Drafts, cuts, and leaves

If making it look easy is a tell-tale sign of mastery, then there’s no argument: the pattern-cutter is a master. The evidence for this is endless and is all over the place, but its most startling example is the ease with which he draws the first draft of a new sleeve (for example) by hand.

The overall dimensions and proportions of the pattern are the first reason why making it freehand is not very common. If you’re wrong a fraction more than a smidgin here you’ll end up with a comically skinny or squat sleeve, or a sleeve that tapers too much, or has too much room in the bicep, or curves too severely, or is too baggy at the elbow. But who knows? Maybe that’s actually the easy part. Most sleeves are four-sided shapes: each side a path of several curves (of two or three degrees) and angles. These tell you how tight the sleeve feels at the armpit, how much it pitches forwards or backwards, how round or not is the line at the shoulder. Just as there’s no succinct way to sum up the shape of the human arm, the same is true of a sleeve — and indeed, unlike the human arm, the sleeve of a jacket can take many forms, be it raglan, Dolman, Magyar, inset, or a hybrid of several.

The pattern-cutter draws one of these geometrically nonsensical polygons with just a pencil in his hand and a piece of paper (spot-and-cross if he’s lucky) on his table. The physical act of drawing these lines with the requisite precision would be preclusively time-consuming for most mortals: some parts must be absolutely straight, other gently or drastically curved. It’s why computers were introduced to the industry four decades ago.

But the pencil in his hand does not falter or wobble. There’s no tentative sketching. The lead, excessively sharp, glides serenely along: mercifully free from the pressures of doubt, as if the right way to draw this sleeve was always obvious and no workings-out were needed to reach it. It won’t just be any sleeve, either. It will be a good sleeve. Neither need it be any old good sleeve, but rather exactly the sleeve you want: a sleeve bespoke for the job, which is soft and round at the top, tapers sharply at the elbow, and draws into the cuff with, say, two pleats. It is a gift honed every week since about 1952. It is never done in a jaded or lackadaisical manner. Rather, it is done with concentration dialled up to eleven, such that one must approach his table as obviously as possible — with heavy footsteps, from a good distance, always in line of sight — so as not to rattle him and break the spell.

He then cuts out the shape he has just drawn. This is itself an act of elegant execution. There seems no movement wasted. The heavy steel pattern-cutting shears glide around the thick card as smoothly as a sadistically sharpened knife through room-temperature cliche, and with the as-yet unexplained party trick of cutting razor-sharp lines which are non-threateningly soft-edged to the fingertip. The sleeve is then draped to the bust. It fits (this is the outcome you come to expect when you exceed the 10,000 hours allegedly necessary to attain mastery of a talent by give-or-take 300,000 hours). Next is the body.