So there I was going through life wearing off-the-peg shirts never really thinking anything of it. I liked some of my shirts better than others, some had nicer collars, some nicer cuffs and so on but none were perfect. Then there were the shirts that I liked but didn’t wear because they had issues with fit. There were those which were too short in the body and so would keep untucking themselves from my trousers. There were those where the sleeves were too long and I was constantly pulling at them. But I just accepted that finding a shirt that fitted perfectly was difficult and lived with each of my shirts failures.
The problem with off-the-peg shirts is that they are designed to ‘fit’, or perhaps I should say accommodate, a wide range of body shapes. So you find that as the collar size increases so do things like the girth of the sleeve and the room in the body and this is not necessarily what everyone needs. We have all bought shirts by collar size which fit around the neck but are all wrong everywhere else.
I’d always thought of bespoke shirts as an unnecessary extravagance with limited benefit. That was until I was treated to a fitting for bespoke shirts as a birthday present. My life changed from that moment on, and changed for the better.
There are a number of shirtmakers in the UK you can choose from. Not all make their own bespoke shirts as some outsource the work. Some outsource within the UK and some source from outside the UK. For the past four or five years I have used Russell & Hodge who have been measuring, cutting and sewing shirts on their premises, in London since 1978 and have an impressive customer list which reads like who’s who of the aristocratic and celebrity world.
So how does the process work?
Before your shirts can be made you must be fitted for your shirts. I had my fitting with Kerry Ford (proprietor and master shirtmaker) and he was able to run through every aspect of the shirt and what I wanted from my shirts. There were 15 different measurements taken and recorded and the attention to detail was incredible, the left cuff was made marginally larger than the right to accommodate my watch. These measurements allow a paper pattern to be made and this pattern is then kept in the archives at Russell & Hodge ready for future orders.
The Design and Details
During the measurement and fitting process all aspects of the design of the shirts were discussed and all details were decided on. You can choose any type of collar that you like, from button down collars, the Jermyn Street style Classic Collar or the cutaway collar.
You then choose the cuff style from button cuffs or double cuffs (otherwise known as French cuffs) and whether you want rounded or square corners to them. Whether you want a breast pocket or not, the placket design (the bit where the button holes lie on the front of the shirt). You decide whether you want any pleats in the back of the shirt to give extra comfort and whether they are centre pleats or side pleats and so on. I had the tails of my shirts made extra long so that they didn’t come untucked from my trousers (which was a problem I was having with my off-the-peg shirts to this point). This is the point where you really get to make the shirt design yours and choose the features that you like best and will ultimately make your shirts unique to you.
This is a fun part. Getting to choose the cloth for your new shirts.
The cotton that you choose can really change the feel and wearability of the shirt and at first it can be a bit of a minefield with all sorts of terminology that can confuse.
Different types of cotton
There are various different varieties of cotton and they all have various different properties. The most important factor for high quality cotton is the fibre length (or staple to give it t’s correct name). In essence the best cotton is that has the longest fibres as it can be spun into finer yarn resulting in softer, smoother and stronger fabric.
The very best cotton is either Egyptan Cotton or Sea Island Cotton as they both have particularly long fibres (ELS – Extra Long Staple). The term “Egyptian Cotton” is commonly used to describe the variety of cotton and is grown in many parts of the world including the US where it is known as ”American-Egyptian” or “Pima” Cotton. It is argued that the very best is still grown in Egypt.
The thread count is the number of threads per inch of fabric. Generally speaking the higher the thread count the better as the individual threads will be finer and softer.
For shirt making a thread count of between 100 and 200 is typically used for high quality shirts. You will see terms like “Super 100’s” to denote the thread count.
Russell & Hodge only use either two-fold Egyptian cotton (grown in Egypt) with a thread count of at least 100 or Sea Island Cotton (grown in the West Indies) with a yarn count of 160-200. The mills that weave the cotton cloth that they use are in Lancashire with the exception of a few cloths which are woven in Italy or Switzerland. There is no compromise here, they will only use the very best cotton, woven in the very best mills to produce the very best cloth.
You then get to browse through the mills catalogues and colour palettes which can be a bit daunting as there are literally thousands of fabrics to choose from with various colours and pattens. Take your time and enjoy the process.
The First Shirt
One shirt is then made. You are asked to wear is and wash it a couple of times. Cotton being a natural fibre will shrink slightly with the first few washes and so it is important that the pattern allows for this shrinkage and it is why you have a second fitting. Any adjustments to the shirt fitment can be decided on and the pattern altered to suit. After this process your remaining shirts will then be made to the adjusted pattern.
After this ordering shirts is easy. You just pop over to your shirtmaker, choose the fabric you want, wait a few weeks and then collect your perfectly fitting, unique shirt. You can revel in the satisfying feeling that you are wearing one of the finest shirts available in the world and that it was made in Great Britain from the very best cloth in the world which was also woven in Great Britain.
There need be no compromise with bespoke made to measure shirts. The only problem is that once you have tried them there is no using off the peg shirts again!