How to Pair Fabric Textures: Choosing a Suit Fabric, Pt. 2

Wool plain weave or twill suit, cotton oxford or broadcloth shirt, silk tie.

That’s the current, standard armor of menswear that man begins with, is married in, and is eventually buried in – it’s a relatively easy recipe to remember, and it works very well.  Make sure everything fits, choose colors that go well together, and you’re done.  Easy peasy. Last time, we talked about the basics of how to choose a suit fabric, but there are other options – and you’ll have to consider how to pair fabric textures.

Besides twill, there’s mohair sharkskin for Mods, slick gabardine for Rockers, and cavalry twill for hunters.  There’s fresco for the heat, flannel for the cold, and tweed for a pint in the pub. And that’s just the plain stuff – patterns abound, suitable for whatever environment you find yourself in.  Try birdseye for the boardroom, chalkstripes for less formal offices, and windowpanes, glen checks, and gunclubs for the casual or adventurous.  Some men see a soft cashmere tie and cannot resist its fuzzy allure.  Others succumb to the easy-going appeal of a rumply linen suit.  All well and good, but understand that arbitrarily changing one ingredient in the recipe can lead to an unsavory sight.  The heft, feel, and texture of fabric thus come into play when choosing one for a suit.

The importance of texture in clothing is often overlooked and under-appreciated.  Those ignorant of it can make an otherwise winning ensemble fail, whereas those who understand how textures play together can upgrade even mediocre outfits with depth and interest.

First, it should be noted that the most basic iteration of menswear – dark wool suit in a plain weave, light broadcloth cotton shirt, silk twill or grenadine tie – is in and of itself a wonderful mixture of textures.  As the main component, a suit in a modest wool is discreet, elegant, and light-absorbing.  The cotton shirt adds another layer of texture, tightly woven and offering a hint of sheen.  Finally, the silk fabric of a fine tie gives off a soft luster that delicately reflects light.   Let’s go over some basic combinations below:

These three elements – again, wool suit, cotton shirt, silk tie – when worn in classic woven fabrics such as the examples above, are your bread and butter.  But…

What if you toast your bread, and melt your butter?  You have now introduced two new textures that are miles beyond their original state: the once spongy bread is now crispy and crunchy on the outside, soft and chewy on the inside; and the formerly waxy pat of butter now oozes like smooth, liquid velvet through its crevices.  

Here’s a couple of simple tables that can help pull together your outfit so that your fixins fit in:

choosing a suit fabric styleforum alternative suit fabrics suit fabric pairings how to pair fabric textures 

Deviating from the tried-and-true triad of menswear can seem a bit complicated, but hopefully the above charts will assist in making it less so.  Bear in mind they are neither exhaustive nor unyielding, but meant to be used as a guide to assist in making sure your ensemble “ingredients” form a pleasant picture.  

At the top of each chart, there is the wool suit in a plain weave, silk twill or grenadine tie, and broadcloth shirt, which you already are familiar with.  As you go down the chart, the fabrics get more casual. Here are some examples of how to pair fabric textures:

Warm Weather

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And here are some good examples of how to pair fabric textures for cool weather

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A few items are always seasonally correct and good for most outfits:

Silk ties; twill, or – slightly more casual – knit

Silk pocket squares

White pocket squares in cotton or linen

Other factors, such as patterns, also play a role in the formality of menswear.  That’s already been discussed in another article, but hopefully these charts and pictures will help when putting together items based on texture.  When all ingredients come together as a whole, the end result – simple or intricate, urbane or nonchalant – will be a palatable portrait of classic menswear in coat and tie.

Understanding Fabric Weight

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.

Matching Drapes

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. 

Durability

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

Pane e Panno Casentino at Isaia

Standing around in Panno Casentino

One of the standout pieces for FW 2012 season was Isaia’s peaked lapel, camel topcoat in Panno Casentino fabric, the yarn of which, as was explained to me, is roughly brushed before looming, so that the dense woven fabric comes off the loom with a rough, pre-pilled, look.

The mark of Isaia

The Isaia crew had a great strategy.  When you are being plied wine and really great food, including some some of the best pickled mushrooms in olive oil I’ve eaten in a while, you are going to inspect every piece very carefully, especially when the alternative were overpriced Italian “toast” sandwiches, essentially a single, thin, slice of meat between two pieces of bread.  Even without all the help, I would still have noticed this piece, the texture of which immediately jumps out.

Isaia had the best spread in at Pitti Uomo on Tuesday, January 10, at around 11 a.m.

Later in the day, we saw the fabric again in a green coat with a much more conservative cut and turnback cuffs at Liverano&Liverano.  While Pete was busy talking to Taka in the back, Stephanie (the Styleforum sales rep) and I took a load off in some very comfortable chairs, and chatted with Mr. Liverano’s daughter, who had been working at the shop for 20 years.  “My father told me, either I go to school, or I work.  So I work.  20 years.”  I suppose that it’s as good a way as any to choose a career, especially when your father is one of the foremost tailors in Florence.

Liverano & Liverano #ogflorence #turnbackcuffs #pannocasentino

She told us that Panno Casentino was a very famous material from Florence.   It is known for its durability and natural water resistance.   Tuscany being one of the cooler, wetter, regions in Italy, it’s nice to not be soaked.  Very practical, and though Italy doesn’t really get winter except in the far north, I suppose that 50 degrees (F)  would be cold enough for me to enjoy the awesome Italian tradition of a coffee and pastry eaten at the bar, in the late afternoon, while wearing my Panno Casentino coat.

The next day, we saw the same fabric in a coat from Our Legacy, a brand from Sweden, where clothing that holds up against winter is actually necessary.  I suppose that this might be a microtrend in the making.

Firenze via Sweden in Firenze - Our Legacy