February 15, 2013 by Ville Raivio
A dress shirt is as durable as its cloth. Fabric mills are thousandfold, but the sowing machines shirtmakers use do not differ greatly, and so the durability of seams can be trusted. Fabrics are an entirely different matter. Concerning shirtings, the material, mill, thickness, weight, thread count and weave all affect the price, drape and the most important factor, durability. The sum of these variables cannot be counted at the store, for ready to wear shirts only mention the used material and recommended washing. Thus, the following words are most useful for the man buying made to measure shirts and can select his shirtings. An empirical fondling does reveal thickness and eyes tell the weave, but the weight, thread count and mill are left for guessing. Factories know this and use the same method for fabrics as was used for the so-called light bulb conspiracy; very thin and fine cloths are favoured and marketed strongly, so the customer would choose as the maker wants. These thin shirtings last poorly, wrinkle more easily and the buggers are also painfully hard to iron. The end results are goods that face less use, and which the customer will discard faster.
On shirt fabrics the thread count marks the size of yarns: the more threads are used in the making, the thinner the fabric will be. For example, a thread count of 110 means that the cloth has 110 hanks of yarn in one pound. Based on the shirts I’ve owned so far, a certain critical point is reached when the thread count hits 140. Shirtings finer than this are far too thin, needlessly expensive and have a shorther lifespan. I’m sure exceptions abound, but this takes more effort in finding the right mills, weaves and cloths. From the shirtmaker and material junky’s perpective these fine cloths are certainly triumphs of weaving technology: extremely smooth and translucent fabrics, whose application in goods is good business. Correspondingly, when the thread count drops down to 60 one holds a very thick fabric that only works in casual shirts. It is clearly more durable and thicker than its cousins topping the number 100, but is not suitable for dresswear. The principles mentioned in this paragraph also apply to fabric weight: the more robust flannel and oxford fabrics weight close to 200 grams per square metre, and the finest of the fine weight less than one hundred. The difference between these two is significant.
The fabric’s weave has a clear effect on durability and wear comfort. As examples I mention oxford, twill and basket weaves, which all are among the most durable types. Shirtings with an open weave, like panama, are prone to tearings and won’t last as long. Cotton is by far the most used fabric on shirtings, but is offered on the market from the exquisite to downright muck. Even poor cotton can be finished to look and feel pleasant when new, until the truth is dissolved with a few weeks’ wear. This issue is taken advantage of by clothing giants like H&M, who makes its revenue by selling huge lots for cheap prices. Similarly, valuable cotton can raise the end price of any fabric, but is more likely to last years of loving neglect. Fabric mills number in the thousands around the globe, but on the upscale market only about a dozen of them compete for the same clients.
The following mills can be relied on to offer the greatest quality fabrics: Alumo, Carlo Riva, Thomas Mason, Albini, Acorn of England, David and John Anderson, Tessitura Monti, Somelos, Getzner, Tessuto Teseo, Albiate, Mileta, Leggiuno. I have tried shirtings from some of these, and find the differences small indeed. Further rating I must leave to others for the time being.
Pictures: © Turnbull&Asser