The Art of the Cut

Translating a man's measurements into suits for all seasons is the task of the skillful tailor, says apprentice Neal Hurst. June 18, 2007


Lloyd Dobyns: Hi! Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on This is “Behind the Scenes” where you meet the people who work here. That’s my job. I’m Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions. This time, I'm asking Neal Hurst, and at Colonial Williamsburg, he's an apprentice tailor. Why would you want to be an 18th-century tailor?

Neal Hurst: That's a good question. Many years ago, I was interested in the history of men's clothing. Unfortunately, men's clothing are not very often studied. Lots of women's clothing survives; it's very pretty. Men's clothing oftentimes can be seen as very boring. I was always interested particularly in constructing men's clothing, because nobody really does it. And also, seeing the transition between the 18th-century man wearing his breeches, waistcoat, and coat and how it changes into the 21st-century man, from your modern-day trousers, your vest, and your suit jacket. Seeing the transition from, how do you go from breeches that are so short to trousers, and what's the difference, and why are these men choosing these different things. I just always found it very, very interesting.

Lloyd: I have always thought that 21st-century clothing, a men's suit is gray, blue, or brown – that's it, nothing else. But in the 18th century, you had some really colorful clothing. I guess that would be more attractive than the 21st-century stuff.

Neal: We do still see trends in the 18th century for common business wear -- blue, brown, black, gray – just like we have in the 21st century. However, when you start going to formal dress, very fancy attire if you're going to, let’s say, Lord Dunmore's ball, you're not going to wear blue, brown, black, or gray, for the simple reason that many of those rooms are lit wholly by candles. If you wear black, you'll be lost in the shadows of the entire room, and you'll only be able to converse with your friends. But we do find that, typically in the 18th century, at least prior to the point where gaselier lights and early electrical lighting, that most men tend to wear very bright colors to very fancy occasions. That's not to say that you couldn't wear your apple blossom colored coat to the House of Burgesses, or to do business in, but you certainly can still wear your plain blues and browns.

One interesting thing we find is that, especially during the summer months here in Virginia, is it's often described that Virginia turns completely white. Just the climate we live in, the heat that's here in Virginia, that's one concession we give to fashion in the 1770s is the amount of heat in the climate, the humidity here in Virginia. Most of the men in the summertime, whether it's fancy full dress or just plain everyday wear, everybody wears completely white.

Lloyd: For a long time, Virginia's senior senator, until he passed away, was Harry Byrd Sr. I think it was on Memorial Day every year, that he put on a white suit, and wore nothing else until Labor Day. If you didn't have a calendar, that was your calendar – when did Harry put on the white suit? And I mean, complete with white shoes, white shirt. He was just a vision in white. I never thought of it, but, with the heat and humidity that we do have, that was a perfectly reasonable response, before air conditioning.

Neal: Even in the 18th century, Thomas Jefferson writes, in his "Notes on the State of Virginia," that he can remember days in Williamsburg, or rather, the change in temperature, goes from hot to cold, to cold to hot very dramatically. So he remembers some days here where the Fahrenheit thermometer goes as high as 92 degrees, and falls as low as 47 in less than 13 hours. Since we can't live by a thermometer, or a thermostat, and we can't run to it and live at a comfortable 68 degrees in shorts and t-shirts all year round, and eat strawberries in January, our clothing is really reflective of the seasons that we live in. I think that's one of the big differences between the 18th-century wardrobe that a tailor or myself would construct for the man, and the 21st-century wardrobe that we have today.

Lloyd: I had a friend when I was in college, who swore he was an apprentice tailor, and enjoyed doing it, and was quite good at fixing things if they needed fixing. He maintained that all the time he was working, he sat cross-legged. Is that so?

Neal: It is, the old term for sitting tailor-fashion. It is an ancient and archaic practice for the tailor's trade, to sit cross-legged upon our tables, in the windows themselves. Why it started, we honestly don't know, but of all the images we've ever seen from the 18th, 17th, 16th, 15th century, all the tailors are all sitting cross-legged, at least while they're working on their work boards in windows themselves. It's comfortable, it's convenient, we can sit next to one another all on one large table and work on the same project all at the same time. It gives full range of movement when you're dealing with lots of heavy things, while you're stitching the garments together themselves. So, we can give you lots of excuses why we may do it, but it just seems to be one of those things that tailors are often very known for, and joked about as well in 18th-century caricatures and things along those lines. Almost all the images of tailors, at least prior to the 1960s and '70s, are still sitting cross-legged on tables.

Lloyd: I guess it's just me – I am not comfortable doing that, so I would resent it. But even after you become, what do they call it, master tailors?

Neal: Journeymen. Journeymen are sort of the step between the apprentice and the master themselves. A master, essentially in the 18thcentury, just owns the business. Yourself could be a master tailor, you just own the business. You hire competent journeymen to actually run the business for you.

Lloyd: How long do you apprentice before you can be a journeyman?

Neal: Typically in the tailor's trade, it's anywhere between about five to seven years, and they almost always keep it more towards the seven years. The tailor's trade, in the 18th century, is the single largest trade in the entire world. Williamsburg itself had at least 16 operational tailor shops, separate buildings, in the year 1774. About 75 tailors actually worked in Williamsburg. So they're really trying to keep their apprentices, so they can get the ones that are really wholehearted for the trade and really want to do it, and try to weed out the ones who are not. It's a very long apprenticeship. It's often said that tailors are as numerous as locusts, but as poor as rats. There's a lot of us.

Lloyd: (Chuckles.) There's another reason, why do you want to be a tailor?

Neal: As long as you're born naked, sir, you're going to need clothing, and it keeps me comfortably employed.

Lloyd: Let me be sure I understand it – you only do men's clothing?

Neal: Primarily, right. Tailors will, in the 18th century, make up what's referred to as women's riding habits. In fact, most tailors in Williamsburg, when they run their newspaper advertisements upon the newspaper, say specifically that they will make women's riding habits. That's probably one of the concessions that tailors do make for women. There are branches of my trade, however, such as the staymaker, which makes specifically women's stays. It's a whole other trade. Williamsburg had two staymakers working in there, but they're not tailors, they're not making men's suits, breeches, waistcoats and coats.

Lloyd: How many tailors did you say?

Neal: About 75, at least to keep those 16 shops operational, that's around '74, 1775.

Lloyd: That sort of indicates that men were more interested in how they looked, in their presentation of themselves, than they are now.

Neal: It certainly could. But also the fact that yourself could not go to a store in the 18th century and buy ready-made clothing, clothing already made off the rack. Your breeches, your waistcoat, your coat, your frock, your roqueleaure, all of the garments you're going to need – except for things like your shirts and stockings and shoes and shoe buckles – would all be made bespoke in 18th century. So it's your preoccupation to go find the fabric, the lining, the inner linings, all of the things you need for your clothes, then seek out your tailor you want your clothes made by. It's very unlikely that yourself would go to the store and buy your clothes ready made.

Lloyd:  Obviously, I had forgotten that if you want clothes at all, you're going to the tailor.

Neal: (Chuckles.) Usually.

Lloyd: What skills do you learn as an apprentice tailor?

Neal: The main skills, if we look at the 18th-century skills that the tailor would have to learn, is running the business.

Lloyd: No, that's the master. You're not doing that.

Neal: But you have to learn that, as well. If you can't read or write, you can't operate a business itself. So, reading, writing, ciphering, all those things that you need to become a competent businessman.

Also, really, the art of the trade is the cutting. Oftentimes, people confuse sewing with tailoring. The true art of the tailor is taking the measure from your body, making it into a flat pattern, cutting it out, and then stitching it together. Stitching, I could hire yourself in here to do the stitching for me, but the art of my trade is the cutting and the measuring of your body.

However, in the 21st century of course, we have to reconstruct that trade, because we can't go to James Slate tailor in Williamsburg and ask him, how did you measure for that pair of breeches, or how did you measure for that coat? So we have to figure these things out on our own, and take original examples, take patterns off of them, study them in order to find out our construction techniques that we're using some 200 years ago. They are quite a bit different than constructing something with a machine.

Lloyd: So you're not only studying an 18th-century craft as an apprentice, you are doing it in the 18th-century way. You have to learn two things.

Neal: Right. We're learning a lot more than what our 18th-century counterparts would have had to learn. They wouldn't give you a pair of breeches and say, study these, figure out how they're put together, and then make this pair. They're just given the cloth, and told to make the pair for customer X. So, we have a lot more that's on our shoulders, in order to study the trade, to perpetuate the trade. Unfortunately, the tailor's trade is not the most popular trade any longer in the 21st century. It's probably the least common trade you'll find somebody practicing in.

Lloyd: Which leads to the question, what attracted you to it, other than your interest in men's clothes? It seems to me it would be one of the more difficult things to learn.

Neal: It is, and I also like the challenge, and studying of the original garments to figure out how they were put together, and why they were put together in that manner. It's certainly a challenge to take on that aspect of the trade, and trying to learn how this person actually did this, some 200 years ago. It's sort of the chase. You're trying to always figure out, and there's not any garment that survives from the 18th century is the same. Learning all these different techniques from all these different tailors, whoever they are, because we don't know who they were, and trying to put these garments together, so that if you came to me and said, "I want a pair of 18th-century breeches with a purse pocket that buckles behind," we know what that means, and we can actually make that for you.

Lloyd: Actually, I wouldn't know what that meant, so I wouldn't ask for it. I have great admiration for people who learn how to do new things with their hands. If you're cutting 18th-century style, it's scissors – it's no laser. You get a pair of scissors and you whack away at the cloth, and then you sew it together, and it fits.

Neal: (Chuckles.) Ideally.

Lloyd: Well, ideally, yes. If you want to sell it, it fits. I have great difficulty understanding why somebody would want to undertake something that difficult.

Neal: Well, we often think it's very difficult, because we never use our hands anymore in the 21st century. Like you said, we have lasers to cut these things out. But, before the laser, before electric scissors, before the sewing machine, you're talking millions of years of people who wore clothing that were all assembled by somebody's hand. The sewing machine itself was not invented until 1846, so in 1776, there's not even the idea of something mechanical. Most people are thinking about that, but the practicality of coming up with a machine to actually do the stitching for you is not there. So, it's just common knowledge that the only way to wear clothing is things that are sewn by hand.

Again, it's a matter of, we often grow tired of hearing "It's amazing that you can do that by your hands," but it was only less than 100 years ago that somebody's hands were doing this for you. Even up until the 1930s and '40s, all the buttonholes found in your garments are still done by somebody's hands. The buttonhole attachment for your sewing machine is only invented in the early 20th century. So it's not that long ago that you had handmade buttonholes found in your suits, or hand finished seams in your suits, as well.

Lloyd: But, what you think of now is, it was 500 years ago, because no one has that skill anymore.

Neal: Certainly. That skill is so easily lost, because, as you said, nobody practices that trade anymore. But, we're here to perpetuate those trades for posterity, so you can see what your ancestors 200 years ago learned and went through in order to understand the cutting and fitting of clothing. Not just the clothes, let alone the blacksmith, the wheelwright, the gunsmith, and all these folks who do practice still in these hand trades today.

Lloyd: How long have you been an apprentice?

Neal: I've been an apprentice here at Colonial Williamsburg for three years this September, so I have about four years left. Just like my 18th-century counterpart, I have a seven-year apprenticeship to go through.

Lloyd: In four years, I'll look you up and get a pair of those breeches with a buckle behind and a something purse.

Neal: A purse-pocket.

Lloyd : Boy, I'd look nifty in one of those suits. That’s Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present this time. Check often, we’ll post more for you to download and hear.

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