A few months ago I was contacted by Dirnelli who had seen something he thought might be of interest to me. A handmade shirt. And before I go much further let me preface by telling recent readers that one of the original intents of this blog was to explore the merits, myths and mystique of handmade clothing, with a particular focus on suits, sport coats and trousers.
There is a lot of romance surrounding the art of making clothing by hand and I feel that a lot of the techniques have been mythologized beyond what they should be, mainly repeated received wisdom without challenging the shibboltehs of 100 years ago. Such myths as seams having to be done by hand in order to give them elasticity of which a machine is not capable, to which I ask, if a machine is not capable of producing a seam with elasticity, then are bathing suits, underwear and athletic wear all sewn by hand? Or perhaps that a hand-sewn seam will mold to the body in a way a machine-sewn seam can not. It is said that hand tailoring is just better than machine sewing. This is often part of a marketing spiel designed to sell you an expensive product.
It is true that there are certain steps in the tailoring process which are still better done by hand, not because it would have been impossible to create machines which would reproduce the same effect, but that the cost-benefit ratio never made it worthwhile to develop such machines. No hand will ever sew with the same amount of regularity and precision as a machine will. A lockstitched machine seam is far stronger than a handsewn running stitch or backstitch. A machine will always create cleaner, more even, and usually stronger results.
But let’s now back up a little bit.
While it is true that a machine will usually create a more perfect result, perhaps perfection is not always the desired result. Would you rather have a perfect photocopy of a treasured painting or drawing, or a rather a less perfect one drawn or painted by the hands of an artist?
When we do away with the silly argument that a handmade garment is measurably better than a machine made garment, there is certainly a case to be made for the appreciation of the craftsmanship that goes in to a hand made garment. When making my own suits for myself I will generally do most things by hand even though I have access to the best equipment and machines that exist, merely because I enjoy doing it and I enjoy the imperfect result of the work of my own hands.
Back to the story of our shirts.
When I first heard of this handmade shirt my initial reaction was mixed. When I first learned how to make shirts, many steps were done by hand merely because we didn’t have the right equipment or the technical expertise to properly and neatly finish them by machine. I have seen beautifully-sewn shirts being made by hand at Hermes but which would admittedly not stand up to a machine washing. I was ready to hear the usual story about this or that step must be done by hand in order to infuse the soul of the mountain in whose shadow the shirts were sewn or some such nonsense. But when I spoke to the founders of the company they were refreshing forthcoming about their approach. They made no pretense about hand sewing being the sine qua non or substantially better than machines. They simply appreciate the tradition, the skill and the craftsmanship.
And that, to me, is a whole other matter. I can definitely relate to that.
So they offered to send me a shirt to look at. Based in Amsterdam, the production is actually done in India. I won’t dive deep in to their story here as you can read all about it on their own website. Suffice it to say that a shirt with this level of workmanship would be completely out of the reach of most people if it were done anywhere other than a place like India or China. And perhaps I need to remind some readers that India and China were producing some of the best textiles in the world while the west was in burlap diapers. Some of the most intricate embroideries and handwork that I have ever seen have come out of Asia so we need to suspend our knee-jerk association of Asia with cheap, badly-made crap for a moment.
This shirt truly is hand made. Certain seams which require strength have been sewn by machine using impossibly tiny stitches, but practically everything else has been done by hand. While many hand finished shirts I have seen use longer, lighter stitches usually out of expediency, those stitches are often delicate and do not withstand the kind of abuse to which a shirt is often subjected. In this case, however, the sewing is astonishing, both in the density of the stitches which make for a far more durable garment, as for their evenness and regularity.
The collar is constructed by machine but attached to the body entirely by hand using almost invisible slip stitches, and the buttonholes are excellent.
Perhaps you can see the almost invisible stitches used to keep the placket in place.
The same density of tiny hand stitches is used to finish the flat-felled seams on the side of the shirt and the sleeve, as well as the armscye seam. The cuffs and sleeve plackets have been finished by hand with slip stitching, pick stitching and a hand bar tack.
The hem has been rolled using the same technique we find on the best scarves and pocket squares.
Naturally, buttons are mother-of-pearl and are sewn on by hand. I am going to subject this shirt to the usual indignities of laundering, both domestic and “professional” to see how it holds up by judging by the density and bite of the stitching I see no reason at all to believe it won’t hold up. Only a few washings will tell for for sure. And even though this is made in India, the amount of labor involved is very high so the price will reflect it- this is not a shirt for bargain-hunters. But for people who love craftsmanship and appreciate the details, as I do, there is a lot to love in this shirt and while many of the customers in the luxury market are impossibly driven by brands so might not give this shirt the same consideration they would to a more famous maker in the south of Italy, I think that would be a shame and they might be missing out on a splendid garment.
Having visibly struggled in the attempt to produce decent close-up shots of the detail, 100 Hands kindly sent me some of their photos, shown below.