Understanding the Language of Fashion and Style
Consumers shopping for any kind of clothing should be prepared for a dizzying array of terminology.
Fabrics, fibers, materials, and even certain specific patterns all have their own unique names. Here we examine the most common in simple, straightforward language.
Never have to worry if a tweed coat is better than a Twill one or not again!
Introduction to Weaving
With a few exceptions, most fabrics used in menswear are woven. This simply means that the broad, flat bolts of cloth the clothing is cut from were originally made by taking strands of material and interlacing them, almost always at right-angles to one another. The difference between one bolt of woven cloth and the other depends on the materials used, the method used to weave the individual strands together, and the size and spacing of the fibers.
Many of the terms associated with weaving are not necessarily important to know when buying menswear, or clothes of any kind — the primary interest you as a consumer should have is knowing the difference between the end products, and how to identify them.
It is, however, worth recognizing the terms fabric count (often simply “count”) and fabric weight, as these are common benchmarks of quality. Fabric count refers to the number of threads per square inch in a fabric; the higher the count, the more durable and resistant to wear the fabric will be.
Fabric weight is usually divided into light-, medium-, and heavy- or bottom-weight fabrics, and give a good indication of the fabric's ideal purpose — a winter coat made from medium-weight wool will likely be insufficient protection, while a shirt made from anything but light-weight cotton may be uncomfortably heavy.
Common Weaves and Woven Cloth in Menswear
There are many thousands of different ways of weaving cloth, each with its own name. Fortunately, most menswear relies on only a handful of common production methods and standard materials. Some terms refer entirely to the material used, while others designate a specific woven patter, and a few designate both at once.
The simplest cloth to construct is a plain weave. If you ever made potholders or baskets or some other handicraft type of project involving interwoven straps as a child, you've made a plain weave — any weave where the threads pass alternatingly over and under one another is a plain weave. This creates a cloth that is identical on both sides, and is very commonly done in wool to produce the cloth for suit jackets and trousers.
Virtually any thread can be used to make a plain weave, although worsted wool — a specific type of yarn in which the wool fibers lie alongside one another in long bundles — is traditional for suits, and produces a very strong and comfortable fabric.
Because the front and back of plain woven fabric is identical, it is a very popular technique for patterned fabrics. Threads of differing colors can be interwoven to create patterns, resulting in familiar fabrics like gingham and madras, which refer to both the method of construction (plain woven) and the pattern.
A more complicated form of weaving involves off-setting the thread each time it passes under a thread or group of threads running the other direction; this process creates the twill family of weaves. Twill woven cloth has a distinct diagonal pattern to it, and will always look different on one side. Most men will recognize the slanted pattern of a Twill weave from their blue jeans, as well as from modifications such as the decorative herringbone (repeated V-shapes or chevrons in the fabric) and Houndstooth.
Many fabrics are characterized both by being twill-woven and by using a specific material; chino for example is a soft cloth made from twill-woven cotton. A tight twill weave in worsted wool is used to create the tough fabric known as gabardine, which is still used by some high-quality tailors to make the pockets of their bespoke suits.
Famous as an American and particularly Southern affectation, seersucker does not — as is often mistakenly believed — refer to a specific pattern of striping. It is a complicated weave of cloth that requires different tensions to be applied at different points, creating its characteristic bumpy texture.
Seersucker is only made with cotton threads, and is expensive to produce because of its slow and complicated weaving process. It offers remarkable comfort in heat, however, and requires little care as it is machine-washable and quite durable. While blue and white striping are most common, seersucker can be made in any color.
What Men Need to Know About Weaves
The key thing to know is what each weave does and why you should — or shouldn't — buy it. Plain weaves are the simplest to make, often the cheapest, and make good shirts that hold colors and patterns well. They are also the most common family of weaves used in woolen suits, and a suit made of plain woven worsted wool remains the industry standard.
Twill weaves are more appropriate for cotton trousers, blue jeans, and some shirts, although they are also used with woolen threads to create patterns like herringbone for suit jackets. Twill is easily recognizable because the front and back sides of the cloth will always differ in color and texture, even when no dye has been used.
Seersucker is a very specific weave, easily recognized by its bumpy texture, and only appropriate for lightweight cotton garments. It is very evocative of summer, the American South, and a more casual demeanor than the other weaves.
There are, of course, thousands of weaves overall, some very specific to the type of thread used and some more general, but a man familiar with these simple terms can go into a clothing store well-armed.