The Custom Shirts Series, Part VI: How to Tell if a Shirt Is Well-Made

Whether you have something custom-made or buy ready-to-wear, it’s useful to know how to examine the quality of a shirt. How can you tell if a shirt is well-made?

There are the obvious dimensions. Fit is paramount, of course. Even if something was made with impeccable construction, if it doesn’t fit well, the fabric and sewing will mean little. Know what to look for when examining the fit.

There’s also the fabric. Generally speaking, two plys (or more) are be better than one. Fabrics woven on older, slower looms also tend to be more durable than those woven on faster, modern machines. Outside of that, much of the fabrics’ quality can be judged on how soft or luxurious it feels. Part III of this series covered some of those basic points. 

In addition to the fit and fabric, you should also consider these three things:

Stitches per inch: Low-end shirts tend to be made with fewer stitches-per-inch than high-end shirts. That’s because the speed of a sewing machine is measured in stitches-per-minute. The fewer stitches a machine has to sew per inch, the faster it can go. Since poorly made shirts are banged out as fast as possible, they have lower stitch counts. These rougher looking stitches detract from the shirt’s durability and elegance. 

It’s important to know how to examine this properly, however. On very high-end shirts, the number of stitches per inch can vary depending on where you’re looking. The collar and cuffs, for example, are meant to be replaced and refurbished over time, so they need to be attached with a lower stitch count in order to aid the disassembly process. The topstitching you see on them can also be made with a higher stitch count since the fused interlining can overpower any tendency for the thread to pucker. 

One good place to look, then, are the side seams. If these are neatly and finely sewn, you’re likely to be holding something of decent quality. The picture you see above is a French single needle seam made with 22 stitches per inch, which is pretty good. 

Pattern matching: If your shirt has checks or stripes, the pattern should match up well along the yoke, armhole, and placket. Pockets should also be aligned on the shirt according to their pattern. If you happen to be working with a lower-end shirtmaker, opt for solid colors, or at least forgo things such as split yokes and pockets. If you don’t, you might end up with something that looks like a patchwork quilt. 

Single needle seams: The side seams on a shirt can be made with single or double needle stitching. Single needle is neater and cleaner because it leaves only one row of stitches visible from the outside. It also won’t pucker over time due to the thread and fabric reacting differently to washing. As you can probably guess, however, single needle stitching takes more time, and since time is money, cheaply made shirts will have double needle stitching (many of which will pucker right out of the box). 

That more or less concludes the “how to” portion of this series. We’ve talked about fit, fabric, and where to get something made (both offline and online). Today, we’ve covered how to examine the quality of your shirt. That should more or less take you from start to finish if you’d like to get something custom made. Given that most dress shirts retail between $60 and $200, and rarely even fit well, getting something custom can be a good idea. Just make sure you have realistic expectations. Renowned operations such as Charvet and Turnbull & Asser will give you a better made, better fitting shirt, but they’re also more expensive. More affordable operations might not fit as well, but if you work with them over the course of two or three shirts, they can sometimes dial in on your pattern. If you can have a few made by a renowned house, you could also have the shirt copied by a lower-end operation. The construction won’t be as nice, but at least you’ll get the most important part right - the fit.

Later this week, we’ll close out the series with a very special interview with my favorite shirtmaker, Ascot Chang

The Custom Shirts Series, Part II: How Should a Shirt Fit?

Most men can find a well-fitting shirt off the rack. The question is just how well fitting they want it. SpooPoker, a member at StyleForum, posted a photo of himself in his made-to-measure pink Charvet shirt some years ago. I think it’s a good example of what a truly well fitting shirt should look like. Let’s talk about each dimension of a shirt’s fit in turn:

  • Shoulders: How cleanly a shirt fits will be affected by whether your shoulders curve forward or backward, and whether they slope. More often than not, they do, and usually one will curve or slope more than the other. This will create wrinkling around the collar bone or, sometimes, the rib cage. To ameliorate this, a shirtmaker has to cut the shoulders and yoke correctly in order to account for your body’s nuances.  
  • Chest: A shirt’s chest should fit cleanly, but it should also be somewhat full in order to allow movement. There shouldn’t be any pulling under the armholes or around the front’s buttons. 
  • Waist: Whether you have the waist taper in or not depends on your build. One thing is for certain, however - your shirt should flatter you when you’re standing up or sitting down. Many men opt for overly slim fitting shirts, only to realize that their shirts have unsightly pulls across the stomach when they’re seated. This should be avoided.
  • Sleeves: Correctly set sleeves should come down to the webbing between your thumb and index finger when the cuffs are unbuttoned. When the cuffs are buttoned, the sleeve should sit a little bit below your wrist. By having some extra material in the length, you’ll ensure that your sleeves won’t ride up your arm when you extend them. Above are two photos from Men’s Ex that illustrate this well. 
  • Neck: If you button your shirt all the way up, you should be able to comfortably slip just your index finger between your neck and collar. Note that this is only after a few washes, however. Most shirts fit a bit looser in the neck when they’re new, so that they can account for shrinkage. 
  • Collar: When your collar is buttoned up, the collar points should touch your chest. If it doesn’t, your collar is too short. 
There are two excellent videos that discuss some of these points further. The first is Jesse’s visit to CEGO Custom Shirtmaker in New York City. The second is the Wall Street Journal’s interview with David Hamilton. Be sure to watch both of them. 

Now, as to whether you need to go custom in order to achieve a good fit depends on how well off-the-rack shirts currently flatter you and how demanding your standards are. Most men will be fine with off-the-rack, and they can get an alterations tailor to nip the waist, slim the sleeves, and tighten the cuffs if they need to. However, it’s also quite common for men to have curved or sloping shoulders, which in turn gives them a slightly less clean look. If you want to solve those issues, sometimes a custom shirtmaker is the only way to go. 

Whichever you choose - custom or off-the-rack - it’s worth emphasizing that your shirt should allow movement. Most men wear shirts that are too baggy; many wear them too tight. Getting the right fit is about finding that delicate balance between flattery and function. Your shirt should look nice even if you extend your arms or sit down, so don’t judge its fit by just how well it looks in front of the mirror. Take Spoo’s shirt above as an example. It’s neither baggy nor tight, so there aren’t excessive folds of cloth or pulling in the waist or chest areas. It fits cleanly, just as a truly well-fitting shirt should. 

Check back tomorrow, when we’ll talk about shirt fabrics. 

The Two-Toned Tie

One way to add some slight visual interest to an otherwise basic tailored look is by wearing a two-toned tie. By that I mean ties that are woven with two different colors of silk. This is typically done on bindings such taffeta, oxford, and nattee, but other variations exist as well. Perhaps the most famous maker of such ties is Charvet, who makes a beautifully iridescent two-toned diamond weave.

Recently, a friend of mine, Thomas Busch, started a new luxury-end neckwear company called Private Label. In his first collection is an assortment of such ties. These look grenadine in nature, but they’ve all been woven with a navy weft and a different color warp. Weft and warp, as you may know, refer to the two different types of yarns that make up a fabric. Pictured above are a four variations. Here we see a navy weft woven with warps in green, soft green, brown, and wine. The weave is neither warp nor weft intensive, but rather shows both to almost equal amounts. Since the colors are similar to each other, the effect is subtle and quiet. 

When I visited Antonio Panico last January with Gianluca Migliarotti, both gentlemen were wearing similar ties. In fact, you can see Gianluca’s tie here, which is made by Liverano & Liverano, a bespoke specialist tailor in Florence, Italy. 

Mr. Busch’s ties happen to be fully handmade, and of all the people I know in the neckwear trade, he’s one of the most knowledgeable. I’ve been wearing his ties often the last month. Some are a bit heftier and meatier than the unlined varieties that many (including myself) love, but they’re all incredibly nice. The two-toned ties you see above are medium weight, and they make a very nice conical knot. I encourage you to check out his company; it’s a true labor of love by a man who knows a lot about neckwear. 

Season Two, Episode One: Clothing Credits

Introduction

Cap: J. Press

Scarf: Johnstons of Elgin

Coat: Capper & Capper (Vintage)

Gloves: Brooks Brothers

The ‘Lo Heads

Coat: Polo Ralph Lauren

Shirt: Charvet (Vintage)

Tie: Ralph Lauren Purple Label

Sweater: Vintage

Pocket Square: Put This On Gentlemen’s Association

Trousers: Pro Tailor

Shoes: Alden

Q & Answer

Suit: High Society Tailor, cloth by Molloy & Sons

Shirt: Thin Red Line

Tie: Drake’s

Pocket Square: Put This On Gentlemen’s Association

Lately I’ve been really enamored with Charvet’s ties, especially their two-toned diamond weaves. If you’ve ever held one, the first thing you’ll notice is that they’re a bit iridescent. The colors change as you slowly move the tie, making them almost jewel like in their appearance. The only downside is that they’re also a bit delicate. In order to achieve the special effects, Charvet makes these with a very fine weave. As a result, they can easily snag, especially if you have rough hands. That means they’re not a top choice for every day wear, but they’re a prime candidate for very special occasions. 

At full retail, Charvet’s ties are around $200, but you can also find them on sale for about $80-100. Be careful when buying them on discount, however, especially if you’re shopping online or getting something used. From my experience, these tend to have been pawed through by dozens of people, which means they’ve already developed a few snags. This may be one case where it’s best to shop for deals at brick and mortar stores, not online shops. 

The RJ cat sent me this awesome cartoon by Sem. It shows Evander Berry Wall at Charvet, demanding "Look here! I want a Chinese neck-tie [sic] for my dog!" Apparently Charvet has an image of this in their fabric room. 
RJ also noted that Wall’s memoir, Neither Pest Nor Puritan, is a nice read. If you’re interested in picking it up, check for it at DealOz. It’s a great site to find the best deals on books. 

The RJ cat sent me this awesome cartoon by Sem. It shows Evander Berry Wall at Charvet, demanding "Look here! I want a Chinese neck-tie [sic] for my dog!" Apparently Charvet has an image of this in their fabric room. 

RJ also noted that Wall’s memoir, Neither Pest Nor Puritan, is a nice read. If you’re interested in picking it up, check for it at DealOz. It’s a great site to find the best deals on books. 

Results of a few thrift store stops today: unlabeled (Made in England), Polo and Charvet, from left to right.

Results of a few thrift store stops today: unlabeled (Made in England), Polo and Charvet, from left to right.