Arbiter CBDum
This topic generates a lot of confusion, so I thought I would share what I have learned with the members.

What is a Neapolitan shoulder? The tailors of Naples have become famous over the last ten years, in part because the rise in popularity of brands like Kiton. Many writers wax poetic about the famous shoulder/sleevehead. But what do they mean?

There are three things that can distinguish a Naples-made or Naples-inspired coat shoulder. The first is a lack of padding. The second is a pleated sleevehead. And the third is what the Neapolitans call the spalla camicia, or “shirt shoulder.â€

Now, sometimes this latter is confused with the Neapolitan shoulder. But this is a mistake. The spalla camicia is a detail that is a specialty of Neapolitan tailors, but it is not in itself the necessary and sufficient criterion for a Neapolitan shoulder. Some Neapolitan coats are made with it, some aren’t. Some tailors like to do it, some don’t. There is a general belief—not universally shared—that the spalla camicia is only proper on odd jackets and informal suits.

Before I go on, I ought to make the obligatory caveats that, as everywhere, tailoring in Naples is not monolithic. There are tailors who make a very lean, very clean Roman-style suit. Also, the major brands that sell in the US do not sell classically Neapolitan coats like I am about to describe. The shoulders are too padded, and the sleeveheads too clean to be the soft, natural shoulder for which Neapolitan tailoring has become renown in recent years. Finally, as always, I could be wrong about some of this. I am merely doing my best at presenting what I know, or think I know. I have learned a lot here, and elsewhere, and anything I think I know at any given point is always subject to later revision.

But let’s go through all three criteria. Most Neapolitan coats are characterized by minimal or even zero padding. This in itself is controversial. Many people really hate the look of sloping, rounded shoulders. Some tailors hate to make it because it so hard to fit. Padded shoulders give a coat structure. The tailor can affix a great deal of cloth to the pad and hang the rest therefrom. It solves a lot of thorny problems. Unpadded shoulders have to be measured in increments of 8ths or even 16ths. There is no margin for error.

This is why the true Neapolitan shoulder is almost never seen ready-to-wear. RTW patterns are very exacting. They are developed over time with a great deal of care. They are designed to fit as many men as possible with minimal alterations. We tend to be dismissive of RTW clothing on the forums, and I can see why; it has many, many shortcomings. But some acknowledgement should be made of the complexity and difficulty inherent in designing a RTW pattern that fits men across a range of sizes yet looks similar in silhouette no matter what the size. It’s harder than we think. Doing that reliably requires a shoulderpad. Which is why Kiton and Borrelli and Isaia and most Neapolitan RTW suits sold in the US (with the exception of La Vera) are padded.

But back to the real thing. There is no pad. There might, or might not, be some wadding at the edge of the sleevehead, on the shoulder side. This depends on the tailor, on his judgment of the client’s needs, and the client’s preferences. Either way, the overall effect is most sloped, soft, and rounded.

The second hallmark is the pleated sleevehead. But actually, “pleated†is a slightly misleading term, since “pleat†implies a careful and precise folding. But that is not the case with a Neapolitan shoulder. Rather, the upper sleeve is deliberately cut much larger than the (typically very small) armscye. That excess cloth or fullness is then fed into the scye as the sleeve is hand-set into the body of the coat. This CANNOT be done by machine. Sewing machines can efficiently sew two pieces of the cloth together along edges of equal length. This is why even the very best bench tailors typically sew center backseams and the like by machine, even if they sew the rest of the coat almost completely by hand. There is a no way a sewing machine can properly feed in that extra fullness. A while back, Thomas Mahon explained the same concept on his fine blog. He was talking about the fullness in a coat’s back, over the shoulder blades, but the sewing technique and purpose are exactly the same. Here’s the link:

Now, when the sleeve is completely sewn, that fullness inevitably puckers somewhat. There is more cloth on one side of the seam than on the other. Imagine taking a 6†square napkin and a 5†square napkin, and sewing them along an edge on each one. There would be more cloth on the 6†napkin side. Where does that extra inch go? It sort of puckers or bulges, as in Tom’s photo.

On a shoulder, that puckering can be and is pressed out. The wool is shrunk along the seam to make the seam smooth, leaving the extra fullness over the blades more or less intact. However, for a number of reasons, that is not possible or desirable for a sleevehead. So that extra cloth “gathers†and puckers around the scye. This is not done for aesthetics, although the devotees of the style certainly claim it is beautiful. To the unknowing eye, it looks sloppy, like a sign of inferior tailoring. But it most definitely is not. It is not to everyone’s taste, however, and de gustibus, as the saying goes. Anyway, it is done for comfort and freedom of movement. Classic Neapolitan coats have very small armholes, very close shoulders, and relatively lean bodies—more roomy than a Roman or Continental coat, but less than traditional Savile Row, and much less than what is typically made in America. The large upper sleeve combined with the tight armhole, draped chest, fullness over the blades, and soft front canvas give the arms a most free range of movement. The coat can be worn all day, in almost any circumstance. The heat might get to you, but you will be able to do whatever it is that you need to do without having to take off your coat. (Within reason.)

Still, as was said, some people don’t like all that puckering. This effect can be toned down if the shoulder seam is “pressed open.†All seams have what is called a “seam allowanceâ€â€”that is, strips of cloth on the inside of the seam. The needle and thread have to go through cloth, after all. You can’t attach two pieces of cloth right at their very edges. So cloth is cut a touch wider along the sewn edge. That excess width is called the “seam allowance†and is typically folded inside the finished garment so that it can’t be seen. When you want the seam to appear flat and almost invisible on the outside, the seam is “pressed open†on the inside.

What does that mean? A shoulder seam, like many seams, is sewn by an interior stitch. The seam allowances are then tucked inside as per the rather crude drawing below:

The above represents a shoulder with the seam left closed. (By the way, either the pad or the wearer’s shoulder or both will force those two strips over toward the sleeve side when the coat is worn.) The seam allowance sort of “stands†in that case, and the overall effect looks like roping because of the slight “puff†at the top of the sleeve as the cloth rises from the seam, and then curves over down into the sleeve. True roping, however, takes wadding in the sleevehead, and that is not a hallmark of this particular style. A closed seem will “define†the place where the shoulder ends and the sleeve begins, and thus look slightly less natural and rounded. The upper sleeve looks to “bellow†out from the scye. Some call this a “trumpet sleeveâ€, on the notion that the flare of the sleevehead looks like the bell of a trumpet.

Here is a picture of an unpadded coat with a hand-set, closed seam shoulder. Note the way the sleevehead “stands†a little, even though there is not any wadding to fill it out or hold it up. Note also the puckering, to some a defect, to others, poetry in motion:

This coat is behaving itself a little more than usual, but you can see some of the puckering and rippling. Also note the way the cloth rises up from the seam and then falls down into the sleeve. That bump is what the Italians call rollino. It is like rope, but totally natural. There is no wadding or padding at all.

Here is another example of a shoulder with a closed seam. This one is quite sloped and natural but very lightly padded. (My thanks to Mr. Alden of the London Lounge for permission to use this picture.)

“Pressing open†a seam means folding the seam allowances back in opposite directions, then taking an iron and pressing them down so that they are flat against the cloth. Examples of pressed-open seams would be the center back of a coat, the side and back seams of trousers, etc. On a shoulder it would go something like this:

If you press open a Neapolitan sleevehead seam it will smooth out the shoulder a bit, especially at the top. However, it will “force†that excess cloth down into the upper arm, making the upper arm look very “stormy†and not at all smooth. Again, some really hate this look.

Here is an example of an unpadded coat with an open sleevehead seam. This coat does not have the fullness of the true Neapolitan sleevehead, but it will give you an idea of what an unpadded open seam looks like:

Now, there is a little bit of roll there. The cloth is thick, so the seam can’t be pressed completely flat, but you can see that it is pretty close. Certainly much more flat than the closed seam shown above.

Here is another example (thanks again to Mr. Alden):

Finally we come to the third element, the spalla camicia or “shirt shoulder.†Again, this is NOT the defining characteristic of the Neapolitan shoulder. It is something that Neapolitan tailors do more than tailors trained in any other tradition, so it is naturally associated with them. But it is not a universal trait of Neapolitan coats and it is not synonymous or interchangeable with “Neapolitan shoulder.â€

With a spalla camicia, both strips of seam allowance are folded in the same direction: back under the shoulder, as depicted here:

When you press open a seam, the seam allowances will stay on “their†side without help, especially if there is a pad underneath, in which case they have nowhere to go. But when you try to fold them both in the same direction, they won’t. The natural tension inherent in the cloth will pull the sleeve-side seam allowance back down. So those layers have to be anchored. This is done with a top stitch that goes through both layers of seam allowance and then through the suit cloth itself. There will be a visible pick stitch close to the seam, on the neck side, at most about 1/16†from the seam.

Now, since there seems to be confusion on this point, let me clarify a couple of things. So far as I know, ALL dress shirt shoulders are made like this, insofar as both seam allowances are always folded up under the shoulder (i.e., neck side, not arm side), and then a stitch is run through both of the seam allowances and the top (outer, visible) cloth. (However, on dress shirts, the exposed cut edge of the cloth must be folded back into the seam lest it fray; that is not necessary for coats, because the lining will protect the seam from fraying.) On the vast majority of shirts, this stitch is done by machine and it thus quite visible. On certain high-end Neapolitan brands, it is done by hand, which is harder to see, but still visible if you look for it.

This may explain why some get confused on this point. On “normal†coats, no exterior shoulder stitch is visible at all; the seam is sewn only on the inside, and then either pressed open or left closed. On “normal†shirts, a machine stitch is clearly visible on the outside of the shoulder. On coats with the spalla camicia, a very subtle hand pic is visible if you look closely. (The lighter the color and more tightly woven the cloth, the more visible this stitch is.) On Neapolitan shirts, a similar hand-pic is also visible only if you look closely. Now, if you judge whether or not a coat has a spalla camicia according to whether you can see a clearly visible exterior shirt stitch, you will mislead yourself. A spalla camicia coat has a subtle hand stitch, not a clearly visible machine stitch. It actually looks a lot like the shoulder seam of a hand-sewn Neapolitan shirt. I think some people get confused because they assume that because spalla camicia means “shirt shoulder†they expect to see that clearly visible shirt shoulder stitch. Some even make direct comparisons to their Neapolitan shirts, and not seeing that stitch on the shirts, assume that the spalla camicia has no connection to the shirt sleeve. But this is a pretty basic error. How visible the stitch is depends largely on whether it is done by hand or by machine. Machine stitches are always more visible than hand stitches, on shirts or coats, because far more of the stitch’s thread shows. Whereas with hand stitching, only very small intermittent pics will show. But whether the stitch is clearly visible or not, once again, all dress shirt shoulders are made the same way: both seam allowances are folded up under the shoulder and then anchored by a stitch that goes through both layers of seam allowance AND the top (showing) panel of cloth. How clearly you can see the stitch is irrelevant to this fact. Those who think that because their Neapolitan shirts don’t show a clearly visible outer stitch simply do not understand this. The stitch is there. They just need to look more closely.

When the seam allowances are both tucked under the shoulder, that (obviously) means that the sleeve-side allowance is no longer on the sleeve side. Get it? It has been forced the other way. When it is allowed to remain on the sleeve side, it “supports†the sleevehead. It is an extra layer of cloth (however narrow) that reinforces the upward arc of the sleevehead. But when it is stitched under the shoulder, that layer is gone. This the upper sleeve falls straight down with no support. This causes the “fluting†or “rainfall†effect. This is, strictly speaking, a different thing than the rippling or puckering inherent in the trumpet sleeve. The rainfall effect will happen in varying degrees whether or not the upper sleeve has a lot of fullness. Thus, the puckering from excess fullness and the fluting from the spalla camicia are two separate and distinct things. They often go together, but they don’t have to. The rainfall of a spalla camicia is unique in that it falls straight down into the sleeve, whereas the shoulder side of the sleevehead is most smooth. Partly, what smoothes out the shoulder is the fact that not one but two layers of seam allowance are tucked up under the shoulder, giving it extra support.

This is an important point: the tell-tale sign of a spalla camicia is that there appears to be a “ridge†on the shoulder side. Why? Because there are three layers of cloth on the shoulder side but only one on the sleeve side. See here:

Thus the shoulder seam and its tucked-under seam allowance appear like a ridge, under which the sleeve flows downward. With a pressed open seam, there are two layers of cloth on each side, equalizing things and making the top (showing) side look more or less flat.

Finally, a picture of a spalla camicia, in this case the coat has a little padding and not an overlarge upper sleeve. Thus you can see the fluting or rainfall, but not a lot of “pleating†or “puckering.â€

Note the fluting. That is not the same as the puckering from excess fullness. That is the rainfall that flows downward because there is no seam allowance cloth or anything else to smooth out the sleevehead. Note also the barely visible ridge. Unfortunately, the picture really does not show the outside stitch. Sorry about that.

Here is another example, just to round things out (once again, thanks to Mr. Alden for permission to use):

Finally, here is a side-by-side of two Naples-made coats, both unpadded. The one on the left is a closed seam con rollino; the one on the right is a spalla camicia (originally posted on Style Forum by Giona Granata):



Active Member with Corp. Privileges
Thanks for the post manton, interesting stuff.

Just curious, is this type of thing exclusive to Neopolitans? I know companies like Anderson and Sheppard are renownded for "softness", but do they use *no* padding at all?

Keith Adams

Active Member with Corp. Privileges
Manton -

Beautifully explained - Thank you.

I have a few coats cut in the Neapolitan style and have always appreciated what I have called the ' hint of rope ' on the shoulders but I never knew nor even inquired how
" rollino " was achieved.

I'm also curious as to which firm made Mr. Alden's green window pan coat. Do you know?

K.A. Adams

Keith Adams

Active Member with Corp. Privileges
Something happened to my reply ....text moved around ..... windowpane spelled as window pan ???

K.A. Adams


Super Member
quote:Originally posted by Sophistication

I'm not sure, but I believe this to be a Borrelli RTW to demonstrate Manton's point about padding versus the authentic.And this is me RTW Borrelli. (Please ignore my half windsor, I'm learning[:I]I've been using the Nicky now)
A little off topic but what is "the Nicky"? I thought I knew every tie knot imaginable but I have not heard of this one (excepting the few times I've seen you reference it). Perhaps, it has another name?

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Alexander Kabbaz

Tech and Business Advice Guru
United States
New York
East Hampton
Oh, hell. I knew all that stuff already. But you said it pretty good ... at least for a "rules" guy. [}:)]

Actually, really beautiful post. Thank you for clearing up the rampant confusion. You've outdone yourself.

Not that that would be difficult. ;)

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Honors Member
United States
Thanks Manton.

The green coat is overal pretty nice. Thought one side part way up the lapel seems to have a problem. On the same side, from the button down, the front edge curves outward, which is an error in my opinion.

The coat with the blue net vest and polk a dot tie- the sleeve crown reminds me of my Granddads, but his construction methods of attaching the sleeve to the scye was entirely different. That jacket looks very nice.

And I finally see a rainfall I like.
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Arbiter CBDum
I think the green coat looks flawless. The curve you describe is "belly" -- a feature not a bug, as it were. Unless I misunderstood you.

I have used a sewing machine, though it has been a while. I never tried anything that complicated. All the tailors with whom I have discussed this say that the fullness must be fed in and sewn by hand. One even refuses to let his coatmakers do it, and insists on doing it himself.
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