Hand-sewing with Military Precision

In my quest to learn the fine points of hand-sewing and using a tailor’s thimble, I spent an amazing afternoon with the Military Finisher for Gieves & Hawkes, Ms Jules Walker.

Military finisher for Gieves and Hawkes Ms Jules Walker

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.

Hand sewing lining into a suit, Military finisher for Gieves and Hawkes Ms Jules Walker

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, Military finisher for Gieves and Hawkes Ms Jules Walker

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.

Buttonhole stitching by Military finisher for Gieves and Hawkes Ms Jules Walker

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.)

Front of buttonhole re-made by Military finisher for Gieves and Hawkes Ms Jules Walker

The front of the re-stitched buttonhole, fresh off the needle. A certain amount of fraying is unavoidable when renovating

Back of buttonhole re-made by Military finisher for Gieves and Hawkes Ms Jules Walker

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.

Buttonhole practice (front) by Military finisher for Gieves and Hawkes Ms Jules Walker

Practice, practice, practice! Jules’s large sampler is early work, whereas the small sampler is sheer perfection

Buttonhole practice (back) by Military finisher for Gieves and Hawkes Ms Jules Walker

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!?!

16 Replies to “Hand-sewing with Military Precision”

  1. I had no idea this work was still being done by hand. I remember my grandmother hand sewing button holes and I’ve done a few myself. At the very least it is good knowledge to have. What perfection Ms. Walker works with a needle and to see that nails play a part in it. I wonder if she has any interest in creating art with her stitch knowledge? Thank you for sharing your visit.

  2. My boyfriend bought me set of vintage dressmaking tools for Christmas the other year which also contained two chisels for making button holes…I need to practise with them more really….I use my fingernils to score fabric when I’m sewing…at college we were told to grow our fingernails to scratch up stitches that needed un-pickign and if our sewign tutor saw us with an un-picker…well, we’d get a right old look from her.

  3. Thanks. That was so great. I too am trying to perfect the hand stitching. I make kilts by hand. 8 sts per inch.in the pleats. People think I’m mad because I measure. 🤷🏼‍♂️My new thing is basting everything with 1/4″ sts. Takes hours but very rewarding. It’s one thing in life we mustn’t hurry.

  4. As always, a fascinating post. When I was doing my O Level in dressmaking (40+ years ago) we were taught that buttonhole stitch had a twist on the edge to be harder wearing, but in embroidery classes buttonhole stitch was just close blanket stitch. I would love to know which Ms Jules Walker uses – I can’t tell from the photos.

    1. She uses the actual buttonhole stitch, so the needle goes in the fabric from back to front, then, before pulling the needle through, the thread coming from the needle is wrapped around the tip of the needle clockwise. The stitches are worked from left to right. You can see the small purls, as these twists are called, if you zoom in on the picture with the buttonhole close-up. Just click on the image.

      1. Thanks, can just about make out the purls. All so very interesting and so great to see the resurgence of interest in ‘ good sewing’.

      2. Thank you so much. I am doing it correctly then. My eyes aren’t good enough to make out the purls. I do enjoy making buttonholes by hand!

  5. Fantastic post, thank you! Great to see someone who to my eye looks so young doing this work. I want to improve my own skills!

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