CUSTOM SUIT FABRICS – TYPES OF CLOTH
Several things affect the texture, weight, and cost of a suit's fabric, but none so much as the raw material itself.
Raw product becomes suiting through a series of steps. First, a raw material (cotton, wool, etc.) has to be turned into loose fibers that can be spun together. Then the fibers are either twisted or spun into thread. Those threads are then woven together into raw cloth, which, after various finishing treatments, can be cut into suits.
To understand what makes a good suit you need to understand what makes a good raw cloth. Here we cover the most common materials and some of the qualities that make them better or worse for suiting.
Wool accounts for the overwhelming majority of suit fabrics. It can be spun and woven into many different cloths, ranging from light, fine-napped tropical suits to heavy, wiry tweeds. Quality wool suitings are prized for several characteristics:
- Drape – Wool has a strong “memory.” It tends to keep the shape it's laid in. That means that a well-fitted wool suit should drape over your body, emphasizing the lines of your shoulders, chest, and legs. Individual wool fibers break slowly over time, which weakens the drape and makes the fabric saggier; this is why 100% “virgin” wool — meaning that the fibers had never been spun into cloth before — is preferred for quality suitings.
- Luster – Wool threads have a soft, naturally-textured surface that absorbs dye well and creates a smooth, solid look when woven tightly. Wool cloths look “richer” than other fabrics because of this natural luster, which can be maintained for decades with light brushing and the occasional cleaning.
- Water Resistance – Sheep's coats contain lanolin, a natural fat that repels water. Processing removes some of the oil from most wool threads, but suits still typically remain water-resistant, able to repel quite a bit of moisture before becoming saturated.
- Durability – Direct heat and a number of insects can be damaging to improperly-stored wool. Otherwise, the fabric keeps itself well and can last for decades. It wears out very slowly, keeping that prized drape for many years before the individual fibers begin to wear out (usually at the knees and elbows first, where the suit has been bent the most).
- Warmth – Individual wool threads contain more air pockets than those spun from cotton, linen, or artificial fibers. Those tiny air pockets trap and retain heat near your body, while the gaps in the material allow moisture to evaporate. As a result wool insulates and breathes simultaneously, making it warmer than most other fabrics unless woven very lightly from very fine threads.
- Variety – Wool can be combed, spun, and woven many different ways to achieve many different textures. While linen and cotton suits share mostly the same properties from one to the next, wool suitings can range from a hairy, tweedy casual cloth to an ultra-light, ultra-fine worsted jacket with a sheer, almost silken finish.
It's easy — and uncharitable — to think of cotton as the poor man's suiting.
While the cottons used in custom dress shirts can sometimes be very finely-textured and expensive, suits call for more durable cloth that can easily be made from ordinary, affordable, long-staple cotton.
As a result, there are a lot of low-end, store-brand cotton suits running around that look unflattering. But cotton is not at all an unreasonable material for a custom-made suit, and in a tailored fit the cloth brings its own advantages to the table that wool can't always compete with:
- Cost – Obviously a bonus. Even high-quality suit cotton is unlikely to be in the same range as equivalently high-quality wool. If you're on a limited budget you might get a better suit for your money out of nice cotton than out of mediocre wool.
- Ease of Care – Wool requires brushing and occasional dry-cleaning, as well as fairly specific storage. Cotton suits are as tough and low-maintenance as shirts of the same material — most of them can even be washed in a typical home laundry machine. You can mistreat a cotton suit more than a wool one, making them nice purchases (or gifts) for men who haven't yet developed all the clothing care habits they ought to.
- Crease – Cotton lacks wool's natural smooth drape. Instead, cotton suits look best when pressed to a sharp crease in the legs, sleeves, and shoulders, giving a man very clean, even lines. Fifteen minutes with an iron (less once you get good at it) can have a cotton suit looking ready for a drill sergeant's inspection.
- Breathability – Men in hot, humid climates will find light cotton much more comfortable than even tropical-weight wools. Seersucker is particularly airy, but any light cotton fiber will let air through to cool the body and wick away moisture from perspiration.
- Compactness – Traveling men may prefer a cotton suit simply because it takes up less room. Wool is difficult to fold and can be damaged by being left folded for long periods of time; cotton scrunches down well and any harm it incurs can be smoothed out with a quick ironing. That makes it the carry-on suit of choice.
Rarer than either wool or cotton suits, linen suits are something of a luxury item. They are common summer wear in continental Europe but rarer in the United States and Great Britain, where tropical wool weaves are preferred. Linen is expensive but has a few advantages over cotton or wool for specific circumstances:
- Breathability – Linen can be woven loosely for an even lighter, breezier fabric than cotton. This makes it lack weight, however, so it billows easily and will not drape close to the body like wool or pressed cotton. Linen is also much less absorbent than cotton, and will dry much faster when wet.
- Light-Wrinkling – Linen has less “memory” than cotton or wool. It wrinkles easily because of its natural lightness, but the wrinkles tend not to stay or become pronounced the way they would in cotton. However, repeated creasing or pressing at the same place will break linen fibers entirely, which makes frequently-pressed suits wear out quickly.
- Texture – While cotton suits tend to be a bit stiff, linen suits are supple and flex easily. They are typically quite comfortable and look good in a relaxed setting. A bit of wrinkled or billowing unevenness is considered part of the look and the charm of a linen suit. They are traditionally casual garments.
A pure silk suit is a rarity and a luxury. The majority out there are made either as very expensive novelty items or for business in Middle Eastern and Asian cultures where silk is more common than will, and is often carried over into more Western clothing styles.
If you are considering a silk suit you should be aware of both the positive and negative characteristics of the fabric:
- Texture – Quality silk is smooth to the touch and light on the body. It is sometimes used as a lining inside wool suits, though sturdier acetone is usually preferred by tailors.
- Comfort – Silk is both light and breathable, making it more comfortable than heavy wool or water-absorbing cotton in hot, humid climates.
- Delicacy – Even quality silks are light, delicate garments. Traditionally Asian clothing styles compensate with multiple layers; a suit offers no such layering. They tend to wear out quickly and have to be stored and cleaned very carefully.
Exotic Animal Fibers
We discuss exotics in full length in our section on “Cost and Scarcity.” In short version, there are a few reasons to consider more exotic wools over traditional sheep fibers:
- Texture – Alpaca, vicuna, angora, and similar hairs can produce much softer, silkier-feeling wool than even the finest threads of sheep's wool. If you prize a smooth texture you may want to invest in an exotic material.
- Weight – Certain types of hair make much lighter suits that still have the elegant drape and sturdiness of wool. Other fibers, such as camelhair, make a jacket that is much warmer for its weight than ordinary sheep's wool. In either direction it's a way to guarantee more comfort for particularly hot or cold climates.
- Style – As vulgar as it sounds, an exotic jacket is a status symbol. Fine dressers will recognize the texture and sheen of an angora, mohair, or vicuna jacket. In situations where you need to dress to impress, it can be valuable.
Thankfully, most tailors (and even mass-producers) have stopped making polyester suits. You're much more likely to see artificial fibers blended with wool, rather than suits made of 100% synthetic materials. A wool suit with more than 5% artificial fibers should always be approached with caution — that much synthetic material usually points to cost-saving rather than a benefit to the wearer. Still, there are advantages to the use of some synthetics:
- Durability – A small amount of rayon or a similar fiber in a wool weave adds a sort of rigid “backbone” to the threads. This can help the suit hold up a bit better at the elbows and knees where it's continually bending.
- Mildew Resistance – Men in constantly-humid climates benefit from the natural mildew-repelling properties of plastic fibers. Unfortunately, they come with a corresponding loss of breathability, so only a small amount in the blend is desirable.
- Cost – Like it or not, synthetics are cheap and look at least presentable at a distance. That said, a man who needs the cost-savings of a largely-synthetic material is usually not in a position to be buying custom suits.
Choosing a base material is usually an easy step for most men. Wool is by far the most logical for day-to-day use in temperate climates. Cotton and linen are useful in hot weather, while silk and exotic animal hairs are largely luxury items or suits for very specific climates and business settings. Synthetic fibers have some useful properties but should only be blended into suitings in very limited amounts.
Once you've chosen a raw material, the specific weave will affect the texture and weight — which is why we've included a section specifically detailing weaves and textures.