Why It’s Hard to Determine Quality
There are probably no fewer than a hundred books about classic men’s clothing, and the majority of them will have sections on how you can determine the quality of an off-the-rack suit. Some advice is reasonable. The most common one recommends that you conduct the pinch test to see if the jacket is canvassed. However, as we covered before, this will only tell you if something is fully canvassed, not whether something is half canvassed or fully fused. That’s because you can only conduct the pinch test on the bottom half of a jacket (since chest pieces are always floating). On a half-canvassed or fused garment, the bottom section will always be fused, so the pinch test will tell you nothing.
Other advice given, however, is a bit more dubious. I’ve read writers suggest you look for certain benchmarks, such as whether the lining has been attached by hand, or if the underside of the lapel shows that there has been any hand padding. The logic is that no maker would invest in such expenditures if the other parts of the garment weren’t also well made. The problem is that most people can’t tell the difference between handsewn stitches and machine-made ones, especially since there are machines nowadays capable of executing stitches that look like they’ve been handsewn.
Other “benchmarks” are also problematic. Super 100s wools, as we’ve discussed, don’t reveal anything, and the country where the garment was manufactured is more often about marketing than it is about actual quality.
I recently had a chance to talk to Jeffery Diduch, a professional tailor and patternmaker who has extensive experience in the ready-to-wear manufacturing business. When I asked whether any of these “tricks” worked, he had a very good answer: one should think of garment production more like a recipe. There is some golden standard out there, where everything is made from the best materials and everything is done as traditionally as possible. However, most manufacturers have to meet realistic price points, so designers have to decide on what things to put into a garment and what to leave out.
Imagine it like making a dish. You could hire the best chefs in the world and buy the most expensive ingredients. But if you want to sell the dish, you might want to think about what things can be sacrificed in order to make things affordable. Perhaps you hire skilled, but less renowned, chefs. Maybe you use slightly lower-grade olive oil, but decide that the truffle oil must be kept if the dish is to have its signature flavor. This is very much like what designers do. There are hundreds of steps that go into making a garment, and each designer has to decide which steps are most important to him or her. These kinds of calls are going to be very subjective.
Which is to say that quality isn’t linear and you can’t order these things up in hierarchies. It also means that many of the things that go into a suit are internal, and not things a consumer can readily examine. The “benchmarks” that people have written about are sometimes just ways for a company to differentiate its product – either to attract customers who are looking for something that stands out from the crowd, or for the salesperson, who needs a tell-tale sign so he or she can easily grab something off the rack.
In the end, I think the only true test for a garment is whether or not it makes you look and feel good. The best way to do this is to sample as much as possible – including the stuff at high-end stores. Even if you can’t afford a $3,500 suit or $2,500 sport coat, putting on a dozen or so can help give you a better sense of what details will be important to you. You should also pay close attention to men who look good in their suits. Notice what aspects of their fit and silhouette appeal to you, and try to look for those things when you’re out shopping. You might not be able to tell the quality of a suit based on all these “benchmarks” people have written about, but if you train your eye, you can tell what looks good on you. And in the end, that’s the only test that matters anyway.
(Photo via The World Bank)
Why You’re Unlikely to Tell Between a Fused and Half-Canvassed Jacket
Tailor Jeffery Diduch, who maintains the rather illuminating blog Tutto Fatto a Mano, was nice enough to contact us a few weeks ago to correct us on the pinch test. Apparently, you can’t use the pinch test to see if a suit jacket or sport coat is half-canvassed, only if it’s fully-canvassed. The pinch test, as many readers know, is when you pinch the two outer layers of a jacket, typically along the lower front near the edge, and pull them apart to see if there’s a distinct, floating piece of material in between. If there is, this is said to be a mark of quality. To understand this, we should first review how suits and sport coats are made.
A Quick Primer on Suit and Sport Coat Construction
Oversimplified, a jacket is made up of distinct layers of fabric. The two outermost layers, which is the cloth we see and feel, make up the “shell.” Sandwiched in-between are layers of haircloth, canvas, felt, and fusible interlining, depending on whether the jacket is fully-canvassed, half-canvassed, or fused.
On a fully-canvassed jacket, you’ll have a canvas – typically made from a blend of wool, often cotton, and animal hair – running down the full length of the garment. Tacked onto this will be the chest piece. As the name implies, this piece is just set at the chest and shoulders, so that it gives this area some shape and support. This chest piece is usually made of haircloth, which is a cloth that has had strands of horse tail hair woven in. Horse tail hair is very stiff and wiry, which is why it’s perfect for lending structure. Add on to this some felt to cover the wiry animal hair, possibly a very lightweight fusible if the outer shell’s material needs some stabilization, and we have the basic ingredients of a full-canvassed jacket.
The upside to this kind of construction is that the canvas will give a nice bloom to the lapels, making the jacket look more three-dimensional, and give some support to the front. The downside is that this type of construction is very expensive, both in terms of the materials and labor required, and if poorly executed, it could cause the fronts to pucker.
So, about forty years ago, a German company came up with a new type of construction: fusibles. A fused jacket is much like a full-canvassed garment in that it still has the two outer shell layers, a chest piece, and some felt. Replacing the floating canvas, however, is a fusible interlining. When heated and pressed, this interlining’s special resin will melt and bond to any cloth, thus adding a similar kind of support that canvas does. The upside to this is that we cut costs. It’s quick, easy, and requires little to no skill on the part of the operator. The downside, as you can imagine, is that it slightly stiffens the cloth and doesn’t provide as nice of a support as animal hair. Lapels don’t “bloom” in the same way, but rather look flat and lifeless. It also used to be the case that fused garments carried a risk of delamination and bubbling over time, but the technology has come far enough where such cases are rare.
Finally, we have half-canvassed garments, which are the compromise. Here, the front of the jacket is fused (since you still need to stabilize the fronts), but the fusible doesn’t extend to the lapel area, where you want that kind of bloom and structure that animal hair gives. Instead, the lapels will have canvas in it like a full-canvas garment. Here, you try to get the benefits of both methods, while minimizing the cons.
The Limits of the Pinch Test
Now, the pinch test is said to be a way for you to tell if a jacket is canvassed or not. Usually, you’ll want to take the fabric a few inches below the lowest button, pinch the two outer layers and pull them apart. If you can feel a distinct, floating layer in-between, that’s the canvas. You know so because below the lowest button, there’s really nothing but the two shell layers and whatever has been used to stabilize the fronts. If it’s floating and distinct, then you’ll know it’s been fully-canvassed. If you can’t feel anything between, that means some fusible has been glued onto one of the shell layers.
The reason why you can’t do this on a half-canvassed garment is because below the second button is always fused, so you don’t know if the garment is half-canvassed or fully-fused. If you go above the second button or so, towards the chest area, you won’t know if you’re just feeling the chest piece. All garments – fully-canvassed, half-canvassed, or fused – will have a floating chest piece, so feeling a distinct layer there means nothing. The only way to know if a garment is either half-canvassed or fused is to ask a knowledgeable salesperson, but from my experience, these are very, very hard to find. Especially, frankly, at places that would sell a fused garment. So, unfortunately, there’s little way to tell if a garment is fused or half-canvassed.
* Thanks to Jeffery for his help with this article. For a more detailed write-up on how suits and sport coats are made, read Jeffery’s post here.
How to Examine Quality in Leather Goods, Part II
We talked last week about how to judge the quality of leather, but there’s more to leather goods than leather, of course. There’s also the hardware and how everything has been put together. High quality leather will mean little if the brass snaps on your bag break or the lining rips out. So today, we’ll review each in turn, and talk about some things you can look for when shopping around.
Any bag or piece of luggage will be made with a variety of hardware. These can include swivel snap hooks, which are commonly used to attach the leather shoulder strap to the bag; tucks, which are used under a buckled strap so the strap does not need to be buckled and unbuckled; and various latches. Any of these can fail if they’re not made well. Frank Clegg, the eponymous owner of Frank Clegg Leatherworks, told me last week that zippers are perhaps the most common point of breakage. “We had a $600-700 leather coat dropped by our workshop just recently,” Frank said. “It had eight different zippers, all of which had the pulls snap off. The zippers had pulls that look similar to the ones we use, but instead of taking a wire loop and casting around it, they cast the loop into the pull. The cast metal just snaps off when it’s that thin.”
Frank suggests that consumers look for something that’s of a good weight. High quality hardware has a thicker look and feel, and the casting seams are usually removed and polished. If the metal has been treated with some kind of finishing, you may also want to examine the quality of the job. Solid brass, for example, can be left natural (which is OK) or polished and then lacquered, and zinc and steel can be plated with brass or nickel. If these lacquering or plating jobs haven’t been done well, the metal can look dull or foggy in a short period of time.
In addition to the leather and hardware, there’s the matter of how everything has been put together. Much of this depends on the type of product at hand. For example, belts will have their own standards. A high-quality belt will have a leather lining (if the design requires one) instead of the cheap paper stuffing that lower-end manufacturers use. You may also want to examine whether the keeper has been squared off (shaped into a rectangle), and whether the details, such as any beveling, have been done well.
One thing you can look for on all leather goods is the quality of the stitching. Naturally, these should always look neat and straight. You may also want to see if the edges have been left raw or if they’ve been turned. Turned-edge leather is made in a way that’s similar to how the edge of a piece of garment has been finished – the edges are turned underneath and then stitched. This yields a more attractive and durable edge, but of course, whether it can be done depends on the job at hand. Alex Kabbaz of Kabbaz-Kelly & Sons has a good article on this you can read here.
Leather products can be expensive, but if you purchase the right ones, they’ll last decades and only get better with time. Look for fully tanned, full-grain leathers; smooth, durable hardware; and neat stitching. If applicable, also look for edges that have been turned and sewn, rather than left raw. You should examine for these things on the outside as well as the reverse side, inside, or any other parts that don’t normally show. Even if they’re not easily visible, a top-quality maker will make sure that all parts of the product are pleasing and well done, and these are signs that you’re buying something of quality.
How to Examine Quality in Leather Goods, Part I
I recently had the good fortune of talking to Dave Munson and Frank Clegg – the two men behind Saddleback Leathers and Frank Clegg Leatherworks, respectively – about how to discern quality in leather goods. While many men at this point know how to judge the quality of suits, shoes, and even sweaters, few know how to tell if a bag or wallet is well made. So, given Dave and Frank’s expertise in the field, I thought I’d ask them for their thoughts.
This short-series will be covered in two articles. For today, we’ll talk about how to examine the quality of leather itself.
The Basics of Leather
Obviously, at its foundation, the quality of any leather good should be judged on the quality of the leather itself. As many already know, you should always shoot for full-grain leather, ideally one free of scars, blemishes, or fat deposits. Lotuff Leather has a good primer on how to look for these things.
Other types of leather include top and split grains. These are made by splitting a piece of leather into two layers. The top (top-grain) is typically sanded down and finished with some kind of chemical processing. This is what we typically call corrected-grain leather, and while it’s cheaper, it also has a colder, more plastic-like feel, and results in less breathability. Over time, it will also age less well and you won’t get the nice patina that you would with full-grain leather.
Split grain is what’s left after the top-grain has been separated from the hide. This part is often made into suede or embossed with a print so that it looks like full-grain. Unlike true full-grain, however, it’s often thinner and not as durable.
Finally, we have bonded leather. This stuff is basically junk. Here, leftover scraps of leather are grounded with glue and then bonded together in a process similar to vinyl manufacture. It’s basically to full-grain leather what particleboards are to solid wood. It neither looks nice nor lasts well.
How Manufacturers Cheat
So you know that full-grain should be preferred to top and split grain, and certainly to bonded leather. But this isn’t enough, as manufacturers often cheat. How?
Well first, there are semantics. A manufacturer can say that something is made from “genuine leather” when it’s actually top or split grain, or even bonded leather. They’re not lying. It is made from genuine leather. The other way is to say that something is “made with full-grain leather” when only part of it is. Again, they’re not lying. A bag can be partly made with full grain leather, while something as cheap as vinyl is used for other parts.
The other way to cheat is by buying full-grain leather that hasn’t been processed fully. See, after a tannery removes the moisture, oils, and hair from an animal skin, they put it into giant drums with tanning solutions. These drums are expensive, however, and can cost upwards of $100,000. The tanning solutions they use can also be costly. To curb some of these expenses, some tanneries won’t let the hides sit in the drums as long as they need to. That way, they can process more hides using fewer drums and less tanning solution. In the end, the leather on your products can fade and crack with too much sunlight. You can tell whether something has been fully tanned by looking at the edges. Assuming it hasn’t been painted over with some type edge finishing, such leathers will appear blue in the middle, which shows that the tanning solution hasn’t been allowed to soak through all the way. You can see this in the write up that Dave published on his website.
When we spoke, I asked Dave whether such “half-tanned” leathers are really something you’d ever find on more expensive products. “All the time,” he said. “Not all of them, of course, but if the company they outsource to is not carefully watched or if it is something that the brand is not aware of, then they’ll be getting low quality leather that is hidden with rolled or painted edges to cover up the poorly tanned leather.” Dave also noted that this isn’t something you tell just from the outside grain. The leather feels the same, but the middle will dry out and crack. The only way to tell is by looking at the edge and seeing if the middle is blue, but this also assumes that the edge hasn’t already been covered.
In the end, if you’re buying a leather good, you should aim for full-grain leather, but also make sure that the tannage has soaked through all the way. You may also want to ask the manufacturer whether the product was fully made with full-grain leather, and examine the skin for defects such as scars, blemishes, and fat deposits. Of course, many products will have some kind of defect somewhere. Often this will be done in places where the consumer can’t see, such as the inside of a bag. This doesn’t automatically discount the quality of the good, necessarily, but it is something you may want to consider if you’re paying top-dollar for something.
Come back Monday, when I’ll talk about the quality of hardware that’s often used, as well as a bit about the construction of leather goods.
"Old Clothes, Like Old Friends"
While catching up on my men’s style blog reading, I came across this post by Nicholas Storey at A Suitable Wardrobe:
I am wearing a mid-weight worsted navy and grey pinstripe suit; a separate vest in grey wool; a poplin shirt, woven silk tie, a pair of navy calf and off-white nubuck, toe- cap Oxford co-respondent (spectator) shoes and a Panama hat. I bought the hat around 1984, when Herbert Johnson still had an independent existence in a high, light and airy shop in Bond Street, which still resonated with its fame as a hatter to the haut ton, following patronage by Bertie, Prince of Wales and his set, various crowned heads of Europe, and blue bloods from the USA and elsewhere. I don´t think that (unless I lost it), I should ever replace this hat: being a firm believer that old clothes, like old friends; old books; old wine, and well-loved places bring us special comforts that only time and familiarity can reliably bring us.
The passage reminded me of something Yukio Akamine recently said:
The shoes I wear today are from John Lobb, they are 25 years old. When I first got them they weren’t really comfortable but after 25 years, they really feel comfortable. With beautiful things, it is all about learning to wait, being patient. People today, they don’t want to give it time. But it is like love, it is like a relationship, it is like learning, like all the things we admire, it takes time. Anything that happens in the snap of a finger isn’t good.
Both seem like good reminders that we should spend more time cherishing the old clothes we have (assuming we’ve invested well and they’re of good quality) rather than buying new ones.
Quality as Taste
A friend of mine recently asked me for my opinion on what makes a well-made tie, and the conversation got me thinking about quality in general. You often find men on various online forums debating which items are better made than others. Some even go through the trouble of making incredibly detailed hierarchal lists. There are objective and subjective criteria for judging quality, however, and I think one should be careful not to confuse the two.
For example, you should only buy ties that easily return to their shape after they’ve been knotted and unknotted. If they don’t, terrible creases can form along the neckband, which will eventually make them difficult to wear. Something like this would be an objective dimension to quality.
Then there is the subjective, by which I mean things that are very open to taste. For me, I like a tie that dimples well, but I’ve seen a few smart dressers who wear ties without one. In addition, I like my ties to arch a little, then drape down, and have some gentle movement to them throughout the day. The fabric, in my opinion, looks best when it shows off its natural characteristics. I also prefer slightly smaller, elongated knots, although this isn’t always easily found. These characteristics – the dimple, drape, and knot – all have to do with the material, lining, and cut.
Outside of that, there are small, artisanal details. E&G Cappelli ties, for example, have more visible handstitching and Vanda’s have a higher bar tacks so that you can easily peek at the folds. However, there are also makers who don’t exhibit any of these qualities, such as Drake’s or Ralph Lauren, and they’re still excellent ties.
What some people pass off as objective criteria for quality can often be something very subjective. You can compare it to wine or whiskey (or anything that has some artisanal dimension). There are obviously bad whiskeys, but among the good ones, a lot of this is about preference and taste. Brooks Brothers’ ties, for example, don’t have any the artisanal detailing, but they’re still excellent and cost a fraction of what luxury-end makers charge. If you wait for their sales, you can get them at ~40% off. Likewise, there’s no reason to debate whether Cappelli is better than Vanda, as they each offer a different “taste.”
Like with almost anything, the only way to really figure out what you prefer is to try things in every tier. If you try enough things, you’ll eventually develop an opinion. If you’re at a store that sells cheap, polyester ties, try one on. If you come across a Drake’s or other similar luxury-end brand, also try one on. It would be impossible know what people mean by “better drape” or “better knot” until you do. Or, more importantly, whether you care about such things enough to pay the premiums.
Picture above taken from E. Marinella
Check out this wonderful video about John Rushton, the man behind this shoe shop in London. The message here is one of the everyone should take to heart. Buy real quality shoes and learn how to take care of them. It might seem like a lot of time and money, but it’s a whole lot better than buying new crappy shoes every other year.
Jesse made a comment yesterday about how we shouldn’t conflate heritage and quality, and I completely agree. Too many consumers, I think, use a company’s heritage as a proxy for quality, and then become enchanted with buzz-phrases such as “will last you a lifetime,” even as they go about buying shoes that are essentially glue jobs. In the end, to learn about quality, you really just have to begin developing an understanding of the manufacturing process.
As such, I thought I’d post this video of Edward Green’s factory - a company that both has incredible heritage and produces amazing quality shoes. Here you can see the incredible craftsmanship that goes into a pair of Edward Greens. These shoes feature more handwork than almost any ready-to-wear shoes on the market. For example, the closing stitches are done by hand, with pig bristles since they’re finer than needles, and polishes are hand applied in order to create a strong sense of depth in the leather. Any machine work done on the shoe is also still guided by hand. This all helps maintain a level of attention to detail, at each stage of the manufacturing process, that machines alone can’t achieve.
The materials on a pair of Edward Greens are also some of the best in the world. For example, the soles of the shoes are made from oak bark tanned leather, a type of hide that has been tanned exclusively from vegetable agents made from barks and fruits. The process takes place inside of an oak-lined pit that is ten feet deep. The hide sits in the solution for about a year. There are no mechanical movements, no chemical catalysts, and the solution isn’t heated; the hide just sits for a year. It’s a slow process, but the leather that comes out is very lightweight, very hardwearing, and very flexible. It is also highly water-repellent, but very breathable. This makes it perfect for soles.
If this level of quality isn’t enough for you, Edward Green also has their Top Drawer program. In their normal made-to-measure program, the company allows clients to choose the last, leather, and sole for the shoes they want. Top Drawer better than that, however. Here, models feature hand-carved fiddleback waists that have an added piece of leather for additional support. The heel is slightly tapered, the sole’s edge is hand shaped into a spade, and the bottom of the shoe features the client’s initials in the form of a nailhead design. Top Drawer shoes also get more attention at every stage of the manufacturing process.
Of course, there are still things to quibble about. The welt, for example, is attached to a canvas ribbing (a process called gemming), which is the white thing at you see in the video at around three minutes and twenty seconds in. Canvas, of course, isn’t as sturdy as leather, and can become brittle over time. As well, many say that a cork filled insole isn’t as good as a full leather insole. However, outside of a few manufacturers such as Stefano Bemer and DW Fromer, very few manufacturers offer fully hand welted shoes made in the most traditional manufacturing techniques. That kind of process is very laborious, and thus incredibly expensive. For ready-to-wear shoes, Edward Greens still represent one of the best shoes you can buy on the market.
The key here is to not assume things about quality just from the heritage of a brand, or even the price, but rather understand how things are made, and be serious about appreciating craftsmanship.
(As an aside, you should thank GW this post. He posted this video over this weekend, and after I laughed about how I was planning to use it this week, he took his down so that I could include it here. The guy is seriously a gentleman - and an owner of Edward Green’s best model, the Dover, I might add. There is a man who knows about quality.)