Mordechai Rubinstein of Mister Mort recently visited the beach house of Doug Bihlmaier, who works in vintage for Ralph Lauren (essentially he is vintage Ralph Lauren; he’s also notably photogenic). When I asked Mordechai what brought him there, he told me “Doug’s [Land Rover] Defender.” Although it was not a business trip, Mordechai took some snapshots and has over 20 up on his blog, so you can visualize what it would be like to live in a beachfront RRL store, surrounded by an archive of attractively shabby textiles and artifacts of Americana. Doug has more interesting fabrics patching up one sleeve than most of us have in our entire closets. I’m sure there’s more there than even shown on Mister Mort; according to Mordechai, “The most interesting things I saw were captured solely by my eyes and heart.”
Jonathan at the Bandanna Almanac has a short guide to the different types of Japenese textiles to help you differentiate your boro fabrics from your katazomi. Jonathan talks about geographic origins, dye techniques, and general applications for these fabric styles, some of which date back to the 19th century. These traditional textiles lend their beat-up beauty to everything from farmer’s clothing to bedding, and their folk-y influence and wabi sabi appeal have been seen in recent collections from brands like Kapital and Visvim.
Wearing a lot of traditional Japanese textiles can be like wearing a lot of cowboy-styled clothing—a little can go a long way and too much is trouble. You can often find accessories made from vintage cloth at Hickoree’s and on Etsy.
Vintage Madras Archive
Emma McGinn has some beautiful photographs from her visit to the Handicraft and Handloom Export Corporation’s fabric library in India. In it is an archive of real vintage madras, the collection of which spans an impressive sixty years. Emma notes that the library is a bit dusty and dank, but I can’t imagine a good madras archive being any other way.
As many readers know, madras is a colorful fabric that’s been popular in the US since at least the 1960s. It actually comes by way of Chennai, however, which is where this fabric archive is located. During British colonial times, the city was called Madras, which is where the fabric gets its name. As the story goes, it was invented here in the 1800s when Indians reinterpreted Scottish tartans with their own local color palettes. They put these designs on the loosely woven, lightweight cotton fabrics they wore – which were designed for the hot and humid weather in India – and the result is what we now call madras.
The original stuff wasn’t colorfast, which meant the colors faded easily and bled into each other with each subsequent wash. For enthusiasts, this is what made madras charming - the fabric evolved and changed over time. Today, however, these qualities are considered to be defects, so almost all madras fabrics are colorfast (no bleeding, no fading). I actually still like modern madras shirts for spring and summer wear, especially on hot, sunny days, but they’re not the same as the stuff you see here. This is the truly good stuff.
Learning Basic Patterns and Weaves
If you’re interested in familiarizing yourself with some basic patterns and weaves, StyleForum member Apropos has a nice guide you can download here for free. Originally scanned many years ago by another member named Sator, this simple, eighteen page guide covers everything from the common hopsack to the less common diamondweave. This may be useful if you’ve ever needed to describe a garment accurately (e.g. when selling something on eBay) or just want to know more about the clothes that fill up your closet.
Note, when reading the descriptions, remember that warp refers to the lengthwise yarns set on a frame or loom, while weft refers to the transverse threads drawn over-and-under the warp in order to create the fabric. How the warp and weft yarns are set will determine each fabric’s color, pattern, and weave. The rest of the descriptions in this guide should be self-explanatory.
Wear Heavier Fabrics
One of the things I really like about winter is the ability to wear heavier cloths. Heavy fabrics tend to hold their shape better and hang on the body a bit more nicely. This is especially important when you think about how a well-tailored jacket is actually quite three-dimensional, not just a flat, limp, two-dimensional piece that you put on over your own form. Trousers made from heavier cloths also tend to hang a bit better from the seat down, which is nice if you want to maintain an elegant, straight leg-line.
Unfortunately, it can be hard to find good clothing made from heavy cloth nowadays. Fabrics have become lighter over the years in order to accommodate the changes in climate, central heating, and air conditioning. Consumers have also just bought into the idea that lightweight fabrics are more luxurious. Thus, almost everything you’ll ever encounter in a store will be light- to mid-weight.
There are some makers, however, who still make nice, heavy things. Ralph Lauren, for example, will sometimes carry really thick, heavy woolen trousers as part of their “made in Italy” Polo lines. They tend to be very expensive though (we’re talking about $400 for a pair of pants). Obviously, the key here is to get them at the end of the season, when they’ll be discounted 40-50%, but not everyone can afford those prices.
The other possibility is to shop for vintage clothing. In the mid-century, men used to wear heavier cloths by default, purely because the technology to make the super lightweight stuff wasn’t around yet. If you happen to come across something well constructed, and made from a nice heavy fabric, find a reputable place who can hand press it for you (I’d recommend RAVE FabriCARE). Presumably that three-dimensional shape has been lost over decades, but it can be restored if you know where to send it. Note, a hand press is quite different from a machine press (the second of which is what most dry cleaners offer). The first will put in shape for you, while the second will take it out.
If you ever have a chance, check out the heaviest garments a clothier has to offer. Give them a try in the dressing room and see how they feel. I think you’ll be impressed.
Oh, and pictured above? Italian tailor Antonio Panico also recommending classic, heavy cloths. Those stills are from the film O’Mast, which is a kind of must see if you’re interested in classic men’s tailoring.
Cut, Make, Trim
If you enjoyed our series on custom shirts, and are now thinking about having some made, consider supplying a tailor with your own fabrics. The process is known in the trade as “cut, make, trim,” or simply CMT. By giving the tailor your own cloths, you can save money on the mark up that the tailor would otherwise charge for the fabrics in his books.
Supplying your own fabric is easy once you know where to go. For good, affordable basics, I strongly recommend Acorn, an English shirting merchant that is known for selling quality, workhorse fabrics. They have a variety of weaves and designs. Those above a 150 thread-count can be fairly expensive, but much of their stock is priced affordably. Their oxford cloths, for example, are about $20 per yard, including shipping. The quality is as good as, if not better than, most of what you’d find in stores.
To go about this process, you just need to figure out which shirtings you’re interested in, and then ask Acorn to ship you some sample swatches. They’ll arrive in small, clipped books like the ones you see above. You can sit on these for a bit. Figure out which you like best, consider their texture and color, and put them against the various trousers you think you might like to wear them with.
Once you decide what you’d like, find a tailor that will take CMT and have Acorn ship them the materials. Of course, which tailors are available to you will vary by region, but two online custom shirtmakers, Cottonwork and ModernTailor, confirmed with me that they would take CMT orders. Cottonwork charges $45 (including shipping) and ModernTailor $25 (not including shipping). ModernTailor is a bit cheaper, but their workmanship isn’t as good. One of my shirts from them, for example, had its seams fall apart in the wash, which is something that has never happened to me before. Still, if you’re on a very tight budget, $25 plus the cost of fabric can be very attractive.
Most men will need about two meters of fabric, depending on the width of the roll and their body size. You should confirm with your tailor exactly how much he thinks you need. Assuming you’re of average size, however, that means you can get a custom shirt made from good fabric for about $75. If you’re feeling iffy about the process of measuring yourself, remember that both Cottonwork and ModernTailor can copy an existing shirt if you send it to them. Your new shirt will fit in the exact same way.
You can take a look at Acorn’s shirting selections here. Fabrics in 36” width tend to be of higher quality, but they’re also more expensive. My favorite (affordable) lines in the 60” range are King, Oxford, and Windsor. Check out their full collection to see what else you might like.
Q and Answer: What is the meaning of numbered fabrics?
An anonymous reader asks: Would you briefly explain the meaning of numbered fabrics (like super 150’s, 120’s, etc)? I’ve never seen a good article on this. Maybe you could point one out to me. Thanks very much!
Jesse has a knack for answering questions well and succinctly. I don’t have that knack, but will give you the best answer I can. I’ll take you through the history of Super wools, which I think is a fascinating story, as well as what it practically means for you. If you want the short answer, just skip to the takeaway section.
The History of Super Wools
The story behind “Super wools” is an incredible tale of how early periods of the global economy affected men’s clothing.
In 1789, King Charles IV of Spain gave two rams and four ewes to Colonel Gordon of the Dutch East India Company, who in turn brought them to South Africa. Six years later, Colonel Gordon died and the original six animals had by then become 26. His wife sold the flock to an enterprising British immigrant in Australia who would then use these animals to found the multi-billion wool industry in Australia today. Most of the middle- to high-end suits in the market these days use Australian wool, which means much of the tailored menswear industry can be traced back to the six animals that King Charles IV of Spain originally gave away as a gift.
However, that’s not the story of Super wools just yet; it’s only the background. Australia doesn’t weave wool, it only grows it. Once the wool has been shorn from sheep in Australia, it is typically sent off to Yorkshire, England (more specifically Huddersfield) to be spun into yarn, and this yarn is then woven into cloth. The innovation of “Supers” comes from this Yorkshire town, Huddersfield.
The traditional way of grading the quality of wool yarn in Huddersfield was to see how much could be spun out of one pound of raw wool. The finer the fibers, the most spools - or “hanks - could be filled. Thus, if a wool was “70s,” it meant that a pound of raw wool would yield 70 hanks. Not only would finer yarn give more hanks, but it also meant that it was softer and silkier to the touch.
For a many centuries, 60s wool was considered the best in the world. Through selective breeding, however, Australians were able to produce new generations of sheep with finer fleeces. This was the advent of 70s and 80s wool. Consumers at this point still weren’t aware of these distinctions, but people in the trade became obsessed with getting the first 100-count wool.
When it was finally achieved in the 1960s, Joseph Lumb & Sons and H. Lesser, two British companies, decided to market the suitings as “Lumb’s Huddersfield Super 100s.” Now, this is a completely arbitrary distinction. There’s nothing inherently more monumental about breaking the barrier between 90s and 100s than 80s to 90s. It just feels more monumental because our ten-count digit system adds another digit once we reach 100. The marketing of “Super wools” however really took off in Japan, where a few Savile Row tailors had outposts. The idea of a wool being “Super” conveyed that this stuff was the best. It made such an impression that early Japanese and Middle Eastern customers would buy bolts of this “super cloth” and give them as gifts.
The evolution of the Italian menswear industry at the time also affected the wool industry. After the war, Italy’s ready-to-wear menswear industry really took off. I’ve written a bit about the history of Italy’s most important brands, and if you read through my articles, you’ll notice how many of them went global after the war. These Italian firms heavily marketed their suits as being made of “Super wools.” It was, in a way, to help distinguish themselves as a “luxury” brand on the international market.
This market reaction from Japan and Italy, coupled with the improvements in loom technology in England and breeding practices in Australia drove the development of Super wools to a point where we’re now somewhere in the mid 200s. Quite a feat given that Mother Nature was only able to develop “60s wool” herself.
So What Does it Mean for You? The Orthodox View
The simple story here is that the higher the number given to the wool, the softer and silkier to the touch it will be. However, many say that the fineness of the wool means that it will break down faster. As you wear your Super wools, they’ll tend to get shinier in areas that get more stress or wear - like say the seat of your pants. Sometimes it will even wear straight through. It’s a “higher end” wool, but in this case, you trade short term luxury for long term durability. For customers who have a lot of money, this may not be really a big deal, and the tradeoff for luxury may be more valued. If you’ve ever handled a Super 120s and Super 200s, you’ll be impressed with how soft the higher count suiting feels against the skin.
The other advantage of the higher count Super wools is that the the finer yards will allow weavers to get more intricate colors and designs into the fabric. Imagine then a customer going into a store - stroking and gazing at the soft, beautiful cloth, and being told that this was a “Super wool.” Who can resist?
The More Nuanced View of Super Wools
That’s the simple orthodoxy - super wools are more luxurious, but aren’t as durable. There’s a much more nuanced and sophisticated understanding, however.
First, remember that the way we measure wool comes from a centuries old practice that wasn’t particularly sophisticated. It wasn’t a very precise measure of fineness and to the degree it even did that job well, it only measured one aspect. There is more to the quality of wool than it’s thickness, however. For example, there is the length of the fiber. The longer the better, as it will be less likely to break. There is also the crimp, as a waviness to the wool will give it resilience; its consistency in the batch; the amount of natural oils in the fibers; how well its woven; so on and so forth. This point was very well proven in this article by Jeffery Diduch, one of the best sartorial minds around. In it, Diduch shows an old bespoke piece made of Super 150s wool. The lining has been worn straight through, but the wool is in near perfect condition. The suiting is clearly high quality and can’t be reduced to just a number.
Second, there is the issue of whether the numbers are even correctly reported. The Wall Street Journal had a great article five years ago about how suits designed as being of a particular “Super count” actually clocked in at a higher or lower number. This was found even in luxury end suits by Canali, one of the best off-the-rack Italian suit makers in the world. You have to wonder then whether what you’re buying is really the Supers designation that was given to it.
So what’s the takeaway? Super wools refer to the fineness of the yarn, which in turn translates to how silky, soft, and complex the weave can be. However, there is more to the quality of wool yarn that how fine each fiber is. This means that you shouldn’t judge the quality of a suiting just from it’s “Supers” count - either adoring or dismissing it for its high numbers. Instead, you should just take it as one dimension. If you buy a nice Super 150s wool from a very good mill, it will wear fine, though perhaps not as well as a more traditional cloth in the 60s and 70s. There’s no reason to be afraid of it straight out of the gates, however. On the other hand, if you get a Super 150s suiting from a bad mill, you’re probably just being suckered into a marketing ploy. In the end, there is no quick label to tell you what to buy and what not to buy; you have to do your homework.