The Ultimate Guide To Suit Fabric Types

The Ultimate Guide To Suit Fabric Types 2018-02-28T09:22:31+00:00

wind tab on plaid blazerThis page deals specifically with different types of suits fabrics, weaves, and offers an explanation of “Super” numbers as it relates to wool. Note that this information is most useful or men who have their suits made as opposed to buying off the rack.

Why Does Suit Fabric Matter?

There are two main factors that decide a suit’s quality and cost: construction and fabric. This is the suiting equivalent to parts and labor on a car.

We went over garment construction in detail in our article on made-to-measure suits, but very quickly, suits are made with either fused, half, or full canvas interlinings onto which fabric is either glued (fused) or sewn. Glued suits are cheaper, sewn suits are more expensive.

Fabric is the other main factor that decides a suit’s quality and cost. Good fabric will feel better, hold its shape for longer, and look better for its lifespan. As you might imagine, it’s a more expensive product than its lower-quality counterparts.

Suit Fabric Types

Wool

Wool is without a doubt the most common fabric used for men’s suit’s. In fact, the information about it gets so extensive that we gave wool its own separate page.

With that said, here are the benefits of wool in a quick list:

  • It breathes easily
  • It resists wrinkling
  • It’s flame-resistant, which is convenient for well-dressed firefighters or those of us who work as stunt doubles
  • It’s naturally water-resistant
  • It feels good
  • It keeps you warm in winter and lets you ventilate in the summer
  • It tailors well

Linen

tan linen fabricLinen is a hugely popular summertime fabric. It also happens to be vegan as it comes from a flax plant, not an animal. In fact, linen is technically a vegetable.

One of the oldest fabrics in existence (the ancient Egyptians were known to wear linen), it’s still one of the most widely used, especially in continental Europe. It’s expensive but its cost can be justified from these benefits:

  • Breathability: Linen breathes very easily. This makes it a great summer fabric.
  • Casual élan: Linen wrinkles naturally and easily. It’s futile to fight it, you can only embrace it or choose to not wear linen. The wrinkling is part of the fabric’s charm and makes it great for casual outings.

Cotton

Though it’s the fabric of our lives, cotton suiting is a little tougher to find than wool suits. Generally less expensive than wool and linen, high-end cotton suits can be pulled off in office environments and also for more celebratory events such as weddings. Note: cotton trousers don’t drape like linen or wool, so make sure that they have a crease sharp enough to cut butter.

Here are some of the selling points of cotton:

  • Cost: Cotton suiting tends to be cheaper than wools and linens of similar quality. If you’re looking for a summer suit but are on a budget, think about cotton.
  • Care: While we don’t recommend it, you can machine wash a cotton suit in a pinch. Cotton is generally easier to care for than wool and doesn’t need to be brushed like wool to maintain its lifespan. Further, you can iron it pretty easily.
  • Lightweight: Cotton makes for a physically light suit that’s easier to wear when it’s hot. Beware, however: cotton absorbs moisture, so if you’re a sweaty guy, think twice.

Silk

It’s pretty rare to see a 100% silk suit nowadays. That sort of thing is generally limited to the like of Prince Charles while vacationing in the tropics. It’s more likely that you’ll see silk as part of a suit’s fabrication (60% worsted wool and 40% silk, for example). It is sometimes used in high-end suit linings, but this should only be done if the customer really loves a lining’s design, as synthetic silks like viscose are actually stronger than the original article.

Silk has many benefits, such as:

  • Hand: Silk feels beautiful on the hand and against the skin. It’s light, airy, and incredibly smooth.
  • Luxurious comfort: Such a feel makes silk a luxury item, and its breathability is right on par with  wool.

Mohair

Mohair is made from the hair of the angora goat. It’s similar to wool but has a bit of a shine to it. It’s also known for a “bite” to its hand, which is a bit of a scratchiness. It performs well and resist wrinkling like no other fabric.

Vicuña

Vicuña refers to both a fabric and the animal from which that fabric is harvested. It’s like cashmere on steroids. A llama relative, the vicuña lives in the Andes and is raised specifically for its coat. They produce extremely small amounts of superfine wool that is the softest and warmest in its class.

The trick is that vicuñas can only be shorn every three years, and they must be caught from the wild to do this (there are no vicuña farms, for example). This makes it astronomically expensive. As of June 2007, vicuña cost anywhere between $1,800 and $3,000 per yard.

Even on the low end, when we consider the fact that a suit requires four yards of fabric to make, that’s $7200 on fabric alone, before even considering construction!

You might be better off getting a vicuña scarf instead, for a measly $1,500 or so.

A Note On Synthetic Suit Fabrics

The 1970’s especially were a decade in which suits made of synthetic materials, especially polyester, were all the rage. These “high-tech” fabrics were easier to care for and less expensive than natural fibers. Seems like a great alternative to wool and cotton, right?

Eh. not so much.

Unless your budget is such that you cannot afford a suit made of natural fibers, we do not suggest buying a suit with any synthetic material used in its outer shell (a synthetic lining is just fine). It doesn’t breathe well and simply lacks the polished presentation that natural fibers do.

Whenever possible, buy suits made with natural fibers.

Different Types Of Fabric Weaves

First, a bit of terminology to get us all on the same page:

  • Warp: The lengthwise (up-and-down) yarns of a given fabric
  • Weft: The crosswise (left-to-right) yarns of a given fabric

A fabric’s quality and character aren’t just a function of what that fabric is. The manner in which it’s woven plays a huge role.

Generally, the best fabrics are “two-ply,” meaning that even single fibers are, in fact, two fibers twisted together very tightly. Further, top cloths are woven in a “two-by-two” format, which means that both the warp and weft threads are two-ply.

There are two main types of weaves: plain and twill. We’ll go further in depth below.

Plain Weaves

A weave using a simple over-and-under pattern in which the threads are simply horizontal and vertical. Below are some common ones.

Bedford Cord

corduroy fabricNative to Bedford, England, Bedford cord resembles corduroy but with a less-pronounced wale (“wale” refers to the ridges characteristic of corduroy clothes).

Not often seen in business suits, but typical of riding and hunting clothes.

Birdseye

An all-over weave in which tiny dots are created that resemble the eye of a bird. The overall effect is to appear solid from a distance and only be noticed when up close and personal. Birdseye suits are an excellent solution for a man who prefers solid suits but wants a bit of extra visual interest with regard to texture.

Nailhead

A small dotted design suggestive of a nail head.

Seersucker

Seersucker-Suit-FabricA dimpled weave achieved by altering the tension of the warp threads, this was taken from an Indian method of weaving silk.

Traditionally in a blue-and-white striped pattern in cotton, the term “seersucker” is a corruption of the Hindi word sirśakar, which is derived from the Persian shir-o-shakar, meaning “milk and honey.”

Seersucker makes for an excellent summer suit.

Tropical

A plain weave wherein two-ply yarns are not used, which creates a lighter-weight, more breathable garment well-suited to the tropics.

Twill Weaves

Camel-Twill-FabricTwills are actually very easily identifiable: they have a diagonal pattern that’s kind of “baked in” to the fabric’s texture. If you look very closely at one of your suits, you’ll probably see it.

It’s achieved by laying warp threads out straight and parallel, while the weft threads are woven over and under the warp threads.

Worsted Wool

Worsted threads make up the majority of what we know as suits. They’re smooth, lustrous to the touch, and are the opposite of “woolen” threads, which are shorter, hairier fibers.

Worsted suiting can range from cloth made with light threads to heavy cloths with a flannel-like finish.

Flannel

An incredibly common twill, flannel has a “napped” surface that feels, well hairy. These are excellent fabrics for cold weather.

Tweed

Different Color Plaid Wool Fabrics

Diagonal twill made with thick yarn. Tweed’s texture is rough and wooly, making it great for your typical British autumn or winter.

Serge

A simple twill weave in which fine threads are used to create a matte surface. Navy blazers are typically made from serge.

Gabardine

Much less popular now than it was fifty years ago, gabardine is a style of twill that has more warp threads than weft. Woven tightly, gabardine is stiffer and a bit less breathable than other weaves, but it travels well.

Houndstooth

Black-And-White-Puppytooth

A weave creating a houndstooth check

A weave that you should really only see on odd pieces and not full suits, houndstooth is a twill that interweaves four light-colored threads and four dark-colored ones to create a pattern that resembles a dog’s tooth. Small-scale versions are referred to as “puppytooth.”

Barleycorn

Contrasting warp and weft colors are woven to create small, repeating clusters of three. The overall effect is to create alternating light- and dark-colored triangles, which kind of resembles a barley stalk.

Herringbone

Blue-White-Herringbone-Pattern

A herringbone weave

A weave that has V-shapes running through it. When looked at as a whole, the effect is that of a fish’s skeleton, hence the name. Subtle, monochromatic versions of this weave are popular for suits, while bolder versions make for excellent sport coats.

Sharkskin

A tight twill weave in two similar but distinct colors, like dark and medium grey, or midnight blue and navy blue. Also known as a “pick-and-pick.”

Seasonal Guide To Fabrics

Best Fabrics For Summer

Choosing the right fabric is key when getting a summer suit. You want something lightweight and airy, but still with enough drape to look like the handsome suit it needs to be. Regardless of fabric, seek out suits with half or eight linings as these will allow you to ventilate a bit more easily.

linen sport coat lapelSome of the best fabrics for summer are:

  • Wool: In tropical weights like 7.5 ounces or lighter, wool is an excellent, if surprising, option for warm weather. It has all the positive attributes of wool, but the lighter weight make it perfect for summer.
  • Cotton: We love us a cotton khaki suit. Suiting cotton is lightweight and inherently a bit casual, much like the summertime itself. A word to the wise: avoid wearing cotton suits to job interviews or funerals, where the dressiness of wool is necessary to make the right impression. Seersucker suits are made of cotton and are great for summertime celebrations.
  • Linen: Linen is an airy fabric that performs beautifully in the summertime. Its tendency to wrinkle adds to its charm, and it’s synonymous with summertime. A word to the wise: linen can be a heavy fabric, weighing up to 11 or even 12 ounces per yard in some instances.

Best Materials For Winter

Winter is the opposite of summer in many ways, and it’s no different with regard to suiting fabrics. Instead of maintaining airiness and a sense of being lightweight, you want to maintain warmth at all costs. Thick, hairy fabrics are what we have in mind.

grey windowpane fabricTop winter fabrics are:

  • Wool: When wool is made in heavier weights, the benefits are wide-ranging. Not only does it keep you warmer, but it’s also easier to tailor. Look for wools in 10 ounces or more to help keep the chill at bay.
  • Flannel: Yes, we know that flannel is a particular type of weave, but it’s worth a mention here. Flannel suits aren’t nearly as popular as they used to be (thanks, central heating), but in sober colors and patterns, they make excellent business suits that can negate the need for an overcoat on some days.
  • Vicuña: Though this fabric is outrageously expensive (a suit made of vicuña can easily run you into the five-figure mark), it will keep you warm and looking magnificent.

Best Suit Cloth For Autumn

Depending on where you live and what mood global climate change is in, you’re probably going to want to live in a bunch of medium-weight fabrics in the autumn. Lucky you: just about any suit sold off the rack is of medium weight cloth, so you have the pick of the litter.

  • Wool: There’s a reason we’ve suggested wool with each season so far: it works, and it works well. In a run-of-the-mill nine-ounce weight, a worsted wool suit will protect you from the forty degree mornings and keep you comfortable in sixty degree afternoons.
  • Flannel: Some autumn days are colder than others. reach into the flannel section of your wardrobe to ward off the November chill.
  • Cashmere: Technically a type of wool, cashmere offers warmth, is lightweight, and feels phenomenal to the hand. Even a suit with 10% of its fabrication as cashmere will feel better than one with none, so keep your eyes peeled for this luxurious fabric.

Best Suiting Fabric For Springtime

tan cotton suit fabric

Cotton twill suit fabric

Springtime is similar to autumn on the weather front. Early April is still chilly, but mid-June can be extremely hot. You’ll want to be prepared for either of these extremes and everything in between.

  • Mohair: Mohair comes from the angora goat, making it different from wool. It has a bit of natural sheen and a certain “crunch” to the hand. It also has exceptional “bounce back.” Good mohair can be balled into your fist, released, and smoothed back out perfectly with barely any effort. It makes for a great spring suit.
  • Silk: While a suit of 100% silk is often prohibitively expensive, finding a suit with some silk in its fabrication will lend it a beautiful sheen and a lightweight feel. Silk is typically combined with…
  • Cotton: Cotton has enough heft to ward off a breeze but is lightweight enough to deal with the season’s sunshine. Perfect for spring.

Final Thoughts On Fabrics

The fabric world is vast and varied, and even the relatively small amount reviewed in this article can be dizzying.

Know that, ultimately, the lion’s share of your suits will be worsted wool, and the biggest decisions you’ll face will be around color and pattern. For further guidance on these topics, check out our suits home page or take a look at our page on the capsule wardrobe.

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