Man versus Machine

“Once more unto the breach dear friends, once more.”

I feel like everyone has been getting their rocks off in Ibizia, sailing in Greece, or, canoeing down the Dordogne, whilst I’ve been working my fingers to the bone, delivering suits for weddings, the races, and well dressed fun in the sun.

Saying that, I did recently spend a few days in Portugal visiting a garment maker I met at Pitti Uomo in Florence, who is a contender to manufacture my forthcoming ready-to-wear collection.

I can’t tell you how good it was to briefly feel that wonderful embrace of 37 degrees heat as I stepped out of Lisbon airport. My eyes closed and shoulders dropped. Every bone, tendon, muscle and joint threw it’s head back and sighed in unison, only to be jolted back into reality as I plopped into the back of an air-conditioned taxi and headed off to their factory inland.

As a business, they can manufacture over ten thousand jackets a month and with over four hundred employees it was going to be fascinating for me to see how such a production line is set-up and the level of quality that can be achieved using modern methods and machinery.

After a warm welcome and serious caffeine hit, the tour began and kicked off by meeting their tailors.

Here, designs are discussed and then broken down and transformed into patterns drafted onto card which are then scanned onto a computer loaded with complex CAD / CAM (Computer Aided Design / Manufacturing) software.

This then controls a rotating blade which shoots around on top of a table (with the cloth laid out underneath) and cuts out the various components which when sewn together, make-up a suit.

They are then checked for accuracy, placed into bundles with work-tickets attached and move down a line of machinists who each perform one of the two hundred operations required to build a coat, each often involving several sub-procedures.

The speed and accuracy with which they worked was jaw-dropping. I was equally impressed by Mario the Production Director, whose enthusiasm for quality control was matched only by his desire to produce garments that he and his team can genuinely be proud of.

Charming, honest and a straight talker, he was quick to point out areas where he believes technology has brought down costs and taken quality to new levels, whilst admitting there are things that a machine can never do as well as a skilled pair of hands.

For example, constructing the lapels. One of the charms of a bespoke garment is the gentle ‘roll’ of a lapel.

This is achieved by a tailor placing a layer of canvas behind the cloth that makes up the lapel, loosely basting (sewing) it together, and then gently folding it over his hand so it curves slightly. This shape is then held in place by making row upon row of hundreds of ‘pad stitches,’ as seen in the picture below, which permanently give the lapel a pleasing roll and also helps the lapel hug the chest.

As you can imagine, this takes tremendous skill and many hours of work.

That is unless, like Mario, you have sixty grand to play with, in which case you can buy a pair of machines (one for the left lapel, one for the right!) which completes the task as well, if not even better, in a matter of minutes. Incredible.

When it comes to sewing on the sleeves, he agrees that it is here that man can triumph over machine, as touch and feel can never really be hardwired into a micro-chip. The eyes and the fingers can see and feel when a stitch is too tight, whilst a machine will just carry on working to the settings it has been given.

Even the cutting machine has its downside. Whilst it will maximise every square inch of the cloth and cut with unbelievable accuracy, there is a real art in laying out the patterns so that the checks and stripes will match perfectly when put together. Obviously, this is done to a large degree by the machine, but it’s just not the same.

As the tour continued, there were further oohs and ahhs, in particular watching the Eric Cantona of pressing lines, as garment after garment emerged crisp and clean as a whistle.

When it comes to tailoring, I have promised myself that whilst maintaining tradition is truly wonderful, I must always be open minded to modern methods.

There were days when truly beautiful cars were built by hand, indeed I believe the Morgan still is, but as technology has leaped forward, there are now gorgeous looking automobiles with breath-taking performance rolling off production lines.

Man versus machine will always lead to an interesting debate and perhaps I’ll mull it over more next month when I finally take a few days off and head for some surf and sun.

Hasta la vista, baby.