Custom Suit Fabrics – Types of Weaves
Here we have to get a little bit technical. The raw material a suit is made from — silk, linen, cotton, etc. — is fairly easy to grasp.
What's a bit more complex, but equally vital in determining how the finished product feels and sits on your body, is the weave. The weave is the specific pattern in which individual strands are interlaced and pulled tight to make a piece of solid cloth.
Weaves can range from totally invisible to roughly-textured and visible at a distance. The difference between bumpy seersucker and ultra-sheer broadcloth is all in the weave. So is the difference between a smooth suit facing and a prominent herringbone pattern.
There are literally thousands of ways to weave thread together. A few dozen have become common in modern textiles, and of those a particular tailor may have as many as ten or twenty to choose from. We cover the most common and the best options for custom suits here:
“Twill” is a broad family of weaves with a distinct diagonal pattern. To make it, the warp threads are laid out straight and parallel, while the weft threads are woven over-and-under in a side-stepping pattern, going two warp threads or more at a time.
If that sounds technical, the simpler description is “diagonal” — any twill weave will have distinct diagonal ribs somewhere in the fabric, though it may be on the inside of the suit only. The majority of suit fabrics will be a twill weave of some kind.
- Flannel – This common twill can be made with either worsted (smoother) or woolen (hairier) threads, and the surface is “napped” with a bristly brush to create a soft, fuzzy texture. Flannel suits are some of the softest to the touch, and can be quite heavy and warm.
- Worsted Suiting – A family of fabrics made with a twill weave from worsted threads are referred to, collectively, simply as “worsted” or “worsted suiting.” They are characterized by a smooth surface and plain, matte finish. Worsted suiting can range from cloth made with very light threads for a silky, lightweight surface to heavy suits made from “milled” cloth with a soft, flannel-like finish.
- Tweed – A diagonal twill weave done in thick, carded yarns. Tweeds have a distinctive rough and wooly texture.
- Serge – A very simple twill weave made in fine threads for a matte surface with faint, diagonal lines. Serge is the traditional cloth for navy blazers.
- Gabardine – A twill variant with more threads running horizontally than diagonally. The tight weave is stiffer and less breathable than other suit weaves, and is somewhat old-fashioned these days. However, it is tough and very water resistant, making it a good traveling suit.
- Herringbone – A specific weave with V-shapes running throughout it. There is always a small break between one column of repeating V's and the next in a true herringbone. The warp and weft threads can be the same color for a subtle pattern, or differently-colored for a more visible effect.
- Houndstooth – A very distinctive twill using four light-colored threads and four dark-colored ones interwoven to create a small check pattern. It makes for a fairly bold suit, usually only suitable for casual/social wear.
- Barleycorn – An unusual pattern that uses contrasting warp and woof colors to create small, repeating clusters of three. The finished effect is of very small alternating light- and dark-colored triangles, suggesting the crown of a stalk of barley.
- Sharkskin – Considered a luxury material, true sharkskin is a very tight twill weave in two similar but distinct colors (traditionally medium gray and light gray, or two different tans for a golden variation). The weave is actually a simple and rather old-fashioned one called “pick-and-pick,” but it makes a striking effect when woven very tightly with very light, fine, high-count threads.
A few suit cloths are made from “plain weaves,” which use a simple over-and-under pattern of horizontal and vertical threads. A third family of weaves, called “satin weaves,” have very smooth and glossy surfaces that are usually too delicate for suitings.
- Bedford Cord – A relatively uncommon plain-woven fabric native to Bedford, England. It looks like a very fine corduroy with less pronounced wales (ridges). The fabric is too stiff for most suits, but is commonly used in traditional hunting garments, including riding suits.
- Birdseye – A gridded fabric made of contrasting colors, creating small lighter-colored dots in a regular pattern on the darker color. The pattern is small and fine enough to be business-appropriate in many settings, though it is not as formal as a solid dark color or a pinstripe.
- Faille – Possibly the only satin weave regularly used for suiting. Satin weaves have a matte surface and a glossy one; in faille suits the glossy surface is worn facing inward. Faille is most commonly used by Middle Eastern tailors. The inner texture is very smooth, making it comfortable on bare skin.
- Tropical – A plain weave made with tightly-twisted yarns. Many tropical-weave suits use mohair (from Angora goats) for part of the wool, since it weighs less than sheep's wool but still holds up durably.
- Seersucker – A unique dimpled weave done in cotton rather than wool. Seersucker suits are traditional summer wear for refined gentlemen in the United States. They are very lightweight and comfortable, but the puckered texture makes the suit strictly casual/social wear.
It gets easy to feel overwhelmed when you look at a list like this. Fortunately, the many weaves break down pretty easily into broad groups for different purposes. Think about the role your suit will play in your wardrobe:
Business suits will usually be an evenly-textured twill weave like the worsted suiting family or serge. Flannel is also common, though a bit less formal because of its fuzzy softness, and birdseye is not unheard-of in more relaxed suit-and-tie settings.
Casual weekend, social, and sporting suits are traditionally made in more visible weaves like herringbone and houndstooth. Weaves that show off differently-colored threads like sharkskin are also popular casual options.
Where are you going to be wearing this suit?
Suits you plan to mostly wear indoors at office-type settings don't need to be particularly rugged, but should be comfortable for long periods of time and resist creasing when your arms and legs stay bent for hours at a time. Softer, more flexible weaves like flannel, worsted suiting, and twill work well.
Suits meant to be worn in more rugged conditions such as riding or country walking will usually be made from a stiffer weave such as gabardine or Bedford cord.
How conservative or eccentric do you want your suit to seem?
If you mostly like to blend in with a crowd — albeit perhaps with a nicer drape than most men's suits — you should stick to smooth-surfaced weaves like flannel and worsted.
For a slightly more eye-catching but still respectable look textured dark weaves like twill and birdseye have some variety without being over the top.
Adventurous dressers can try the most distinctly-patterned weaves like barleycorn, houndstooth, and of course the puckered seersucker.
Between deciding how much attention you want, where the suit will be worn, and of course how business-formal you need it to be, you should be able to narrow your choices down to two or three weaves with no trouble.
Made it all the way through? Give yourself a pat on the back and a quick break. This one's the tough one; it's all easy going from here.