Friday, July 6, 2012

Let's Get Shanked

(Part 15 of the series "The Island of Misfit Clothes.")
Chapter 74
You didn't think I'd forgotten about our jacket project, did you? It's been a few weeks since we've worked on it, but we're nearly completed now that the lining's been sewn back in. Fits like a glove, doesn't it? All those weeks spent ripping seams, repositioning, and sewing, re-sewing, and sewing again have really paid off...this worthless tent of a suit hangs on you now like a thousand-dollar bespoke item.

Well, nearly so. The shortcuts we've used to systematically and gradually minimize the faults in fit, would make a bespoke tailor blanch in horror -- but the end result is very, very good indeed, especially for a novice needleman like yourself. Well done.

This week we'll look at how to place the buttons, but with a twist -- I'm not going to use the jacket you've been staring at lo these many months to demonstrate. For a change of pace, we'll use a new jacket I just acquired, and I'll tell the story behind it.

We are in the heat of the summer season. It's now time to shift your wardrobe into summer mode, and that means taking your polo, golf, and aloha shirts out of storage and placing them back in rotation. If you followed along last Autumn, when I demonstrated how to store your summer shirts away, you should now have a stack of crisp, folded, tissue-wrapped shirts that await your attention, as the returning of old friends after a long absence: the clean scent and starched folds of your summerwear emerge from their paper-wrapped hibernation, new, unwrinkled, and fresh, and yet also familiar.

In keeping with my own advice given in last week's installment, I decided it was time to "roll over" my summer jackets as well. Yes, it is time for some jackets to go, in favor of others. Out with my light wool Yves Saint-Laurent. Serviceable and about a quarter-century old, but very conservative and very French. I've worn it for years, but it has gotten increasingly less use over time, as my personal style has shifted away from the "mid-century grey" cut.

Its replacement found me by surprise. Shopping with my wife for something else entirely, and strolling through the suit section of a local second-hand shop, I took a double-take at one that caught my eye. I was unprepared, and as I did not have my measurements or tape with me, dismissed it and walked on. My wife, who knows "that look" well, intervened. Forget the measurements, she said, and just try it on. Oh, very well.

I fell in love immediately. Well cut, good proportions, and right in line with all the tenets of Classic Style. It fit nearly perfectly -- no alterations would be necessary; this one is wearable as-is.

Another bonus for this ready-made summer suit: it is made of very light stuff, and is half-lined: that is, the lining only extends across the chest and over the shoulders.

Other than a small strip at the rear vent, the back isn't lined at all. You may not think this would make a large amount of difference, but it does -- it will be easy-wearing on all but the hottest days. The label shows it to be an Anderson-Little, which was doubtless made when the name was owned by Woolworth's, probably in the late 1970s.

This jacket has some very attractive features, like "pagoda shoulders" that terminate in a heavily rolled sleevehead. Notice the outer edge of the lapels point directly to the top of the shoulder. The resulting generous lapels stand well within the limits of Classic Style, in stark contrast to the current fad of wee little skimpy lapels.

Advanced Geometry nightmares?
"Pagoda shoulders" refer to the line from neck to arm: it is a slight concave curve, like the roof of a Japanese pagoda. The resulting saddle-shaped form is called a hyperbolic paraboloid, and takes a fair amount of effort to execute well.

Another nice touch is the strongly shaped collar line. The elegant curves allow it to sit perfectly flat against the curve of the shoulder.

The chest canvassing is very firm and shaped, perfectly smooth, and sits into the waist nicely. It is a very English cut, despite being a thoroughly American jacket.

 The length is shown to be in line with Classic Style as well: long enough to curl one's fingers over the hem with a straight arm. The sleeve is just long enough to touch the base of the wrist. That's slightly long if worn with long sleeves...but just perfect when paired with a short-sleeved shirt, which is in fact my plan.

As perfect as all this seems, it isn't completely perfect, or else I wouldn't be talking about it, now would I? As you know, I need to adjust its button stance to account for my slightly low shoulder. As I've shown this before in a previous installment, you may ask, why go through the process again? Two reasons. One: the first time, I demonstrated the process on a tailor's form. This time, I'll show how to do it directly on yourself. And second, the first example used covered buttons, and our jacket project (and this jacket as well) uses regular four-hole buttons.

Whether your shoulders are symmetrical or not, this will guarantee your jacket will fit as perfectly as possible around your neck, whether you are just moving the buttons slightly, as here, or starting from scratch, as we are with our project jacket.

First, put the jacket on, over a collared shirt. (Make sure the collar fits, of course, and buttoned up. We're getting a baseline dimension, after all.) Reach up, grab the collar from both ends, center it on the back of your neck, and pull it forward firmly. Don't think about your shoulders -- hold them naturally.

Keeping the tension on the collar, slide your hands down the lapels, and bring the fronts together. (Notice that the buttons don't line up with the buttonholes? Typical.) Make sure you are still holding your shoulders naturally.

Slide a straight pin into the button-side by going in right through the eye of the buttonhole. Push the pin all the way through, so the head of the pin marks exactly where the button needs to be. Do this for all the buttonholes.

Relax your arms and your shoulders, shrug a couple of times, and let your arms hang naturally. (Note that the fronts aren't falling away -- a sign of proper jacket balance.) The pins and buttonholes should be exactly opposite each other. It's then a simple matter to sew the buttons in the right place.
Did I say "simple matter?" Why yes, but it's not as easy as sewing a shirt button: you can't just go in one hole and out the other a couple of times and be done with it. You don't want the stitches to show on the fabric behind the button, for one thing; and the other is that little mushroom-stalk of thread under the button, called a shank. The button needs to sit a little "proud" to poke through the buttonhole. How do you do it? Well, first, cut the existing button off, and remove the threads.

Load your needle with buttonhole or upholstery thread. Start your needle on the back side about an inch away from the straight pin, run sideways inside the fabric...

...and come out on the topside exactly where the head of the pin is. Remove the pin, pull the line almost all the way through...

...and secure it by tying it off to a single thread on the front side. Clip the thread on the back side, pull the fabric a little, and the end of the line will disappear into the inside of the jacket. That's a neat enough trick in itself, but there's more!

The secret to sewing a shank button is... [insert drum roll] ...a wooden match. No fancy gizmos or appliances required.
Slide the button down the line, with the match behind it. The idea we're pursuing is to sew the button down around the match. The first two stitches will straddle the match and hold everything in place. This is done as you would expect: straight down through the fabric, and straight up again through an adjacent hole in your button. The difference is, only catch a single thread on the back side of the fabric, and those two wee stitches will be practically invisible.
This is what it looks like from the side. Unlike shirt buttons, don't run the line in a criss-cross through the holes, but work the box: up through top right, down through bottom right, up through bottom left, down through top left.

Work the box three or four times around, but unlike the first two stitches, when you go down through the button...

...tilt the button up and don't go through the fabric. Pull the line through, then take a small sideways bite through the fabric. Go deep enough to grab the canvas, then up through the button again.

The button will be firmly sewn down around the matchstick, but without any stitches showing on the backside.

Slide the matchstick out...

...and wrap the thread tightly around the base of the button about a dozen times, until you've made a stout little trunk.

Stab the needle right through the trunk, twice, to secure the line.

Run the needle sideways from the base of the button, come out on the backside about an inch away...

...and clip the end of the line.

Hide it inside as before, and your button will have no loose ends showing; a very professional finish.

The result is a collar that sits tight to the neck and smooth down the front...

...and when worn open, the buttons are perfectly even.

This little number is ready to take its place in my spring-and-summer wardrobe, where it'll last for years. Oh, did I mention the cost? Forget bespoke, forget off-the-rack, forget big box warehouses. This jacket has hardly been worn, if in fact its been worn at all. It shows no wear, and the original yellow chalk marks under the buttons were still there. Six dollars. Six. You can do it too. And you should.


Setting the buttons also brings us to the end of our jacket project, and with it, we bid a fond farewell to the Island of Misfit Clothes series. Before we go, let's take a look at the actual project suit, after the same button stance alteration that we just went through today.

Here we are! It went well, all things considered: you never would be able to tell that this jacket was a shapeless barrel shaped bag when we started out. This should be proof positive that not only can you make such an outsized suit fit you, it can fit your idiosyncratic posture as well; and you can do it yourself with a minimum of fuss, with basic tools and a just little bit of initiative.

The details that remain can be performed with relative ease using the knowledge you've acquired so far. The sleeves are a tad short and must be let out. After your work with sleeve linings, hem lengths, pressing, and such, it will be a piece of cake for you! (Hint: release the lining at the wrist, remove the buttons, fold down the turn-under to length, press, and re-assemble.) Likewise with the excess girth in the waistcoat -- the side seams can be taken in the exact same way as we did with the jacket. The trousers we've already covered, in the first weeks of The Island. As it turns out, I won't have to take these trousers in, as I seem to have gained about four inches in my waist over the past year: all that was needed was to let the cuff out to gain an extra inch in the leg. And that's a good lesson: when you take an article of clothing in, leave the extra turn-in in place, just in case you gain weight and have to let it back out!

Click here to go to the next essay chronologically.

Click here to go back to Part Fourteen of The Island of Misfit Clothes.

Click here to go back to the previous essay chronologically.

Click here to go back to Part One of The Island of Misfit Clothes.

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