Fabrics are one of the most overlooked aspects of clothing for beginners—fabrics play a huge role in the aesthetics, use, and cost of clothing. When buying clothes (or having them made) knowing about fabrics is essential.
- Thread Count: The number of woven yarns in a square inch. In other words it’s a measure of density. Higher thread count means that the weave will be tighter (like bed sheets) and lower thread count means that the weave will be more open (like burlap).
- Plys: Raw material needs to be spun into yarn (imagine a piece of rope), which are then woven into fabric. 1-ply = a single thread was used in the weaving process. 2-ply = two threads were twisted together and then woven. Typically, a 2-ply shirt will be stronger, more resilient to wear, and last longer. Here is a spool of 2-ply thread where you can see the two threads twisted together.
- Yarn Number: When it comes to shirting this is more important than Thread Count. Yarns vary in how smooth or rough they are. Higher yarn numbers indicate that the threads used are thinner and finer, which is what makes luxury shirts feel smooth and soft to the touch. Lower yarn numbers result in fabrics that are thicker and coarser. In this image you can compare a swatch of fabric with 100 yarn number on the left with one that is 200 on the right. You can actually see how the threads on the right are approximately half the size of those on the left. The compromise for higher yarn counts is that they’re far less durable. Shirts can be found as low as 24 or as high as 200+ but most quality shirts typically range from 80-120 (too low and you’re getting into low quality fabrics, too high and the trade-off for longevity may not be worth it). If you see a shirt advertised as 100/2 then that means the yarn number is 100 and the yarn has been spun 2-ply.
- W&W: The yarn going vertically on the loom is called “warp” and the yarn going horizontally is known as “weft” image. Sometimes manufacturers advertise shirts as being 2-ply but cut costs by using only 2-ply in the warp but not the weft. If you see a shirt that’s 100/2×2, it’s the manufacturer’s way of letting you know that it’s a true 2-ply shirt.
Weave is what affects the nature of the fabric more than anything else. There are too many types to discuss in detail so this guide covers the most common ones you’ll come across but is by no means exhaustive.
- Poplin and Broadcloth: The most common fabric used in shirting. It’s a plain weave which means that it’s created using an “over and under” pattern between the warp (vertical yarn) and weft (horizontal yarn). It results in a fairly light, durable and crisp weave that’s ideal for formal occasions. Its resistance to wrinkling has made it the classic choice for dress shirts. Keep in mind that differences in the quality of raw cotton, and in plys and yarn number, will result in a huge range of quality. Because it is so ubiquitous you’ll get some very thin, almost translucent broadcloths (visible nipples) but also some that are quite substantial and suitable for wear in winter.
- End-on-End: This is the same plain weave seen above but different coloured yarns are interspersed within the fabric’s “over and under” pattern. The result is something that’s more visually distinct and interesting to look at up-close, yet retains the characteristic properties of poplin/broadcloth which make them desirable. This is essentially what chambray is, except that chambray undergoes a finishing process where it’s pressed by rollers at high temperatures (which creates a glossy effect). Many people assume that chambray and denim (discussed below) are essentially the same thing but they’re completely different weaves.
- Oxford: One of MFA’s most beloved fabrics, oxford cloth is a type of basket weave. It uses the same “over and under pattern” discussed above but an additional floating yarn passes across. Typically the yarns used are more coarse and thick (lower yarn number). Both the rougher yarn and the nature of the weave result in texture. The richer texture makes it more suitable for casual wear, it wrinkles more easily, and the added floating yarn is more susceptible to snags making it less durable. Some of the “flaws” of this fabric are really what makes it great though; an OCBD that’s been beat to hell becomes very soft and can look incredibly beautiful (similar to the fading of raw denim or patina on leather).
- Pinpoint: Essentially the same weave as the standard oxford, but with yarns that are thinner and finer and woven tighter (similar to those used for broadcloth/poplin). Think of it as the middle ground between broadcloth/poplin and oxford. It’s an incredibly versatile weave that retains texture while preserving a more formal look that’s acceptable to wear under a suit.
- Royal Oxford: Has nothing to do with oxford or pinpoint fabrics because the weave is fairly elaborate and uses four yarns. The result is something that has substantial texture but remains very shiny. As you look at it from different angles it almost appears to glimmer. It is more formal than both oxford or pinpoint fabrics and is actually very pretty to look at.
- Twill: Essentially a diagonal weave created by yarns woven at an offset over-under weave. It’s a very subtle way to add texture to an outfit and the weave tends to be very soft, heavy and easy to iron. The downsides are that it will never look as crisp as broadcloth/poplin and stains are harder to remove (though it’s harder to get twill dirty in the first place). It’s perhaps the most versatile fabric simply because there are so many types of twill. Many luxury dress shirts make very high yarn count twills since the weave itself is so incredibly dense. Flannel is basically brushed twill that retains its substantial weight but is less shiny much softer, thus making it very casual. If you look closely at your denim or chinos you’ll notice that they are both examples of a twill weave. If you own tweed you’ll notice that it’s wool twill. Pick-and-Pick (aka Sharkskin) was the suiting fabric that Pierce Brosnan wore as James Bond to make him stand out subtly without using too much colour. It doesn’t look like the other twills because it’s made with alternating colours within the tiny “zig-zags”. The result is something that looks like a cross-hatch overlaying the usual diagonal weave. The technique and effect achieved is pretty similar to end-on-end. While we’re here, I want to point out that herringbone is not a weave, but rather a pattern in which the diagonal wales of twill reverse. Similarly houndstooth is also a pattern of twill that uses the same weave.
- Nailhead or Birdseye the weave is aptly named and remarkably beautiful. It’s not super common but you can occasionally find them in suits (especially with custom makers).
There are a huge array of different fabrics to choose from—each with their own advantages and disadvantages. Many factors play into the quality of a fabric from the quality of raw material itself, to how the yarn is spun, to how it is woven and finished. It may seem overwhelming to a beginner but as you try on different shirts take note of what works for you, and the type of fabric you’re handling (or ask the sale’s associate). You’ll gradually develop a pretty instinctive touch for quality and develop your own preferences. From there you can start playing with the patterns in different fabrics (bengal stripes, gingham, tattersall, plaid etc.).
I hope this clarifies some of confusion. If I’m missing something, or it’s inaccurate then feel free to contact me to correct/add/remove from this.