As we’ve done with the “VBC Fabric Academy” over the past few years, today we initiate an educational collaboration between Marol 1959 and Parisian Gentleman on the topic of shirt making.
After going straight to the source (the Marol atelier in Bologna, Italy), we will not only introduce a maker with possibly the highest standards for shirt crafting in the world, but also uncover the finer points of shirt making, while clearing up some misunderstandings about this delicate art.
What’s in a Shirt ?
These days, a new shirtmaker, tie crafter, suit atelier or shoemaker seems to pop up by the week.
This sheer influx of choices makes it difficult for most of us to tell a good garment from a bad one.
Paradoxically, even with the gargantuan amount of clothing out there, a well-crafted item can be hard to find (because quality corners continue to be cut in the name of profit, and fewer companies are insisting on the utmost and highest quality standards).
Here, we look at how an elegant gentleman or woman can discern a (very) good shirt from an inferior shirt.
Remember, at one time shirts were quite important. The tunic a person wore in the Medieval era indicated his or her social status, while during the Colonial and Victorian days, a crafted shirt may be emblazoned with mottos, or have ties, bows, ruffles, and fine detailing.
In 1827, Hannah Montague invented the detachable collar in Troy, New York after snipping the collar away from her husbands shirt in order to wash it, and then reattached the collar afterwards. Soon after, Reverend Ebenezer Brown commercialized Hannah’s concept, creating a significant industry for the detachable collar in Troy, which later spread to the rest of the world.
Fast forward to the 1980s, when men dropped their oversized white shirts at the dry cleaner for washing and heavy starching for a glossy finish. These stiff shiny things served as the ideal backdrop for a bright red or yellow paisley necktie.
In the 1990s, interest in the humble shirt fell away, and shirts became an afterthought, at best.
Today, between periods of glorifying men-in-suits by the media and the latest influx of “feature yourself” on social platforms, it appears to be raining menswear (according to the Euromonitor International “the global market for men’s apparel is projected to reach $33 billion in 2020, up 14 percent from $29 billion in 2015”).
The way businessmen and women wear their shirts is also shifting. Jackets are spending more and more time on hangers (or on the back of office chairs), which means shirts are oftentimes being worn alone without jackets–and in this case, the shirt maketh the man.
Why Spend Time Knowing Your Shirt?
A poorly made shirt can ruin the look of an otherwise great suit or jacket. Tempting offers such as “$100 for five shirts” can sound great, but cheap shirts will only continue to look cheap.
To gather empirical information, we presented seven “top-tier shirts” by reputable makers for analysis to a shirtmaker (Marol 1959) with more than 30 years experience in the business.
What we learned surprised us.
There is a misconception among the public that handmade/made-to-measure/and bespoke shirts are made entirely without machines! This statement is false. It is likely that every top-tier luxury shirt maker uses numerous machine operations combined with certain hand operations to make a shirt. A company claiming to sell “a completely handmade shirt” – (i.e., without any assistance of machinery) should be viewed with caution for reasons explained below.
* One shirt had machine work which “mimicked” hand work. To grow margins, while at the same time appealing to gents with a “handwork-fetish” (a curiosity which continues to permeate the menswear space) some makers go to great lengths to mimic handmade operations through the use of machines otherwise designed for trouser hemming and scarf-edge finishing. This practice of imitating hand work with machines is nothing short of consumer deception, if the maker is intentionally fooling the customer.
* The most expensive shirt examined (exorbitantly priced with minimal detailing) demonstrated high integrity in terms of product construction yet the fit of this shirt was among the worst in the group. Fit remains a top priority in the world of fine shirting.
* Each shirt had numerous machine operations. Machine operations are mandated for adequate strength properties on the body of the shirt. If a shirt were “completely handmade” with no machine operations, it would likely be compromised after minimal washings and number of wears.
* Among the seven shirts, machine-work quality ranged from below average to outstanding. A highly-skilled machine operator is just as valuable as a good hand sewing crafter.
* Two shirts had hand-sewn initials, while five shirts had machine-made monograms. Aside from the importance of machine operations, there is no question that a superior luxury shirt must have numerous made-by-hand operations for superior comfort, fit, beauty, and technical accuracy. Handmade operations are indeed non-negotiable and imperative in order for a shirt to be considered a “luxury garment” (e.g., the optional hand sewn sleeve head, hand sewn buttonholes, hand finishing on cuffs and collars).
14 Signals of a Great Shirt
To define the zenith of shirt making, consider 14 key indicators :
1. Compatibility of Shirt with Jacket
Ever notice how a shirt can look great when worn alone, but doesn’t work well when paired with a jacket?
Whether you are wearing a dress shirt or a jersey, notice how your shirt works together with your suit coat or jacket. Sometimes makers forget to factor in how a shirt will interact with a jacket or suit ensemble.
Bo Michael Yang wearing a Marol jersey shirt (here with Maestro Panico)
To analyze the compatibility of your shirt with your jacket:
* Shirt collar should tuck slightly under the jacket lapels OR if the collar is a bit stubby, it should be pinned against the shirt itself either with hidden under-the-collar buttons or a collar pin.
* A very large collar will appear bulky underneath the jacket and break the flow of the silhouette. Make sure the collar proportion compliments the front of the jacket or suit coat. Exercise good judgement with proportions.
* Shirt cuffs should extend ½ inches past the jacket sleeve.
Pattern matching is the basic of basics in constructing a shirt–yet many companies skip this seemingly less glamorous step and move straight to top-stitching.
Stripes or checks which flow continuously (patterns from cuff->sleeve, sleeve->shirt, neckband->collar and placket–>shirt body) throughout a shirt is a definitive signal of good construction.
3. Science of Fit
PG’s contributor and wine specialist Anthony Hubault wearing the Marol Signature “Safari Shirt”
Nailing the fit of the shirt with efficiency, whether in ready-to-wear sizing, made-to-measure precision, or bespoke (minimal fittings), demonstrates a high level of craftsmanship.
As one Savile Row superstar said : “Good cutters cut to fit, bad cutters fit to cut”.
With often multiple orders of shirts made with luxury fabrics at stake, getting the fit right is important to avoid disappointed customers, returns and remakes.
What to look for:
* Good shirt proportions which compliment the line of the body.
* No pulling of fabric at the “chest or waist button-area”.
* A high armhole for a sharp fit, allowing a superior range of arm movement (since lower cut armholes catch and tug when moving the arm, causing the entire shirt to move and to become untucked).
4. Stitching Finesse
Finesse of stitching is an objective indicator of a luxury shirt.
A trembling line of stubby stitches should never be found on a luxury shirt—no matter how much a maker tries to convince you that such work is “imperfectly charming”. If you prefer a rustic shirt instead of a luxury shirt, make sure you’re not fooled into paying the price for a quality luxury shirt.
What to look for in stitching finesse:
Marol executes 13 stitches per centimeter of seam with an extremely thin thread – the highest we are aware of in the industry. A high-handed feat delivering beauty and durability at the same time.
In comparison, Parisian shirting legend Charvet, while also doing fine work, produces no more than 9 stitches per centimeter of seam.
5. Functionality (Durability)
As charming as needle-and-thread hand stitches may sound, if the shirt falls apart after a few washes, the romance quickly ends.
Given the practical nature of shirts, including frequency of wear, cleaning and ironing—functionality is a big consideration. Practices like rolling the bottom hem of the shirt à la pocket square is charming until it comes time to iron the shirt hem.
Delicate machine stitching guided by the hands of experts, lends not only beauty, but also strength, allowing for better performance under the strain of daily wear and tear.
6. Signature Details
If investing in a luxury shirt, there should be evidence that the maker has put a lot of effort into making the shirt special.
Signature details may include:
*Box gusset shaped like a house.
*Buttoning overlap at base of the shirt.
The buttoning overlap provides not only a strong aesthetic, but also can help keep the shirt tucked and prevent unsightly skin exposure when seated and relaxed.
A particularly sought-after signature operation is the hidden under-the-collar buttoning, which keeps the shirt collar in place at all times (see Avoiding the Fly-Away Shirt Collar).
7. Button Quality
High quality buttons are non-negotiable on a fine shirt. Australian mother-of-pearl is one of the most luxurious looking button materials known to man.
Every button on a Marol shirt is made from this material (except for the occasional use of horn buttons on special models) – including the signature coloured buttons used for tone-on-tone styling, which so often fall prey to plastic.
8. The Cut (An Indicator of Know-How)
Cutting fabric is an art unto itself.
A very traditional technique practiced by authentic Italian shirtmakers is known as the “dritto filo”: the act of removing a thread from the cloth to reveal a “path” through the warp and weft.
This “path revealed” serves as a type of magical ruler to follow along with shears in order to cut a clean line, to match patterns such as stripes, and to avoid stray threads that may be caught in the making.
9. Variety of Shirt Fabric Choices
In shirt making, everything begins with the fabric. A luxury shirtmaker should know how to work with luxury fabrics.
Jerseys shirts (silk or cotton) are remarkably comfortable. But they are not easy to craft. Prior to cutting, jersey fabric must stay stretched for 24 hours, in order to stabilize the cloth for cutting and fit accuracy.
Cashmere is an amazing supple cloth which only confident crafters choose to work with, since one mistake can result in scraping costly fabric.
To offer these types of fabrics in the same make of classic shirts and in other creative designs is a symbol of a true luxury shirt maker.
10. Collar and cuff selection
A shirt should be able to express a specific personality.
The controversy of whether a collar should be fused (glued) or non-fused has lingered for years. The conclusion is often the same : some gents prefer their collars to be fused for a cleaner look with less fuss with wrinkling; and others prefer an unfused collar with no gluing and have no problem with the collar fabric shifting—nor do they mind ironing the collar to remove wrinkles. Selecting a fused versus unfused collar is in accordance with personal taste.
A shirt maker should provide many collar options to express the personality of the wearer. For example, club collars can look regal while Hollywood collars can channel the days of film stars like Cooper and Grant.
Along with these types of collars, one shouldn’t forget stylish options like the one-piece holiday collar, and the one-piece button-down collar, the memorable Eton collar (which is in great demand), and of course the tuxedo collar—which holds a distinguished beauty in a category all its own.
A serious luxury shirtmaker is able to craft a wide variety of shirt types and styles, with many versions of collars and cuffs.
11. Going the “extra mile”
You may know the story about how, if the inside of a fence is painted where no one else can see it, it means the painter has high personal standards.
On the subject of shirts, studying the part of the shirt which almost no one else will see, other than you, may give you an indication of the quality level of the total shirt.
Examples of going beyond the call of duty can include :
* offering separate sets of collars and cuffs for future use on favorite shirts.
* steaming and pressing woven labels so the labels will not shrink after washing and tug against the shirt body.
* the buttoning overlap at the base of the shirt.
* extensive pattern matching, including the inside of the shirt.
12. Technical Acumen — Handmade and Machine Operations
If you have a great tailor, you may notice that he is very concerned with details and will work almost endlessly to fine tune each facet of your suit to his own satisfaction because what you wear represents his reputation.
A great shirtmaker is also obsessed with balancing the aesthetic and the technical.
Aside from keeping to the highest industry standards for every guided-machine-operation for the body of the shirt, the same obsession should be present for made-by-hand operations, including:
* Handmade buttonholes – The ultimate touch to round out a luxury shirt. Some gents look for a single-loose-thread dangling beneath a mother-of-pearl button as “code for a good shirt”.
* Handmade monogram work – A trained eye can differentiate initials stitched by hand versus machine.
* The hand operation of finishing the cuff and collar seams all the way to the edge of the collar or cuff, which represents the most strenuous way to sew such a seam.
* Specialized options for collar stitching such as the bi-color double-chain stitch, done completely by hand. The effect of this type of true sewing-art can be subtle but profound.
13. Indicators of good business practice
Good business practice may not seem important to the end-user, but high standards in conducting a business filters down to the product itself. Does the luxury brand keep archives to document important work? Has the company secured any notable customers because of earned respect?
From the Marol Archives : A special “watch cuff” created for Gianni Agnelli
14. Character / Integrity of the Maker
Aside from good business practices, the character and integrity of the maker is receiving new appreciation (after a few decades of an abysmal void of such traits in the name of power, popularity and pleasure).
While other companies choose to offer economy, mid-range and luxury lines according to a person’s ability to pay, Marol has only one line, because the team will “only do their best and are not willing to make economy shirts, which can be considered a compromise for the sake of profit.”
Manuela (the head and soul of Marol) often refuses to take large first orders from private customers because she insists on getting the fit right on the initial shirt and doesn’t want to put precious fabric at stake early in the process.
Marol : presenting the perfect shirt
Parisian Gentleman is working alongside Marol to introduce what we consider to be ‘the perfect shirt’, which will include a comprehensive combination of features never seen before on a single shirt [e.g., rounded buttons for ease-of-buttoning, chicken foot button stitching (aka zampa di gallina), chicken leg button attachment, handmade buttonholes and handmade stitching around collar cuffs, handmade sleeve heads, and more].
How to Buy a Marol Shirt ?
While ready-to-wear Marol is stocked in many prestigious shops worldwide, we encourage you to contact Marol directly, particularly for the direct expertise required for the made to measure or bespoke experience.
Visiting the welcoming Marol showroom in Bologna is easy and worth the trip (Bologna is less than one hour train from Milan and is now also easily accessible by plane).
As we at Parisian Gentleman have received numerous requests from women looking for quality handcrafted products, we are happy to let you know Marol also crafts beautiful shirts and blouses for women.
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Via Gorizia 38, 40131 Bologna, Italy
Contact and appointments : firstname.lastname@example.org
Pictures © Andy Julia for Parisian Gentleman
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Additional Reading : Noble Shirt Fabrics : Three Makers You Must Know (Marol Academy 2)