Joe Morgan, of Chittleborough & Morgan, back in the day of Nutters, has always had an eye for detail.
Knowing this, I wasn’t that surprised when I heard that Joe had deliberately set out to be the only Savile Row tailor using a Milanese buttonhole. Apparently he was working with a tailor who used to be at Camps de Luca in Paris, and the French houses like Camps, Cifonelli and Smalto are famous for that fine buttonhole with the Italian name. Indeed, Jeffrey Diduch traced the history of the technique in the last issue of The Rake, explaining how it was probably developed by Caraceni in Italy, exported to France by the Italian tailors that moved there, and got its name from an Italian gimp thread.
The thing is, Parisian buttonholes tend to be shorter than those produced on Savile Row. You could argue, therefore, that the Chittleborough & Morgan buttonhole is unique, having that fineness of finish but displayed over a longer form.
The technique used by Joe’s tailors – such as Michael, pictured doing the work here – is slightly different from that described by Jeffrey. But then Jeffrey derived his own technique rather than learning it from elsewhere, and the result seems to be largely the same.
The key to the technique here is that the silk thread is wound around the gimp, rather than knotted. All buttonholes use a gimp – a thicker piece of thread that lies along either side of the slit to give the buttonhole some body. But with a standard buttonhole each stitch involves passing through a loop of the same thread, creating a knot. That series of knots is easy to keep in a straight line, is robust and consistent. But they can only be so small.
With the Milanese, the thread is simply wound around the gimp, inserted through the cloth to anchor it, and then wound around again. Winding around might sound easier than knotting, but the tension in the Milanese has to be absolutely consistent throughout – otherwise the line of the buttonhole won’t be straight. If just one loop is overtightened, it makes it kink.
“The first time I tried this it took me about two hours,” says Michael. “And even then there were one or two kinks.” His first attempt is the red buttonhole shown below, which looks fine until you look really closely. “Now it takes me about an hour. A regular buttonhole you can do in about 10 minutes if you’re fast.”
It’s important that when you insert the needle through the cloth, this is done as close to the gimp as possible. As the Milanese is finer than a regular buttonhole, there is less room for these stitches in the cloth to be hidden. A bad Milanese can have a little shadow of stitches above and below it as a result.
Michael also uses a common tailoring technique to keep the buttonhole straight. He stitches around the hole with a sewing machine before cutting it, and then dabbing on a little glue (‘fray stop’) on the edges. Many tailors cut the cloth first, then put a lot more glue all round. The problem is that you have to sew long stitches around the edges to stop any chances of fraying, so the buttonhole has to be that much thicker. With the machine stitch in place first, that isn’t required.
Interesting to get into the detail of something that fans of bespoke clothing get so obsessed about. And good to see a Savile Row tailor staying ahead of the game – and up with the French.