The Swelled Edge, A Quarter-Inch Of Distinction

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Ivy-style tweed sports jackets and suits are often distinguished by detailed quarter-inch stitching from the edge of the lapels down the front of the jacket. This distinctive feature is usually echoed by lapped seams that run across the shoulder, down the back seam, and around the pocket flaps.

But how did it get there?

Everyone who’s considered this question agrees that the stitching gives the jacket a sporty look, and that the addition of what English tailors sometimes refer to as a “swelled” edge makes for a casual, jaunty touch. It’s certainly something that one would never expect to see on a fine worsted or flannel business suit. We seem to intuitively recognize that this almost imperceptible detail is at home more in the country than in town, that this rakish element produces a casual, country effect.

And, as it happens, our intuitions are once again right. The quarter-inch stitch is in fact a vestigial visible trace of something long gone from utilitarian practice — and memory. It hangs on as decor rather than as a functioning detail, but like the two buttons in the small of the back of a tailcoat (originally used to button the tails when in the saddle), the quarter-inch stitch once had an important function. At least if you lived in the country and followed country pursuits.

Tweed jackets and coats, it should be remembered, were the Victorian equivalent of sportswear, the most useful country garment a gentleman could devise at the time to protect himself from the cold and wet of a day’s hunting, stalking or riding. The wool fabric is hearty and handsome, absorbent, abrasion-resistant, and warm. But without the tailor’s art, it would become a baggy mess after a few short hours on the moors. That’s where the quarter-inch stitch comes in.

In order to prevent the lapels (and therefore front of the jacket) from collapsing when soaked with rain, some unacknowledged tailors figured out that a reinforcing row of stitching down the front edge of the coat would keep the whole thing better in place. And it does. The additional stitching along the lapel helps the coat keep its shape by holding the cloth – both the inside and outside layers — together when wet.

Today we really don’t wear our sports jackets in the rain: various synthetic fibers and waxed fabrics have replaced wool for so many occasions. But that handsome quarter-inch of stitching is there as a jaunty reminder that these handsome coats we now wear as mere plumage were originally designed with great utility in mind. — G. BRUCE BOYER

boyer-bioLegendary menswear writer G. Bruce Boyer was men’s fashion editor at Town & Country throughout the ’70s and ’80s. He has recently returned to writing for the magazine.

Above image is a 1962 illustration from Brooks Brothers, which features swelled edges on its current Own Make sportcoats.

19 Comments on "The Swelled Edge, A Quarter-Inch Of Distinction"

  1. James Redhouse | October 29, 2013 at 11:45 am |

    How nice that collar points have grown longer, and ties wider, since that 1962 illustration.

  2. Two of my favorite jackets from my youth were both Corbins, one a brown & grey herring bone Harris tweed, the other a navy wool serge blazer. Both welted seams and patch & flap pockets. Does anyone make patch & flap pocket blazers anymore? Sports coats with out always remind me of a suit coat missing the trousers.

  3. So I am reading this post and thinking “this is really good writing”, and then I scroll down to Mr. Boyer’s picture and I realize “oh that is why it is so good.” Glad to see him contributing here again. I had always wondered about the swelled seam, and this explains it.

    About 5 or 7 years ago or so, J. Press had a navy worsted sack sut that had the 1/4 inch stitching. It seemed wrong to my eye and I asked the salesman about it. His explanation was that it was hard to differentiate a navy blue suit, so that gave it some style. Since I generally think of a navy blue suit as a weddings/funerals/semi-formal type suit, I did not want a blazer-detail on such a suit. Since then, I have come to think that such stitching might be a nice detail to make a dark suit slightly sporty. Couldnt be worse than the hacking slanted pockets in vogue today.

  4. Jonathan Mitchell | October 29, 2013 at 3:34 pm |

    A pleasure, as always, to read Mr. Boyer’s lucid prose. The fact that he has a B.A. and M.A. in Literature, and was a professor of English Literature for 7 years may partly explain why he writes so well.

  5. @MAC, I thought I saw one on O’Connells.

  6. Well that and writing for publications has the advantage of editors. Of course one reads my writing and Mr. Boyer’s shines. He do write good. 😉

  7. emjkmj
    “O'” means “descendant of”, “Mc” or “Mac” means “son of”. In this case Connell. No relation,unfortunately, I could use the discount. Yes, that may be the last one I saw. They had some nice Southwicks, but not my size. 😉

  8. Are the sweet gentle pleasures of distinctive tailoring gone for good?

  9. Funny that Southwick insists upon “5/16.”

  10. Swelled edges work as nicely on a dark navy flannel blazer.

  11. As I always say, the devil is in the details! These are the types of details that make things classics.

  12. Steve Hunter | October 30, 2013 at 3:08 pm |

    Another thing from this wonderful site I didn’t know I didn’t know.

  13. Steve Hunter | October 30, 2013 at 3:34 pm |

    BTW, followed the link in the last graf to B-Bros “own make” sports coat to note the swelled edge and came across a picture of a very nice boy’s sport coat on a man’s body. I’m not sure how the model breathed during the photo session, but the coat, which might have been quite interesting had it fit, fit like a brassiere. It showed a yard of cuff and it ceased to exist three inches above the wrist. it shaped the man’s body like a woman’s. It was, simply put, a desecration. This, perhaps, is why I am not that enthusiastic about a steak under the auspices of Brooks Brothers. Will it be, after this jacket, a shriveled gobbit of burnt protein on a plate immensely too vast to accommodate it. What is going on with those guys?

  14. When did “God is in the details” become “the devil is in the details?” I thought the latter only applied when you were limited in time or resources.

  15. Dan: BB’s is hopoefully both!

  16. Sorry it’s hopefully

  17. Malvernlink | October 31, 2013 at 9:09 am |

    @ Steve, they certainly do.

    10 to 15 years ago I bought on sale a Brooks Brothers navy heavy wool blazer. Flap patch pockets and a patch breast pocket. 3/2 roll, no darts,very soft natural shoulder sack jacket.
    Has 3/8″ swelled seams as described in Boyer’s article. Last time I ever saw one at Brooks Brothers. Indication of how low they have fallen.

  18. I did much research after reading your this article. I seemed to have confused myself. Can you explain the difference between swelled edges, double stitching, single stitching and simple pick stitching? Thank you.

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