The sartorial handmade debate : myths and reality

Hugo JACOMET

The sartorial handmade debate : myths and reality

Parisian Gentleman will soon celebrate its eighth anniversary. We began in January of 2009, relentlessly promoting the handmade artisanship of tailors, accessory crafters, shirtmakers, and shoemakers in France and around the world.

And at times, these efforts (i.e.,more than 2,000 articles, hundreds of atelier visits, lectures in universities, interviews) have been rewarded on a large scale.

One of our proudest moments took place on the 5th of May, 2015, when a PG reader (a congressional subrogate), stepped forward during a French National Senate session, to defend the official title of bottier (bootmaker)—a title soon to be stripped away due to the passing of a law supposed to “modernize the French economy” (Loi Macron in French).

At three o’clock in the morning, our reader (who was in attendance of the Senate session) alerted his congressman to object to the proposed legal revision, which stalled this critical vote! With our reader, we worked together to successfully preserve the bottier title. (See the official discussion on the matter at the Senate below, in French).

De la loi Macron et des appellations ‘bottier’ et ‘fait-main’

At PG, more than ever, we believe in a future for craftsmanship and in a “handmade world”, and there is a growing niche population in accord with us, strongly emerging from the once-desensitized masses of the 21st century.

A handcrafted object feels different because it is different.

A handmade object’s value is not measured only with money, but also with…time. To know the time it takes to create a handmade product leads to the realization that “gestures of crafting” have been in place for centuries and more centuries.

Envisioning the trillions of stitches of the hand being put to the material, whether on the welt of a shoe or on the Milanese buttonhole of a lapel, gives us a sudden sense of the eternal.

And in an exponentially growing digital society, traditional artisanship can represent an antidote to our fragile and fleeting human condition, by acquiring objects that may survive us.

If French philosopher Gilles Lipovetsky got it right when he said “There is a metaphysical dimension at the heart of the most materialistic passions”, then we are correct to contemplate how the passion for creating and appreciating handmade products can relate to the metaphysical.

While marketing tactics exploit the terms “handmade” and “craftsmanship”, we seek to find clarity in the semantic chaos and marketing-hotchpotch which are blurring the lines between commercial production and legitimate craftsmanship.

It is a vast and complex subject I am tackling. What is at stake is not only the subversion of the meaning of words but also the understanding of the quality of production itself.

To say it differently, we need to clarify the difference between (1) excellent legitimate brands which combine the best of handmade and select machine-made operations, (2) those who confuse customers by grossly overplaying the count of each hand gesture in producing a jacket or a shoe (overcounting, usually), (3) producers who dare not say that they (gasp!) use machines which can be much better than hands at certain tasks, and (4) those who have decided, sometimes out of innocent-ignorance that absolute, 100 percent “handmade” is always better in every circumstance.

In an attempt to define certain basic truths and debunk some myths:

1. THE WORD “HANDMADE” HAS DIFFERENT CONNOTATIONS

When I created PG in January 2009, I was naïve enough to think certain appellations were impregnable fortresses, touting modes of production which appeared to be highly defined and controlled. I soon realized my error in being so easily convinced of what represents a quality product and what does not.

I soon discovered that the word handmade (fait-main) among shoemakers in France and the same word in Italy (fatto a mano or lavoro a mano) represented two entirely different realities.

French official texts are very specific, especially concerning the “handmade” appellation in shoemaking whereas the specifications for the “fatto a mano” appellation in Italy is flexible and much less demanding.

To Italy’s credit, several Italians who hand welt shoes are some of the greatest purists I know (e.g., until recently, unlike British, most Italians did not know the meaning of adding “gemming” to a shoe—see Four things to look for in a good pair of men’s shoes). Yet, other Italian shoemakers take advantage of their loose system and can legally make “handmade claims” which cannot be substantiated.

While the French are required to be uncompromising in the build and make of a handmade shoe, Italian brands such as Enzo Bonafè in Bologna or Paolo Scafora in Naples hold to self-imposed standards on par with, for example, J.M. Weston in Limoges, one of our French flagships.

Truly, the word “handmade” implies different definitions, depending on the country and the craft.

2. THERE ARE DIFFERENT SHADES OF “HANDMADE”

The subject of handmade gets more complex. Techniques and operations which can rightfully be termed handmade, fatto a mano or fait-main, are in fact, often a mixture of using the hand and the machine.

To be more poetic, what we call a handmade object is often a dialogue between the hand of a master artisan, the materials (cloth, leather) and his tools (sometimes old, complex and unwieldy machines).

Consider high-end footwear (we are not speaking of full bespoke priced at 5,000 euros+ which are entirely handmade, except for the stitching of the upper) : most all luxury shoes can be described as “bench-made”, e.g., Gaziano & Girling, Corthay, Edward Green, Enzo Bonafè, J.M. Weston, Paolo Scafora, Crockett and Jones.

For a luxury shoe to be bench-made, craftsmen complete some operations strictly-by-hand (Norwegian and hand welting, for instance), combined with the use of very specific machines for other operations, as you can see in the following film shot at Enzo Bonafè’s factory in Bologna, which wonderfully underlines the definition of bench-made:

 

The practice of combining strictly-by-hand operations with the use of highly-specific machines also applies to luxury shirtmaking. Most parts of a true luxury shirt is indeed made-by-hand, while the remaining parts of the shirt can be created with the help of a sewing machine guided by the expert hand of a seamstress.

In luxury shirtmaking, the sparing use of the machine-stitch is chosen over a hand-operation only when a more robust and precise operation is desired, as you can see in this production by Marol, yet another reputed maker from Bologna.

 

The question is always to know and understand what methods produce the most desired result. If a handmade operation brings something special in style, drop or precision, then handmade is better. Yet, if a machine does a superior job reinforcing an area of a shirt or lends more precision to a technical operation, then the occasional use of a machine can be better at doing what the hand is not able to produce!

Some purists consider ‘strictly handmade’ to be the holy grail, to be enforced at all costs, balking at the very word “machine”–but after looking well into the matter, even purists may reconsider their stance.

There is a vast difference between ‘mass industrial production’ and the justified and limited use of a sewing machine or a bench-made shoe operation. Do not let anyone confuse you by implying that a few select machine-operations is synonymous with mass industrial production. This implication would be like saying a flea and a kangaroo are the same animal because their hind legs are adapted for jumping.

3. HANDMADE “ROMANCE” PLAYS A PART

Jeffery Diduch, founder of the excellent blog Made by Hand : the Great Sartorial Debate, relays his astute perspective on the discussion of shirts made by hand:

“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 lock stitched 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 rather a less perfect one drawn or painted by the hands of an artist?

gianni-celeghin

liverano

scaforaWhen 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 into a handmade 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..”

4. THE MARKETING OF EXCESSIVE VAGUENESS CONTINUES

Our Neapolitan friends excel at excess. They will explain that the (sometimes very) sloppy stitching on your jacket or shirt is authentic proof of a genuine, handmade garment.

Despite all the love I have for Naples and everything they bring to the world of menswear, and despite the incredible talent of great tailors like Panico, Ciardi, Dalcuore and others, including great shirtmakers such as Matuozzo and Piccolo, be warned that the insistence of the “absolute virtues of handmade” can become deceptive when the virtue is oversold to the degree that self-appointed craftsmen intentionally add a line of clumsy stitching over a shoulder stitch or become careless in attention to detail—all in the name of  “handcrafting” or “artisanship”.

5. PARISIAN GENTLEMAN SEEKS TO CLARIFY

There are so many complexities regarding the topics of bespoke and handmade crafting, that a much longer text is necessary to be thorough.

There is even a confusion between the terms “handmade” and “made-to-measure” (confusion welcomed by some brands).

Remember one thing: a made-to-measure garment can be made almost entirely by industrial processes, whereas a ready-to-wear garment can be made almost wholly by hand ! For more details, see Better to buy a good ready-to-wear suit instead of a bad made-to-measure suit.

At PG, we crave to communicate the absolute superiority of handmade stitching in leather products and shoes, and of fully-canvassed and handmade suits crafted by great tailors whom we are still lucky to have in Paris (e.g., Cifonelli, Camps de Luca), Milan (A.Caraceni, Gianni Celeghin), London, (Richard Anderson, Chittleborough & Morgan) or Naples (Panico, Ciardi, Dalcuore, Pirozzi).

The craftsman’s hand is of utmost importance in bespoke suit making, as well as the craftsman’s eyes. If you’ve had the pleasure to commission a suit made by Lorenzo Cifonelli, Marc de Luca, Luigi Dalcuore, Enzo Ciardi, Antonio Panico, Pino Peluso, Gianni Celeghin, Joe Morgan or Davide Taub, then you understand the importance of a skilled hand as well as a trained eye.

dalcuore

pirozzi

ciardi

bonafe

The same statement is true for the shoemakers like Scafora, Meccariello or Bonafè who will bring “true soul” to your shoes with their hand welting aptitude and formidable designs.

A fatto a mano, fait-main and handmade world may have already become a valuable part of your life, as well as your personal crusade and calling, but keep in mind that in the sartorial world, although the hand is sacred, non-mechanized machines guided by skilled artisans can also enable us to have access to the best possible quality at the best possible price.

As often, the complete truth is probably somewhere in the middle…

P.S. Please note that this text has been hand translated from French by Parisian Gentleman, although one did use an Apple computer to do so.