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 Shirt Series, Part IV: Where to Get a Custom Shirt

There are hundreds of places to get a custom shirt made. This week we’ll review some of them, starting with some of the traditional (and not so traditional) models for custom shirtmaking.

The Traditional Tailor

The most traditional way is going through a specialized custom shirtmaker. These include places such as Turnbull & Asser, Anna Matuozzo, and CEGO Custom Shirtmakers. What’s available to you depends on where you live, and if you search around StyleForum, you may find a number of recommendations. 

There are a number of advantages to seeing a specialized tailor in person. For one, you’re more likely to get a bespoke and not made-to-measure service. This means that a specific paper pattern, from which your cloth will be cut, will be made for you. In made-to-measure models, a computer adjusts a pre-designed pattern to fit your measurements. Depending on your body type, bespoke may result in a better fit. Seeing a specialist also means the tailor can account for things not captured by simple measurements – things such as whether your shoulders curve or slope, what your natural stance is like, and whether you have protruding shoulder blades. Other shirtmakers mentioned in this series may be able to do these things for you, but your chances go up when you see a renowned specialist in the field (though, again, not everyone in this category can, so it’s best to inquire first).

I myself use Ascot Chang, and couldn’t recommend them more highly. Of all the custom shirtmakers I’ve gone to, none have made anything as cleanly, precisely, and consistently well fitting. In addition to the product, you’re also paying for their expertise and service. They can advise you on what cloths and collars suit you best, and once they make your order, they keep a stock of your shirting on hand so that they can make replacement collars and cuffs when you need them. If well taken care of, a custom Ascot Chang shirt can last for quite a long time.

The downside to these types of tailors is the price. Most shirts in this class start around $200, and there’s often a minimum first order of three to six shirts, depending on the tailor you use. At the same time, it’s important to note that these tend to be the best of the best. When compared to the price of high-end designer shirts – none of which will fit well – these represent an infinitely better value.

The Traveling Tailor Model

If you can’t go to a specialist, a specialist can come to you. A number of tailoring outfits travel around Europe and the United States in order to meet with clients. Such outfits include Napoli Su Misura, Dege & Skinner, and MyTailor. The upsides here are generally the same as the ones mentioned above (quality, fit, and service). The downside is that they can sometimes take longer to get your pattern right. With a traditional tailor, once you get your first shirt, you can take it home, wear and launder it a few times, and then bring it back so the tailor can see where adjustments need to be made. If your body changes over the course of time, your pattern can easily be adjusted as well. With a traveling tailor, you have to wait until they return, which sometimes isn’t for another four to six months. Still, if you’re not able to see a renowned specialist in your area, a traveling tailor is a good alternative. 

The Hybrid Model

Lastly, we have J. Hilburn, which represents a sort of hybrid model. J. Hilburn has a number of regional representatives that meet with clients around the United States. These reps take clients’ measurements, walk them through the custom shirt ordering process, and deliver shirts to their home or office. I have a couple of shirts by Hilburn, and admit to being skeptical about the model at first. These aren’t people who have lifelong experiences in tailoring, after all. However, the woman who met me knew her stuff quite well and noted that everyone who works for the company gets trained in Texas.  

The upside to J. Hilburn is that they have representatives in almost every city and they’re much more affordable. The starting price for a custom shirt here is about $90, which is about half of what a good tailor in the other categories will charge. The downside is that this is made-to-measure, so the fit won’t be as precise. My Hilburn shirts are just a touch tight in the chest and lower back, which makes the shirts a bit slimmer than I’d like. A friend of mine, The Silentist, also went to them, but found the shirt to be fuller than he’d like. Still, mine are perfectly serviceable, and although Hilburn offers to remake or alter any shirt that clients are unhappy with, I haven’t made a fuss about mine. Like with all made-to-measure clothing, I don’t expect the fit to be as good as bespoke; it’s simply meant to be decent enough for the price. To be sure, my Hilburn shirts certainly fit better than my off-the-rack garments, just not as well as Ascot Chang’s. 

If you care to go with Hilburn, you can use my referral link to knock $50 off your first order (full disclosure: I get a small referral bonus). You can also learn more about them in an earlier post I wrote here

The advantage of each of these models – the traditional, traveling, and J. Hilburn’s hybrid - is that you can see someone in person. This means being able to show someone how the first shirt fits on you, so that they can better make adjustments. It’s a mistake to think that you can figure this out on your own, or that you can turn to places such as StyleForum for “fit critiques.” How well a shirt fits is more nuanced and complicated than people give it credit for, and if you want something truly perfect, it’s best to see a specialist in person (particularly one who will make you a bespoke shirt). You can also rely on them for advice regarding collar and cuff styles, try on different collars (if they have samples you can see), and handle the fabric swatches in person. 

On Wednesday, I’ll review some of the online custom shirtmakers, and talk about which I’ve had the best experiences with. 

(Photos by Michael Williams and Simon Crompton)

Mr. Porter, one of my favorite online stores, just did a second round of reductions in their sale section. There’s some nice stuff by Ralph Lauren, John Smedley, Incotex, and Turnbull & Asser left, though most of the really great stuff got cleared out in their first round of deductions (two Drakes ties for yours truly). Take a browse if you have time

(hat tip to Doc Hu for the notice)

Above is a photo of my greatest second-hand score ever. One that will likely remain my greatest score ever for the rest of my life, unless I find a cache of Savile Row suits that fit me perfectly or something. I’m still vibrating from the excitement.
So I responded to a Craigslist ad that I found through a saved search  for some brand or other… Brioni, maybe. It’s a moving sale, but no  address, just a phone number. Talked to the woman, and she gave me her  address, told her I’d head up there after my dog’s obedience class. I live in Silver Lake, on the East side of Los Angeles, and she lived in  the Hollywood Hills, on the west side, so it took me a solid 30 minutes  to drive there. I was kind of tired, and thought, “Why am I doing  this?” It was almost two miles up the hill from Sunset Boulevard. I get there, and it’s a small but very beautiful a-frame. You can  literally see all of Los Angeles from this spot. It was absolutely  amazing. I knock on the door, and she opens it, and it’s a pretty woman maybe in her  40s, dressed like an LA new-agey type straight from Central Casting. Right away, though, I can tell she’s 100% for real and a nice lady. Moments later, she tells me she’s a yoga practicioner. She is very sincere, very kind, and not at all flaky for someone who off-handedly mentions she’s psychic. Twice. Her house was laid out like a sort of yard sale, with all kinds of women’s clothes and household stuff all around.  She shows me back to the bedroom where the men’s stuff is, and there’s a  table of Ed Hardy-ish rock star clothes (frankly a little nicer than  that sounds, but still very, very not to my taste) right by the door,  and I think maybe it’s not the place for me. Then I see this box of neckties. I bend down to check it out, and the  first tie is an amazing striped grenadine Sulka. Then the next one is a  Brioni. And so on and so on. Above them is a pile of handkerchiefs from Facconable and Turnbull & Asser. To the right is another box full of neckties. A little negotiating (she was psychic, so I was at a disadvantage) and  one trip down and up the mountain later, I handed her $750 in cash.  Here’s what I ended up with: - A silver-handled purple label umbrella. - A Sulka trench coat. - About half a dozen Turnbull & Asser pocket handkerchiefs in their wrapping, and  about fifteen more squares, mostly by Facconable, mostly unused, some  with tags, including four in a gauzy blend of cashmere and silk that is  almost unimaginably soft and beautiful. - 45 ties. Of these, about three or four are clunkers and a few are Versaces.  The rest are Borrelli, Brioni, and Sulka with a few Oxxfords thrown in  for good measure. Almost all are basics, almost none are dated (though  most are wide-ish). Most seem to be unworn, including about ten  Borrellis which are still in their packaging. The woman was incredibly nice, and was very happy the things were going  to a good home. She told me that I can  expect a lot of money coming in. Also that the neighborhood I’m thinking  of moving to is a very blessed place.  I can only imagine who her ex was. Bryan Ferry or something.  Unreal.

Above is a photo of my greatest second-hand score ever. One that will likely remain my greatest score ever for the rest of my life, unless I find a cache of Savile Row suits that fit me perfectly or something. I’m still vibrating from the excitement.

So I responded to a Craigslist ad that I found through a saved search for some brand or other… Brioni, maybe. It’s a moving sale, but no address, just a phone number. Talked to the woman, and she gave me her address, told her I’d head up there after my dog’s obedience class.

I live in Silver Lake, on the East side of Los Angeles, and she lived in the Hollywood Hills, on the west side, so it took me a solid 30 minutes to drive there. I was kind of tired, and thought, “Why am I doing this?” It was almost two miles up the hill from Sunset Boulevard.

I get there, and it’s a small but very beautiful a-frame. You can literally see all of Los Angeles from this spot. It was absolutely amazing.

I knock on the door, and she opens it, and it’s a pretty woman maybe in her 40s, dressed like an LA new-agey type straight from Central Casting. Right away, though, I can tell she’s 100% for real and a nice lady. Moments later, she tells me she’s a yoga practicioner. She is very sincere, very kind, and not at all flaky for someone who off-handedly mentions she’s psychic. Twice.

Her house was laid out like a sort of yard sale, with all kinds of women’s clothes and household stuff all around.

She shows me back to the bedroom where the men’s stuff is, and there’s a table of Ed Hardy-ish rock star clothes (frankly a little nicer than that sounds, but still very, very not to my taste) right by the door, and I think maybe it’s not the place for me.

Then I see this box of neckties. I bend down to check it out, and the first tie is an amazing striped grenadine Sulka. Then the next one is a Brioni. And so on and so on.

Above them is a pile of handkerchiefs from Facconable and Turnbull & Asser. To the right is another box full of neckties.

A little negotiating (she was psychic, so I was at a disadvantage) and one trip down and up the mountain later, I handed her $750 in cash.

Here’s what I ended up with:

- A silver-handled purple label umbrella.
- A Sulka trench coat.
- About half a dozen Turnbull & Asser pocket handkerchiefs in their wrapping, and about fifteen more squares, mostly by Facconable, mostly unused, some with tags, including four in a gauzy blend of cashmere and silk that is almost unimaginably soft and beautiful.
- 45 ties. Of these, about three or four are clunkers and a few are Versaces. The rest are Borrelli, Brioni, and Sulka with a few Oxxfords thrown in for good measure. Almost all are basics, almost none are dated (though most are wide-ish). Most seem to be unworn, including about ten Borrellis which are still in their packaging.

The woman was incredibly nice, and was very happy the things were going to a good home. She told me that I can expect a lot of money coming in. Also that the neighborhood I’m thinking of moving to is a very blessed place.

I can only imagine who her ex was. Bryan Ferry or something.

Unreal.

Episode 3: Clothing Credits

Intro:

Suit - J. Crew

Shirt - Thom Browne

Tie - Carrol & Co. (Vintage)

Square - Vintage (Courtesy: Grand-Uncle Philbert)

Shoes - Nordstrom

On Set

Suit - J. Crew

Shirt - CEGO Custom Shirtmakers

Tie - Courtesy  of Berg & Berg

Shoes - Gieves & Hawkes

Square - Holland & Holland

Nerd Boyfriend Picks

Jacket - J. Crew

Shirt - Uniqlo

Pants - Hentsch Man

Shoes - American Apparel

On Roxana

Shirt - Marc Jacobs

Skirt - Marc Jacobs

Rudiments

Tie - Turnbull & Asser

Q and A

Blazer - hickey

Shirt - Lands’ End

Pants - Incotex

Tie - Benjamin Bixby

Shoes - Sebago (Vintage)

Square - Grand-Uncle Philbert

The silk grenadine tie is so-called for its distinctively textured weave.  It’s typically (though not exclusively) manufactured in solid colors.  The value of the grenadine tie is that its solid color makes it easy to pair with busier shirts and coats, and its texture gives it visual interest.  This makes the grenadine the perfect jack-of-all-trades tie, particularly in simple colors like black, navy and burgundy.  Many designers make grenadines from time to time, but you can reliably find them at J. Press, Paul Stuart and Turnbull & Asser.  For a similar price (but a longer wait), they can be ordered bespoke from Sam Hober, who will make them to your length & width specifications.

The silk grenadine tie is so-called for its distinctively textured weave.  It’s typically (though not exclusively) manufactured in solid colors.  The value of the grenadine tie is that its solid color makes it easy to pair with busier shirts and coats, and its texture gives it visual interest.  This makes the grenadine the perfect jack-of-all-trades tie, particularly in simple colors like black, navy and burgundy.  Many designers make grenadines from time to time, but you can reliably find them at J. Press, Paul Stuart and Turnbull & Asser.  For a similar price (but a longer wait), they can be ordered bespoke from Sam Hober, who will make them to your length & width specifications.