This is the first post in a series where I will cut open and deconstruct suits at various price points to display their guts and discuss what's going on inside.
With most articles of clothing, the quality is fairly easy to ascertain just by handling the garment. Suits and sport coats, however, require a layer between the fabric and the lining and there are several different methods for creating this "skeleton" of sorts.
Broadly speaking, the price of a suit is based on a few basic elements:
- Fabric - The wholesale price of a yard of fabric varies dramatically. It may range from a couple of dollars per yard to several hundred depending on the quality. An average suit requires around 3½ yards, depending on the size. An inexpensive suit might have a total of $10 in fabric, while a pricey suit could be upwards of $1000, before retail mark-up.
- Fabrication - This is the main focus of this post. It’s very difficult without ruining a suit to know how it’s sewn (or fused). I will be sacrificing several jackets to the gods of sartorial transparency.
- Country of origin - I'm sure it’s now possible to get a fairly good quality suit made in China and other parts of Southeast Asia. However, usually the emphasis is on quantity over quality, since this how the factories are designed to operate. Even if all things were equal, the considerably higher wages in countries like the USA and Italy strongly affect the wholesale price and thus the price paid at the register, which gets multiplied many times over.
- Prestige - The least quantifiable, but perhaps most influential factor in price. Several brands that shall remain nameless have been riding on their reputation since their rise to esteem in the 80s and 90s. They have used their cultural cache to keep retail prices high, while at the same time cutting costs in the three elements listed above. This is fairly easy to get away with, at least in the short/medium term, since suit quality can be opaque.
The Sacrificial Suit: Jos. A. Bank "Signature Collection"
I picked up this suit for $10 on eBay, but according to what I've seen on the Jos. A. Bank website, they range from about $300 on sale to $800 full price, so I think it’s reasonable to call this a $500 suit. From what I can tell, "Signature" is one of their higher-end lines.
After I gutted and filleted the jacket, this is what I was left with of the front-left panel:
As with any jacket, there's a lot going on, but the details may not be obvious to the untrained eye. Traditionally, jackets were constructed with what’s referred to as a “canvas” - a layer of material (horsehair, wool, linen, etc) that’s sandwiched between the outside fabric and the lining. It’s traditionally basted (temporarily sewn) by a master tailor who turns and adjusts the two-dimensional garment to give it the shape it will assume when worn in three-dimensions and then tacked in place in a few specific locations, but otherwise is mostly left to "float". Its purpose is to add heft, body, and shape to the jacket while maintaining proper drape.
Starting in the 70s, manufacturers started experimenting with other ways to add heft and developed a technique called "fusing". Fusing partially or completely replaces the canvas with a resin material akin to an iron-on patch. It's placed on the inside of the jacket material and pressed together with steam and heat. It’s the light-colored material in the center and on the right surrounding the buttonholes in the picture above. Here's a zoomed-in image of an edge of the deconstructed jacket where you can see the fusible meet the fabric:
The two pieces are joined together and cannot be separated without reapplying heat or solvent. The advantages are pretty straightforward with fusing: it saves a significant amount of time (this is the most time-consuming part of jacket construction), and thus money. The material is also exponentially less expensive since it’s man-made.
The disadvantages of fusing
However, the disadvantages are significant. As with any polymer based material, fusibles are not breathable, so they run much hotter than canvas. They also have the tendency to "de-laminate", which is a sort of bubbling effect that becomes evident on the outside of the jacket caused by the fusible separating from the fabric. This is generally due to dry-cleaning and pressing (solvent and heat).
By far the most important disadvantage is the way a fusible garment drapes. Whereas canvas is stiff and springy, fusible is limp and lifeless, like a rolled out cotton ball. This might seem like an insignificant difference, but with canvas you can make a very lightweight garment that holds its shape well:
The canvas material in the video above is extremely thin, perhaps slightly thicker than a piece of standard office paper, but you can see that is quite springy. It is constructed from a combination of horsehair (not harmful to the horse, think of violin bows), wool, and linen. With a fused jacket, the fusible and the fabric are attached across the entire shared surface, as opposed to a floating canvas.
The Jos. A. Bank jacket has a canvas piece in the chest, which is a fairly common addition to many fused garments, as it is relatively easy to attach compared to a full canvas and does not require basting.
The lapel (which you can't see in the photo) is also fused. The disadvantage here is that the lapel will sit very flat against the chest, almost as if it is creased. With a fully canvassed jacket, the lapel and chest are generally one piece of canvas, and an additional strip of material runs down the folding point to add extra heft, which gives the lapel a "rolled" effect where it doesn't sit flat on the chest.
On higher-end jackets, most of the edges are rolled over, "taped," and basted so they are not flimsy. Curved edges, such as the bottom-front of the jacket, are micro-pleated to make the curve without bunching. On the dissected jacket the fusing goes right to the edge and then is folded over, so the edges have the same weight as any other portion of the jacket.
Lastly, one important detail for proper fit and drape is a hand sewn armhole. The armhole is a complete circle and, as you might imagine, hard to accurately sew on a machine. It is important to make sure that the sleeve and jacket are rotating in unison while sewing them together and this is difficult to do with a machine.
By cutting open and exposing the inside of the Jos. A. Bank suit, I was able to find out precisely how it was manufactured. The guts were pretty much as expected and representative of jackets in their price range, as well as many that are more expensive. Quality, fully canvassed suits generally range from the high $2000s and up, so Jos. A. Bank isn't committing any cardinal sins at approximately $500.
Check out the other installments in this series: