Color and pattern can be determined at a glance from across the room. What's less obvious about a shirt but far more important to its wearer is the texture — how it actually feels against the skin.
The practical effect of a shirt's texture should be obvious: a shirt that is smooth and silky to the touch will feel pleasant to wear, while one that is thick and scratchy will not. There will, however, also be a visible effect: smoother textures have a slicker, more reflective color, while coarser shirts appear more matte and non-reflective, even at a distance.
We talk at length about specific materials and weaves of cloth in a separate section. Here we offer a brief overview of the thread qualities that can affect shirting texture:
We'll go into more detail of these later. Here's their specific properties with regards to physical texture:
- Cotton – Can vary widely in texture, ranging from rough and scratchy to ultra-smooth and silken; almost always lightweight and breathable.
- Linen – Coarser and less even-surfaced than cotton, often with a light, gauzy texture to it.
- Silk – Extremely smooth, slick, and lightweight.
- Wool – Heavier and fuzzier than cotton; unusual for anything but work shirts.
Plant fibers can be spun in different ways to achieve different textures:
- Worsted threads have been combed before spinning to make all the fibers lie in the same direction. This produces a very smooth, solid thread with no stray fibers. It's most commonly associated with wool, but a majority of cotton shirting threads are also worsted.
- Mercerized cotton (or other plant fiber) threads are treated with alkali for additional strength and smoothness. They give their cloth a slightly stiff, slick texture.
- Long-staple refers specifically to cotton thread spun from plant fibers at least 1 3/8″ long. These long, smooth fibers create a very light, strong, silky threat and resultantly fine shirtings.
- Blended threads are spun from intertwined fibers of more than one material. The most common blends are cotton and an artificial fiber of some kind, for strength and cost-effectiveness. These tend to be slicker and stiffer than pure threads, giving finished cloths a more plastic-like feel.
Not to be confused with “thread count” (which is more often used to describe bedding than shirting fabrics), “cotton count” is the measure of how dense the thread is. The number represents the amount of material, measured in 840-yard hanks, needed to equal one pound. The higher the number the finer the yarn, leading to some rough guidelines:
- 1-20 is a low cotton count usually referred to as a “coarse count.” It's unlikely that you'll find cloth made from coarse count thread in most custom tailors' selections.
- 20-60 is a common range for single-knit T-shirts and similar lightweight cotton products. Off-the-rack dress shirts will often use threads from this range as well, though usually in double-knit cloths for added weight. The texture is plain and usually has a dull matte finish.
- 60-100 is a range of fine count cottons used for quality shirtings and bedsheets. The threads are much lighter and smoother, giving the finished cloth a slightly slippery feel and a bit of a reflective sheen.
- 100+ is very fine-spun cotton (usually from long-staple fibers) that makes an extremely light and smooth weave. The threads may be rather delicate because of their fineness, making the shirt less durable than most cotton garments.
Many tailors find cotton count a more meaningful measurement than the “thread count” that you often see in advertisements.
There are multiple ways to calculate the thread count, allowing unscrupulous advertisers to inflate their numbers somewhat. Cotton count is a simple physical measurement and can't be tweaked (apart from outright lying, of course).
Since these measurements can start to feel technical and overwhelming very quickly, we recommend you start by asking yourself some basic questions about the use you want to get out of your shirt when you think about texture:
How smooth do you want the shirt to feel?
Silky-smooth cloth against your skin is always a treat, but it's not a necessity. Decide how much of a priority it is for you.
The softest, smoothest, lightest shirts are often not the most practical. They tend to me made from pure cotton or silk in very light weights and high counts, making them delicate but delightful to touch.
The smoothness of the shirt will also have a visual effect: smooth, fine weaves are more shimmery and reflective than a slightly coarser texture, making whatever color you pick stand out more brightly. It's hard to look restrained in a very smooth, shiny shirt!
How hard will you be using your shirt?
As nice as it is to wear a super-fine shirt with a silken finish, they don't hold up as well to daily wear. If you're planning on including this shirt in your weekly wardrobe and wearing it for eight hours plus every time you pull it out you're going to need a slightly thicker, tougher thread, with a resultingly coarser texture.
It's an unfortunate reality that the most durable shirts usually have the least pleasant textures. Mercerized cotton or cotton blended with an artificial fiber like rayon will be more stain- and wrinkle-resistant, hold up better to repeated washing, and be tough enough to clean with harsher chemicals if needed. They'll also have the toughest, most plastic-like texture.
Pure cotton threads with a reasonably low cotton count (40-60 is a decent range) are usually a good compromise between durability and comfort.
How much special care are you willing to put into your shirt?
Some of the nicest textures also require the most specific care. Are you willing to hand-wash and air-dry a dress shirt between each use? Or would you rather have a shirt you can just throw into the laundry with all the other clothes in its color?
There's no wrong answer here — it just tells you what kind of fabric you'll be wanting. Between thinking about ease of care, long-term durability, and actual physical texture you can narrow your shirting choices down quickly.