Friday, September 30, 2011

Who's Got The Button?

(Part 1 of the series "The Island of Misfit Clothes")
Chapter 34
If there is one thing that I have hopefully impressed upon you over lo these many months, it is that the most important attribute of your clothes is an exactness of fit. And if there are two things, it is how very beneficial it is to find a good local tailor who both makes traditional clothes and does alterations. Money spent on altering your clothes to fit you, is money well spent.

But I am also aware that money is tight in these dark times; and when jobs are scarce, unemployment is high, economies are weak, and currencies are unstable, money for tailors will nearly always take a back seat in favor of money for food.

In previous installments, I have shown you how to take the thrifty path to dressing well: how to measure yourself, and shop for your togs in an efficient way that saves both time and ready cash; the result of which is an old-money look on a no-money budget. The rule stands that the more work you can do yourself, the more wampum remains in your wallet; and this is equally true for tailoring and alterations as for anything else.

So here we embark at the start of a brand-new mini-series that will take us through Christmas (thus the name!) and beyond. No, I will not try to make you into a tailor! What I will do, is show you some minor alterations you can do on your own clothes to improve their exactiude of fit -- and why your clothes act the way they do. In many cases, these corrections are "work-arounds:" they take a major problem and redirect it into a minor one. It won't take the place of a professional tailor re-working your clothes, but it will greatly reduce the number and severity of your misfits, to the point that your clothes will withstand all but the most critical scrutiny, and with no undue outlay of capital.

We will start on the most basic, and simplest, of alterations. It involves the slight repositioning of a jacket button, to the extent of perhaps a half-inch. It will take you very little time, but it is a good basic start to the series -- and it will make a tremendous impact on the way your jackets will fit.

Like all clothing misfits, this one comes about because the shape of your clothing does not exactly jibe with the shape of you. Jackets are cut straight and symmetrical -- but no one stands exactly straight. We invariably meet with some element of contrapposto, which results when you stand with your weight more on one foot than the other. This results with one leg straighter than the other, which affects your hips, your spine, your shoulders, and your neck; each twisting a bit one way and then a bit the other way to compensate for the shifts in balance. Nothing wrong with that; to the contrary, a contrapposto stance is a relaxed and natural one. With the passage of years, your particular stance becomes habitual. Let's look at an example.

This tailor's form is an exact duplicate of my natural stance. (You can make one too: I show you how in the installment called Say Hello To My Little Friend.) You can clearly see the contrapposto in the shoulders. The red line is the horizontal plane, and the yellow line runs from shoulder point to shoulder point. You can see how the right shoulder is noticably lower than the left. You may have never noticed this in yourself -- but take a closer look at what happens with a jacket that doesn't reflect that difference!

This jacket is a proper fit across the chest. That's important: for an alteration like this, the jacket should fit as well as possible otherwise. One that isn't the right size to start with will swallow this relatively minor problem up in much larger ones, as we'll see later. Here's the misfit: when the jacket is buttoned, the right side is pushed up, because it is trying to sit square across both shoulders. Since the right shoulder is low, the jacket will feel heavier and tighter on the left shoulder, and light on the right.

A jacket's collar should sit tight to the back of the neck at all times: that is the hallmark of good fit. Any misfit in the jacket will more often than not show up and make itself most readily apparent by gapping the collar. Here you can clearly see the collar gapping on the right hand side only, as the button pushes the lapel upwards and over the shoulder. This makes the lapel gape open, too, and the whole right side of the jacket feels loose and "off."

Now see what happens when we unbutton the jacket! The shoulder falls immediately into place, the lapels fit against the chest, and the jacket feels more comfortable overall. Notice that the extra fabric has to have somewhere to go, so the right side "falls away" at the bottom more than the left side does, and the right hem looks just barely longer.

Look at the neckline again: the collar gap has disappeared, and the right chest now fits as smoothly as the left. You may be temped to merely wear the jacket unbuttoned all the time, but this can be darned inconvenient. Unlike formal wear, casual jackets can and should be worn buttoned whenever the weather or your inclination dictates.

Take a closer look at the button-point and see what the fabric is doing. Because of the lower shoulder, the jacket is acting like the right side is physically longer than the left, and the button ends up lower than the buttonhole. If you were to take a line around the back of the jacket, as shown by the yellow arrow, you would notice it winds downhill in a slight spiral. The body of the jacket is acting like a tube that has been split open and slightly offset. Simply moving the buttons up slightly would do a world of good in the coat's fit.

It wouldn't be a perfect solution, though. Any correction that doesn't take into account where the fabric goes, only shifts the error from one part of the jacket to another part. To see how, let's look at a jacket's balance.

The balance of any coat is the relationship of the relative length of its front and back. A jacket that is too large will have a proportionately larger chest, which necessitates more fabric out in front to cover it. When worn buttoned, the extra fabric will pull the lapels up, the collar will gape open at the back, and the shoulders will be loose, and too far back. When unbuttoned, the neck will fall into place, but the fronts will fall away, and the jacket will billow out at the rear. Sound familiar? That's just what's happening with one half of this jacket; as if the right half is too long. Which, as we now know, is essentially correct. So we also know that the extra fabric in front will be thrown down and to the rear, as the red arrows show. That is the trade-off of this fix: the extra fabric at the neck when buttoned, is shifted to the vent, which is a much less noticable area. (It is also much easier to fix later by taking in the side seam a bit, but we will cover that in later weeks!)

The fix is simple. Cut the threads that retain the button.

Pull the cut threads out of the fabric, and smooth the fabric with your fingers until the holes are no longer visible. Easier to do with tweed than broadcloth, obviously.

Smooth the collar and lapels down, and put the fronts together where they should go. Mark the position of the buttonholes on the button side with horizontal marks made with tailor's chalk. (Tailor's chalk is very handy and cheap, and available at the sewing section of your neighborhood craft store...more on that next week.)

With the fronts still together, stick a pin through the buttonhole where the button will come through.

Take the fronts apart, and make a vertical mark where the pin is. Make a mark for the bottom button too, the same distance from the edge as the top button.

A line across the back, as before, now shows a straight line between the two points. The actual grain of the fabric is still on a slight spiral, but the degree of twist is so slight as to not be noticable by any but the closest scrutiny.
Re-attach the buttons at the marks. The jacket will now fit properly through the neck, whether buttoned or not, and the fall-away at the fronts will be minimal. The length of the hem and the height of the pockets will be different on left and right, but not noticeably so -- and this is a small price to pay for the much improved fit and ease of wear overall!

Which shoulder actually sits lower on you depends on the way you stand, of course; and the buttons can just as easily be moved down as up. Generally, right-handed people stand with their right shoulder slightly lower, but this isn't a hard-and-fast rule.

(If you don't know how to sew a button, there are many good Internet tutorials covering the sewing basics. Being handy with a needle will certainly be a help in the coming weeks of this series, but I will leave the basics for you to learn on your own; as the aforementioned tutorials can do a much better job of instruction at whatever particular level of expertise you require.) 

Click here to go to the next essay chronologically, Part Two of The Island of Misfit Clothes.

Click here to go to back to the previous essay chronologically.

Click here to go back to the beginning.

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