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How to identify quality cloth with Savile Row tailor Celia Williams

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December 1, 2015 by Ville Raivio

A recent vicuna sample from England brought cloths to my mind. The trouble with most clothes, of course, is that we cannot choose all the details that may have interest for us. Cloth is one of them, but very important for me visually, tactilely, and emotionally. Some cloths
just bring about more pleasure than others. Now, nearly all clothes have the maker’s label today, and this label seems to have become much more important than the cut, material, detailing or cloth. Yet readymade clothes are what we wear. So, how can my readers know if a piece of clothing is made from wonderful cloth? I turned to Celia Williams, who just happens to be a Savile Row tailor over at Steven Hitchcock. Below are some pointers that may just help you.

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VR: What’s your definition of great cloth?
CW: My personal definition of great cloth would mean that the cloth would have to be 11 or 12 oz. in weight, meaning it would have enough ‘guts’ to drape well, be able to wear all year round (assuming no drastic climates) and it would have the ‘guts’ to last for years if not worn like a work horse.

The weave that would be ideal would either be a twill or a herringbone. This is because the intricate way that the cloth has been woven would mean that the cloth is a closed/tight weave. Meaning that the cloth would be hard wearing, somewhat less attracted to holding dirts/liquids, less prone to pulls and catches. It would also mean that the cloth would have an interest, a detail. An excellent cloth for drape is the Bird’s eye weave. As the weave produces a circular pattern, this means that you get a soft fluid drape due to the 360-degree weave. However, the heavier the cloth- the larger the ‘Bird’s eye’, which to me looks clumsy and un-refined, so bird’s eye weaves are. for me, reserved for slightly lighter weight cloth.

The composition would be all wool. Wool used for suiting is always imported from Australia or New Zealand. This is because their breed of sheep produces soft and fine wool, as the climate is warmer than England’s. English wool is reserved for carpets and rugs, as it is courser and harder…not suitable to wear next to the skin.
Colour-wise, that is up to the wearer. However, my advice would be to choose a blue, as there are so many shades of blue that there is a shade for all skin tones…choose wisely.

VR: Some RTW suits have tags from the mill, but most have only the maker’s tag, so we’re left with our eyes and hands for discerning quality — how can we use them to our advantage?
CW: The senses are so important when looking at cloth. Once you have the knowledge of how cloth should feel, you don’t need to read labels or tickets. To use your hands is not something you can teach, it will come over time. However, for the novice, you should be aware that most natural products are warm to the touch…not hot, not cold. When you feel wool, silk, wood, plants, ivory, leather, etc…they are just pleasant to touch, as they are not cold.

There are exceptions, of course, stone, metal, granite, etc…they are natural and are cold to touch. However, man-made products such as plastic, acrylics, concrete, etc…are all cold to the touch. So, when handling a cloth and it at first touch has a cold feel to it, I would question whether the cloth had a percentage of man-made fibre in it, such as polyester. Another telltale sign for polyester is if the cloth has a slight crispy feel and a hard gloss sheen to it.

All wool cloth should feel warm, have a slight prickle to it, smell a little oily, have a soft sheen to it and feel fluid in your hand. If the all-wool cloth is a super 120/150/200, it should have a smoother texture, like paper, and have a brighter sheen like you see on freshly groomed race horses. Mohair is warm and gritty to touch, a definite sheen and a wire-like movement in the cloth.

Cashmere, angora and vicuna are all very warm and soft to touch. Varying in weight, the heavier cloths will have a bouncy feel with a fuzzy texture. The lighter weights with be smoother to handle with a crimp in the pile and, again, with a gloss sheen like a long-haired dog.
Linen and cotton are cooler to touch but not cold. They both have a smooth and hard texture. Linen will crease extremely easily when crunched in your hand; when released, the cloth will stay in the crunched position. Cotton will crease, not as much as linen. However, if crunched in the hand, the cotton will try to spring back flat, but with a few creases. Silk is warm and has a sticky touch. If you run your fingers over the silk, they will almost stick to it as the silk will be so smooth like satin or will be grainy like an eggshell, such as foulard.

VR: One Finnish tailor who I interviewed defines his job as design (in the somewhat industrial sense) because he is merely shaping cloth. Would you agree with him that cloth is the most important factor in clothes?
VR: Tailoring is so much more than design. It is very simple to design something. You could design a house, but would it function as a house? Could you live in it? Will it stay upright? Tailoring is about knowing the client, understanding what he wants, how he will look and how he will feel when wearing our clothes.

The engineering is in the cutting and making the suit fit, making sure it functions on wearing. One of the components is the cloth; it is not the most important as all aspects of the process of meeting the client, measuring, choosing the cloth, cutting the pattern, fitting the baste, making and finishing the suit are all the most important. No one factor is more important than the other, all have to work together in harmony. Guiding the client to pick the right type of cloth for his purpose for the suit, his body shape, his wear, potential and expectations is all part of years of experience and just one of the factors to produce a bespoke suit.

VR: Why should a man pay up to get the suit with great cloth?
CW: To buy quality is wise. To choose a cloth that is made well with good yarn, then it will help with the longevity of the suit. However, there is no point in buying a quality cloth and then have the suit made cheaply. There has to be a balance and a working harmony between the quality of cloth, quality of cutting and quality of craftsmanship.
In a RTW suit, buy the best made quality suit you can afford, look after it, wear it in rotation, and you should get a decent life span from the RTW suit.

VR: Finally, which cloth types are your favourites? Which mills do you usually recommend?
CW: My favourite cloth is flannel. I love its texture, drape, notion and history. Flannel was woven by the Welsh in the 16th Century. It was very course, ugly and used by peasants to keep warm. Over the years, it became refined and became popular with the traditional English ideal. Flannel now exudes relaxed luxury, British-ness and harks back to being old-fashioned. It has become a timeless classic thanks to the peasants of Wales…which is highly ironic. Flannel drapes well in nearly all weights, has beautiful marl colours, excellent texture and looks good on everyone.

The cloth merchants that I use the most are Harrison’s of Edinburgh, which encompass H.Lesser and Sons, as well as Porter and Harding for tweeds. Harrison’s are an excellent company to work with, they produce a
varied amount of different cloths, but owe their talent to keeping the quality high.


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