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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 dimensions:

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

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The only rule is don’t be boring and dress cute wherever you go. Life is too short to blend in.
The only rule is don’t be boring and dress cute wherever you go. Life is too short to blend in


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)


The Custom Shirts Series, Part V: Using Online Tailors

The traditional way to have a custom shirt made is to go through a local or traveling tailor. Unfortunately, the best ones are expensive. Many start around $200 and require a three to six shirt minimum on your first order. There are also good made-to-measure shops such as CEGO, but those will typically start around $125-150 as well.

If you can’t go to a traditional tailoring shop – whether because of location or budget – there are a host of online operations you can turn to. Here, you submit your measurements and design your shirts online. The company then manufactures your shirts in China according to a pre-made pattern they’ve adjusted for you, and then ships you the final goods. Prices in this field generally start around $60, which isn’t too far off from what department stores charge at full retail.

Of course, the model isn’t without its problems. Taking your own measurements can be tricky, even if you have someone to help you. One solution is to have four to six different people measure you and then figure out the averages. By doing so, you reduce the risk of error. You may also want to consider padding the numbers by adding a quarter of an inch all around. Remember – if the shirt is a bit too full, it’s still wearable; if it’s too tight, it’s not. You can see how the first shirt fits and then adjust your measurements on the second order.

The other problem is that it can be difficult to figure out what a particular fabric looks like from a small “swatch” on your screen. There are many dimensions that won’t come through, such as how it feels, whether it’s somewhat thin or transparent, and how it looks when it moves. There’s no substitute for having a real swatch book in front of you, but it can help if you review my primer on fabrics. The descriptions of fabrics you read online should tell you enough, assuming you know the technical jargon. Some companies will also send you fabric samples from their different price tiers, so you can at least judge the varying qualities. 

So, which companies can you turn to? There are probably more than a dozen operations, and I’ve only tried a handful. The best, from my experience, has been Cottonwork. In the interest of full disclosure, you should know that Cottonwork will be an advertiser here at Put This On, but I genuinely recommend them. Of all the online shirtmakers I’ve used, they’ve been the best fitting and most consistent. They have a good range of fabrics, including affordable ones that start at $65 (though in my opinion the more workable stuff is at the $75 tier), as well as finer shirtings by Thomas Mason and Tessitura Monti. The seams are made with a fairly high stitch count, thus making them nearly invisible when done, and everything is finished on the inside with a flat-felled seam. This takes more time to execute than the cheaper overlock stitch, but it prevents the fabric from fraying over time. Perhaps most importantly, Cottonwork’s website allows you to see how your shirt might look as you add on different options. 

I’ve also had shirts made by Made Tailor and Biased Cut. Their shirts fit considerably slimmer than Cottonwork, so if you’re just getting your first one, I strongly advise you pad the numbers a bit. Their fabrics aren’t as nice, but they have a number of customization points in their favor. Made Tailor, for example, has a particularly handsome cutaway collar, and Biased Cut allows you to put a monogram on the shirt’s sleeve gauntlet.

Another big player in this field is Modern Tailor. On the upside, they can be much more affordable than any of the options above. On the downside, I’ve found their consistency and quality control to be rather lacking. Different shirts made on the same order can sometimes be cut to different measurements. The stitching is also not as fine as it could be, though that part is well made up for in the price. The one area they seem to be decent at is in copying shirts. Here, you just need to send them the shirt you want copied, specify the fabric and details you want added or subtracted, and they’ll send you the shirt back along with their copy. Generally, these shirts will fit exactly as your original.

There are many other companies as well, such as Joe Button and Proper Cloth, but I have no experiences with them. Whoever you choose, I recommend you pick someone you think you can use for the long term. Online custom tailoring is a tricky thing, and the payoffs really come when you have your second or third shirt made. If you’re lucky, the first shirt will fit well, but more likely than not, it won’t. You have to expect that adjustments will need to be made; it’s the nature of what happens when you submit your own measurements. If you can find a company that will look at photos of you in your new shirt, and advise you on what adjustments need to be made, all the better. Just make sure you’re picking someone with an eye towards subsequent orders and iterative improvements, not just who can make you the cheapest product. 

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