On Buttonholes

Alexander FREELING

On Buttonholes

Vice is not what it used to be.

Tom Wolfe’s 1966 essay on the subtle marks of bespoke tailoring, and the furtive satisfaction they grant to a select group of men, focuses above all on functional buttonholes. They are, for Wolfe, one of those “marginal differentiations” detectable only by a small elect; they are a sign of distinction but also obsession, an indulgence that is delightful and shameful by turns: working buttonholes are “The Secret Vice.” Cultivated men who might thumb a salacious magazine in public retire to their rooms to read about buttonholes, he jokes. Clothing is always social, of course: garments form a boundary between self and world, between what they display and what they make private. But unlike a suit’s cloth or structure, the finishing of a cuff sits on that threshold. When the cuff is fastened, the buttonholes are almost undetectable. There is concealed pleasure and pleasure in the concealment.

And yet, vice is not what it used to be.

In 1966, functional buttonholes were a guarantee of bespoke. Thanks to improvements in automation, they now appear on mass-produced ready-to-wear jackets, never mind the fact that this condemns the majority of customers to sleeves of the wrong length, or an expensive adjustment. Of course, the problem of sleeve length is easy enough to solve with a little patience: the client simply buys the jacket with unfinished cuffs, and the sleeve is then adjusted and finished after purchase. But as fast fashion brands have aggressively sought to imitate signs of quality while stretching retail margins, machined cuff buttonholes have proliferated. In case their customers do not notice, manufacturers sometimes use contrasting stitching, or worse, finish the cuff with one button missing, so that one is forced to leave the hole permanently on display. (Imagine Wolfe’s reaction: “It’s taboo!”)

The philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin has observed how the technologies of mechanical reproduction transformed art. Before printing, every book was hand-copied; before recording, all music was a concert, or else a memory. “In principle,” Benjamin notes, “the work of art has always been reproducible. Objects made by humans could always be copied by humans.” But it is a question of scale: a reproduction of a great painting requires a skilled copyist; now we can have The Night Watch printed on a postcard, or on ten thousand. We are all richer for this change in a multitude of ways. I can listen to the best musicians and orchestras whenever I want, buy books from any decade cheaply and easily, and watch live opera in New York from a cinema in London. But modernity gives and modernity takes away. “In even the most perfect reproduction, one thing is lacking: the here and now of the work of art—its unique existence in a particular place.” The handmade artwork carries its origin with it; as with a painting, so with a suit.


Finished buttonholes Milanese


A buttonhole is made by a single person, in a single operation. Its fineness reveals the finisher’s hours and years of practice; her technique signals a particular stylistic decision. We may be more inclined to think of the cutter as the suit’s creative artist, but finishers have their own traditions. There is the subtle, sturdy English buttonhole, the more varied Italian styles, which favour flair and charm over neatness, and the brilliant, showy boutonnière à la milanaise perfected by the Parisians, where the thread is pulled so tightly that it shines (see photos above). For Benjamin, in handmade art we experience “the unique apparition of a distance” between ourselves and the time and place of its creation, whereas industrially-produced objects seem to come from anywhere and nowhere. Now that buttonholes, like orchestras, can be mechanically reproduced, choosing a handmade cuff represents a vote against homogeneous, interchangeable commodities. It asserts a relation to objects that has almost disappeared. In this spirit I attempted to teach myself the craft (see below, photos of my first attempts).

buttonhole practice (1) - copie

A buttonhole is made by first making a straight cut through the cloth, then binding a rigid silk cord—known as gimp—around the opened hole using a silk thread. You start at the bottom-left corner and stitch a series of knots along the gimp, making a full turn at the end before working back to the start, where you close with a bar-tack. “The stitches should be taken at about the same depth and distance apart,” Clarence Poulin writes in his classic handbook, Tailoring Suits the Professional Way. “Facility is acquired with practice.”

buttonhole practice (2)

In a good buttonhole, the gimp is completely encased in thread. This means that the hole is essentially surrounded by a line of tiny knots, like a medieval city by its crenelated walls. The challenge is to get the knots to line up neatly, and to tie every knot with the same tension as the last. A knot too tight or loose will change the shape of the gimp within, making a gap or twist in the wall. Working the rounded end is another challenge: many of my attempts got stuck at the bend, or turned too fast and opened gaps. Sometimes, I would simply miss a stitch. Where you tie the knots gives the hole its character: knots on top create a narrow, raised finish; knots pulled over to the outside make a wider edge, and the Milanese demands that the knots are fastened beneath the gimp, so that only smooth thread is visible from the surface.

Initially, I would misplace a stitch every centimetre or so. In time, my stitches became tighter and more consistent. As when playing tennis or music, the best results emerge from a state of unconscious attunement in which the body itself becomes almost mechanical.

Eventually I risked a favourite Neapolitan summer jacket. I cut into the unfinished cuffs, bound the fraying cloth as best I could, positioned the gimp around the hole, and began to work (as you can see below).

sleeve try (1)

At first, the knots seem independent of each other and loose, but as the wall lengthens each knot provides tension for the next, and the whole piece becomes rigid. Eventually I had a pair of small holes on each sleeve. The result was nowhere near professional standard, of course, and I won’t be offering to finish my own jackets in the future, but there is real satisfaction in the experience.

Sleeve try 2

Sleeve try 3

There is a difference between knowing-that and knowing-how: between a written description and all the microscopic judgements of hand and eye we learn to make in any complicated task. It is for the same reason that debates over the cloth or construction of even the finest suit can only go so far until you try it on—the feel is itself a kind of understanding.

Some vices remain secret.

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