Friday, August 5, 2016

100 HANDS

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.


UPDATE

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.







StumbleUpon.com

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

This reminds me of Laura Ingalls Wilder's account of working as a seamstress in the late 1800s, just before sewing machines became available. She also mentions her mother's ability to sew sixty buttonholes in an hour, quite an accomplishment even then.

Unknown said...

Now that you've tantalized us with the warning that these shirts would be woefully expensive had they not been produced in India, might you put us out of our misery and let us know what they cost?

Marysia said...

Hi there Jeffrey
Thank you so much for this posting, always a rare treat to read your blog over an early morning coffee.
I have only ever made one shirt ( for my husband, wanting to do it for the challenge) and I thoroughly enjoyed the process, especially mastering the sleeve plackets and the all the felled seams; David Coffins book was a must have to get me through the project successfully.

This shirt is absolutely beautiful and the close up pictures show off the dazzling craftsmanship. Thank you so much.

Marc said...

The point you make about place of manufacture is not the whole story. I don't think the knee-jerk reaction is to assume that there are not skilled tailors and seamstresses in India and China, but that they are chosen because they can be exploited. This can no longer happen if the shirt was made domestically (in the West). Handmade clothes either need a high level of exploitation, which was also evident in the West at one time, or they need to be prohibitively expensive. Clever marketers have even manged to balance both in some cases. What was behind the adoption of machine technology other than the replacement of increasingly expensive hand-workers? The value of machines also has its own associated mythologies to support it.

On the elasticity of seams, there is still is something to be said for the backstitch over the machine lock-stitch. There are underside lengths on a backstitch that allow movement, even though the stitch is strong. This is not the case with a lock-stitch. The latter is also strong, but under pressure it breaks because it is fixed in place (depending on the thread quality). Elastic seams on swimwear and in the backs of pyjama trousers etc are different. The stitch is done with the elastic in a stretched-out state, so it isn't even under pressure until the elastic is stretched. That's not the same as ordinary cloth.

Reader said...

Thanks Jeffery. In both my beginning womenswear and menswear sewing classes at FIT I asked if shirts could ever be handsewn. The teachers looked at me as if I had two heads. I understand the impracticality of constructing shirts this way in most contexts, but love looking at them and may try making some of my own this way.

I also love Mary Frittolini's work.

Reader said...

Anonymous:

The fact that in the past almost everyone sewed their own clothes doesn't mean they all sewed well. 60 buttonholes in an hour sounds like not very good buttonholes. Every story of that era also has the scene in which someone is enraptured by a store-bought dress. It's well-sewn, sophisticated, and does not look homemade.

clee1982 said...

I don't think the knee-jerk reaction is to assume that there are not skilled tailors and seamstresses in India and China, but that they are chosen because they can be exploited.

As someone from that region and saw its own country went from developing to developed (though kind stuck at the moment) in less than two generations (one of the Asian tigers), I'm not so sure from our point of views

1. we're not all exploited, living wage is still lower in China and significantly lower in India. It's much better to have a job that pays well (in our way) than not have one

2. I think rather than really worry about exploitation most western consumer have the mentality if it's made in China it "has" to be cheap regardless if it's well made

Thaine said...

Oh man that sleeve placket is gorgeous.

Marc said...

@clee1982

In fact you are all exploited, just at different rates. If you know how much the wares are being sold for compared to what you get. And consider that the same quality of work in the west would be considered "craft" and rewarded accordingly. The people contracting out to you are lining their pockets royally. So many of the articles gloss over this and talk about 'quality' or offer pseudo-philosophical musings about the levels of machine-made or handwork.

Gunnar Berendson said...

To me one of the best shirts in the world.Without the mostly untrue Naples-Canzone. Very interessting article. Thank you.

clee1982 said...

Not sure what is better, stay poor and not "exploited" and moving into middle class? If your definition of exploited is someone else is making money on top of the cost, then everyone is getting exploited.

Kyle said...

Not to focus on a minute detail, but.... is 'shibboltehs' misspelled?

Anonymous said...

So, hand stitching is not done so all is invisible from the outside of the garment? I'm especially looking at the cuff & placket and the collar band. As long as stitches are tiny, even, and matching thread, stitches can show? I've hand sewn the front plackets in place on shirts, in both RTW & home sewn, because I got tired of them coming out permanently creased the wrong way in the laundry. And I was upset because I could not make the stitches totally invisible, now it looks like I was closer to doing high class work than a hack job?!?

ankurchatterjee4@gmail.com said...

nice words on tailoring
men s suits

Post a Comment