The difference between a $20 shirt and a $200 one isn’t always immediately apparent.
It’s usually the quality of the fabric that makes up the difference, and much of that quality comes from the weave.
Understanding weaves can seem a little technical, but bear with us. Each weave is just a specific way of interlacing individual threads to make a solid, square (rectangular, usually, in fact) piece of cloth.
CUSTOM SHIRT FABRICS – WEAVES
The weave of a dress shirt determines how its surface feels, how easily it breathes air, even how it tends to wrinkle. There are literally thousands of weaves, but most shirts are made from the same dozen or so, each with its own unique properties:
- Oxford – A very simple weave made of bundles of thread crossing at right angles (a “basketweave”), oxford is tough, dependable, and has a slightly bumpy texture. The same weave can be made with finer threads to produce “pinpoint oxford,” which has a very fine grain to its surface, or “royal oxford,” woven from threads so fine the texture is almost smooth.
- Poplin – Poplin is a “plain weave” made of threads crossing at right angles. Traditionally it was made with threads of two different materials, but these days the best poplin dress shirts are 100% cotton, using two different thicknesses of cotton thread. It resists wrinkling a bit better than more delicate weaves.
- Twill – Most suit fabrics are a variety of twill, a type of weave with diagonal rather than horizontal ribbing, but it is reasonably uncommon in dress shirts. Light cotton twill is easy to make, keeping it affordable, and the subtle diagonal texture can add a bit of understated liveliness to an otherwise plain shirt.
- Herringbone – Herringbone is a specific variant of the basic twill weave. It alternates the direction of the diagonals, creating series of V-shapes running up and down the cloth. If the threads are all one color, the effect is a slightly-textured shimmer. If the threads are two different color the pattern becomes pronounced, and decidedly less formal.
- Broadcloth – Broadcloth is a very tight weave made with fine, light threads. It has a smooth surface and a bit of a shine to it. Quality end-on-end broadcloths are made with two different colors of thread, often white and another color, woven together so tightly they appear solid from any distance. Broadcloth has enough weight to drape cleanly and holds a crease well, but still feels very light and smooth on the body because of its fine threads, making it a prized (and expensive) shirting option.
- Gauze – We mostly associate gauze weave with medical tape, but the slightly loose plain weave was at one time a staple of tropical military uniforms. Light silk button-fronted shirts often use a gauze weave, as do some safari shirts. It is relatively rare in custom shirts, however, as most men do not have their casual vacation clothes tailor-made.
- Madras – Famous for its traditional plain pattern, madras is a specific weave made on traditional wooden looms and often stretched between tree-trunks. It’s a loose weave made with light thread, making a breezy and breathable fabric. Real hand-woven madras can be surprisingly expensive, given its deceptively casual appearance.
- Seersucker – Used for both suits and shirts, cotton seersucker is made with a specific process called “slack-weaving” that gives it its characteristic dimpled surface. The light, breathable cloth is most often made into short-sleeved, button-front shirts for summer wear, as well as into full seersucker suits.
- Piqué – While the other fabrics discussed here are woven, piqué is actually knitted from fine yarns, resulting in a light shirt with a bumpy texture. We’re most familiar with piqué as the traditional material for tennis/polo shirts, but it also makes the stiff front bib of custom formal shirts.
Any of these weaves can be made from synthetic materials as well as cotton, and some will occasionally incorporate silk in the weave for a smoother, shinier finish.
Choosing a shirt weave basically boils down to function.
Ask yourself how and where you’re planning on wearing the shirt:
Long-sleeved or short?
Custom-made short-sleeved shirts are an unusual but not unheard-of luxury. If you are having one made a suitably casual fabric is appropriate, as well as a lighter one: seersucker and gauze work well, as does a brightly-colored madras.
Long-sleeved dress shirts in the more conventional mode will use a slightly heavier, tighter-woven cloth like oxford, poplin, or broadcloth.
Is your shirt for business or social wear?
The finest business dress shirts are broadcloth in white or light blue. Pinpoint and royal oxfords are equally appropriate, and some poplins will serve as well. The goal of any strict business-dress shirt is to have a smooth surface and a single, solid color.
More relaxed shirts for business-casual and social wear can have a faintly textured weave like herringbone and other twills, or like the slightly bumpy oxford.
How long will you be wearing your shirt at a time?
A lighter, more breathable weave stays comfortable throughout the day. At the same time, a loosely-woven shirt will crease and wrinkle easily, making it less durable. As a result, the most prized cloths are woven tightly of light fabrics, like broadcloth.
If your job is reasonably active and you have reason to worry about wear and tear on your clothing, a sturdier cloth like oxford or a poplin with a bit of rayon woven in for strength will serve you well.
By considering the durability of the weave, its texture, and the kind of shirt you want made you can narrow your choices down to just one or two specific weaves.
From there it’s a matter of cost and taste.
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