Sunday, September 14, 2008

What, exactly, is pad stitching?


We hear the terms `pad stitching` and `padded lapels` frequently but not everybody understands the significance.

One of the important principles of tailoring, and which distinguishes tailoring from ordinary `flat`sewing, has to do with the fact that concentric arcs or circles become longer as they radiate from the centre. In easier terms, picture the starting line of a circular race track- the starting point of each lane is in a different spot because the outer lanes are longer than the inner lanes as they go around a bend. Tailored clothing consists of many layers of fabric that bend around each other in order to create shape. The layers of fabric and canvas in a lapel, for example, are like the lanes of a race track; the outer ones are necessarily longer than the outer ones; unlike a race track, whose lanes are staggered to maintain a consistent length, the tailor will cut the layers of fabric to different lengths so that when bent into shape they all meet together at the seam.

We have seen in a previous post that canvas contains horse hair which gives it a lofty roll. This roll contributes to the roll of the lapel but is not solely responsible for it. Once the tailor has basted the canvas and the cloth together, he will roll the lapel over his hand; the canvas being the 'outer lane' of the race track is thus a little longer than the 'inner lane' of fabric. He will sew a row of pad stitches parallel to the roll line, just catching the cloth underneath so the stitch is not visible under the lapel. At the end of the row he will roll the lapel over his hand again and sew another row of stitches, and continue until the whole lapel has been done. When it is finished, the canvas and cloth now roll as one; the canvas lends loft to the roll, but the additional length of canvas has been stitched permanently in place and so the two want to maintain the shape they were given. Notice in the photo above that the lapel stays curled- it does not fall flat to the table as it would have done had it not been pad stitched. Not only does this pad stitching create a beautiful roll in the lapel, a sign of a good-quality garment, but also helps the lapel to hug the chest tightly and not pull away, another indicator of quality.

Machines now exist which can do this job automatically, using special sensors so that the machine knows when it has reached the end of the lapel, and it will return to its starting point, advance a row, and sew the next one. The machines are quite fabulous, but also fabulously expensive; a pair (one for the right, one for the left) can cost upwards of $80,000 so are within the reach of mass-producers only. The machine takes only a few minutes to do a garment, and can do the two sides simultaneously. The garment shown above has a wide, peak lapel and took me about half an hour per lapel to do. This is a photo of a pad-stitch machine.

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This is a half-canvas garment which has been pad stitched by machine

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This is the same garment, showing the degree of roll.

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The machine stitch is very consistent, however I may want to roll certain parts of a lapel a little more tighly, such as the very tip of a peak lapel, which can not be done by machine but can easily be done by hand. You will notice that the garment which has been stitched my machine does not roll as much as the garment at the top of the page, which was paddded by hand. This does not mean that it will not roll as well; the canvas will still provide a great deal of loft to the roll. It may not, however, hug the chest quite as tightly as a hand-padded lapel will. By varying the amount of canvas worked over the cloth and by stitching closer together or further apart I can vary the degree of roll in the lapel. This is a very fine point and I am not sure that it makes a very great difference in a finished, pressed garment. My unsubstantiated opinion is that it is better done by hand, but to really investigate further I would have to make two identical suits using identical trims and machine pad one of them, and do the other by hand. Maybe when I have retired and have nothing better to do.

The same principles apply when making the canvas front- on the CANVAS page you see a full front which has been pad stitched by hand. Again, there are several layers of material which have been worked into a particular shape and stitched together so that they will hold this shape. As I stated on that page, while I enjoy making my own fronts, I do not think there are any substantial benefits to doing them by hand over doing them by machine. I have done both ways for a long time; one is generally hoping for softness in the chest rather than stiffness and the machine does an admirable job. The amount of shaping and density of stitching can be controlled by the operator, unlike when machine-padding the lapels so I think it really is a toss-up on this issue.

It is important to note that if one were to press the lapel or chest flat you would lose almost all of the shaping which is why we generally advise against having things pressed by dry cleaners who may not be trained in pressing tailored garments (an art and a post unto itself).

So to recap, pad stitching is used to hold several layers of fabric together permanenlty in a particular shape. It gives the chest its shape, and gives the lapel its roll, helping to prevent it from pulling away from the chest- a fused lapel will never roll like a padded lapel and makes judging a garment`s quality easier. While I think it is a little better to pad a lapel by hand, I have seen no real proof of it in a finished garment; this is a matter of great contention and I do not pretend to have the answer.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Pockets, part two

Like so many parts of the garment, pockets seem like simple, insignificant little things but in reality are quite complex and pose certain challengers to cutter and tailor alike.

One of the first considerations is whether there are stripes or checks to be matched. If you look at most RTW, and even some bespoke garments, the lines of a pocket flap will match the jacket nicely below the flap, but seldom above the flap. The jets (the thin welts above and below the flap) never match on RTW but on many bespoke garments, will match nicely as in the photo below.

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The former is due to the way the jacket front is cut- the dart is cut in such a manner as to allow a little extra length over the abdomen area, and helps keep the lower front from kicking out. It is also easier to manufacture in this way. In this photo, however, you will notice that the check matches above as well as below the flap- this is a particularly large check so I decided to cut the front differently to allow the check to continue undisturbed. I could also have cut the side body in one part with the front, thus allowing the flap to match all the way (notice that it no longer matches the side body), but I like a very trim garment and the fit is much better with a separate side body. Notice also that the jet matches the flap and the front, in fact, it is difficult to spot because a) it is matched and b) it was made by hand.
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The next consideration is the ticket pocket, if one chooses to include one. Notice on my light grey jacket that I have chosen to line up the ticket pocket with the lower pocket. This cloth is plain so I was able to do this pleasingly. Looking back at the checked jacked above, you will notice that the check distorst above the pocket due to the dart. If I were to line up the ticket pocket with the lower pocket, it would match for 1/2" only. Some choose to place the pocket there anyway, others move it back behind the dart- this was the checks will match much better. We see this done both ways and I don't think there is a definitive answer to the question- which is better?

The underside, before attaching the pocket bag.
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Once decisions about how the pocket will be matched to the front have been the, the jacket can be cut. In modern factories the flaps are made with jigs- special templates in the shape shape of the flap, placed on the sewing machine, a button is pressed, and the machine sews and trims the flap in one step. The flap is turned and pressed, again on a template in the form of the flap, in order to get a correct and consistent shape. Then things get complex. Machines now exist onto which the operator places a rectangle of fabric, a pellon stay, then the flap, then the pocket bag. Guided by a laser on the machine, the operator is able to place the jacket in such a way as that flap will match the front with no extra effort on their part. The machine then folds the rectangle of fabric to for the two jets, sets the flap and pocket bag, sews all together, then cuts the pocket, all in one step which takes only a few seconds. This is the result (the ticket pocket is done in another step);


The pocket is turned and the bag is tacked to the top, it is pressed, and that is it. In all, a few minutes. The jets, however, can't be matched in this way so no attempt is made; in fact, the rectangle is cut on the length of the cloth instead of the width so the stripe will run the length of the jet.

Let's now consider the hand-made method. Two rectangles of fabric are sewn by plain machine to the front in a very slight curve; they are then pressed, cut, the seams opened, basted in place, the rectangles are turned over the open seam, basted, then a prick stitch is sewn in the seam to close the jets. Done in this way, the checks or stripes can be matched- in the photo above, if it weren't for the very slight bowing of the pocket, the jet would be virtually invisible.

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A little half-moon is often sewn by hand at the ends of the jets to tack them in place. This can also be done my automatic machine, but it is much nicer looking when done (properly) by hand;
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The whole process takes me about an hour for a pair of pockets, and requires a lot of care and patience. In fact, most tailors, including those on the Row, send their work out to pocket makers who specialise in this, since it is such a finnicky job. The result is a much softer, finer, flatter pocket with a much more discreet profile.

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Compare this to a pocket on a RTW garment.

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There is, of course, another way of making the jetted pocket without an automatic machine, but in a way which resembles it. This method is quick and easy and I use it to make the breast pockets on my lining, and may occasionally make the outer pockets this way if I am pressed for time. The pocket placement is marked with chalk, placed on the machine, I fold the jets by hand, and using the presser foot as a guide for the width, sew the jets through by machine. This method takes me about ten minutes to make a pair of pockets as opposed to the hour or so for the other method.

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Notice how the pocket extends over the seam and onto the facing. That will allow me to tack the pocket bag invisibly onto the facing so it wont' shift, which will also later be tacked to the canvas, so all layers will move together. Some jackets have
what we call a french facing- rather than the straight seam as I have cut, the cloth will extend a little, and the pocket will be made on the cloth. There are many variations, but here is one;

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The reason I mention it is this- if you ever have to get your jacket relined, it is a much simpler operation if the pocket is made on a french facing. If the pocket extends beyound the seam like in the photo with the striped jets above, the facing will be cut in a Y shape where the pocket once was when I have removed the lining. Some tailors will just advance the seam 5/8" to cover it, but it is preferable not to. A small piece of fusible is placed behind the cut, the edges are very carefully aligned, and fused. When I have replaced the lining I will have to make a new pocket EXACTLY where the old one was, which is a job demanding great precision. Early in my career it was my job to do this sort of alteration in a factory, so from an alterations perspective, I MUCH prefer a french facing. However, I don't personally like the bulk of it which is why, for my own suits, I cut a straight facing.

So which method of pocket construction is better- by hand or machine? The hand-made pocket is certainly more attractive, softer, more discreet. The machine-made pocket is probably a lot stronger, but if you're not shoving heavy stuff in your pockets that probably doesn't matter. In this case, in my opinion, the difference is really only aesthetic.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Off topic but a little fun

I originally intended to go work at one of the "atelier tailleur" at the haute couture in Paris; I had studied many of the techniques of the couture and have always found it fascinating, and sometimes I let it bring some whimsy to my work.

This is a recent suit, and when I got it done, I had some material left over. I like detail and accessories but not necessarily over the top, so I used a technique I leraned a long time ago and made myself a rose to wear on my lapel out of the left-over suit fabric. Fun, I think.

Pockets, part one: the Breast Pocket

Also known as the taschino (little pocket), the barchetta (little boat), a hand-made breast pocket is easy to spot.

The first giveaway is the presence of a micro zig-zag stitch or straight stitch along the edge of the welt- this has been done by machine. A hand-felled pocket will have no visible stitching along the edge, and may have a row of pick-stitching about 1/4" from the side. The second, more subtle clue is that automatic machines can only sew the welt on in a straight line- many tailors will give a very subtle curve to the seam of the pocket- this is supposed to more gracefully follow the curve of the chest but also help prevent the pocket gaping open.

The hand-made pocket is clearly more attractive as there is no visible machine stitching, but other than aesthetics, can it be considered superior? You are not likely to stress this pocket so the delicate hand work is in no trouble of coming apart. There is no performance benefit either way- it is just more appealing when done by hand.

On the subject of cutting......

I saw an interview with an executive of a well-respected suit manufacturer who proudly stated that all of their suits were cut by hand as this is more consistent than cutting by machine. I can't disagree more! Computer-aided design and cutting technology has made huge advances in the last ten years and pattern-making & cutting is now so much faster and more precise than ever. Ask any human to cut a perfectly straight line and you will be hard-pressed to find someone who really can; then try to find someone who can cut a tight curve like the one in the armhole with precision and if you find one, let me know- I have a job for him or her! When I started cutting patterns my boss would run his finger along the side of the hard paper and if he found even the slightest nick or bump, I had to redo the piece. It took me a very long time to be able to cut paper to his liking, so I know something about cutting things by hand; fortunately those days are long over. However, if I were to cut out a pattern today, and ask my assistant to do the same, and lay one over the other I can guarantee you will see a difference between the two; this is due only to the experience and skill of the people doing the cutting. So imagine having a cutting room full of cutters, all with different levels of skill and experience; how can one claim to have any consistency? And perhaps I have had too much coffee one morning, or too much scotch the night before- my cutting today will be worse than it was yesterday. Not very consistent. Properly calibrated, automatic cutting machines can cut as little as one garment and as many as several dozen at a time, and with a great degree of accuracy. They have long been used in the tailored clothing industry with great success, but until now they have only been used for cutting plain goods- stripes and checks were generally blocked and recut afterward; my friend at Coppley Apparel, which was the beta-testing site for one particular maker of cutting machine has confirmed to me that the latest software running their cutters allows them to cut fully matched checks! Many of the people responsible for patterns, grading and cutting wouldn't be able to switch on a computer, much less operate one, so their mistrust of these machines is understandable. But it is simply untenable that a person could grade or cut in a more consistent manner than the automatic cutting machines available today.

Made by Hand

There has been a lot of discussion about sartorial excellence, hand-made versus machine-made, and how to spot the difference. Very often the opinions I hear expressed are misguided at best, or meant to convince that one garment or technique is better than another to justify a sale or a high price. True, hand-tailored garments are generally of higher quality than their machine-made counterparts, but it is not a hard-and-fast rule. I have seen sloppily made garments which were made by hand and far inferior to other well-made machine garments. There are also many operations which are traditionally done by hand, but can now be done by very sophisticated (and expensive) equipment, and often better than the hand-made version. Beyond all this, there are many different schools of tailoring, each claiming to be better than the others- is the soft, Neapolitan Kiton shoulder really better than a more structured Brioni shoulder? It is all a matter of personal preference. I have, in my years in the business, so often heard tailors and cutters claiming that the rules of cutting and tailoring to which they adhere are the strict and definitive rules, from which one should never waver; I, myself, long believed this as well. Then one day, discussing the complexities of fitting a sleeve with a retired GFT technician, he told me this regarding the rules;

There are two rules of tailored clothing;

1. If your method (rule) works, use it.

2. If your rules aren't working, make new rules.

In a craft which prides itself upon tradition, this was heresy. But it really opened my eyes and my work has greatly improved from it.Why am I writing all this?I have just cut myself a jacket. Maybe I'll cut a vest too. I'm going to make it almost entirely by hand. I am inviting anyone who is interested to follow the process with me, and at the same time look at the difference between hand-made and machine-made, and open a discussion of the merits of each. I am not selling anything to anyone, nor am I promoting any particular product so we can be very frank about it. And remember; there are a million ways to cut and sew a suit- this is mine.

Oh, all photos are taken by me, and unless otherwise stated, are of my own work.