We could just as easily call this section “types of thread” or perhaps “types of raw material” — roughly speaking, they're all the same thing.
To get a bolt of cloth for a shirt (which is then called “shirting”) threads have to be woven together in a specific pattern. We talk about some of the more common patterns in our section on “weaves.”
But before that can happen the individual threads have to be created out of some kind of fiber, either by spinning fibers together or twisting them and tying the ends off (the former is vastly more common).
Certain raw materials make better threads than others. Nearly all have their own unique properties. Cotton is by far the most common kind of thread used in shirting weaves, and we start with it, but the alternatives are worth knowing about when you choose a fabric for your custom shirt:
“Cotton is king” was an economic statement, not a fashion one, and it has a troubled history — but in the world of fine dress shirts it's still basically true.
The vast majority of your fabric selections for a custom-made dress shirt will be 100% cotton. In some cases the threads are treated before weaving or the finished bolt is treated after weaving to achieve “permanent press,” “wrinkle-free,” and various other convenient effects, but the raw material is still the same.
Most dress shirt cotton is made of long-staple or extra long-staple (ELS) cotton. The latter is a luxury material we talk about in greater length in our “Cost and Scarcity” section, but all cotton products share a few basic properties that make them ideal for shirting:
- Ease of Maintenance – Cotton can be washed over and over and over again. Heat and water have little effect on cotton fabrics, and a quick ironing takes care of any wrinkles. The ease of wearing a cotton shirt, washing it, and having it immediately ready for wear again as soon as it dries makes it the most practical shirting available.
- Color – Cotton takes dyes well. It's a somewhat unsung property outside of the tailoring industry, but a properly-dyed cotton shirt should hold up for years of sunlight exposure without fading badly.
- Comfort – Cotton is both light and breathable. Air escapes easily. This makes it bad for providing warmth but ideal for wearing close to the skin — it keeps you from feeling stuffy and sweaty. Most undershirts are cotton for the same reason.
- Cost – Basic cotton cloth is relatively cheap. With the cost of the raw material driving much of custom clothing's expense, you can get tailored shirts for reasonable prices by sticking to simple cotton.
Linen shirts were once the norm, before colonialism brought cheap cotton to Western Europe, and they still have a place in some fine dresser's wardrobes. Turning raw flax into cloth takes considerably more time and effort than processing cotton, which drives the cost up. A tailored linen shirt is an expensive and unusual investment — but one worth considering for some men, due to linen's slightly different properties:
- Weight – Linen thread is usually lighter by diameter than cotton (there are exceptions, depending on how the thread is made and the quality of the raw material). Linen shirts have a very light, breezy feel to them and tend to be less stiff than cotton cloth.
- Quick-Evaporating – Cotton has an unfortunate tendency to trap moisture. Linen lets water evaporate much more quickly, which can make a major difference in comfort for men in very humid countries, or just men who tend to sweat heavily.
- Texture – Weaves made of linen thread have a smooth luster that cotton rarely matches. The cloth feels light and somewhat gauze-like to the touch, even when tightly woven. It tends to wrinkle easily, but in less-pronounced creases than cotton (although linen fibers will break where they are folded or ironed in the same place repeatedly, giving them a tendency to wear out around the collar).
Silk shirts are most commonly associated with smooth, glossy surfaces, but the thread can actually be woven into quite plain cloths if desired, where the natural sheen will only be visible upon close inspection.
Silk dress shirts are unusual, expensive, and a luxury item. They are also quite comfortable, lighter than cotton, have a better drape than linen, and lack the plastic-like slickness of artificial fibers. Silk's valuable properties as a shirting are largely limited to appearance:
- Natural Sheen – The structure of a silk thread is triangular. It refracts light like a prism, giving silk cloth a shimmering look. In a plain white dress shirt the effect is subtle but eye-catching; in bright colors in can be downright blinding.
- Texture – “Silky” is a synonym for smoothness, and for a reason. Silk shirts have a decadent texture that makes a welcome change from stiffer cotton. However, the material is much less sturdy, and will wear out quickly when stretched or exposed to sunlight.
Most tailors will not stock wholly-synthetic bolts of cloth for shirting. A pure polyester or rayon shirt will be stiff, plastic-like, and non-breathable.
Artificial fibers do sometimes appear in the blend of mostly-cotton weaves. A few threads of rayon, nylon, polyester, or another synthetic fiber might be included to add strength and mildew-resistance to a cotton dress shirt.
Any cloth with more than 3-5% artificial fibers is likely not of high quality, and should not be selected for a custom-made shirt, or even present in a tailor's shop. Artificial fibers offer only a few advantages:
- Durability – A strand or two of nylon or rayon adds a “backbone” to the weave of a cotton shirt, giving it some extra resistance to wear around the elbows, where it flexes the most often.
- Mildew Resistance – Natural fibers help repel water and keep air-dried shirts from developing mildew. They may also be used to make a shirt more wrinkle-resistant, allowing it to be tumble-dried and hung up without ironing.
- Cost – Using artificial fibers for part of the cloth brings the overall cost down. However, any cloth with enough synthetic fiber in it to be significantly cheaper is probably not of high enough quality for a tailored shirt.
Natural Fiber Blends
A few unusual cloths are made out of cotton threads blended with something else. Cotton-linen blends are becoming more popular, making a lighter cloth with a less stiff texture than pure cotton.
More rarely, cotton and wool are blended to make tough, light work shirts, but these are usually done with low-cost threads and are not typical in tailored shirts.
Linen-wool blends are even rarer, and mostly reserved for costumers and historical reenactors rather than fine dressers.
Wool shirts are unusual, apart from coarse workshirts. However, there are now cottage businesses specializing in custom wool garments such as sweaters and vests that deserve at least a brief mention.
Custom wool sweaters can be knit from scratch, seamlessly, to fit specific measurements, or else they can be sewn together from wool cloth much like a custom dress shirt.
As the industry grows it may be worth looking for a tailor who can cut or adjust wool garments to your measure. A traditional collared, button-fronted shirt would be an unusual investment for a man seeking custom clothing, but a cardigan or a light sweater to be worn under a suit may be worth the cost of custom manufacture.
Picking Your Material
With all that said, most custom shirts will be cotton. There are sound reasons to pick and stick with cotton for the majority of your wardrobe, not the least of which is the convenience of maintenance. For a man who wears a dress shirt every day, anything that can't be washed in bulk and quickly is going to get tiresome quickly.
The remaining materials are choices for a special occasion or a man with very specific needs that can't be met by cotton. If you're looking for something different, linen and silk are eye-catching, while blended materials may offer some practical benefits.
Once the raw material has been chosen, the weave of the fabric determines much of the texture and weight — and sometimes the cost — and so is covered in its own section “Custom Suit Fabrics – Weaves.”