The swelled edge, also called a welted edge or quarter-inch stitching, is a traditional detail found on many of James Bond’s blazers, sports coats, sports suits and outer coats. It gives the edges a piped effect by stitching away from the edges. When a jacket has swelled edges the edges on the lapels, collar, foreparts, pocket flaps, patch pockets and breast pocket welt have this detail. Sometimes the rear vent or vents also have swelled edges. This type of edge looks sporty, and today it can look a bit more old fashioned while a more subtly pick-stitched edge or a bluff edge (without any stitching) might look more modern.
Swelled edges are often said to be stitched 1/4 inch from the edge, but they are usually slightly further from the edge at 5/16 inch. The extra 16th of an inch makes a tremendous visual difference. Shirt collars and cuffs are commonly stitched 1/4 inch from the edge, but because jackets and coats are made of heavier cloth at a larger scale the stitching needs to be slightly further from the edge to look proportionate. Sometimes swelled edges are stitched at 3/8 inch, which can make wider lapels and taller pocket flaps look more balanced, and it can also look more proportionate on a larger man. Outer coats are often stitched with the edges at 3/8 inch to balance the heavier cloth and a coat’s larger proportions. Some coats may have the edges stitched at 1/2 inch for the same reasons, or if the desire is to draw attention to the edges.
Swelled edges are not the same as typical pick stitching, which is much more subtle and sewn very close to the edge. The usual pick stitching on the edge is practically invisible (when done well), while swelled edges are meant to be seen. Swelled edges are often sewn with the same stitch as a pick-stitched edge, just further from the edge, though sometimes a heavier thread or a more noticeable stitch is used to draw more attention to the edges. Like pick stitching close to the edge, swelled edges help to reinforce the edge. G. Bruce Boyer explained on Ivy Style, “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”. While most people don’t wear their jackets in the rain, this purpose of swelled edges is still very important when it comes to outer coats.
Double-stitched edges, which many Neapolitan tailors use on sportier garments, should not be confused for swelled edges. Double stitched edges are stitched both on the edge and further in from the edge so there is a double row of stitching. The stitching on the edge, however, prevents these edges from swelling, while the stitching itself highlights the edges.
Swelled edges are always appropriate on a blazer or sports coat. They can also look great on sportier suits and on most overcoats. When on a suit it is most appropriate with sportier, more textured cloths like tweed, linen, hopsack, corduroy, poplin and rougher silks. They are also commonly used on flannel suits to give them a sportier look, though flannel suits look much dressier without them. They usually look inappropriate on dressier suits of worsted wool, mohair and wool blends and finer silks. Because of their utilitarian nature, swelled edges are appropriate on all outer coats—casual, sporty and formal—though the most formal coats are best without swelled edges.
While swelled edges can enhance the look of a sporty garment, they are never necessary and it’s okay to not like them. They can be added to a coat or a sporty jacket that has a bluff edge if you do like them. They should not be added to a dressier suit in an attempt to make it into a sportier suit or a sports coat. A jacket’s cloth is ultimately what makes it sporty, not details like swelled edges or contrasting buttons.
Swelled edges were very popular from the 1960s through the 1980s, when you could sometimes find them on dressier suits, particularly in America. American Ivy League-style clothier J. Press still uses them on some of their worsted wool suits, but their undarted, natural-shoulder cut is less formal than a English-style suit and thus the sportier edges don’t look as out of place.