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Fingers pinching suit jacket to show a floating canvas.

Fashion

What to know before buying a custom-made tailored suit

Words by Nathan Irvine

Don't get stitched up.

Buying your first bespoke tailored suit can be a daunting experience. There’s so much to consider that you’d be forgiven for opting to buy an off-the-rack piece rather than speak to an expert. Thankfully, we did this for you.

Matthew Benjamin of Dubai-based custom suit specialists, Benjamin Siggers, helps you to navigate the minefield. From pinching methods to retail lies, these are the things you need to know.

Construction

There are two main things that go into making a suit – canvassing and stitching. Canvassing comes in three forms – fused, half canvassed and fully canvassed. The latter being the highest quality.

Fusing, which would be found in a fully fused or half canvassed jacket, is where the fabric is glued to the layer of canvass inside. If it is half canvassed, then the chest has a floating piece and the bottom half is glued.

Put simply, a fused canvas is the cheapest and easiest way to get shape and structure in a jacket. But it can feel like heavy cardboard, looks bulky, it is heavy and traps heat. You’ll end up with a ripple effect over time where the fabric eventually comes away from the canvass.

I’ve been told many times by guys that they’ve been led to believe their jacket is fully canvassed, but in reality it but is in fact fused and they are none the wise – so how can you check?

Pinch an inch

Simply pinch the top layer of fabric on your jacket around the chest and at the bottom half of the jacket, if you can pull that top layer of fabric away from the chest with ease then it has been fully canvassed. If you can only do this around the chest, then it is half canvassed, and if you can’t do it at all then your jacket is fused.

A fully canvassed jacket is lighter, more comfortable, forms a natural shape around the chest and waist, and doesn’t ever ripple – so it lasts longer. A fully canvassed jacket is what you want.

There’s no logic in investing in a high-end fabric unless it’s for a floating canvas, it’s a false economy. The suit is only likely to last a couple of years with general wear and tear or is one bad dry cleaning trip away from rippling and being ruined.

Fingers pinching suit jacket to show a floating canvas.

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Don't be afraid to try the pinch test.

Handwork

Functional and aesthetic are the two types of handwork. Also, there’s no such thing as a 100% handmade garment. Fact.

The long seams are always done by machine even on a suit with an extremely high amount of handwork. There would be no benefit in doing long seams by hand, it would take too long and wouldn’t offer the strength of a machine stitch either.

If you are told that your suit is “handmade”, ask what they mean? If the answer is along the lines of “every part of the jacket is made by hand”, maybe shop elsewhere. Either they don’t know what they’re talking about or they are deliberately misleading you.

Functional handwork includes things like the collar being attached by hand, the lapel and chest being hand padded and the armholes (moving parts of the jacket) being hand stitched.

Based on the level of quality of suit you’re purchasing, the number of said action will be vary. Some of these are visible while others are not, but there are ways to tell between machine and hand stitching.

Man vs. machine

A machine stitch is very straight, whereas a hand stitch looks imperfect. The latter resembles a row of semi-circles. Doing things by hand ultimately gives the artisan the flexibility that a machine doesn’t. A hand stitch has more flex, is therefore more comfortable and doesn’t lose its shape over time, as it is moving with you, opposed to a rigid machine stitch.

Aesthetic handwork includes the stitching on the edge of your lapel and pockets, plus other seams, trouser details and buttonholes.

Other than a Milanese buttonhole, which is very distinctive, to the untrained eye it can sometimes be hard to distinguish between a hand or machine stitch, especially if the machine stitch is of a high quality.

However, it is a sign of craftsmanship and something that differentiates a suit, much like hand-sewn leather seats of a Bentley. It won’t make them more comfortable but is a sure sign of luxury.

IMage of armhole of a suit.

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The loose or tight stitching will tell you if it's hand or machine finished.

Fit

This is something that’s fairly subjective these days. In recent years, jackets have become shorter and closer fitting at the waist, while trousers have become much slimmer in the leg and shorter, with some men preferring to show some ankle.

However, there are certain areas to always look for. For example, your jacket should sit perfectly between the points of each shoulder. If it’s too tight it will be restrictive and stress lines will appear across the back of the jacket. Too big and it will hang off the shoulders and you’ll look like you’ve just started school.

The chest area is just as important and most men are in between sizes when shopping. So a 43″ or 45″ can become a 44″ or 46″ (standard chest sizes go up in increments of 2″).

With the chest you want it to fill the jacket without the lapels bulging and sitting away from your pecs, which would indicate the jacket is too small. Nor do you want the appearance of too much fabric, which would obviously mean it is too big. That being said, as I mentioned some men prefer more room while others prefer less and at the end of the day you have to feel comfortable.

Slope-a-dope

An area that certainly isn’t subjective is the balance of a jacket. Of the thousands of men, I’ve measured over the years, very few have shoulders angles that are evenly matched, usually the dominant hand is more sloped.

An easy way to check this is by simply looking in the mirror with your jacket on and seeing where the top button and top buttonhole meet. If they are level then your jacket is balanced, if not then it is unbalanced.

In some cases the difference is too small to matter but often when you button up the jacket a line will appear in a diagonal from the top button. Occasionally the lapel on the side of the shoulder that slopes will buckle and sit away from the shoulder.

If you have square shoulders, even if they’re even, a ridge can appear across the back of the jacket. This can also appear if your jacket is not balanced from front to back based on how you stand. For example, if you stand up very straight, this has to be taken into account as less fabric will be needed on the back of the jacket.

If your tailor isn’t using a tool (see below) to measure the angle of each shoulder and the way you stand, then the jacket won’t be cut accordingly.

Measuring tool for the shoulders of a suit jacket.

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Slopey shoulders need to be taken into account.

Fabric 

Your wardrobe is your arsenal and you should have a suit for every occasion. A fabric for your important meetings, one for evening events, another for day events, one for travelling and so on.

At Benjamin Siggers we work towards our clients having a two-week rotation of clothing. This is at least five suits with extra trousers or typically ten suits, assuming they wear one every day.

‘Super’ numbers have become a point of discussion when referring to suits, but this can be misleading. Not all fabrics are created equal and so much goes into making them, such as where the sheep are from, how they were treated, what quality of water was used in the finishing process, what type of quality control was in place to ensure only the strongest and longest fibres were used – the list goes on.

This is why a super 130s from one mill could be a much higher quality than a super 160s (the higher the number, the better… technically) from another mill. During a consultation, prior to recommending a fabric, we would find out the purpose of the suit, how many suits you have in your rotation and how often you wear suits, among other things.

Super star

If you wear one daily and are fairly active, or have less than five and wanted a day to day suit, then I wouldn’t suggest anything above a super 130s or 140s.  You’ll wear through it too quickly as you won’t allow it the necessary time to recover between wears.

Whereas if you have around nine suits and wanted something special, then you could go for a 180s as you won’t wear it as often.

Then there are performance fabrics that have specific features such as natural stretch, which is great for travel. Wherever you are purchasing your suit, they should have the expertise to advise you on what fabric to choose. Don’t choose a fabric just because it looks nice or is the colour you had in mind.

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