Choosing a tailor

Wednesday, March 9, 2011
It's brilliant to see that more and more people are being turned on to the idea of getting a tailored suit. Often, people seem to first get interested for a wedding; now that they are unlikely to wear morning dress, but still want something special, a tailored suit is a perfect choice. Whatever the reason, lots of new businesses are springing up to cater to people prepared to invest a few hundred pounds in a good suit, but not the several thousand that Savile Row demands. The problem is that not all of these companies are necessarily very good, and their target market is often largely made up of people who don't know enough about tailoring to spot the bad ones. So, if you're in this position, here are a few tips.

As an aside, note that these are primarily about assessing the quality of a mid-range made-to-measure or semi-bespoke tailor. Applying these ideas to a Savile Row tailor will likely be nonsense, since with them you can take a basic standard of quality for granted, and then need to make your decision based on other factors.

Look at the suits on their site
Most of this type of tailor will have a decent website, often one allowing you to order online (don't though), so this is a great chance to look at some suits. Believe me, if they can't even make the suits look good on a mannequin or a model then they definitely won't look good on you. Equally, if they know so little about dressing that the suits on their home page have all the jacket buttons done up then they are unlikely to be able to advise you effectively on what looks good.

When looking at pictures, pay particular attention to how the shoulders and collar fit, and the shape made by the sides of the suit between the armpits and the waist. One of the advantages of a tailored suit is that they should be able to give you a nice snug fit here, creating a slight V-shape, and giving plenty of space between the arms and the body.

Find out where their cloth comes from
You should be able to look at a swatch book (I did say not to order online, didn't I?), or ideally several from different wool manufacturers. You almost certainly want the wool to be English, although Italian is also good, especially if you favour Italian suit styles. Wool manufactured elsewhere, regardless of whether it's 100% cashmere or has a high super-number, is almost never as good or as durable. It will look wrong and feel wrong and the money you are about to spend on tailoring will be wasted. Certain English mills have a particularly good reputation, and you will obviously pay more for big names, but at the mid-range of tailoring that is probably less of a concern.

Find out how the suits are made
Ignore any claims on the website of being 'bespoke', 'tailor made', 'Savile Row' or anything else. Any tailor worth their salt should be able to tell you exactly how the suit is made. If they can't, then don't buy your suit there.

Exactly what you are looking for here is up to you (and how much you are paying), but the main things to interrogate are:
  • Will they be drafting you a personal paper pattern? Ideally, yes, but some tailors will simply store your details on a computer and that is fair enough. What you don't really want is for them to simply use a standard pattern and adjust it slightly for your measurements.
  • How will the suit be cut? The gold standard here is that it will be cut by a Savile Row trained cutter, who will be the same person who sold you the suit and talked to you about options. He will have mentally assesed your figure and stance and will cut a suit to fit. You're unlikely to get that from the sort of tailors we're talking about, however, so you should aim for a tailor where the suits are cut by hand by experienced (and preferably Savile-row-trained) cutters. Whether it is cut in the UK or not doesn't really matter as much as some tailors might pretend, but I would tend to avoid places where the cloth is cut by machine, or by unskilled factory workers.
  • How much of the suit will be hand-stitched? For this kind of price, you must expect some machine stitching, and that's not a problem. However, more hand-stitching is usually a mark of quality and will result in a far better end product. Don't be fooled by 'hand-stitching around the lapels', though. This is a particular bug-bear of mine as it has become a fashionable aesthetic quirk that does not imply the suit is of high quality or even that it has been hand-stitched. If you want hand-stitching, great, but get it because it means the suit will be the result of the hard work of a skilled craftsman, not because you will have fancy stitching around the lapel.

'Features', and do you pay extra?
A serious tailor will make all their jackets with working cuffs, and not charge you any extra. If they don't, then you're not off to a good start. By the same token; things like side adjusters, brace buttons, slit pockets, wider or narrower lapels, cuffed trousers, and so forth are standard options in choosing your suit, not 'extra features', and should not be charged as such.

Can they do exactly what you want?
A real tailor should be able to make you whatever you like. If you insist on a precise width of lapel, want double inward-facing pleats, like cavalry-cut trousers or demand a fish-tail waist, their response should be a quiet "excellent choice, sir" and a scribbled note. If they look nervous and mumble that they're not sure if they do that then they probably have a handful of set suit patterns that they adjust, and will not cater well to your customisations.

How do the tailors look?
When you go in to the shop (you didn't order online, did you?) take the time to look at the tailors clothes. In traditional Savile Row establishments it's considered somewhat infra dig to make your own clothes, but modern tailors are likely to wear their own suits. Either way, you would expect a tailor who is going to advise you on how to spend several hundred pounds to wear a decent suit themselves. Their particular style may not be to your taste, but they ought to be smartly dressed in a well-made and well-fitting suit.

When you do start asking for advice (and you can do this before you commit to anything) then you should expect confident and helpful answers that take polite account of your particular physique. Hopefully, they will have samples that you can look at and try on.

Hopefully that's a start for now. What else do readers look out for when weighing up a tailor for the first time? Any particular give-aways of quality, or lack thereof?