little, but the silk in the body is absolutely immaculate. I've never seen a garment of this age in this condition.
I'll post more photos when I get back from travelling next week, but in the meantime I'm going to reach out to a few people to consult with them on proper storage and what the best home for this would be. The costume institute, perhaps?
Wednesday, April 27, 2016
Very proud to be a part of the making of the United States Olympic Team uniforms.
Friday, April 1, 2016
Wednesday, March 9, 2016
Saturday, February 27, 2016
CAD software can be pretty complex. I've been using the same software for about 20 years now, from a company called Gerber Technologies. I do all my pattern design, grading, alterations, and made-to-measure on this platform. Or rather, I did. When I joined Hickey Freeman they were in the process of doing a very significant upgrade of their own CAD software, from a company called Lectra (it's actually former investronica software, but they were bought by Lectra). In a way it was fortunate timing because everybody had to be retrained on the new version they are installing because they jumped four versions. Lots of new functions. But for me, who has never seen this platform before, it's like unlearning how to ride a bike and trying to learn how to do it upside down and backwards. Blindfolded. It has some great functionality built in but it's just killing me trying to learn it in the very short period of time that the trainer is here from Spain. One great thing is that I have it installed on a laptop so I can bring it home and work in my pajamas. I could never do that before so this weekend is all about practicing with this new software.
Thursday, December 17, 2015
A personal note.
Shortly after I finished design school I was working at a small design house in Montreal when someone from one of the local factories told me that the general manager of the place they worked wanted to meet me. It had come to his attention that there was a young tailor working right around the corner and they needed more tailors. I had known of Samuelsohn for a very long time so I was excited to be summoned. They offered me a job right away and I accepted and began a career in tailored clothing manufacturing.
Samuelsohn is a company which places a high degree of importance on quality so I learned a lot about the mechanization and industrialization of traditional tailoring techniques with which I was already familiar, but never did I see an engineer doing time studies or hear discussions about costs or yields or output. After some time with the company my mentor told me that there was another company which needed someone like me. I didn't want to leave but he told me that I had a good understanding of how to do things well, but no idea how to do things efficiently and inexpensively, and that I should go work for a variety of companies and learn the different facets of the industry. Learn how to manufacture garments offshore. Learn how to forecast fabric and trim requirements. All sorts of things. He told me I wouldn't be ready to settle until I was into my forties. So armed with this advice I left Samuelsohn to go work for an importer, and then a few companies after that. On my last day a member of the Samuelsohn family told me that I would be back some day, that this was my home and my family.
Fast forward about 15 years and I was approached to go work for HMX group, formerly known as Hartmarx, in Chicago. I would take over the Hart Schaffner & Marx brand and help revitalize it, but one of the carrots they dangled was the opportunity to do some work with, and then perhaps some day take over as well, our sister company Hickey Freeman. Hickey Freeman is a factory that does some beautiful garments, mostly full-canvas like Samuelsohn, and I was lucky to work with that factory and with another mentor who was there at the time, Paul Farrington. At one point Hickey Freeman was sold, interestingly enough, to Samuelsohn, which was a huge disappointment to me. Some time later I was approached about helping to turn around another struggling company in the south, so I and two other colleagues ade plans to go south and fix the struggling company.
The company in question had been forced in to bankruptcy and had been producing very low cost and low quality garments. Our job was to redesign all the product, redesign the factory so that they could produce a better quality garment, teach existing staff how to do it, and hire other new staff and train them. A year and a half later we have gone from 210 employees to well over 300, we have made major strides in the quality, fit and appearance of the garments being produced, and were recently honored with an award given by a magazine which is hugely popular n the south known as Garden and Gun. There are still challenges which exist in terms of getting everyone up to full efficiency so the factory can meet the huge increase in demand, and some tweaks to the fit now that we see full production runs instead of just samples, but I feel like the bulk of the heavy lifting has been done.
So now I have a chance to "go home". I will be joining (or re-joining) the Luxury Mens Apparel Group, the company which owns Samuelsohn and Hickey Freeman in the new year, going back to work with a lot of the same people I have worked with over the years, plus a lot of new and fantastic ones. I will spend some time in Montreal, at Samuelsohn, before settling in Rochester at the Hickey Freeman factory. And now that I have reached those dreaded forties I am hoping it's now time to settle down. So Jack and George were both right, those twenty years ago.
Friday, December 4, 2015
Monday, September 21, 2015
The suit that I most recently dissected came with a pair of "pents" (as the Italians refer to them) made by another maker, this one even more well-known than the coat maker. While there was initially some debate about their provenance, Vox tells me that the maker emailed him to confirm that he did, in fact make them (some will recall that Vox obtained the suit second-hand from the original owner). So even though I have confirmation that it is his work, he is often dyspeptic when it comes to discussions of his work. That and the fact that were a number of what I think were after-market alterations which make it difficult to really gauge the level of workmanship so I am going to tread lightly on this one; in this case it seemed that the lining was added after the completion of the garment and while it would be normal to have the original maker do that kind of alteration, it is not a given, and since the workmanship of that particular alteration was so bad and at the same time unattributed, I will have to try to remove the lining first before looking more closely at the rest. They are, however, interesting, so as soon as I figure out a way of examining them without inviting comments about the shape and size of my head I will do so.
In trying to determine whether the lining was original or after-market (his other clients assured me that the maker discourages lining), Derek of the blogs Put This On and Die, Workwear! generously offered to photograph some of the trousers he has had made by a variety of makers. I found them interesting to look and he gave me permission to share them.
Thank you, Derek.
Napoli Su Misura
Tuesday, September 15, 2015
Tuesday, September 8, 2015
I recently cut myself a suit out of a length of escorial wool, never having worked with the cloth before. From the Escorial Group's website-
Escorial is a rare and luxurious wool from a small sheep originating from the Spanish Royal flocks of El Escorial, today only to be found in small numbers in Australia and New Zealand.
The Escorial difference is in the heart of the fibre, performing as a naturally coiled spring.
This flexible characteristic creates a fabric that is incomparable in drape and resilience with a distinctive soft handle.
The suppleness and fluidity of the Escorial fabric delivers a garment of comfort and performance.
Escorial is often likened to curly hair. In comparison to straight hair, curly hair traps air between each strand, providing greater bounce and insulation. The special touch of Escorial comes from the airy nature of the fibre.
The Escorial fibre is like a curled spring and when stretched throughout production processes its natural memory is to return to the original curled state. It is this characteristic that makes Escorial garments, lightweight and resilient.
The story is one of sheep which had been kept by the King of Spain, ending up in Tasmania by way of Saxony. The whole story is interesting and can be read here. It is said that there are fewer of these purebred sheep than the extremely rare vicuna and that this accounts in part for the very steep price of woven escorial. I really enjoyed making it up, and it takes very well to the iron, but being a fall weight and finish it will be a few months before I get to actually wear it and see how it performs. So far I love the stuff.
Some random photos- the back still needs work, which is hard to do when fitting yourself. I have some time to get it fixed.