The importance of a crisp, well fitting shirt is often overlooked, with a clear focus being on the jacket or suit. However, how well your shirt fits is a critical component on how well your overall outfit looks. With this in mind, we have put together a comprehensive guide to shirts. In the post we will cover:
For this post, we decided to consult an expert in this area and have turned to Tullio Innocenti, London based bespoke shirtmaker and owner of The Travelling Artisan. He has kindly provided us with his insights from years of bespoke shirtmaking.
When it comes to fabrics, a client that is paying a premium for a luxury fabric should always expect a cotton fibre to come from one of three origins, Egyptian Cotton, West Indies Sea Island Cotton and US Supima Cotton but firstly let’s look at ELS cottons.
Extra Long Staple (ELS) - The Benchmark In Quality Cotton
The recognised industry standard for the minimum fibre length of an ELS cotton is 34.925 mm, which is significantly longer than traditional varieties of cotton, known as short staple, Upland cottons. Upland cotton varieties have an average staple length of between 26 and 27 mm. ELS cotton fibres can exceed 40mm. ELS cottons are prized for their superior strength and uniformity, high lustre and unrivalled softness.
However, they are grown only in limited quantities because they need very a specific environment to grow successfully, with optimum amounts of sunshine, rain and humidity. ELS varieties are very vigorous plants and if not managed properly, will grow into large bushes or small trees that produce minimal fibre.
The cotton is sometimes hand-picked, rather than machine harvested, resulting in higher production costs, especially when compared to Upland cotton varieties. Below I expand on the characteristics of each of the main types of cotton so you can ask about the cotton going into your shirt.
"Giza 45" is, without doubt, the best quality Egyptian cotton on the market with its extra long staple of 3.6cm. Why is an extra long staple important? The staple is what the cotton fibre is made from, the longer the staple, the less it tends to pill or fray. This means the cotton is inherently stronger and long-lasting.
This also means that you can produce a finer thread from the longer fibre, allowing the manufacturer of fabrics from 140's up to 330's count. Effectively this measures the fineness of the fabric. A longer staple creates a much softer and silkier fabric, so the higher the count, the finer the final product will be.
This is why Egyptian Cotton it is more expensive than its Chinese counterpart which is classified as upland quality, which is an inferior due to its length and durability.
What Has Made Egyptian Cotton So Well Known?
Cotton from Egyptian fibres, usually around 2.85cm in length, are more breathable and become softer over time with use. It also produces less lint and will not pill. This high-quality fibre is longer and narrower than other cottons, allowing thread counts of up to 1,000 per square inch. This provides a lighter weight and extremely strong, long-lasting durability. Sheets made with Egyptian cotton, if cared for properly, can last forty or fifty years.
Grown on the side of the Nile, less than 0.5% of the local cotton production is actually Giza 45. Its cousin Giza 87 has similar properties but its key difference is a peculiar shine to the fabric that actually increases after each washing. Giza 45 is the most highly prized of all the Egyptian cottons. It is cultivated in a small area of the Nile Delta, where sun, rain, humidity and fertile soil create perfect growing conditions. Harvested by hand, it’s five times as expensive as other Egyptian cottons.
West Indies Sea Island Cotton
"Sea Island” from the West Indies is probably the best quality cotton fibre in the world due to the incredible 5.3cm staple length. This longer staple means that it is much more expensive and rare than the shorter fibre cottons. Sea Island Cotton is really scarce and is estimated to be only 0.004% of the world's long staple production. This was actually the original cottonseed imported in Egypt in the early 19th century to start the Giza 45 and 87 production.
Sea Island cotton has been grown in Barbados for more than 300 years. Perhaps the most famous of all the luxury cottons – in the 1800s it was so coveted, it was used to make Queen Victoria’s handkerchiefs. Today, Sea Island cotton’s unique qualities – ELS fibres, silky lustre, supreme softness and high tensile strength – allow it to be woven into cloths of the very highest yarn count.
Supima is on a similar level quality wise to Egyptian Cotton but it is not used a lot by European companies that prefer Egyptian Cottons, as they are able to attain better pricing. Supima cotton is only grown in the US and is known for its consistent quality.
Less Popular ELS Cotton Varieties
Suvin is the jewel in the Indian cotton crown. Suvin is a hybrid of Sea Island cotton from St Vincent in the Caribbean, and an indigenous Indian variety called Sujatha. Often called ‘White Gold’, only a few thousand bales of this superfine cotton are grown each year in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu
Pima cotton is the generic name for ELS cotton grown in the U.S. It was named after the Pima Indians who tended the cotton in Arizona in the early 20th century. Supima® cotton – superior American Pima – has been developed to improve its yield potential and enhance its fibre characteristics.
In comparison to Egyptian Cotton woven fabrics, the 'Chinese short staple' woven in either India or China dominates 97% of the world's production. It is these cottons that are used in most global high street shirt chains.
These cottons are 80% to 95% less expensive than ELS cottons, and therefore with such a competitive price point, it’s easy to understand why these cottons dominate the majority of shirts sales globally.
The downside is, Chinese short staple cotton pills are stiffer, frays, is less durable and does not feel as silky on the skin. Because of the short staple you cannot make high fabric counts out of Chinese short staple cotton.
When creating a bespoke shirt it is my preference to work with Egyptian and Sea Island Cotton. Providing the fabric is sourced from these locations I make sure the cotton is spun, woven and finished in Italy where renown operations like Albini have developed a vertical integration over the years which allows them to control the sourcing, spinning, weaving and finishing of the cloth, which is still based in Italy.
In my opinion Albini, Thomas Mason, David and John Anderson, S.I.C. Tess, Bonfanti, Caro Riva, Atelier Romentino are the companies I trust to source the fabrics I work with depending on my customer's needs. These companies produce top quality fabrics due to their constant effort in sourcing only top quality raw materials and use the best technology when it comes to spinning, weaving and finishing.
An off the peg shirt is by definition a shirt designed for the mass market. What this means in practice is all aspects of the shirt will be cut to an average size pattern.
Therefore shoulder area will not be overly square or narrow, the sleeves will be quite wide, the armhole under the arm will be cut quite low and the torso will not be overly fitting. This ensures that an off the peg shirt will fit a large proportion of men but is unlikely to be overly flattering.
Different brands will start from their own blocks (more on this below), which means some brands will have certain features such as a narrower torso, or wider shoulders. This is why most men find that certain brands will fit them better than others, as the cut of the shirt is more in tune with their own body shape.
Off-the-peg shirts are cut together by layering the fabric on top of each other like a sandwich, with up to 200 cloths being cut at a time. This obviously saves an enormous quantity of time and money. To give you an insight, to cut, make and trim each shirt takes around 20 minutes.
In comparison, a bespoke shirt will take up to 5 hours per shirt to undertake the same process. This also doesn’t take into account the time required to draft and edit the pattern for a bespoke shirt, which goes someone to explaining the hours and therefore cost when comparing an off the peg vs bespoke shirt.
Raw material is a big factor when it comes to identifying the quality in an off-the-peg shirt. Traditional high street operations like T M Lewin, Hawes and Curtis or Charles Tyrwhitt run multi-million pound businesses selling vast quantities of shirts every year.
Due to the scale they work at, they are focused on producing large volumes of shirts at a competitive price. Because of this they tend to use Chinese short fibre cottons, which once spun and woven can be purchased in some cotton types for less £3 a meter. Because of this, a shirt made from this type of lower quality cotton will never look, feel and last as long as a shirt made from higher quality cottons such as Egyptian or Sea Island.
In fairness, off-the-peg does not necessary means poor quality. A few companies still pride themselves on using only top of the range fabrics for off the peg shirts. Brands I would recommend for off-the-peg would be Kiton, Finamore, Borrelli, Charvet and Stefano Ricci. They charge a premium for the sake of using top quality fabrics, but this gives the customer real added value in the quality of the finished product.
Image Source: The Rake
In addition to the fabric used, the attention to detail has an impact on the price. Kiton, Finamore and Borelli are the best known Italian shirt makers that provide top of the range shirts by adding in additional details such as hand sewn button holes, which are not only more beautiful to look at, but are more functional and elastic when we compare them to machine-made buttonholes.
Handmade buttonholes are indeed a real luxury when you consider that each one takes an average of 6 minutes by hand, which is a big difference when compared to a sewing machine that can do a buttonhole in around 2 seconds.
My final point would be, a good quality shirt should always have cotton finishing rather than cheaper options such as nylon.
A made-to-measure shirt could be described as the midpoint between an off-the-peg and bespoke shirt. With made-to-measure, the shirt maker starts with an existing shirt block and makes adjustments to fit the customer. A block is basically a set of fixed dimensions that provide an acceptable fit for a large percentage of the population. It can be small, medium or large and then has the various sizes such as 15, 15.5, 16 16.5 etc.
[image of shirt block]
When you are buying a made-to-measure shirt, the shirt maker is taking a number of measurements, choosing a block that is the closest fit for those measurements and then making adjustments to the collar, length of the sleeves and chest circumference so that it is a better fit than straight off-the-peg. The benefit of this is that the shirt should fit you quite well without having to develop a pattern from scratch.
Choosing a made-to-measure shirt instead of off-the-peg is not a guarantee of quality in itself, and you should always ask the shirt maker about the quality of the source fabric.
The quality of a made-to-measure shirt does vary from maker to maker. With some shirtmakers, you can find the same degree of details that you would expect from a bespoke shirt. Some higher end shirt makers will put as much effort into delivering a quality made-to-measure shirt as they would do with a bespoke, but this is of course reflected in the price.
Shirt makers for made-to-measure shirts generally take a limited number of measurements and then take the others from a size block. When the client tries on the shirt for the first time they can then see if they have been lucky or not...
The key difference for a bespoke shirt is that it requires an individual pattern to be drafted. To do this many more measurements need to be taken compared with a made to measure service.
In terms of the number of measurements, for comparison, a basic made-to-measure service would be just to alter the shape and the circumference of the collar, the cuffs and the stomach, plus adapting the length of the sleeves. A more sophisticated level would also alter the chest circumference and the width of the shoulders.
Any more alterations than this and you would be looking at a bespoke shirt, which can be anything from 8 to 30+ measurements depending on the individual tailor. Personally, I take an average of 13 measurements. However, if the client has got an irregular shape I will take up to 25 measurements.
In addition to general size measurements, bespoke involves attention to the slope of the shoulders and posture as these key elements impact on whether the shirt fits exceptionally well.
Attention to detail is something that can be found in all three types of dress shirts and is not necessarily limited to bespoke. It is therefore down to the individual shirtmaker themselves. An off-the-peg Kiton shirt made in Italy would have a very high attention to the quality of stitching and details, perhaps more so than a bespoke shirt made in England but in most cases is unlikely to have the exceptional fit of a bespoke shirt.
The is the part of the process that really separates an off the peg, made-to-measure and a bespoke shirt. This is due to the number of working hours that have to be put into designing and cutting a custom-made made product. Many bespoke shirtmakers will request a minimum order of 6 shirts to cover the initial cost of having to design an individual pattern.
Image Source: The Travelling Artisan
There are a few different methods that a shirtmaker can use to develop their patterns, however, for me personally, I focus on the shoulders. When I cut a shirt I am keenly focused on getting the slope on the shoulders correct. If this parameter is not right you will have issues with 'lateral balance', more on this below.
From there you have to be very precise with the measurement from the point where the shoulder line touches the collar down to the chest. Then the same measurement is taken on the back.
A further measurement is then taken from the intersection of the shoulder line with the collar down to the underarm. Both these two measurements create the balance between the front and the back.
When the shirt has got lot's of wrinkles on the torso, which is a common issue, it means that the cut of the torso is too short so the fabric is pulling up. This same problem can happen on the back side of the shirt.
Above I mentioned issues around the 'lateral balance' of a shirt. This is where you see a prominent line of diagonal draping, starting from the side of the collar down to the underarm. This means that the shirtmaker has started with a block that would have been better suited to somebody with square shoulders. If someone has either narrow or sloped shoulders then the extra fabric bunches in a diagonal pattern across the chest.
This issue is challenging to deal with and is very time consuming to fix. The way that most shirtmakers deal with this is to find a midpoint so the diagonal bunching is not exacerbated by working with blocks that are not developed for overly square or narrow shoulders, effectively (in most cases) you don’t get a very flattering cut over both the shoulders and chest area.
For a bespoke shirt, the fitting process is actually part of the pattern making process, rather than after the shirt has been created. This is the part of the process that puts the price a bespoke shirt significantly higher than an off-the-peg or made-to-measure shirt.
A first fitting consists of making a basted muslin, where everything in terms of fit and design can be modified. In reality, probably less than 10% of shirtmakers include this step, most preferring to go directly to a trial shirt.
Image Source: The Travelling Artisan
Most shirtmakers start from a block and then do alterations on the collar, chest, shoulder width, stomach, and length of the body and sleeves. They do not take into account the balance and slope of the shoulders, which is when you see the tight wrinkly shirts because the cutter is mainly focused on circumferences, but not the balance of the shirt.
It is unlikely to get a truly well-fitted shirt if you do not start from the shoulder slope. This is something that all pattern makers know well, but the cost base is much lower when you start from an existing block.
Each tailor has their own fitting process, but I like to start by fitting the body independently to the sleeves in order to adjust any issues around the shoulder slope and balance.
Image Source: The Travelling Artisan
I then set the sleeves, changing the pitch individually to make sure they are attached accordingly to client's posture. This also means that on each side of the shirt the sleeve the side seams will be aligned to the body and not just a mirror image of each other.
It is only at this point, after removing any draping that I translate the basted muslin onto the pattern, that I start cutting the fabric and sewing the actual shirt.
You may find it surprising the first thing that should be done before the fabric is cut is to wash it at 60 degrees. This ensures that if there is any shrinkage this happens before the fabric is cut. The fabric is then cut based on the pattern that has been developed.
The torso and sleeves are then cut from the fabric and the collars and cuffs created. I don’t use any fused collars or interlinings, but only the best quality floating interlinings which I offer in different weights and stiffness.
Finally, I then make the cut at 45 degrees on the bias (as both the fabric and interlining will shrink on the length of the fabric) and wash at 60 degrees so they won't shrink again in future washes.
A collar is made up of two pieces, the top and bottom. Between these two pieces is a sturdy interlining, which gives the collar its shape, stiffness and strength. These two pieces are either fused or sewn together. Below, you can see the white interlining overlaying the shirt’s fabric for the collar before it’s fused or sewn together.
Image Source:The Travelling Artisan
A fused collar means the interlining is heated and glued together through a fusing machine. This is a stiff, firm collar. The benefit of creating a fused collar is it can be produced relatively cheaply. The downside of a fused collar is that because it doesn't move with the body it is less comfortable and less durable.
A sewn collar is hand stitched by a tailor and is a very exact and detailed process. It is the traditional way of producing a shirt collar. It is more durable than a fused collar as the stitching is able to stretch and flex with the wear movements.
Image Source: The Travelling Artisan
Some tailors will promote it as being softer or lighter, however, these factors are really determined by the weight of the interlining. So it is really up to the customer, they can choose a stiff sewn collar or a softer more unstructured collar, it’s really up to their personal preference and how they intend to wear the shirt, i.e. is it a business shirt that needs a stiffer collar to look crisp with a tie, or is it intended to be a more casual shirt to be worn with an open neck.
As you would expect, a hand sewn collar is more expensive than a fused collar because of the time involved in making it. However, it is superior due to the customisable nature of the finished collar, durability and comfort of the finished product.
One final point on collars, when ironing the collar you should always iron the shirt collar from the tip to the centre laid flat. This ensures that you won't get bunching on the edge of the collar.
Selecting A Collar
There are definitely some key things to keep in mind when choosing your collar. Face shape also has a part to play with collars. People with square and full faces benefit from choosing narrow point collars, while if you have a slim face, a spread collar it the best choice as it will make your face look wider.
If you are likely to wear the shirt for more informal occasions a button down collar is the obvious choice. This collar was originally created for polo players, where they would button the collar down while playing and then leave them unbuttoned when off the playing field. Clearly, this was a functional choice but brands like Brooks Brothers and Ralph Lauren have used it as a marketing tool as brands based on sport, free time and exclusivity.
When choosing the collar for a bespoke shirt, the tailor will focus on the height of the collar stand, which many times has to be cut at different heights on the front and on the back based on the client's posture.
The next phase of the process is to take the sleeves and add them to the body. Each sleeve takes an average of 25 minutes to be set on the body by a skilled artisan when we factor in the first phase of machine stitching and the second phase of hand-sewn catch-stitching. Catch-stitching from a skilled shirtmaker is so narrow that the stitches are almost invisible to the naked eye and therefore it appears that there is almost no seam at all.
Machine stitching is required first to set the sleeve because you need a strong row of stitching initially and the machine is able to produce a firmer result. Once the sleeve is set into the body you have the seam allowance that you have to sew back in otherwise you would see the extra fabric on the inside.
The handmade catch-stitch allows the shirt maker to create a flat fell seam. A flat fell seam creates a seam area that is flat and smooth and gives more elastic comfort, being less stiff than a full machine stitch, plus it has a much nicer aesthetic, as it doesn’t have the puckering look that you get with machine stitching.
Image Source: The Travelling Artisan
Buttonholes are also hand sewn, like on a suit, which gives a classic handmade finish on the buttonholes, while mother-of-pearl buttons are my personal preference, which will always be sewn by hand.
Image Source: The Travelling Artisan
The cuffs of the shirt really do come down to a personal choice. The different shapes of cuffs have basically been the same for more than a century. Rounded single cuffs are more at the informal sporty end of the spectrum, and go really well with a button down collar to get that Ivy League American look that goes well with jeans and loafers. When it comes to the finish, rounded or cutaway are purely a style choice.
Cufflinks are the more formal option, but most shirtmakers will the create a French cuff (also known as a double cuff). Personally, I do not like double cuffs because rolling the cuff on itself results in a heavy finish on the sleeve, while it can also feel quite bulky under the jacket sleeve. Because of this, I prefer my formal shirts to have a single cuff with buttonholes on both sides so I can wear it with cufflinks.
When it comes to shirts, there is no doubt that Italians have made a big contribution to the style and techniques in shirtmaking. In comparison, traditionally in England up until relatively recently, shirts have been considered little more than underwear, with the focus being primarily on the suit or jacket.
Italians have always placed a lot of importance on style and handwork, while the British have gravitated to a greater focus on comfort. A key reason for this viewpoint can be found in the weather. Warmer weather makes the shirt a key element of an outfit, particularly in the south of Italy, while the cooler British climate means that the suit jacket has a far more prominent role visually during most months of the year.
While an Italian tailor would sew buttonholes by hand, in Britain this luxury is limited to bespoke shirts, preferring the more functional and less time-consuming machine stitching. An Italian tailor would also use the same criteria in setting the sleeves and sewing the buttons while most British tailors would prefer machine stitching. I would consider Naples the capital of Italy when it comes to creating a bespoke shirt, while the British equivalent would be tailors located on Jermyn Street in London.
If you are looking for the best, I would say Kiton is the apex when it comes to shirtmaking. Truly Neapolitan in style and heritage, this maker known for suits is also an excellent shirtmaker. In my opinion, It is the best when it comes to materials, cut, style and finishing.
While Kiton and most Italian shirt makers would focus on the aesthetic, the British tend to focus on comfort when it comes to the fit. Italian shirts often exhibit high armholes and a low sleeve cap which are noticeably different compared to the classic British shirt with a low armhole and high sleeve cap that we find with most British shirtmakers.
Obviously, it is down to personal taste but when it comes to details, Italian shirts, like their suits, tend to be more informal and less stiff. Kiton like almost all Neapolitan shirt makers uses no interlining inside the placket. The placket often refers to the double layers of fabric that hold the buttons and buttonholes in a shirt and is most visible as the vertical line down the front centre of the shirt. Plackets can also be found at the neckline of a shirt, the cuff of a sleeve, or at the waist of a pair of trousers.
Image Source: The Travelling Artisan
Plackets are almost always made of more than one layer of fabric, and often have interlining in between the fabric layers. This is done to give support and strength to the placket fabric because the placket and the fasteners on it are often subjected to stress when the garment is worn. The two sides of the placket often overlap.
Plackets tend to have light fused interlining in British shirtmaking while Neapolitan shirtmakers tend not to add it because it looks a bit too stiff and not sophisticated unless you want a formal shirt, where a prominent placket is a key element.
On the collar, Neapolitan shirtmakers tend to prefer floating collars rather than fused. Turnbull & Asser which I consider to be the epitome of English shirt making use fused interlinings on both the inside of the placket and the collar, which in my personal opinion looks very stiff and is, therefore, more suited to a formal shirt.
Another key feature where British and Italian shirtmakers differ is how the sleeves are set into the body. Italians would proceed in the same way they would do on a suit. They would first sew the body, and then in a second stage, sew the sleeves and set them on the body individually during the fitting. This ensures that each sleeve has got the correct pitch. In Britain, this is something that Savile Row tailors would do on suits, but very rarely on shirts.
Finally, another of the key differences between Kiton and Turnbull & Asser has to do with most common fabric colours. Italians tend to like pastel and neutral colours while the British like bold stripes and patterns which I personally feel adds a unique flavour to the shirt.
A bespoke shirt is very personal, and therefore the wearer can have any style of shirt they wish. As a general rule, by reputation, Italy and UK the two main players historically when it comes to tailoring and fabrics around shirtmaking. However, there have always been relatively distinct styles in some of the world’s major shirt making regions. Although in saying this, there is no doubt that in the last 20 years, due to globalisation, the styles around the world are becoming more standardised.
The major differences in shirt styles come down to the fitting. Italian and more recently the Asian markets favour well-fitted shirts. Although similar, this does not mean that they then like the same features. They both like quite plain, pastel colours, such as solid blues, subtle stripes and lots of whites, but while the Asian market tends to like a more understated collar, the Italian tend to vary by region with those from Milano (north) preferring a lower collar stand while those from Central Italy (Rome) prefer a higher collar stand, which they also like to be stiffer. Naples and the south tend to be very classic and 90% of the Italian tailors tend to come from this region where there is a long history in shirt making.
British customers prefer a stiffer collar, a looser fit and a collar stand that is not excessively tall. They like interesting patterns, prints, shiny twills and fabrics that have some kind of character and personality.
The US has two distinct styles, with the East cost very traditional with a nice blend of Italian and British style sensibilities, with the younger generation preferring the Neapolitan softer collar shirt makers.
An iconic American shirtmaking brand is Brooks Brothers, the oldest men’s clothier in the US. It has an iconic history, being a leading brand in developing the Ivy League style that involves oxford button down shirts. Ralph Lauren is also worth mentioning, in this style of semi-formal shirt.
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Surprisingly, the French do not have such a strong tradition in shirtmaking per se, when compared with their other influences in the suiting and general fashion world. However, that being said, Charvet, based in Paris, is one of the most famous shirt makers in the world.
They have a very traditional sensibility, a bit like Turnbull and Asser in the UK with the same kind of old refined clientele. The fit is fairly similar to the UK, and slightly more comfortable compared to the Italian style. By this I mean the underarms would be lower, less focus on the sleeve cap, which is also higher because the shoulders tend to be wider and less fitted.
Image Source: GQ
Finally, two other companies worth mentioning would be Ascot Chang based in Hong Kong and Camiseria Burgos in Spain, who are two quality shirtmakers with with same love for handmade features as exhibited by Neapolitan tailors, but as a general rule the fit is not quite as fitting and it is slightly roomier when compared with an Italian tailor.
I initially trained as an industrial designer and professional pattern maker. However, after working for many years at Ralph Lauren as a product developer I decided that my passion was in being a shirtmaker, striving to make the perfect shirt. In looking to develop the perfect bespoke shirt, a challenge for from both an aesthetic and technical point of view, I wanted to blend the understated British design characteristics, with the Italian attention to quality and detail. My background in product development and pattern making helps me blend attention to style with technical knowledge, creating a product that is both sophisticated and cut to the client's needs.
Quintessentially British features like bold stripes and decisive collars, stand together with Italian luxury cottons and hand finished details create The Travelling Artisan shirt. For bespoke shirt enquiries please email me at email@example.com.
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