How to Choose a Suit Fabric: Part 1

I remember first stepping into Britex Fabrics in downtown San Francisco several years ago, when the seeds of bespoke clothing had begun to germinate in my imagination.  This landmark building, which has hosted Britex since 1952, sports walls over one hundred feet long, all lined to the ceiling with practically every shade of the rainbow in wools, silks, and linens.  After pouring over dozens of bolts of fabrics for hours, I mentioned to the sales clerk the difficulty of choosing between so many.

“Oh, there’s three more floors upstairs.”

Indeed, the sheer volume available to the consumer can be intimidating, if not outright paralyzing, and knowing how to choose a suit fabric means starting with the basics. Even if you own a closetful of suits, the decision is only marginally less challenging: any wardrobe, vast though it may be, is just a small fraction of the myriad of options up for grabs along the capacious walls of Britex, not to mention what can be found on the internet.  How does one decide what to get?

It helps to narrow your suit choice first by color, then by occasion.  As a rule, there are essentially three proper colors for a suit: navy, grey, and brown.  Even if you feel that fuchsia complements your eyes or that chartreuse is your happy color, restrain yourself.  Unless you’re an extra in the next Mask sequel that will hopefully never ever happen, stick to these tried and true colors.  Try not to think of it as limiting.  Instead, think of it as enjoying a scenic road paved long before you, one that will safely guide you to and from any destination in comfortable aplomb, with guardrails preventing you from any sartorial accidents.  At the same time, these colors come in an endless array of shades, complement all skin tones, and will ensure that your suit will be appropriate no matter what.

First, choose a solid navy or charcoal grey wool in a plain weave or twill.  Realistically speaking, these two suits are sufficient for any time coat and tie is recommended.  Wear either the navy or grey suit with sober captoe shoes, and pair the navy jacket with the grey trousers for a third outfit.  Take off the tie, undo a couple buttons, and you’re ready for a night on the town.  Pull on a black turtleneck with Chelsea boots, jodhpurs, or zip boots for that swanky art show in SOMA.  These two suits can take you many places with the right accessories.  In fact, the vast majority of guys stick to these two color options, buying successive suits in either darker or lighter color casts.  Brown used to be rarely seen, and even though nowadays it enjoys a bit broader acceptance, it typically skews casual when worn.  That means that when you’re in doubt, stick to navy and grey – but if you can, branch out into brown.

The somber colors of grey and navy complement the slightly dressy sheen of worsted wool in a plain weave or twill quite well.  A true all-purpose fabric, plain weaves (where the warp and weft threads follow a simple 1-over-and-1-under pattern) permit the fibers to give freely, allowing air to circulate and yielding a comfortable suit.  Twill, due to the way it is woven (the weft goes under one warp and then over two or more), creates a tougher fabric that drapes well.  Together they comprise the lion’s share of fabric for suits, and a suit in either of these weaves is a classic choice for either your first or fiftieth.

However, are there other choices available?  Yes there are, which will be the subject of part two. Here are some examples of suits in the wild:

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Peter Zottolo
Peter works in construction, but has an extensive collection of custom suits which he gets so that he can wear suits on the weekend. Even though he lives in San Francisco, he has never used the word "impact" as a verb. He writes about classic menswear and is one fedora away from being a complete dork.
Peter Zottolo

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6 thoughts on “How to Choose a Suit Fabric: Part 1

  1. Hi Peter, great article as always! Just wondering what your position is on green suits, specifically a darker, “forest” green? Or does this fit more as an exception to the Blue/Grey/Brown rule?
    Cheers, Scott

    • Hi Scott,

      Thanks for the kind words. Green suits are a rare bird, however a dark one in corduroy or donegal tweed could be an acceptable winter fabric. Definitely casual, but if your work environment allows it, I say go for it. Same goes for dusty sage cotton for summer.

  2. Very nice summary. Another important aspect of fabric selection is cloth weight. I believe choosing this can be particularly overwhelming for people new to MTM or bespoke. The choice will obviously be a question of local climate and personal preference for warmer or cooler clothing, but it is also important to notice that extra-fine fabrics will wrinkle easily and heavier fabrics drape more nicely in some folk’s eyes. The latter is something many newbies seem to overlook when they are going for “finer must be better”.

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