How a Bespoke Suit is Made (Part 1)

August 18th, 2015

With the launch our new online tailoring collection, I thought it would be good for me personally to get a re-fresher course on the finer points of suit making. Therefore, I went down to one of my favorite tailoring supplies stores here in Los Angeles, B. Black & Sons, and bought everything I need to hand-make one suit from scratch.

Over the next month (or two, or three) I will be hand-making a full canvas suit, from scratch, using the pattern I developed during my time in the Fashion Institute of NYC‘s menswear design program. This is only the 3rd suit I’ve attempted to make by hand, so expect it to take some time, and be far from perfect. Nevertheless, I will try to share the entire suit-making process with you, at various stages, from my home studio. To kick-off this series, here is the “Anatomy of a Suit”; an illustrated description of all of the internal pieces of a handmade suit.

In case you’re wondering, the total cost of everything was about $225. Keep in mind that’s without all of the tools and sewing equipment needed, and, most importantly, the 40+ hours of meticulous hand labor that I’m about to put into this b-tch.

The Pattern

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These 10-12 pieces of paper (or cardboard) are the most important element of a bespoke suit, and the part that takes the most time and experience to develop. The pattern is basically the puzzle pieces that are sewn together to create the shape and fit of the suit. Changing the length, curve, or shape of any of these lines can dramatically alter how the final garment will look and feel.

These pattern pieces are only drafts, hence why they are cut from paper. I’m attempting to change the fit of my pattern slightly, as I’m looking to bring the waist up a half inch and add a little fullness to the front chest. I’ll get more into the finer points (or basics) of menswear pattern-making later…

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Pattern Paper & Muslin

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The pattern paper (right) is used to draft and test the patterns (see above). It’s not unusual to draw and erase so much on this paper that you begin to wear holes through it. That’s the point. Practice.

Once you think your paper pattern is in a good place (worth testing to see the fit on the model/form), you trace it on muslin. Muslin (left) is basically cheap practice fabric that you can draw on. Before a garment is made, a designer usually cuts multiple muslin versions and tweaks them until the pattern (fit) is just right. Since the final fabric can be expensive, you want to make sure you’ve got everything just right before cutting.

As the old saying goes; measure twice, draft about a dozen times, then cut once.

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The Fabric

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For this suit I chose a 100% pure linen in a cigar/tobacco color imported from Italy. Three and a half yards should be just enough for a 2-piece in my size (roughly 41 Medium-Long). That’s if I don’t make any mistakes cutting the fabric…luckily they have plenty more of this linen on the roll, and I told them to expect me in a few weeks.

The fabric choice is the most important decision you’ll make when ordering a bespoke suit, other than who is making it. I love buying the full cut at a fabric shop, because you can get a great sense of the weight, drape and the color against your skin.

Lining & Sleeve Lining

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The best linings are bemberg. It’s strong, it doesn’t fray, it holds up to dry cleaning chemicals, and it’s relatively light in weight. The jacket lining (brown – left) is optional. I’m going with a 1/4 lining (just the shoulders), which means I’m going to have to clean-finish the inside seams of the jacket by hand (a lining is like a tailor’s rug – he can sweep all the unclean seams under it).

The same bemberg lining fabric is also often used to line the front panel of the trousers (“to the knee”, or “full” on coarser fabrics), although I’m going fully unlined for these cigar linen trousers.

The sleeve lining (striped – right) is necessary for function. What’s most important here is the “slip” factor. The sleeves should be easy to slide in and out of (even if they are slim) and the jacket fabric should never get “caught up” around the armhole or bicep.

Chest Canvasses

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If I was a very experienced tailor (like the ones who will be making the AoS Suits this Fall), I would hand-make the chest canvas from scratch, too. But ain’t nobody got time for that. Most tailors use pre-fabricated chest canvasses (which included the canvas, horse hair, and cotton padding) and simply trim them to correspond to the size and shape of the front panel (pattern piece).

A hand-set chest canvas is the hallmark of a well-made suit. It’s also the hardest part to properly sew. It will take me thousands of micro pad stitches to “float” this canvas in-between the front panel and front facing (while hand-rolling the lapels).

Collar Canvas & Felt

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On a well-made suit, collar canvas (left) is hand-sewn in between the two layers of the collar, similar to the chest canvas.

The melton (right) is a wool felt fabric that is typically used for the backside (underside) of the collar.

Laying across both the canvas and melton above is the pattern piece for the collar (cut from muslin). That will need to be traced three times: onto the fabric (top), the canvas (in between), and the bottom (melton felt).

Horn Buttons

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Only genuine buffalo horn here. Had to go with a brown & tan tortoise color to compliment the cigar linen.

Poly Thread

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The only polyester you’ll ever find in my suits. Must match the color of the fabric, of course.

Interfacing

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This is enemy #1 of traditional handmade tailors. Interfacing, otherwise known as “fusing” is an iron-on adhesive that serves to add structure and stability to the back-side of fabrics.

As we’ve mentioned several times before, a cheap suit will use this on the front panel pieces, in lieu of hand-sewing the chest canvas (remember I said how difficult and time-consuming that was).

Even in the most high-end suits, however, interfacing is usually used to strengthen areas like the pocket openings, the ends of the cuffs, and the jacket hemline.

Shoulder Pads

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Not totally necessary, but very traditional. These can be trimmed to any size or thickness, although I think I’m going to attempt to make this suit with no shoulder pads at all (I’m currently working on sloping the shoulder lines of the pattern a little more, as it was originally drawn to accommodate a 3/8″ pad…which means I have to reshape the armhole slightly as well).

Sleeve Heads

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Similar to shoulder pads, these have been getting smaller and smaller as tailoring becomes more and more “unstructured”. A sleeve head is sewn to the outer-edge of the top half of the armhole – it basically sits within the cap of the sleeve, under the striped lining, to “prop up” the sleeve setting. I think I’m going to trim these very thin and use them in lieu of shoulder pads, to give the sleeve cap a light structure and make sure it keeps a nice line at the shoulder.

Pocketing Fabric

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The pocket bags (for both the jacket and trousers) are usually cut from solid colored cotton, a little heavier than a traditional shirting fabric.

Trouser Waistband

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Again, if I was truly going fully-handmade, I could made a trouser waistband from scratch as well (using the canvas, interfacing, fabric and pocketing). But this pre-made waistband comes with the “rubber shirt grip” on the inside that everyone always emails us about!

Lastly, I didn’t include a trouser zipper, because I couldn’t find one that matched the color of the fabric well enough. I wanted to attempt the button fly anyway.

Thanks, as always, for reading.

Yours in style,

Dan Trepanier

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