Military Finisher for Gieves & Hawkes, Ms Jules Walker. You can also see Bob the tailor in the background
I learnt so much more during this afternoon than just about hand-sewing techniques in tailoring. Savile Row is a very special community of craftspeople, and there are many specialised jobs. Jules, for instance, is a finisher, specialising in military uniforms. Then there are the cutters and tailors: the cutter is the person who will measure a client, advise on style details, and cut out the cloth accordingly. The tailor is the person who will actually stitch the suit. Depending on the price point, this may involve a lot of hand-stitching. Once the suit has been stitched and the lining has been constructed and basted in place, the garment is passed on to the finisher, who will put in all the finishing touches: make the buttonholes, sew in the lining, etc. As a military finisher, Jules will also make the ranking stripes by hand and sew them on, and any other specialised military uniform embellishments, such as cords and braids. Almost everything Jules does, she does by hand, so she was a perfect teacher for me.
Jules demonstrating the felling stitch on a scrap, used for inserting the lining in a suit
It was a bit scary to show my hand-sewing skills as they are to a professional, especially because I have taught myself from books and the internet. The most important thing for me was to know whether I was using my tailor’s thimble correctly, as this seemed such a controversial topic when I posted about it previously. It turned out I had no need to be worried. Unsurprisingly, first and foremost it’s about doing a lot of practice, and finding a way that works for you. I knew this already about knitting, but somehow this hadn’t quite translated into sewing in my head. So I was very pleased to find out I only need a few small tweaks to my technique, and just get stitching.
This meant I could move on to one of my favourite details on hand-made suits: the tailored buttonhole. Jules and one of the tailors were renovating a mess dress, originally bought from Gieves & Hawkes in 1959. The main job was already completed: replacing the grosgrain silk facing of the lapels. This meant that the original buttonholes had to be re-made, which comes with its own challenges, as the fabric has been stitched before, and therefore wasn’t quite so stable as she would’ve liked.
Re-cutting a buttonhole in new facing on an old jacket
I loved seeing all the tools that Jules had gathered. Like all of the best craftspeople I know, she has tried out all sorts of things for all the jobs she needs to do, some more traditional than others, and uses those that works best for her. Using a scalpel to cut a buttonhole was one of those things you wouldn’t expect, but it made so much sense.
Jules thumb nail is an important tool in itself: it helps her “break” the fabric at just the right point where she wants the needle to come out
Another surprising tool used by Jules and tailors are their fingernails. Jules uses her thumb nail a lot in order to guide the needle through the fabric, whereas some of the tailors have long nails on their little finger: this helps them unpick stitching quickly! These were the kind of hints and tips you rarely find in a book or on the internet. Hand-sewing can be strain on your hands, so Jules showed me how she sits, and how the fabric will be moved around, rather than her hands, when going around curves etc. Whereas finishers usually sit down to do their job, tailors prefer to stand, and have a higher work surface (see first picture in this post.)
The front of the re-stitched buttonhole, fresh off the needle. A certain amount of fraying is unavoidable when renovating
And the back of this renovated buttonhole
The real skill of a finisher, however, is not so much the ability to stitch one beautiful thing, but to repeat this feat of perfection over and over and over again. Needless to say, when she was still training, Jules spent a lot of time practicing her stitching. She showed me a number of her buttonhole samplers. They were beautiful objects in themselves, and they gave me a lot of inspiration. Note: if you want to see the below picture in closer detail, simply click on them to see a larger version.
Practice, practice, practice! Jules’s large sampler is early work, whereas the small sampler is sheer perfection
For a Savile Row tailor every little detail counts, including things hidden from sight
I think it’s clear that my job is cut out for me: practice, practice, practice! The most important tip here was: concentrate on technique and consistency first, and speed will follow. With many thanks to Jules for sharing her knowledge so generously; I’ve learnt so much, and I have even more respect for the highly skilled craftspeople on Savile Row than I already had. Now, where is my sampler and buttonhole twist!?!