How to tell a quality suit
I am often embroiled in conversations on the topic of quality in suits, and what I look for. Could I, if challenged, identify a quality suit from it’s cheaper mass produced cousins? It is not as straight forward as having a simple check list that is conclusive proof. There are signs, indicators, that will point to the overall quality of a suit, but you have to use them in context. A suit is not necessarily entitled to be called quality if it has one or more of the details listed below. Likewise, I would not want to say a suit is low quality if any of the details are missing. What you can do is use them all as a guide. Does the sum of it’s parts indicate this is a quality suit or not?
I have tried to steer clear of items that could be chosen out of personal preference, and focus on the construction methods. poor taste is does not always mean poor quality. Instead, these are the things I would look for, why they are important, and how I would check.
Fused or Canvas
Fully floating canvas
The point that started the discussion on quality came from explaining what is commonly referred to as the pinch test to see if a jacket is canvassed or fused. The test is to see if the coat has a lining that has been glued (or fused) to the inside of the jacket or if it is a structure in it’s own right (canvassed). I know I said in the opening statement that there is no single thing that makes a suit a quality garment, but having a fully floating canvassed jacket is probably the strongest indicator of quality there is. OK so what does all that actually mean and what is this pinch test?
Traditionally, suits are constructed by creating an inner frame work made from horse hair or a combination of wool/mohair called a canvas, the outer fabric is then attached to it by hand stitching. The canvas was there to provide structure to the coat, and so is made from a much stiffer fabric. Over time the stiffer canvas moulds to your shape providing a perfect fit, this allows the exterior panels to hang naturally. This method is labour intensive and not suited to mass produced, high volume sales suits. All this ads up to a great indicator of a quality suit.
The alternative is a fused jacket which has a very different construction. Instead of having the structure of the coat coming from the canvas, fabric (interfacing) is glued (or fused if you prefer) to the inside panels. As you can imagine this process has enabled the mass production of suits on a grand scale. Away from the obvious benefits to the mass producer (production line automation, shorter production time, reduced manufacturing cost), there are some real disadvantages to the customer.
The jacket will have an unnatural stiffness, which affects not only how the suit hangs on your frame, but how it moves when you wear it. A fused suit is very unforgiving if your shape changes slightly. Any extra pounds lost or gained can make the stiff facings bend unnaturally and leave creases, rolls or puckering in the jacket. Although the technology to fuse jackets has improved dramatically over the past 20 years, the fact remains that glue will deteriorate over time. This can have the unfortunate consequence of the interfacing coming away from the rest of the jacket. This effect can be accelerated with regular dry cleaning.
Seen as a compromise between the canvassed and fused construction methods is the half canvassed jacket. In this example the upper construction around the chest and lapels is canvassed and typically the lower areas around the buttons and outside pockets are fused. The half canvas provides the structure, but as it is less labour intensive than the fully floating canvas, it is a cheaper alternative.
The pinch test
Check how thick the material is somewhere where fusing would not apply, I would choose a sleeve as these are not fused. Give the material a pinch so you can feel how the material feels between your fingers when it is at its thinnest. Try this again around the central button on a three button suit, or the top button on a two button suit. First of all, if the material is obviously stiffer than the example from the sleeve, chances are it is fused. Pinch further and look for a separate internal lining (the canvas), if you can’t feel it and the material is considerably thicker, I would feel confident in suggesting it is fused. You may need to do this in a couple of areas if you suspect it may be a half canvassed jacket.
Depending on who you speak to, you can get into quite a heated debate over button holes, so tread carefully. Speak to most Savile Row tailors, and they will tell you the button hole on the lapel should be straight cut and hand sewn, they will also say a keyhole button hole is a faux pas. The further away from the Row you get, and the more acceptable the keyhole becomes. I will only say this out of earshot of the Row, but there is nothing to differentiate the two for quality, it’s all down to preference and do you want a traditional Savile Row look? What is a good indication is HOW the button hole has been sewn. If it is machine stitched, it is likely to be perfect and uniform. If it has been hand stitched, you will be able to tell. It won’t be perfect and it will have character and be beautiful for that very reason. So is a hand sewn button hole really better? In actual quality terms – no, but it does show you that extra time, care and attention has been lavished on that suit and therefore any aspect that is hand finished will point to a quality garment. For those of you who love that continental look, you can also get teardrop shaped button holes, most of which you will find are hand sewn.
Should be made of horn not plastic. Having said that, it’s not always easy to tell the difference. Some buttons are quite obviously plastic, but this is not always the case. This is something you will get a feel for.
Working buttons on your sleeve cuffs have always been a sign of bespoke suit because of the extra effort involved in the construction. Often you will see people with one or two buttons undone, just to show the quality. This is not an activity I partake myself, but can appreciate why people would. This has led to many high end ready to wear suits incorporating working buttons to give the illusion of a bespoke garment. Therefore the very presence of working cuffs is no longer a symbol of a bespoke (or quality) suit which is why I stress these are indicators only. A point of note – I would be extra vigilant when buying a ready to wear suit with working cuffs. If alterations are required to the sleeve length, they are much harder when working cuffs are involved. This is not something you have to worry about usually with a bespoke suit as the sleeves will be to your exact specification.
I will save the discussion of the difference between super 100’s and super 130’s for another day and keep this to the fundamentals. A quality suit will be made of natural materials and will not be shiny. Polyester and other synthetic man made materials are not used for quality suit facings, but you will be surprised just how many suits sold today are made from it. It won’t breathe making you more likely to sweat – but it will look shiny and cheap. The most common suit material is wool. Don’t confuse wool with winter wear, a lightweight pure wool suit will help keep you cool. Other materials used but less common are linen, cotton and silk. To be honest, suit fabric is an area that deserves special focus outside the scope of this article, I will write some follow up articles on the different fabrics available.
Pick stitching is another example of a detail that is used to indicate it is higher quality, hand finished garment. Now this too has been embraced by the mass producers. This was bound to happen when ‘bespoke effect’ details became trendy. However, the mass producers do not do this by hand, instead opting for a machine stitched alternative. The machine stitched variant generally uses larger stitches that are wider apart, this is because it is still very difficult to rush this intricate and delicate detail. A machine would pucker and pull the fabric. To add to the confusion, an increasingly popular alteration offered by tailors is hand finished pick stitching to an otherwise ordinary looking mass produced suit.
As you can see, most of the traditional tell tale signs of quality are now being factory reproduced. It is getting increasingly difficult to tell from afar the quality of a suit. There are things you can look for, but many of these can now be copied. Only when you are able to close examine a suit and check the details up close will you be absolutely sure of the quality of a suit.
If you are buying a suit, you will now have a better idea of what to look/ask for to ensure you are getting the highest quality suit for the money you are investing. It also proves that fit and style are more important than ever, for it is style and fit that cannot be imitated.