Style: Shirt Tales

  • William Kissel

When Ludwig Mies van der Rohe uttered his famous words “God is in the details” to an admirer of his work, the celebrated German minimalist architect and designer could just as easily have been speaking of the impeccably tailored suits and crisp white dress shirts he wore with such consummate style.

In fashion, as in architecture, details are what distinguish a superior-quality jacket, necktie, or dress shirt from a lesser imitation. However, unlike a tie or suit, where most of the essential design elements are camouflaged under folds and behind silk linings, a dress shirt’s finer points—stitching, seams, finishing—are all clearly visible to an informed investigative eye. As a result, the sartorial skills of a shirtmaker are among the most masterful and artful in clothing manufacturing. Because of the tiny and intricate needlework involved, shirtmakers have traditionally been women, because their smaller hands are better suited to executing a shirt’s ultrafine stitches.

In Italy, where generations of Neapolitan seamstresses have labored over the nuances of shirtmaking for centuries, they practice what Mies van der Rohe preached: Less is more—when it is applied correctly, of course. Although there are from 50 to 100 cutting and sewing steps to fashioning a typical dress shirt, a craftsman will tell you that the telltale marks of quality are incorporated during the last seven to 14 stages of production, or when, “the human hand takes the place of the machine,” explains leading shirtmaker Luigi Borrelli.

This is a significant point, because to truly comprehend the art of fine shirtmaking, you must first realize that all dress shirts, even those that are said to be made entirely by hand, are produced at least in part on a sewing machine. The distinction between shirts described as handmade and those that are referred to as hand-finished is not necessarily an indication of superior or inferior quality. These terms simply reflect the degree of details that are executed by hand.

A typical Kiton shirt, for example, requires six hours of labor, consisting of more than 14 distinct hand-sewn components, including collar stay pockets, side seams, sleeve inseams, embroidered buttonholes, and handkerchief-rolled and stitched bottoms. These shirts also feature the characteristic Neapolitan puckered set-in sleeve, a European symbol of handmade quality that Americans sometimes mistakenly regard as a design flaw. Similarly, a Luigi Borrelli shirt requires about four hours to make and features nine hand-sewn operations, including basting the collar and sleeve to the body, applying a contrasting and embroidered triangular gusset to the bottom of the side seams, and attaching mother-of-pearl buttons with the company’s distinctive three-point chicken-foot stitch.

What these and other makers of handmade shirts—including Marol, Charvet, and Finamore (which manufactures for Turnbull & Asser and Oxxford Clothes, as well as under its own label)—do not brag about is that they all use machines in the preproduction of collars and cuffs, which are later attached by hand. They also use machines to secure the chest pocket, sleeve, and back yoke panel to the shirt body. “It is not possible to make it 100 percent by hand, because if you wear it two or three times it won’t survive the laundry,” explains Fabio Borrelli, who runs the Naples, Italy, company that was founded 92 years ago by his grandmother, Anna, and named for his father. “There are certain parts that must be done by machine. So we attach the collar and sleeves by machine and finish them by hand.”

Despite the fact that companies such as Robert Talbott, Lorenzini, Ike Behar, and Ascot Chang, use considerably less handwork than do the handmade shirtmakers, their products should not be summarily dismissed as inferior copycats. Lorenzini, whose production is almost fully automated, spends as long as two hours incorporating signature details such as virtually invisible yoke stitching, eight and a half machine-needle stitches per centimeter of cloth for greater strength, two separate single-needle seams on the collar and cuff to maintain a smoother finish, and collar linings selected specifically for each shirt fabric. “The machine used to cut the fabric is much more accurate than doing it by hand, so we are able to get all the pieces for one shirt from a single piece of cloth, which ensures consistency in color, fabric, and fit,” explains Mirta Lorenzini, who helps oversee the Merate, Italy, company that was established 82 years ago by her paternal great-grandfather, Antonio.

Lorenzini’s mechanized operation is significantly more cost-effective. “It takes about three and a half minutes to cut one to 300 shirts, depending on how much fabric we stack,” she adds. Computer-aided machinery enables the factory—which produces luxury shirts for Ermenegildo Zegna Napoli Couture, Baldessarini Hugo Boss, and Ralph Lauren Purple Label, in addition to its own label—to turn out about 600 finished shirts, priced from $225 to $450, in a single day. By comparison, Kiton’s hand-sewers, who work with needle and thread more than any others, produce fewer than 90 shirts per day at an average cost of between $450 and $650.

While details and production methods vary widely, shirtmakers agree that the most important element—the one that has the greatest impact on price—is the fabric. The cloth should always be two-ply, meaning two yarns twisted together for strength, with a thread count of 100 or higher. That is considered a starter cloth at Borrelli, which offers the finest Egyptian, Swiss, and Italian cottons, as well as rare Sakellaridis cotton with a thread count of 200. Kiton’s basic shirt is made of a similar 200-thread-count cotton fabric woven by Italian silk weaver Riva on machinery primarily used to make silk neckwear and suit linings. This year, the company expanded its range to include Sea Island cotton and Irish linen.

Retailers will often point out the quality of a shirt’s cloth before anything else when justifying the price. They will also tell you that the shirt with more handwork is a finer product because hand-sewn seams enhance the body better and stretch easier at key stress points. Nevertheless, mechanized production enables a company such as Lorenzini to expand the number of fit variables at a lower price.

“Lorenzini does a better job of offering more flexibility in terms of models,” explains Jeff Fox, owner of the Scott Hill store in Los Angeles, “while the distinguishing quality of Kiton is most definitely fabrication. [Because the amount of handwork in a Kiton shirt drives up the price,] it makes the most sense to have that marriage of handwork with a high-end cotton mill. But with a machine-maker, such as Lorenzini, I couldn’t justify the $600 price [that would result from using such expensive materials].”

Whether handmade or hand-finished, a dress shirt always incorporates the same 25 or so components. What sets a luxury product apart are the exacting sewing methods—horizontal buttonholes on cuffs, and stripes and patterns that are aligned at seams and pockets—that require the skilled fingers of an experienced seamstress.

The importance of skilled hand-labor holds true on both sides of the Atlantic. “We were lucky to be able to utilize the talents of hand-sewers who have been doing this type of work for 52 years,” explains Bob Jensen, vice president of design at Robert Talbott. This premium neckwear company began making dress shirts under the Estate label in 1988 after acquiring Houston’s Lucerne Shirt Co. and moving the operation to Talbott’s Carmel, Calif., headquarters. Since then, Talbott has become one of America’s dominant players in the luxury shirt business. The company has achieved that status primarily through the use of exceptional fabrics—Swiss and Italian cottons, and Belgian linen—as well as through the launch of $2,800 limited edition shirts made of cashmere and Orylag, a fiber derived from an animal that is descended from the chinchilla family. 

Jensen notes that Robert Talbott hand-sets the yoke, the collar, and the sleeve head. The shirts, which range in price from $140 to $450, use triple-stacked Australian mother-of-pearl buttons that are toggle-wrapped, like those on a sport coat, and attached by hand. “But we think we get a better buttonhole—one that is stronger and lasts longer—by machine,” he adds. “We don’t have the hand-labor to do it the way they do in Naples. Nor do we think one is better than the other; it’s just a question of taste.”

Naturally, Kiton and Borrelli beg to differ, emphasizing the distinguishing characteristics and related benefits of their products. “A Kiton shirt is made in the same Neapolitan manner—shirt set-in sleeve, tighter chest, slimmer body—as our suit jacket,” explains Massimo Bizzocchi, Kiton’s U.S. sales agent, adding that the lean silhouette prevents it from bunching under a coat. Each shirt incorporates a panel of oxford cotton fabric inside the back of the collar to stabilize the collar and help prevent shrinkage, while a second panel is attached over the seam that connects the yoke to the body, so no shoulder seams irritate the skin. Furthermore, each shirt is fitted with natural mother-of-pearl buttons that are specifically selected not to match exactly for a truly custom look.

Meanwhile, third-generation shirtmaker Fabio Borrelli claims bragging rights to originating some of the signature elements that have come to represent superior quality in shirts. “Everyone says the famous chicken-foot stitching on the buttons is an old tradition of Neapolitan shirtmaking, but it’s only the old tradition of Borrelli,” he says, not-ing that the much-copied stitch was a mistake his poor-sighted grandmother made on her early samples that became a design detail the company has maintained ever since. Another Borrelli signature is the white triangular embroidered gusset found at the base of the side seams for added durability and flexibility when sitting. Most better shirtmakers now incorporate this detail, which Borrelli also claims to have originated. “My grandmother used the white gusset on a blue shirt only because she couldn’t see very well,” he explains. In the end, true quality comes down to such details, and sometimes the most ingenious ones can come from an innocent mistake.

10 Marks of Quality
1. Two-ply fabrics with thread counts of 100 and higher
2. Handmade buttonholes
3. Mother-of-pearl buttons that do not break when laundered
4. Cross-stitched buttons for extra strength (not possible with a machine)
5. Horizontal sleeve buttonholes (because the buttons must line up perfectly, unlike vertical buttonholes that allow a margin for error)
6. Single-needle stitching, which is identifiable by a single row of thread at the seams (single-needle seams are stronger because one needle goes over the same surface twice, as opposed to double-needle stitching where two rows of stitching run across the fabric only once)
7. A triangular gusset at the bottom of the side seam for flexibility
8. Precisely aligned patterns on the sleeve, shoulder, and pockets
9. Almost invisible stitching on collar and cuffs that is close to the edge of the fabric
10. Removable stays in the collar.

The Shirt List
A quick reference of leading luxury shirtmakers.

Ascot Chang 212.759.3333, www.ascotchang.com
Charvet, +33.1.42.60.30.70
Ermenegildo Zegna Napoli Couture 888.880.3462, www.zegna.com
Estate by Robert Talbott 800.747.8778, www.roberttalbott.com
Eton 770.475.3081, www.etonshirts.com
Finamore Napoli 212.246.7034
Fray 212.397.4300, +39.051571036
Ike Behar 800.833.7386, www.ikebeharstore.com
Kiton 212.702.0136
Lorenzini 212.702.0136, www.lorenzini.it
Luciano Moresc 212.397.4300, www.lucianomoresco.com
Luigi Borrelli 212.759.4553, 561.833.3373 www.luigiborrelli.com
Marol +39.51.614.1200, www.marol-snc.com
Stefano Ricci 212.332.3199, 310.858.9596 www.stefanoricci.it
Turnbull & Asser, 212.752.5700

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