CUSTOM SUIT FABRICS – COST AND SCARCITY
Let's be vulgar and talk about money for a minute.
If you've made it this far you already understand that there are a lot of factors to consider in one piece of cloth.
As the buyer, one of the most important for you personally is the cost. It's entirely possible to buy a suit that costs $1000 and then buy an identically-cut suit from the exact same tailor the next day for $3000.
(Well, all right — probably not the next day. If you find a tailor that works that fast let us know. But you get the point.)
The answer lies in the scarcity of the cloth itself. Certain factors can make a particular cloth easier or harder to obtain in the bulk that a tailor's shop needs: the location of the raw materials and the difficulty of extracting them, the time and skill needed to spin the thread and weave the cloth, and the distance the cloth has to travel (including how many tariff borders it crosses) are all major ones.
As the consumer it's up to you whether the unique properties of a particular cloth make it worth a higher price tag. A few factors that can have a legitimate effect — and may be worth the extra money — follow:
Some threads are made from difficult-to-obtain fibers. Some come from rare animals; others from plants that only grow in very specific conditions. You might see very expensive suits in any of these more exotic materials:
- Alpaca/Llama Wool – Both these South American animals have downy underbelly hairs that can be woven into light, fine suitings. Most of the animal is covered in coarser hair used for other products, with only a small yield of hairs suitable for fine suit wools.
- Angora – Harvested from rabbits, angora is incredibly lightweight, luxuriously soft, and very inefficient to collect. A rabbit can be shorn once every three months or so, and gives about 10 oz. of fiber. The threads are usually blended with wool for suitings, both to bring the cost down and to add some durability to the delicate rabbit fur.
- Cashmere – These days we usually associate cashmere with sweaters, but it was a luxury suit fabric long before Chinese mass-production brought the cost of the material down. Combed, the threads are almost as strong as wool, and make a very soft but durable suit with a smooth drape and a visible luster.
- Camelhair – Authentic camelhair is made from the soft underbelly hairs of camels or dromedaries (the outer coat is much too coarse for suit fabrics). The dark tan color has also become known as “camelhair,” so be cautioned — if you find a great deal on a “camelhair suit,” it's probably sheep's wool in the camelhair color. Authentic camelhair is an amazing insulator, warmer even than most wools.
- Mohair – Mohair comes from Angora goats (this has led to some confusion with angora wool, which does not come from a goat at all but rather from the Angora rabbit, as discussed above). Their exceptionally smooth hairs make silky, lightweight suits that are often sold as “summer weight.”
- Vicuna – The vicuna is a small relative of the camel that lives in the Andes Mountains. They are protected by the Peruvian government, which has a very strict licensing system: vicuna hair must be provably taken from an animal that was captured, shorn alive, released back into the wild, and not shorn again for another two years. As a result of this slow and difficult method, vicuna wool cloths can cost upwards of $2,000 per yard. Unfortunately, it also means that an illegal trade in vicuna hair thrives, in which the animals are killed and shorn for their hair.
Certain weaves of cloth are particularly difficult or time-consuming to make. They may come from a specific region or tradition and depend on skills possessed by only a small number of laborers. These specialized cloths will always be more expensive than a generic product of the same raw material:
- Donegal Tweed – County Donegal in Ireland has been a wool-producing hub for centuries. Modern Donegal tweed is still handspun and uses local berries, mosses, and grasses to dye the threads. The county labels its products, and it is illegal for wool produced anywhere else to bear the Donegal label.
- Harris Tweed – Similar to Donegal tweed, Harris tweed is handwoven on one of several specific islands in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. The traditional color is more brown-orange themed, a result of local lichens. There is a Harris Tweed Authority that ensures all products with its label have been handwoven in the Outer Hebrides and are made from 100% virgin wool.
- Irish Linen – Continental Europeans, especially the Italians, have long valued Irish linen as the best summer-weight suiting. The local flaxes in Ireland produce long, silvery fibers that can be woven much more compactly than Continental varieties, producing a light fabric that is much more solid and less prone to billowing or creasing than other linens. The combination of the material's rarity and the skills needed to harvest, spin, and weave the flax drives the price up, as does the demand.
- Seersucker – The puckered surface of cotton seersucker is immediately recognizable, and is also the product of a slow and complicated weaving process. Threads are “slack-woven,” which requires a specialized loom and takes considerably longer than normal weaving. It can be mechanized, but remains an inefficient and somewhat specialized process, driving the cost up.
Travel and Tariff
Most Western countries have protective tariffs in place to aid their own domestic producers of woven cloth. Britain's are particularly steep, driving up the cost of any imported suitings. With most of the more exotic materials already coming from distant sources — Mongolian goats, Peruvian alpaca, etc. — trade tariffs can add considerably to a suit's cost.
In many cases it may be worth a man's while to look for domestic products, or alternatively to purchase suits abroad, in countries where the exotic materials have not yet traveled through several layers of tariffs.
We ordinarily suggest several questions to ask yourself in these articles, but on the issue of cost and rare materials there's really only one:
Do you need your suit to have a unique property that you can only find in a specific, rare material?
If the answer isn't a very specific “yes,” you can probably save a bit on cost by sticking to the more conventional wools, cottons, or linens.