The other day, someone hit this site as the result of a Google search for ‘how to make a Nudie suit’.
I must admit I smiled and thought, ‘If I only knew…’
The suits produced by Nudie Cohn for Nudie’s The Rodeo Tailors, and these days by Nudie’s former head tailor, Manuel Cuevas, are way off the scale of my skills.
Then I remembered how, back in my bold, brash youth, I had a go at making a jacket for myself based on this beauty, worn by Dwight Yoakam on the cover of his 1987 second album, Hillbilly Deluxe.
Doesn’t he look fetching?
The whole outfit – white dress shirt; grey boots; hat; torn boot-cut Levis with silver conchos, hand made in Mexico, running down the side – was put together with more than a touch of genius by the great Nashville-based hillbilly tailor known as the ‘Rhinestone Rembrandt’, Manuel.
It is currently on display at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville. The jacket is short, in the Hispanic style, and made from a vivid turquoise wool. The piping around the yoke and cuffs, handmade from strips of bias-cut wool, is off-white. There are two ‘smile’ pockets and two piped ‘arrows’ (are they functional darts? Maybe. But there are two darts in the front anyway.) The silver horseshoes on the yoke and sleeve are appliqued; next to them is an embroidered gold lasso. Rhinestones, which in Manuel’s workshop are attached with a press like this one that I photographed in the workshop of Jaime Castenada in North Hollywood, are sparingly scattered around the design.
Dwight’s jacket fastens with oblong shaped turquoise buttons and is edgestitched by hand.
I thought it was beautiful the very first time I saw it and I still think so now I’ve had a really good, close-up look at it, and that 26 years have passed.
The skill – and talent – required to make it is immense and honed over decades of practice. I took this photo of Manuel at work when I visited his workshop in 2010. When I asked him how he was going to make this collar, which had been cut a bit short, fit, he brushed my question aside with, ‘This is not my first rodeo!’
By contrast, when I decided, back in 1988, to make myself a jacket based on the ‘Hillbilly Deluxe’ masterpiece, it was, more or less, my first rodeo.
I don’t think I had ever piped or embroidered anything before, but if you don’t try, you don’t learn, that’s my motto. I don’t know why people hesitate over sewing projects – I mean what’s the worst that can happen? You put it in the bin.
Obviously, if you put on a disaster and go out in it, total humiliation can ensue, but I have a long history of being oblivious to that.
My jacket was made from navy blue cotton drill – best not to spend too much when experimenting – and piped with lilac. This was in my mid-eighties lilac phase. I adapted a commercial jacket pattern, shortening it and adding a yoke. I piped the darts, which seemed like a good idea at the time. Having no idea about how to embroider arrowhead tacks, I made teeny tiny fabric arrowheads and stitched them on. Over many evenings, I embroidered the horseshoes by hand; in place of the claw-set rhinestones on Dwight’s jacket, I used humble sequins and beads. The lining was, of course, lilac.
The construction process provided lots of entertainment to my kitten, Patsy.
The only time I remember going out in the jacket was when the Judds played The London Palladium. I was probably on my way there when this photograph was taken.
Two women in the queue for the ladies’ room complimented me on it and asked if I had made it myself. As all you seamstresses out there will know – this tolls the death knell of any garment. I mean, how did they know it was home made? What was wrong with it, huh?And why didn’t they ask me, ‘Did Manuel make that?’
In truth, compared with Dwight’s Hillbilly Deluxe jacket, mine was a bit rubbish. But I had great fun making it and I was still proud of it. The first time I visited Manuel’s shop, he pointed out a jacket that was on display. It was, he said, the first garment he had made completely alone – for Little Jimmy Dickens – after joining Nudie’s in the mid-1950s. He had cut, sewn and embellished it. He explained that, although he could make better jackets now, he still cherished that one because he had done the very best he could at the time and it captured a moment of achievement.
Sadly, I’m not able to get out my jacket and feel proud, or even smile indulgently at its clumsiness. At some point, I lent it to a family friend who line danced, asking her to return it when she had finished with it. Instead, she sent it to a charity shop, so now it’s lost forever. At the very best, some other line dancer is enjoying wearing it.
I must admit that when I first discovered its fate, I sat down and cried, but honestly, it doesn’t really matter. In a way, I still have it, in the form of the skills it helped me develop. And anyway, as soon as I get a breather, I plan to make myself a western-tailored jacket – no embellishment, just a lot of sharp piping and arrows.
Because if you don’t try, you don’t learn.