We all get to know cloth in different ways, and fabric weight is but one characteristic to consider. Some men caress lovingly, as if the fibers might start purring. Other men are grabbers. There’s the more visual types that care not so much for the tactile qualities, but instead the richness of color or derring-do of pattern. But this is all in the sensual beginning of a relationship with a fabric. Before settling down permanently with a new addition to their closet, the connoisseur will consider the cloth’s weight.
A cloth’s weight affects in turn three of its most important properties: how hot it is to wear, how it “drapes,” and how it holds up throughout the day and over the course of many years. Weight is not the only thing that affects any of these three, but it does affect all three. Let us consider each in turn.
Hot and Heavy
You probably don’t need me to tell you that heavier fabrics wear warmer. This is the main thing that people think of when choosing a weight. Most worsted navy suits you see at department stores are three-season weight, meaning they’re probably 8 to 10 ounce fabric. In generations past, that would be considered an extremely lightweight suit. But weaving technology has improved the performance of lighter weight fabrics, and, perhaps more importantly, indoor climate control has rendered the need for a warm-wearing suit nearly moot. If you got a closet full of navy business suits in nine ounce wool and just piled on outerwear in the winter, you’d probably get along just fine.
But suppose you wanted something that wears cooler to wear in the summer. First of all, be aware that no fabric will magically turn your suit into an air conditioner. If it’s hot outside, you’ll be hot in your suit. But you could try a fabric even lighter than the eight-to-ten multi-season range, but this choice brings difficulties that I will get to in a bit. Better is to get a fabric with an open weave. Fabrics are made by weaving together two yarns – a warp going one way, and a weft going the other. An “open” weave is one with more space in between the yarns, which allows body heat to escape. Fresco (which means “cool” in Italian) is such a fabric, and its ability to keep the wearer cool without being too lightweight is why it is valued so highly.
Your other option is linen. Linen wears cool because it wicks away moisture, and because the flowiness of the fabric keeps air moving through. But linen is controversial. It wrinkles on sight, which drives some people mad. It’s also less formal than wool, so might not be acceptable in some offices. And the good stuff is not even very lightweight; I have a jacket in linen that I think is 17 ounces – as heavy as many overcoats. It’s not for everyone.
Actually, it’s worth saying that none of this advice applies equally to everyone. Some guys are totally happy wearing a 15 ounce wool suit in the summertime. Other guys start sweating wearing a ten ounce suit in winter. You have to figure out where you’re comfortable.
Every tailor prefers to work with heavier cloth, because it’s easier to tailor and drapes better. Especially for trousers. A heavier fabric will be able to maintain a better line, whereas a lighter fabric will flounce all over the place. Adding cuffs to a lighter fabric will help a little, but not much. For this reason, and because you’re generally cooler in your legs anyway, I prefer odd trousers in heavier fabrics than odd jackets. Of course for suits the weights must be the same.
Heavier fabrics make better jackets as well. The canvas inside can pick up some of the slack for a lighter fabric, but the heavier the fabric, the easier it is to make it sit nice. It’s rare that a fabric that’s lighter than eight ounces makes up into a nice jacket.
Another problem with lighter fabrics is that they won’t last very long. Whereas a heavier fabric has a lot of fiber, and therefore can survive some pilling or wear, a lightweight fabric has no backup line of defense. Again, there are exceptions. Fresco’s high twist weave makes it more durable. Woollen flannel is made of yarns that are more frayed, and therefore has a shorter lifespan despite usually being made in heavier weights.
If you’re getting a suit that you’ll only wear a few times a year or less, then you probably don’t need to worry about this much. You’ll probably manage to ruin it by spilling some spaghetti sauce or gaining a few pounds too many before you wear down the fabric.
But even if you’re not wearing through the fabric, less hardy fabric also requires more pressing. A good tweed suit, or a robust worsted like Lesser 13, can be worn for years without even losing the crease in the trousers. A flimsy suit might look and feel great in the morning but have you looking for an iron by lunchtime.
In the end, of course, you’ll go home with the cloth you want. But think of this as a cheat sheet to carry around in your head, like those cards people use at blackjack tables. It doesn’t stop people from hitting on 17 with the dealer showing a five, but at least you’ll know you’re not supposed to:
Less than eight ounces Proceed with extreme caution; suit is likely not to last long and have a hard time keeping its shape
Eight to ten ounces Typical multi-season weights, with warm weather suits on the bottom end and cold weather suits on the top end.
Eleven to sixteen ounces Unless it’s linen, suits in this range are meant for cold weather
Above sixteen ounces Really heavy-duty stuff, intended for really heavy tweed jackets or overcoats