The Savvy Sage of Sewing Stimulation

Those Details That Matter

So we all know that details on a garment can make or break it.  There’s a ton of them out there, but what are they and why do they matter.

There’s a great article in the Wall Street Journal about how some RTW manufacturers are doing their best o imitate a bespoke garment made by hand.  And there are some giveaways.

So here’s their list (which is a pretty good place to start).

Pad Stitching:


This is a stitch done to attach the interfacing to the garment in such a way as to create a 3-D shape – like a roll or fold.  This is most often used on the roll of the lapel.   The lapel is not pressed into position as it is so often in RTW, but it rolls softly.  Additionally the stitches cause the roll to return after the jacket is mislaid, squashed or otherwise irregularly placed.  IOW, the stitching causes the jacket to return back to the original position in which the maker intended with the pad stitching.

You say, “Well, Claire this is all fine and dandy, but I don’t really wear those kinds of jackets, so I really don’t have a use for this technique!”  Not so,  my fair friend! This technique can be used to not only cause fabric to shape in a certain way, but if you have a fabric that you want to highly manipulate, this can be a very handy technique to have in your cadre of skills.


As many of you know, I’m one of those Outlander fans and saw some of the costumes of the lead actress from the first season in a coat, and wanted to do my version of the coat (it has to be practical for my needs).  I found pretty close what I needed for this project but not exactly because the fur type collar and cuffs was a knit – it stretched.  I wanted this collar highly structured and I wanted it to fold in a certain way, and this knit was limber and drapy.  It wasn’t going to hold a shape of anything.   So I had to either go online to find the right color, pile height, yardage and look or I could use this fabric that was a knit and do something with it.  This was so dang close to what I wanted, that it was really hard to resist – right pile height, right color – casual, yet coordinated beautifully with the olive green wool of the coat (red and green are opposites on the color wheel and make a ice contrast base….the coat was olive – dulled green – and the fur was rust – dulled red in a watercolor sort of pattern).  But if I didn’t have any padstitching skills and know to use them here (because I know what the technique will do), I would not have been able to use this fabric.  Having these skills broadens my use of fabrics, and means that I don’t have to be so limited on fabrics.

Enter my padstitching technique and I not only end up with a collar that holds its shape, but it doesn’t stretch (this was not a place for a stretch fabric).  So because of my padstitching skill, I could totally manipulate this collar to do exactly what I wanted.  What’s so cool about this technique is that when I put the coat on it naturally shapes the way I want.  I could have used stiff interfacing and steamed it with an iron to get the shape once (cause after I wear it a couple of times, it will go back to flat and not stand up).  But using this technique means that every time I put the coat on, it falls just where I want (and that includes hanging it up and smashing it in the closet over the summer!!!!!)



This is most often used as a finishing technique and it can be one of those WOW detailed finishes that separates the men from the boys.  The thing is that if you aren’t familiar with the technique or don’t know to look for it, you won’t notice it. Noticing it, makes you a step above and puts you in another category of recognizing fine clothing.  This is most often used in men’s jackets as a topstitching  alternative to the regular machine topstitching that you see in so much RTW. For RTW to mimic this technique is another way to upgrade the suit without the expensive hand work.  For we sewists, doing a hand-ticked or pickstitch finishing topstitching is really beautiful and it’s not all that hard.  Using Tiger tape is a great way to do this.  On any garment you make this can make a very professional finish – for those who notice (and noting who notices is interesting as well).

So this is one of those techniques that can be mimicked a little, but the truth is that it only lasts a short time.  The problem here is that the garments that are using this shortcut aren’t meant to last a long time.  My coat is made to last for decades and even though it may have cost double what I might have paid in the store, it’s going to last 10 even 20 times longer.  That’s the real bargain here – well, and the other is that I got exactly what I wanted, which I couldn’t have done in the store.


Another great place to use this technique is in the seam-meeting zipper or centered zipper, especially if it’s in a fine fabric.  This is zipper in a beautiful silk charmeuse top.  The zipper is in back, so it doesn’t even show in front, which is even more sublime.  IOW, it’s not showy and almost hidden but when noticed it’s a beautiful statement your clothes can make.

Personal note:  For decades I’ve been designing and making debutante and wedding gowns, and used this fabulous technique to apply my zipper in those gowns.  I never had one that busted out or came undone.  Usually the night of the wedding or ball I was busy sewing repairs to the RTW sewn-in zippers that wouldn’t last.  So this is a lot sturdier and stronger than you imagine.  At the same time it made a beautiful zipper in back!


Working Buttonholes:

This is referring to the cuff buttons and buttonholes – not the front of the jacket which should always have working buttonholes no matter what.  But working buttonholes on the cuff says: This suit was altered to fit me alone and there are buttonholes that are working with holes in the cuff to prove that it hasn’t been altered, because you know what – you can’t alter this.  You can’t move those holes and re-sew the buttonholes!

Even if you aren’t making a tailored jacket, having a working buttonhole, that isn’t functional, but purely decorative is a wonderful look.  Places you can use this are on a rolled sleeve tab to keep the rolled sleeve in place;  a decorative cuff on a 3/4 sleeve that doesn’t need to be undone to pass your wrist through, but can have a short housetop placket as extra sleeve detail; in the top of the cuff of a sleeve to keep the sleeve in place, even though you have no need to undo the folded up cuff.   Mostly these are decorative uses and in a very snobby way of saying, “I know fine tailoring and you don’t!!”  It’s fun to be snobbish about your sewing!


The Specialized Inner Pocket.

Even if you aren’t doing a formal jacket, if you have a casual one with lining, this can be such a kickin’ cool pocket to have.  It can be sized anyway you like – for your smartphone, for your wallet (usually flat wallet), envelope shaped (for any envelope you carry frequently), or any other use you like.  Usually this is for flat or very slim items and putting a stuffed wallet or tissues for a tear-jerker movie will give you bulk where you don’t want it.  At the same time a place to put an envelope or  your thin smartphone is just way cool.


Now the bottom line:  although these RTW manufacturers are doing a pretty good job of imitating bespoke, there is nothing like the hand tailoring and shaping that you can do with your hands no matter how fancy, complicated, sophisticated and/or  advanced the machine or the mimicked process.  Nothing can replace that beautiful hand work.  We as sewists can do this, and for us it becomes time-effective as well as cost-effective.

How?  Because the time we spend on making these details in our garments, will be reaped in the years and often decades of wear and enjoyment that the garment will bring.  The consumer is at a serious disadvantage here in that the only thing offered to her is a replica of bespoke, or bespoke which costs an arm and an leg.  Even the replica will be expensive.  Whereas the sewist can do this.  It’s like my coat with the padstitching – I paid probably 60% more than I would have with RTW, but I get 500% more wear out of it – do the math and the made garment is not only better, what you want, BUT it’s also more cost effective.

I know a lot of you think, of the time involved in adding these techniques to your sewing, but when you count up the time spent to the wearing time, your time is very well spent.  And as far as managing this, it does take some discipline but there’s nothing wrong with using time-management tools from very effective professionals and executives who have minimal time to complete complex and time-consuming tasks.

But time management is another subject for another day.  Take it from someone who has added these extra details to my own clothes.  It’s so worth it!





  1. I enjoyed reading this. Your blog posts are always helpful. I’m starting over and building a better repertoir of skills in order to sew quality garments. I look forward to reading more from you.

    • Glad I can inspire you to sew more quality garments. Here’s the thing to remember most when you are tackling some really difficult tasks: the garment you are making will last for years, and the little time (although it seems like a lot now) will be rewarded every time you wear the garments which could possibly number into the hundreds. So it IS worth it in the long run!

  2. I agree that the extras put the sewist clothes up a notch and I am working at doing just that. What I am wondering is how do you decide which techniques or finishes are suitable and not over the top? Do I follow the pattern recommendations but instead of top stitching I pick stitch? How far do you go?

    • Aaaaah that’s the eternal dilemma of the artist. There’s a great Far Side cartoon out about this. Fred Babb What Is Art?

      OK That’s not helpful. Actually you can go overboard, but here’s the thing, it won’t show. These techniques here are subtle and only those who are in the know are going to be the ones who may think it’s over the top, and really it’s a matter of individual style and taste. Personally I don’t think you can ever do too much pick stitching as a top stitch. It’s a matter of how much time are you willing to put into it. If it’s a garment you know you’re going to wear a lot, go for it. If it’s something you won’t wear much, I’d be reluctant to put too much time into it (unless its very formal). For those who know, it will be a naaa-na-na-na-naaaa moment in which you can say, I’m good and you’re not, in a very subtle way.

      But for some very basic rules: pick stitching is like top stitching and used in lieu of top stitching – don’t do both, and I wouldn’t even mix them. Either top stitch or pick stitch.

      Pad stitching should only be used in areas where you want a distinct fold or roll of the fabric. This is NOT something you use on a flat area, unless you do light pad stitching on a flat surface, but really that is overkill. Pad stitching is used on the roll or fold of a collar and lapel. Those are the traditional places and as you stitch closer to the fold, the stitching gets smaller and closer together. As you get further away the stitching s farther apart and the stitch rows are further apart.

      Working Buttonholes on the cuff or in areas that are normally decorative is to me the penultimate/in-your-face statement that you know fine sartorial goods and know how to show it off. This relates to the cuff on fine jackets in particular. But having working buttonholes on epaulets, decorative tabs (on pockets or rolled up cuffs or pant legs), and any other decorative detail, is equally as elegant. The thing is that in the later cases in this list, these are mostly casual garments. Having a fine sartorial detail in our casual wear is like making hunting gear for HRH. Let’s be honest, you aren’t HRH (Her/His Royal Highness). At the same time, I have been known to do this sort of in-your-face detail on purpose to make a statement – mostly to see if the person who the garment is geared for would notice – if not, that’s telling; if so, that’s just as telling. Probably the best rule for this is on jacket cuffs only – unless you want to be really brash and in-your-face about sartorial details.

      Inside pockets is all about location, location, location. If you have a large bust, do your self a favor and don’t get a neurosis trying to put that pocket in at the bust area. If you’re stomach is big, don’t try to add more to an already sensitive area and keep it away from your waist area. This is common sense. And this doesn’t show – it’s all about you and what this element of detail does for you. RTW likes this cause it’s a cheap and easy way to show sartorial fineness (whether it is actually well constructed is beside the point – it’s about show with RTW). When you’re wearing the garment, it doesn’t really matter. What is more important is the fit, not whether you have that inside pocket.

      OK – hope that helps. If you have a specific area or question about these details – ask on!!

  3. Interesting and informative, as usual, Claire, but I believe you left in a typo under the “Working Buttonholes” section: It reads “But working buttonholes on the cuff says: This suit was altered to fit me alone and there are buttonholes that are working with holes in the cuff to prove that it hasn’t been altered,” which is contradictory as read. You’re saying “this suit was altered” and then you go on to say that it proves that it hasn’t been “altered”. I believe you meant to say, “This suit was tailored to fit me alone”. Am I understanding your meaning correctly?

    • You know Randi – that was probably not worded as well as it should have been. What I meant to say was that when you have working buttonholes in a jacket sleeve like this, you are sealed at that hem length of the jacket sleeve. That means after the working buttonholes are slit, you can never change the hem of the jacket for that would change the location of the buttonholes and you would essentially have to take out the buttonholes, re-hem the jacket and then be left with slits in the fabric that were not at the correct or right locations.

      The very act of slitting the buttonholes (and hence making hem working buttonholes sends out such a custom-made and tailored message for those who can see this subtle detail. Most of the time tailored suits will have sewn-in buttonholes but they are not slit and the button will be sewn on top of it.

      Essentially, when the suit is tailored to a person, the altering has been done while the suit is being made. You might not call that altering, I do, but hat’s a personal taste in definition of terms. Therefore the jacket was altered while it was being made to fit the wearer, THEN the buttonholes were made and slit – so it was altered then the buttonholes were slit, saying that no more altering will be allowed.

      It’s sort of like burning a disk; you can change the content, erase, edit, add but once you burn the disk, that’s it and you can’t change it anymore. Once those buttonholes are slit, you can’t change the cuff of a jacket anymore!

      OK – hope that makes sense now!!!

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