“In 1907 we became part of a tradition already centuries old… the tradition of fashioning each shirt for the man who wears it. Styles of course do change, but now, as then, the skill and exacting standards of our craft furnish rewarding investments for the man whose tastes and appearance merit special consideration.” - Richmond Times Dispatch, 1957

In 1907, Joseph L. Creery opened a small shop on East Main Street specializing in handmade dress shirts and pajamas for the men and women of Richmond, Virginia. Since then, Creery Custom Shirts has been one of few places in the country carrying on the tradition of bespoke shirtmaking - with a handful of machines, one cutting table and a single patternmaker, our Richmond Workshop continues to turn out the same custom shirts that generations of Virginians have been coming to Creery for for over 100 years. As our Master Patternmaker, Jose Abel Mendoza Diaz is the man who cuts, sews, and assembles each and every Ledbury bespoke shirt. Any day of the week you’ll find Abel working his way through hand-written order forms, cutting patterns and sewing yards of fabric. He has seen four generations of Creery ownership, he’s made shirts for famous actors, and knows every customer who’s come through the doors of the workshop. For all of us here at Ledbury, producing our own shirts here in Virginia is a dream many years in the making - for Abel, it’s simply a science. No two eras of Creery Custom Shirts have been the same, but for the past 16 years there is one thing that hasn’t changed: Abel has been there, creating a lasting reputation of quality and craftsmanship. Behind the scenes, Abel has seen it all. He can tell stories about the legendary owner of Creery, Pearly Gates, and his lovely wife Shirley. He’s crafted shirts for priests and Revolutionary War reenactors, multi-color stripe tuxedo shirts, and created new collars from scratch. Every so often, customers will bring in camo fabric for bespoke hunting shirts - a true Southern luxury. In 2014 he made eight shirts for Sam Shepard for the film “Ithaca,” and most recently he made a shirt for Daniel Radcliffe (yes, that Daniel Radcliffe). You name it, he’s done it. With his son Richard keeping us company, we sat down with Abel at our Richmond workshop while he put together our newest Commonwealth Collection to get to know the man behind the cutting table.

Tell us a bit about yourself. What do you like to do in your free time?

I moved to Virginia from Honduras in 1999. I’ve known my wife Maria since we lived there, we’ve known each other for a long time. I have three kids: Richard is 3 years old he just mixed up all the buttons by that machine over there, he’s a troublemaker. William is 9 years old, and Stephanie is 12. Stephanie is almost as tall as I am. I like to go out to dinner with my family and relax at home. I go fishing with my cousin sometimes, and I always have a lot of things to do around the house.

When did you begin tailoring clothes?

I started sewing when I lived in Honduras. It was a factory for everything. There was one line for dungarees, another line for khakis, another for shirts, and another for Levis - they all worked on something new.

What was the first thing you worked on?

The first thing was the inseam for jeans and khaki pants. After that I started sewing the waistbands and hems, then the back seams and putting belt loops on. Then I started putting the metal buttons on it uses a special machine that has two boxes and it uses air to strike the button into the material very quickly.

Do you enjoy making entire pieces on your own better than working on one part of a whole?

It’s very different because when you make one part, you get really fast because you’re doing the same thing over and over again. At that operation, I got about 220% faster - nobody else had done that. One weekend I had to go back to my city in Honduras. When I came back to work that Tuesday, there were about 1,000 pieces for me to finish. I said, “This is for me? This can’t all be for me.” and my boss said, “Do whatever you can.” At about 10:30 or 11:00 that morning, I had already worked on about 120 pieces. Every time I made 30 pieces I got a ticket, and when I ended the day I had to make a list and put all the tickets together. When my boss saw all my tickets he said, “How did you do it?” and I said “I’ve just been working!” When you make one piece it’s easier because it’s quick, but when you make the whole thing it’s more difficult because there are so many parts to finish. I like shirtmaking better because I’ve learned so much. Every day we have customers who want something new that they haven’t done before and I get to do something different. I’m still learning new things all the time.

When did you start working at Creery?

The first week of March, 2000 with Pearly Gates. I worked with Pearly for seven years, and then he sold the business to Dr. Foster in 2007. I worked with Dr. Foster for about 2 years, and then Jim Joyner after he took over.

Walk us through your process - what does a day in the workshop look like from behind the cutting table?

First of all, you take the measurements and pick fabrics. Then it’s time to cut the pattern piece by piece. After that I start working on the material. I always start with the sleeves and the sleeve placket. Then I make the back and sew the yoke on. When I finish the sleeve and the back, I make the right and left placket and sew them all together. After that, I sew the shoulder seams and attach the sleeves, sew the side seams, and hem the bottom. I sew in the label, a pocket if it needs one, and then I add the collar and cuffs. After that, I make the buttonholes and sew on the buttons, iron the shirt, and it’s done.

What’s the most challenging part of patternmaking?

Probably how much math I do with each shirt. When you came in to the workshop this afternoon, I was working out in my head how much I had to add to a pattern for a customer - for a medium fit for his body type I have to add seven inches more to the chest, the waist is six, hips six, etc. I don’t think the rest is too difficult, it just takes time and practice.

What are some of your most memorable times at Creery?

When Ledbury came in to Creery. Funny things happen now, like when I got my citizenship in February and you threw a surprise party. I think that’s the best one - my citizenship party. With Jim and Pearly it was kind of quiet, we had a lot of funny people come in on Saturdays just to say hello. Jim and Dr. Foster did a lot of great things for me and helped me a lot, I will always remember that.
Lead image by Adam Ewing. Additional images by Kate Magee.
May 13, 2016 — Kelly Murphy