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Filling your closet with the essentials of a versatile shirt wardrobe can be a frustrating exercise in multitasking, and it can take years. Having a list of what you want for each category is critical so that when deals come up, you can stay focused on what you “need” instead of just jumping on every deal. Items that can be used in tons of different outfits make the return on investment higher, making the opportunity cost of buying it lower (see this post for more about how opportunity cost impacts my decision making in menswear).
However, going for maximum versatility can be boring. After all, while we all admire the starched-white-shirt-in-the-desk-drawer-of-Don-Draper lifestyle, that would be super boring. Pattern, texture, collar shape and seasonality are the four main areas where you can start to mix it up.
Solids and Patterns
Solid shirts are the most versatile shirts you can own. In the realm of classic menswear, where you want to be able to go with or without tie, there are only two colors: white and blue.
White is more formal, blue less so. Depending on what kind of work environment or lifestyle you lead will determine how many solid blue or solid white shirts you will need. For instance, I only have two white dress shirts – one with double cuffs, and one with barrel cuffs – because I wear them so infrequently. For most people, light blue is the king of versatility because you will almost never look wrong with a light blue shirt on, even with a dark suit and dark tie.
Next in versatility are vertical stripes. Small repeating patterns such as pencil stripes, university stripes, and Bengal stripes are the most versatile. Shirts that have a white ground with blue stripes are the best place to start (and are the easiest to find).
Some textures fit better in a more formal context than others. A good rule of thumb is that a smaller, denser weave is more formal than a looser, larger or coarser weave. For instance, a poplin or end-on-end will look better with a refined suit-and-tie look than will an Oxford cloth. As Derek of “Dieworkwear” says, poplins are boring. You sacrifice zero versatility but gain some measure of visual interest by going with something like an end-on-end for business shirts instead of poplin. Coarser weaves like Oxford and royal Oxford are more at home with odd jackets, and particularly so when you break out the tweeds. Which brings me to:
One of my joys is having distinct cold-weather and warm-weather clothing. I’m currently planning a trip to Scotland, and can’t wait to pull out my Donegal tweed jackets and flannel trousers to take on the trip. In shirting, so, too, can you diversify your wardrobe with seasonality. That said, when we’re talking about having a jacket on most of the time, the concept of a linen or linen-blend shirt making much of a difference in the summer heat is a bit of a stretch. I wear linen-cotton blends all year-round, as layering can warm them up in the winter (though I do not wear my heavier Oxford cloths in the summer). So when talking seasonally appropriate shirt fabrics, everything except those cloths at the fringes (pure linens or, say, peached cotton flannel) can be pretty much worn year-round, depending on how warm or cool you tend to naturally feel.
If you want the most versatile collar shape, period, then just get all medium-spread collars and be done with it. They look great with a tie and without. Cutaways, button-downs, and point collars, however, is how you add back in variety. Generally, don’t go too extreme (such as huge 1970s point collars, David Beckham-esque cutaways or tiny, anemic button-downs), and you’re safe.
Button-downs are right at home with Oxford cloth (the ubiquitous, stylish and unequaled OCBD) and with a generous roll, give an insouciant feel that have enormous charm. Cutaways give a rakish vibe that generally look best on guys with a sharp jaw and slim figure (though, when worn open-collar, look great on almost anybody, in my opinion). And point collars (such as this beauty from Drake’s), are an overlooked-of-late collar style that give off a lived-in, almost working-class charm that works quite well when done right.
As you amass enough shirts to wear day-in and day-out, you can start to branch out to other interesting areas: denims and chambrays, awning stripes, linens and flannels, and of course, colors other than white and navy. But that’s a post for another time.
Questions constantly arise involving the differences amongst broadcloths, poplins, oxfords, twills, basket weaves, voiles, gabardines, dobbies, jacquards, and other lesser-known types of shirtings. In this article I shall attempt to explain what each type is, the differences between it an other types, and in some cases the advantages/disadvantages of each type.
You cannot understand fabric types and quality without a basic knowledge of the manner in which cloth is woven. Fabric is made of yarns which run in two directions. In the length, the yarns are known as the warp. The warp is made by winding up a whole lotta yarns(literally thousands) on a large metal roll called a warp beam. These yarns are then threaded into the loom. The other yarns run across the fabric and are known as the weft. These yarns are actually (usually) one long yarn on a cone which is fed in sideways through the warp yarns. The photo shows the basics:
Back in the old days weaving was a much more mechanical process than it is today. In shirtings, this topic centers primarily around the shuttle. The shuttle of old was a wooden device which had points on both ends and a spool of yarn in the middle. It literally flew back and forth across the loom going in-between the warp yarns. The faster it traveled, the greater the strain on the yarn coming off the spool. If it ran too fast, or came to a weak spot in the yarn, the yarn would break. The loom would have to be stopped, the broken end tied (by hand) back to the yarn it broke from, and the loom restarted. Practical experience netted the realization that about the smallest yarns which could withstand this process were the 120’s … and then only if the loom was run quite slowly. Lo and behold (OMG, Kabbaz) in the last quarter century or so, some smart inventor said, “Why can’t I shoot this yarn through on a fine jet of high-speed air?” And so the ‘air shuttle’ was born. Now that the yarns would no longer be broken by the friction of the shuttle, the weavers could use finer ones. Hence the birth of the 2×2 140’s, the 160’s, the 170’s, 180’s, 200’s, and 200’s x 240’s. But more about the quality differences later. Now that you know the basics of cloth weaving we can delve into the more popular types of shirt fabric which result from the weaving process. Here’s a list of the common ones, each of which will be discussed in greater detail below:
2] Poplin (or Popline)
5] Basket Weave
11] Voile and its cousin, Zendaline
Before discussing the specific types of cloth, there are four factors which influence all of the types. These factors are:
1] Count of the Cloth
2] Yarn Number
Here is where the least scrupulous manufacturers often misuse technical terms to mislead unknowledgeable consumers. Yarns used to make cloth are spun from raw cotton as illustrated above. Once spun, the yarn can then be used directly to weave fabric. Or, for higher quality fabrics, yarns can be twisted together into a yarn made of two yarns. This is known as Two-Ply Yarn. The twisted Two-Ply yarn, because of its inherent physical characteristics, resists the normal tendency of yarn to shed, or ‘pill’. Therefore, fabrics woven of this Two-Ply yarn will have a much greater durability and longevity than fabrics woven of “Singles”, or yarns which have not been plied. Where the unscrupulous prey on the unsuspecting is by using a Two-Ply yarn in one direction of the cloth and a Single Yarn in the other direction. In technical terms, this is called a 2×1 or a 1×2. True high quality cloth uses Two-Ply yarns in both the Warp and Weft directions and is known as 2×2.
Count of the Cloth
Confusion often reigns between the “Thread Count” and the “Yarn Number”. The improperly named “Thread Count”, which is correctly termed “Yarn Count”, consists of the number of yarns-per-inch in the Warp (picks) and the number of yarns-per-inch in the Weft (fillings). This determines whether the cloth is loosely or tightly woven. Common high-quality broadcloths, have a Count of 144 x 76 or 144 Warp (lengthwise) Yarns per inch and 76 Weft (crosswise) Yarns per inch. Logically, the fewer the yarns-per-inch, the more space there will be between the yarns and the sheerer the resulting cloth.
This is the number most commonly bandied about … and usually confused with Thread Count. For cottons, using the most commonly accepted numbering system, yarn numbers run from 24s (thickest and coarsest) to 200s (thinnest and finest). Here, as a difficult to view comparison, is a 100s right next to a 200s. If you look carefully, you can see the thickness of the red plaid 100s yarns on the left is almost double that of the wine striped 200s on the right. The thinner yarns can be spun only from the thinnest, smoothest, longest cotton fibers, known in the trade as E.L.S. or Extra Long Staple. It is the rarest and most expensive cotton grown in the world, comprising in total well under 1% of all the cotton produced. Naturally, the thinner the yarn the softer and more supple the resulting cloth.
This is the proportion of Warp yarns to Weft yarns. Ideally, the number would be equal to yield the greatest strength. In practice, this is rarely the case. Take the 144 x 76 count of common broadcloths, for example. Here, there are almost twice as many warp yarns as weft yarns. However, in the higher quality broadcloths, this is compensated for by increasing the size of the weft yarn. This serves two purposes. It balances the cloth by providing a similar amount of cotton fiber in both directions. Additionally, the larger weft yarn produces a series of microscopic ridges running across the cloth which is a traditional characteristic of cotton broadcloth.
OK. Tired of the Science? Good. Me, too. Let’s get on to the Types of Shirtings.
2] POPLIN (or Popline fr.)
Ha! Thought you were finally going to find out the difference, eh? Well, you’re not. Why? Because for all practical purposes, Broadcloth and Poplin are exactly the same thing. Historically, there had been one slight difference which is all but ignored today. That difference would have been that some poplins had a slightly larger filling, or weft, yarn than broadcloths resulting in a slightly more pronounced ‘ridge’ effect crosswise on the cloth.
That out of the way, just what is a broadcloth or poplin? Quite simply, it is a Plain Weave. What is meant by a plain weave is that each weft yarn passes over one warp yarn, under one warp yarn, over one warp yarn, and so on until it reaches the other side of the cloth. It then returns to the staring side in exactly the same sequence, merely alternating by one the warp yarns which it goes under – over – under. This diagram illustrates the construction vividly:
Here is the actual cloth. You can easily see the simple over-under-over repetition:
This results in a smooth, strong cloth which is durable, shrinkage resistant, and quite dimensionally stable. In other words, it will last a long time and not tend to warp or bend as time passes. It is the most common and widely used of all the shirtings and available in qualities from 30s singles to 200s 2×2. Higher qualities range upwards of 100s 2×2.
5] BASKET WEAVE
Pinpoint is a very simple type of Oxford – of which there are dozens – almost a broadcloth in nature. The only usual difference between pinpoint, which is woven of broadcloth type yarns, is that the weft thread passes over two closely-spaced warp yarns before passing under two and then repeating.
Oxford, named for Oxford University by the Scottish mill which first wove it, is a basket weave. These range from simple, plain Oxfords, usually woven – except in the case of white – from two different colored yarns. In most instances, the second color of yarn is white. Basket weaves are simple weaves. What differentiates them from the plain weave is that each warp and/or weft yarn passes over and under multiple yarns. These multiples generally range from two to four and can create quite an exciting array of fabrics. Here is demonstrated the basic weaving pattern for a 2×1 and 2×2 Basket Weave. Do not confuse these denominations with ply – they signify how many yarns are being passed over and under:
On the right is the weaving diagram; the left an illustration of the yarns. The upper diagrams illustrate the 2×1 construction where one weft (crosswise) yarn passes over and under two warp (lengthwise) yarns; alternating which two to pass over or under in each succeeding row. The lower diagram shows the 2×2 construction where two weft (crosswise) yarns pass over and under two warp (lengthwise) yarns; again alternating which two to pass over or under in each succeeding row.
Here is an illustration in actual cloth of a few Oxford & Basket Weave constructions:
The first is a 2×2 (ply) 140s Thomas Mason Royal Oxford which is a very fancy construction, indescribable in lay terms but consisting of four yarns in each direction. Some pass over two yarns , others over four. The center cloth is a 4×4 weave, 2×2 ply 80s Oltolina Oxford called Duke. The bottom fabric is a white basket weave, so complex it would require a microscope to unravel.
Suffice it to say that there exists a huge array of different Oxford constructions, all of which are characterized by the basket weave construction and most of which are made from at least two different colors of yarn. One overarching characteristic of most of the fancier Oxfords, or basket weaves, is that their irregularity tends to decrease their durability. As will be noted below in the Satin description, the more warp or weft yarns its crosswise partner passes over, the more chance there is that the untethered, “floating” yarn may catch, or snag, on an external sharp protrusion such as a splinter or broken fingernail.
Yup. They’re all the same. Twill is the weave type; Gabardine, Cavalry, and Herringbone just various manifestations thereof. A Twill is characterized by the weft (crosswise) yarns passing over multiple warp yarns and then under one warp yarn. The succeeding row does the same, but begins one warp yarn later, etc. This creates a pronounced diagonal rib effect as is seen in this weaving diagram:
Here are a few simple examples of actual twills of an equilateral and regular weave construction. The topmost is a Hounds tooth patterned twill. Next follows a so-called Tick weave in a twill construction. Below that is a very fine 2×2 170s twill cloth from Alumo. The bottommost is a very heavy Cavalry twill. In all twills, the diagonal ribs are termed ‘wales’:
Two important characteristics of twills are that they are the most durable of cloths and they are the least likely to soil – but the hardest to clean once they do.
Gabardine Twill is also a regular and equilateral weave characterized by a very hard surface finish and a very high yarn count. A most popular and common twill is the Herringbone, so named for its likeness to the backbone of the fish of the same name. It also utilizes a regular and equilateral twill construction – but the construction reverses direction every certain number of yarns in order that the diagonal ribs change direction by ninety degrees. Here is the weaving diagram and a magnified example of a herringbone cloth:
and an example of the actual fabric, a 2×2 ply 100’s from Thomas Mason:
10] END-ON-END (or fil-a-fil fr.)
The variety of available end-on-end cloths is probably immeasurable. In the simplest terms, end-on-end is a plain weave just like a broadcloth. It is characterized by the interspersion of colored yarns with other colored yarns. Though one of the colors is most frequently white, a great diversity of end-on-ends have arisen in recent years. The simplest and most common – the medium blue broadcloth end-on-end often associated with the white collar & cuff style – is constructed from a warp of alternating white and blue yarns and a weft of white yarns. This yields the familiar ‘crosshatched’ appearance. Though most end-on-ends which don’t use white as one of the colors use lighter and darker shades of the same color, for example, sky and royal. I have seen some really strange combinations in recent times – blue & purple with magenta & fuscia, for example – which when finally made up yielded some awesome fabrics.
What is usually not realized about end-on-ends is that they are not always woven of the standard broadcloth yarns. A few years back, voile end-on-ends were quite popular as well. For the differences, see the Voile section below. Here are a few for comparison. The first is the standard, popular blue fabric seen in every men’s store everywhere. The second and third are examples, a red and a blue, of voile-weight End-on-Ends. Finally the bottom graphic is the highest quality made, Albini’s D&J Anderson 200s End-on-End woven of two colors of blue yarn.
11] VOILE … and its cousin, Zendaline
Voile is a most popular Summer-weight fabric among the cognoscenti. As broadcloth, voile is a plain weave. The difference in this cloth lies in the manner of spinning the yarn. Voile yarns are spun to an extremely high twist. This high twist causes the yarns to bulk up in a process called creping. It is illustrated here with a cotton twine. The top shows the twine in its natural, relaxed position, similar to a broadcloth yarn. The bottom demonstrates what happens when the twine is twisted to the point where it doubles over upon itself – exactly like a voile yarn:
The fact that the yarns are ‘bulked up’ permits the use of fewer of them per square inch (a lower yarn count). This corresponding decrease in the quantity of fiber is the property which makes voiles semi-sheer and extremely breathable, for what they have actually become is quite porous. Additionally, this minimal yarn combined with a soft, high twist makes for an extremely soft and supple fabric.
Here is an example of a 2×2 140s ‘French Striated’ Voile from the looms of Italy’s S.I.C.Tessuti:
A hybrid of Voile is known as Zendaline. Woven of the high-twist voile yarns in the weft (crosswise), the Zendaline warp is made from Broadcloth yarns. The resulting cloth, for many technical reasons, exhibits only the best features of both yarns. Zendaline has an extremely high sheen reminiscent of the finest broadcloths, but retains the soft hand of the Voiles. Among the upper crust of bespoke shirt wearers, Zendaline is one of the ‘must haves’ in every wardrobe.
I am treating Dobbies and Jacquards together because they are both methods of achieving the same goal – that of creating a design on cloth without using colors to do so. Their most obvious difference lies in the size of the design they can produce. Dobby looms are capable of producing small, uncomplicated designs whereas Jacquard looms can create the most complex designs of any size desired.
The manner in which the weft thread is inserted through the warp threads naturally varies with the type of cloth being woven. In simple cloths such as 1] through 11] above, the warp yarns pass through heddles which, together, comprise what is called a harness. In the simplest loom, one designed for making only Plain Weave cloths, there are two harnesses. Half of the warp yarns (#’s 1,3,5,7,9 and so on) are passed through the heddles of one harness. The other half of the yarns (#’s 2,4,6,8 and so on) are passed through the heddles of the other harness. When the first harness is lifted up and the second pushed down, the weft thread is then shot through the resulting triangle of space. The harnesses then reverse and the weft thread is shot through again, and so on. The process of raising and lowering the harnesses is called ‘shedding’. Note the triangle on this simple hand loom where the weft thread passes through as one harness sheds half of the warp upward while the other harness sheds the other half of the warp downward:
The Dobby loom, or technique, is a manner of controlling up to 32 different harnesses which permits the degree of shedding variation necessary to produce simple designs. Here are two examples. The first, or uppermost, is a common satin stripe, in this case adorning a blue voile solid. The second example is a truly rare piece, one woven by David and John Andersen in Scotland during the first half of the 20th Century. It is called ‘Clocks’:
The Jacquard Loom, invented in 1801 by Joseph Marie Jacquard, is a horse of an entirely different color! There are no heddles or harnesses. Instead, there are thousands of fine steel wires suspended from above, the end of each consisting of an eye through which one … just one … warp yarn is passed. Then, through the use of an extremely complex series of punch cards, each fine steel wire is individually raised and lowered as the weft thread passes through resulting in even the most complex of repeating designs. Here is an example in White-on-White:
Most modern shirtings do not feature designs so complex as to necessitate the use of a Jacquard loom. The small, repeating designs featured in the majority of White-on-Whites, Tone-on-Tones, and simple satin stripes or checks are quite easily accomplished with the 32 harnesses of the Dobby system.
Hold on guys … we’re almost there!
Though a rarity in cotton shirtings these days, many silk shirts on today’s store shelves are of the satin variety. Similarly, satin components are used in the construction of garments such as the tuxedo. Satins are the most delicate and least impervious to snagging of all fabrics. The reason for this is a magnification of the oxford concept of ‘floating’ the warp or the weft to permit the natural luster of mercerized thread to show. Satin fabrics, as illustrated in the following diagram, feature warp or weft yarns floating out above the surface for a distance ranging anywhere from 4 to 16 crosswise yarns! As is obvious, the opportunity for snagging one of these floating yarns is widespread … though in proper circumstance, the use of satin can be quite attractive:
Though that concludes the description of the common shirting constructions, no such treatise would be complete without a brief paragraph or two on a couple of the other factors which influence the quality of fabrics.
Although you now know the basics of constructing the cloth, cloth is not ready for the needle until it is “finished”. After weaving, fabric then goes through one or all of a variety of ‘finishing’ processes. These include dying, sizing, sanforization, and pre-shrinking to name just a few common ones. Each of these processes has a direct effect not only upon the appearance of the cloth, but on its performance characteristics as well.
Interesting Sidebar – You’ve probably heard of the 47 common varieties of Scotch whiskey. One of the primary factors in the variety lies in the water used in the fermenting process. Just as Scotch, water is one of the key components in many of the fabric finishing processes. Not so strangely, many of the fabrics used to be finished in Scotland. Variety in fabric finished was obtained, in part, by the weaver’s selection of which of those 47 waters was to be used. Now, thanks to population increases and pollution, that wide variety of waters is no longer available. Due to this, many of the characteristics of, for example, the “clocks” example above, can no longer be repeated.
I have a few yards of some 200’s x 240’s woven for me in the 1990’s. In order to do so, the mill had to run the loom at a rate of 35 meters per day. Even so, there were still some broken weft yarns and the requisite knots therein. And that was the fastest they could be run. Loom speed today is measured in the tens of thousands of yards per loom per day. The better shirtings (Italian, Swiss – best mills) are made on looms running from 1000 to 3000 meters daily. And this is what happens: The faster you run the loom, the greater the inherent tension in the yarns of the resulting fabric. On today’s super high-speed looms, microscopic breaks in the yarns are caused. These do not become evident until the tension begins to really relax. This happens when the fabric is wet (in the laundry). As the number of launderings increases, those fabrics begin to degrade rapidly. Fabrics woven on the slower looms – in other words those without the high tension breakage – do not begin to degrade anywhere near as rapidly.
This is why I can show you a 2×2 170’s shirt made in the mid-1980’s and laundered more than 200 times which is perfectly serviceable while a new shirt made of high-speed woven fabric is virtual garbage after 25 washes.
Hence, it is not merely the construction details of the weaving of a particular cloth which influence its appearance, its hand, and its serviceability. There are other factors, two of which I have just briefly touched the surface of, which demand consideration in your selection of that next shirt … but those are topics for another day. Thanks for slogging through.
Alexander Kabbaz is a maker and retailer of fine shirts in New York, USA. Visit his website for more information.
By serendipity, I found Jaja Camiceria while walking around Rome one day trying to find a good lunch. I’ve always believed that when you’re in a touristy area, you’re better off searching for food off the beaten paths. So while walking down a smaller side street near the Spanish steps, I came across this custom tailoring shop.
Jaja has been around for almost 45 years, but changed ownership two years ago and is now run by Giuseppe Rossi. The shop’s front room is where he meets and fits clients, and all the shirts are made in the back. Giuseppe does all the custom pattern making and cutting, and he and three of his tailors do the sewing.
Since everything is bespoke and handmade, they only produce four shirts a day. Hand-sewn seams go around each of the armholes and down the plackets, and distinctive mother-of-pearl buttons slide through the handmade buttonholes. The side seams, hems, and collars are made by machine, but they’re done with such a high stitch count (nine per centimeter) that they’re barely perceptible.
Signore Rossi was nice enough to demonstrate for me some of his handwork. Taking one of his current client’s shirts, he slowly and patiently hand stitched up the placket. As he later showed me, monograms are also genuinely hand embroidered, which you could tell by examining the back of embroidered fabric. Truly hand-embroidered monograms lack the small piece of fabric on the back that’s attached on machine embroidery to prevent wrinkling.
Prices for custom shirts start at $260, and go up from there depending on the detailing and fabric. Due to how much work is involved in cutting the first pattern, there is a minimum three shirts for the first order. Jaja can also make boxers out of their Italian shirtings for $50, as well as pajamas out of soft cotton flannels for $235. Looking back, I wish I had ordered a couple of monogrammed boxers. Who can’t use a pair of Italian boxers with a shadowed monogram?