The suit-making tradition is a world with its own history, art, and jargon. Formerly limited to the upper classes, it is now expected that most every man in the Western world own at least one suit. We all need something to wear to funerals and job interviews, right?
With the ubiquity of wear has come ubiquity of information. A quote we found on the Internet from Abraham Lincoln states “Don’t trust everything you read on the Internet,” and this is particularly true of men’s suits. There are a million and one designers out there and at least four or five new brands offering “custom” suits, “bespoke” shirts, and the like. Sadly, these terms, which have very specific meanings, have been misused to the point of near worthlessness. While we can’t definitely say that the folks misusing these terms are doing so maliciously in an attempt to fool the public into giving them their business, we can give them the benefit of the doubt and say that they simply don’t know what they’re talking about.
But we do. What follows is a guide to the terms used when getting a suit made for oneself.
Not All Suits Are Created Equal
Just because you’re having a suit made for yourself does not mean that you are getting a custom suit. If you really want to split hairs you can argue that you’re purchasing a customized suit, but not a custom one. The difference between made-to-measure (herein referred to as “MTM”) and full custom/bespoke (basically meaning the same thing but with minor differences) is in how the suit is created and some of the materials used.
One big differentiator is how pattern is manipulated in each scenario. In this case we don’t mean pattern as pinstripes, windowpanes, or the like. What “pattern” refers to as it relates to suit-making is the shape of each individual panel of the suit: each sleeve, each front panel, etc. These patterns are taken from the customer’s measurements and drawn onto paper and then cut out. This paper pattern is placed over the customer’s chosen fabric, outlined with tailor’s chalk, cut by a cutter, and sewn together to make a garment that we call a suit.
The next thing to consider is canvas. Every suit jacket in the world, with very few exceptions, has a canvas interlining that rests in between the lining and the fabric of the suit. This gives the jacket structure and shape; were it to not exist, it would flow on you in the same way that a maxi dress drapes on your wife’s body. Higher-end jackets like those found in custom and MTM garments will utilize a natural a blend of natural fibers (often horsehair and linen) for their canvasses. A full-canvas jacket has a canvas that spans the full length of the front of the jacket on both sides. A half-canvas (less often referred to as “semi-canvas”) utilizes the same materials but only canvasses the upper half of the jacket, where most of the stress will be borne. This saves on cost but sacrifices a bit of drape. Both canvassing techniques will involve a stitched lapel as opposed to a fused one. This offers a superior lapel roll and thus a better presentation.
Most men’s introduction to the “custom” suiting world is actually via MTM. It certainly feels like a custom process and it’s understandable that a layperson would tell a friend how excited he was at getting his first “custom” suit: you select your fabric, pick out details like lining, lapels, vents, button stance, the buttons themselves, half-versus-full canvas, and a myriad of other options. Twenty-some odd measurements are taken off of your body and you are told that a suit will be made especially for you and that it will arrive completely made up in a few weeks. At that point a few further alterations may be necessary, but not much.
Still, it is not a custom suit. Why?
This is because MTM suits are made from “block” patterns. A block pattern is a pattern that a given company uses to maintain consistency in sizing. This is why a 40 regular in Banana Republic’s “Tailored Fit” fits identically across all different colors and aesthetic patterns. In a MTM scenario, the company has block patterns on file already, and the measurements taken off of your body are used to determine which block pattern to alter before cutting the suit, usually on a CAD system and not by hand. So, if you happen to measure at a 40 regular but prefer a shorter jacket and have one shoulder that sits noticeably lower than the other, those alterations will be plugged into the CAD system and a suit will be cut specifically for you. It has been, if you will, made to your measurements.
Fully custom garments, on the other hand, are not made from block patterns but rather from a pattern that is created specifically and exclusively for the client. Another key difference between custom and MTM is the number of fittings. In a MTM scenario, you go right from your first fitting to a finished garment (though that garment will likely require some minor alterations). In a custom scenario there’s a second fitting, usually involving a “scrap” jacket. This is essentially a prototype of your jacket pattern that’s been made of cheap fabric, so that the kinks of fit can be worked out before a finished garment is made up.
Similar to MTM, custom suits can be made either half- or full-canvas and involve more machine work than handwork.
Despite the fact that the term is used ubiquitously, bespoke garments are actually quite rare. The term originates from Savile Row tailors, whose clients’ fabrics had “been spoken for” and thus wouldn’t be used for other clients. Nowadays, it refers to a garment that has been made using a very specific process.
While MTM and custom suits can be either half- or full-canvas, bespoke suits are by definition fully canvassed. Another contrast from MTM and custom is that while these options involve more machine work than hand work, the opposite is true for bespoke. Most of the work must be done by hand for a suit to be considered bespoke. Specifically, all work is done by hand except for pockets, facings, and long seams. Both custom and bespoke suits are made from custom patterns and thus do a better job of accounting for accounting for body shape and posture than MTM.
Bespoke suits involve a third fitting (and sometimes more), more than either custom or MTM. The reason for this is almost self-evident: when you’re paying very, very good money for a suit and your tailor takes his/her craft very, very seriously, it behooves all parties involved to be patient and take their time. The additional fitting ensures further accuracy and minimizes the potential expense of mis-cutting an expensive fabric.
What’s Best For Me?
As we always advise, you should buy the highest quality that you can afford. Just be sure that you don’t let a MTM salesman tell you that he’s going to make you a bespoke suit!