This video series -- which originally premiered over the course of 2014 on Will Boehlke's menswear blog A Suitable Wardrobe -- chronicles the making of a bespoke sportcoat by the Henry Poole-trained tailor Rory Duffy. It was the result of an informal partnership between Duffy and me that unfortunately dissolved before the project (or the coat) was ever completed.
Traditionally, stylistic evolutions have been driven, for the most part, by Attitude. As the Beau’s dandyism was a masculine rejection of ancien regime powdered foppery, so were Boomer bluejeans proclamations of disdain for gray-flanneled conformity. The current revival of interest in tailored menswear owes much to a similar need for generational re-invention, with bow-tied millennials banishing their fathers’ Casual Fridays to the underachieving provinces. Their New Traditionalism, however, isn’t trading on Attitude so much as a new currency of cool, utterly of its time: Information.
Like a blank canvas, uncut cloth is all purity and promise. Bespoke customers know the ancient ritual of having a tailor drape a few yards over their shoulder, luxuriating in the hand and fall of the material itself. It’s a simple, primal pleasure recalling the historical role of cloth as treasure: a token and totem of wealth, the artisanal pride of nations.
Since Schölte’s day, certain tailors have tried to distinguish themselves from their ostensibly fustier peers by “taking the stuffing” out of coats and jackets, removing pompous padding and stiff interlinings to create softer, more comfortable clothes for modern living. It’s a compelling pitch -- in keeping with the last century’s narrative of progressively virtuous and vigorous informality -- and it has produced some seriously beautiful clothing from London and Milan to Naples and New Haven. In the echo chamber that is #menswear, however, such “soft” tailoring has become somewhat fetishized, leading to exaggerated distinctions between makers and styles which obfuscate the common project of any good tailor: to make clothes which help his or her clients look their best.
Today’s video opens with Rory Duffy “crookening” the left forepart of my coat -- that is, bringing it further onto my body to help offset a more developed left side. The concepts of “crookening” and its opposite, “straightening,” are fundamental to coatmaking, and we will be returning to them later in this series when they can be better visualized and explained. For now, this is only the first of many adjustments Duffy will be making to accommodate my asymmetry.
Today’s installment of “The Making of a Coat” introduces that most maligned and misunderstood of a tailor’s tools: the sewing machine. The relative merits of hand vs. machine sewing is regularly debated among tailors and menswear aficionados, with the general consensus predictably favoring the well-wielded needle, drawing each stitch according to its own logic. Looking past the obvious romantic appeal of such craftsmanship in our artisanally-obsessed times, hand sewing is indeed essential to the supple look and feel of fine tailored clothing, particularly on those curved seams which most closely trace the body and draw the eye.
Episode #4 of this series introduced three elements of a coat’s internal structure: canvas, haircloth, and domette. In today’s installment, Rory Duffy demonstrates how he assembles these materials with basting stitches that lock in a fourth essential element of structure: fullness. A properly made chestpiece reflects the convex shape of the chest it covers; the first step in achieving this is to slightly ripple the haircloth as it is basted to the flat canvas beneath it. This fullness will be more precisely distributed later with pad stitches before being shrunk away with the iron, leaving a gently convex shape. A third layer of bias-cut cotton domette serves to smooth and soften the feel of the chestpiece while insulating the coarse fibers of the haircloth.
In last week’s episode of “The Making of a Coat,” Rory Duffy assembled the elements of a chest canvas, basting a significant amount of fullness into the haircloth and domette. In today’s installment, Duffy distributes that fullness with a dense series of pad stitches that will help lock in the desired shape. That’s pretty much it.
What menswear aficionado cannot instantly conjure Fred Astaire twirling around Anderson & Sheppard’s fitting room in a new suit, freezing mid-move to check that his collar had remained snug on his neck? I can almost see the skirt of his coat swing a split second beyond the snap of his head to the mirror. Of course, none of us ever actually witnessed this, any more than we saw Astaire’s subsequent ritual of throwing the new coat against the wall to “knock the stiffness out of it.” Nevertheless, we know these scenes as sartorial gospel, not only because they’ve been so vividly rendered by scribes like G. Bruce Boyer, but because they capture something ineffably essential about how tailored clothes are supposed to look, feel, and move.
For all the intensive labor of hand-padding, the canvas of my bespoke coat actually receives its most dramatic shaping from three darts that Rory Duffy creates in this installment of “The Making of a Coat.” The first is a ¾-inch “dog leg” chest dart that cuts in and up from the waist; this will lie directly beneath a corresponding dart in the cloth itself. A second ½-inch cut is taken from the armhole (or “scye”) which helps push the chest out and provide drape. The third cut at the shoulder splices in a piece of bias-cut silesia to provide a “puff” -- additional length and give to accommodate the prominence of the shoulder bone.
Having darted shape into the canvas, Rory Duffy now cuts and machines corresponding darts in the cloth which will cover it. While at the machine, he also sews the center back and forearm sleeve seams in accordance with the “order of assembly” taught to him at Henry Poole & Co -- an essential efficiency for a handcraft tailor, whose income is dependent on the limited number of suits he can make in a year.
In previous episodes of “The Making of a Coat,” we’ve seen the canvas and foreparts shaped independently. In today’s installment they are joined in a critical stage of construction called “canvassing off.” After carefully aligning the two pieces along darts and other points previously markstitched, Rory Duffy attaches them with four baste lines -- three down the front and one across the scye and chest -- carefully “cleaning off” the cloth as he goes in order to work a slight amount of fullness into the canvas.
Have previously machined the forearm seams, Rory Duffy’s next step in making up the sleeve bastes is to press those seams open, and in so doing, to shrink away excess fabric which might otherwise cause unsightly breaks in the crook of the elbow. The curved hindarm seam is then basted twice—once from each side—to create a smooth line without the use of the iron, which could set a permanent crease that would show if the seam needs to be let out after the fitting. Similarly, the cuffs are folded back and steam-pressed but dried with a wooden banger instead of the cold iron to prevent hard creases. The scye inlay is then turned back and basted before the sleeves are pressed and laid aside to cool.
This week’s episode of “The Making of a Coat” covers the basting of the pockets and front edges on the bespoke coat tailor Rory Duffy is making for me. Considering his proudly old-school technique in most other regards, I was surprised to see that Duffy prefers the use of French curves to the “rock-of-eye” method used by other Savile Row-trained tailors (notably English Cut’s Tom Mahon), and inquired about it. Duffy explained that his former master Paul Frearson had indeed taught him to shape his edged and lapels by rock of eye as a means to express his own personal style as one of many coatmakers at Henry Poole & Co., but that since striking out on his own, Duffy has preferred the use of curves to help maintain a consistent look for his brand.
This week’s installment of “The Making of a Coat” opens with tailor Rory Duffy basting on a piece of cotton silesia pocketing to the back at the neckline. It’s a process analogous to the basting of linen stays to the foreparts where the hip pockets will attach, and undertaken for the same reason: to provide reinforcement at a point of heavy stress. The longevity of a handcraft bespoke garment derives in large part from the fact that wherever possible, its weight is not borne by the cloth, but by carefully constructed internal structure.
This week’s installment of “The Making of a Coat” focuses on the joining of the shoulder seams -- a deceptively simple process in bespoke tailoring which actually accounts for much of its superior fit and comfort.
On the menswear blogs and forums which declare the day’s sartorial wisdom, shoulder pads are the object of near-universal derision: dated artifacts of bellicose artifice which stand diametrically opposed to the unconstructed shoulders favored by free and easy Neapolitans. As with most such modish distinctions, there is a great deal of exaggeration, prejudice, and hubris at play here: how far we have come in 25 years!
As we saw earlier in this series, tailor Rory Duffy shapes his bespoke collars to ever-so-gently “bite” the wearer’s neck. In this installment of “The Making of a Coat,” Duffy carries this principle through to the attachment of the collar to the coat itself. By slightly bending open the springy crescent of the collar as his bastes it on, it subtly curves the breakline, pushing it up against the wearer’s neck. This curve actually impart a straighter appearance to the breakline, which might otherwise appear bowed and hollow over the clavicle -- an all-too-familiar sight to trained eyes. It’s a somewhat difficult process to discern and even harder to describe, but it’s exactly the sort of craftsmanship which affords bespoke garments their precise fit.
For acolytes of men’s tailoring, the (once) regionally differing shapes of sleeveheads and the manners in which they are attached to the coat are matters so larded with romantic lore and partisan pride that they evoke nothing less than national character itself. How quintessentially English is Huntsman’s proudly roped crown? Can the Italian soul not be read in the louche folds of a mappinasleeve? Well-marketed forum fodder, perhaps, but good harmless fun, and in the end, all a matter of a half inch here or there for actual tailors who probably aren’t following the great debate themselves.
“In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it.”
For me at least, nothing quite captures the artisanal extremity of bespoke tailoring more than the process of “ripping and smoothing” a basted try-on. There’s something almost extravagantly spectacular about disassembling (“ripping!”) something which has been been the object of hours of labor (not to mention the subject of a half-dozen episodes in this series), but for my tailor Rory Duffy, the process was so mundane that he was halfway through it before I even arrived with my camera.
In the previous episode of “The Making of a Coat,” tailor Rory Duffy removed the patch pockets basted onto my try-on in order to take in the chest darts. Reapplying them now provides him with an opportunity to address a problem he’d noticed in the fitting: because he’d orginally basted the pockets on the flat surface of his bench, they weren’t allowing for the curvature of my hips, causing the foreparts to slightly bunch. This is resolved by simply rebasting the pockets broken over a sleeve board. We’ve seen before how Duffy uses sleeve and chest boards to press and repress the elements of the coat “half and half” between stages of construction to impart shape and check the relation between its layers: this is why. No shame in a mistake caught and fixed.
As part of the post-fitting alterations to my coat, tailor Rory Duffy cut back the front edges -- along with the left and right back, the left and right back foreparts, and the left and right chest darts -- to help evenly distribute reduction throughout the body; these must now be shaped. In a break with his former master at Henry Poole & Co, Paul Frearson, Duffy here eschews “rock of eye” freehand drafting for the consistency of a metal curve; he is, after all, trying to establish his own style in a crowded market. Next, the front edges of both foreparts are carefully laid atop each other to guarantee a perfectly symmetrical cut. The canvas is then trimmed back to leave only a minimal ¼” seam allowance, which will make for a fine, supple front edge.
Having drawn off the front edges with bias lining tape in the previous episode of “The Making of a Coat,” tailor Rory Duffy now sets about distributing their rippling fullness by hand. With each padstitch, he is mindful to impart the shape he wants (convex on the lapels, concave from the buttoning point down) and to avoid picking up the cloth as he attaches the bias lining to the body canvas. The latter task is somewhat more demanding than it once was, as ever-lighter and less forgiving cloth, canvas, and interlinings require tailors to work with “softer hands.”