How Did This Fabric Get into My Shirt?
Although certain shirting fabrics and tweeds get a lot of attention, we often focus on the way a shirt or suit is made and styled vs what it’s made of. It’s an understandable choice: it’s easier to distinguish (especially in photos) between two shirts with different collar styles than similarly made shirts made of two different grades of blue oxford fabric. Likewise, “objective” measures of fabric quality and fabric origin rarely tell the whole story. People throw around “80s two ply” or “super 120s” like they’re the “dual overhead camshaft” of suit fabrics, and in a way that’s true, because i have no idea what a dual overhead camshaft is.
But whether patterned or plain, fabric is often the most distinctive component of your shirt or suit (I’m mostly talking about wovens here, knits are a slightly different beast). How the fabric comes to be a part of your garment depends a lot on where you’re buying your clothes. Essentially, no matter the brand or maker, your fabric has to be designed, then made, then cut and sewn into clothing.
Major Brands
Fashion giants make enough clothes that they can specify every aspect of the fabric they use from the mills they buy from, primarily in China. Ralph Lauren, for example, doesn’t own factories or make its manufacturing relationships public, but in 2008 it was estimated that 98 percent of the dollar value of Ralph Lauren clothing was made in China.
That doesn’t mean the fabric is low quality. Brands at that level employ fabric designers, and can order massive quantities exclusive to their brands or stores, and can specify fabric content, appearance, shrinkage, etc. down to the dye of a single yarn fragment. Although the work is outsourced, brands that produce the volume of clothing that the RLs of the world do control the process from fabric design to production to cut and sew. These brands will also often wash fabrics or constructed garments so they look their best on display in a store—how they fare once you get them home and wash them may be less of a concern.
Rare exceptions like Brunello Cucinelli are more vertically integrated—Cucinelli employs the designers, fabric mills, and manufacturers. The Cucinelli empire is reported to be a borderline ridiculous utopia.
Medium-sized Wholesale Brands
Name brands that offer tailoring (think Rag + Bone, Band of Outsiders type brands) don’t usually own the means of production either. They buy from makers like Southwick, or Samuelsohn, or Individualized Shirts (these makers, in turn, sometimes have their own lines… it can get confusing). These makers don’t produce their own fabric though—they source it from textile mills all over the world.
Much like retail buyers go to Pitti Uomo and other tradeshows, makers and designers go to textile tradeshows and visit mills where they’re presented with a menu of classic and newly designed fabrics. A maker selects fabrics and, in turn, might present a designer with samples of dozens of different fabrics, some varying a lot season to season, and some evergreens (like cotton oxford, or wool flannel) that wax and wane in popularity but are pretty much always available. In this way, a maker has a lot of say in what you’ll be wearing seasons in advance—they’re narrowing down the range of available fabrics. Who knows what horse blankets you’ve missed out on?
So, for example: a fabric designer working for a mill designs a plaid fabric, the mills markets it, a maker takes it back to the factory, and a designer selects the plaid. The selection goes back up the chain—assured of an order, the mill churns out the fabric, the maker buys it and sews the clothes, selling them to the designer, who sells to a retailer, who sells to you. These people all need to get paid, contributing to the retail cost to you.
This system is also one reason you’ll see the same fabric from several different lines—they may have their tailored clothes made in the same place, and all picked the same fabric. Depending on the mill, buying exclusive rights to a fabric could mean buying thousands of yards of fabric. Most “designers” do not design their own fabrics—it’s just not realistic. A notable exception is Stephan Schneider.
House Labels and Small Lines
In part because classic tailoring involves a relatively limited number of possibilities (jackets, shirts, pants), and design comes down to selecting details, sometimes the retail and design operations overlap. Stores like Winn Perry or Epaulet don’t have the economies of scale of mall brands, so they’re less likely to be able to specify far in advance exactly what they want their fabric to look like. Likewise, they don’t have the time or money to custom design fabrics. For some garments, these stores can go through the same basic process as the mid-tier brands, ordering from a menu at a maker’s factory. Makers and fabrics mills have minimum quantities they need to make in order to profit, so if a store can only afford to make a small run of garments, their options are somewhat limited.
On the flipside, these smaller labels have flexibility larger operations do not, and sometimes stumble on unusual, short-run fabrics that fit their needs perfectly. Many of these fabrics come from Japan, which exports a lot of fabric in this small-run arena, fabric then marketed by regional salesmen or jobbers in the US and elsewhere. They can then take this fabric to a manufacturer who does “CMT” (cut, make, and trim—you provide the fabric), and have the garment made. Sometimes this means you get access to a rad shirt in a fabric you’ll never see elsewhere. On the other hand, that exclusive limited edition shirt you’re coveting might only be limited because it’s made from a roll of fabric that didn’t sell, and so was never made in quantity.
Quality
What does this all mean for fabric quality? Not much, to be honest. For us consumers, quality is often the extent to which a fabric meets our needs and wants. Are you looking for lightweight or heavy fabric? Does the fabric wrinkle easily? (Is it intended to do so, or is it just not behaving?) Does it have a dry hand, or is it silky? (“Hand” is to fabric description what “mouthfeel” is to food writing.) Sometimes you want a very refined fabric, and sometimes you want a reassuringly scratchy tweed. Sometimes all that matters is that the gingham is the perfect scale.
I’ll have another post up soon discussing some of the technical language used to market fabric (super 120s included).
-Pete

How Did This Fabric Get into My Shirt?

Although certain shirting fabrics and tweeds get a lot of attention, we often focus on the way a shirt or suit is made and styled vs what it’s made of. It’s an understandable choice: it’s easier to distinguish (especially in photos) between two shirts with different collar styles than similarly made shirts made of two different grades of blue oxford fabric. Likewise, “objective” measures of fabric quality and fabric origin rarely tell the whole story. People throw around “80s two ply” or “super 120s” like they’re the “dual overhead camshaft” of suit fabrics, and in a way that’s true, because i have no idea what a dual overhead camshaft is.

But whether patterned or plain, fabric is often the most distinctive component of your shirt or suit (I’m mostly talking about wovens here, knits are a slightly different beast). How the fabric comes to be a part of your garment depends a lot on where you’re buying your clothes. Essentially, no matter the brand or maker, your fabric has to be designed, then made, then cut and sewn into clothing.

Major Brands

Fashion giants make enough clothes that they can specify every aspect of the fabric they use from the mills they buy from, primarily in China. Ralph Lauren, for example, doesn’t own factories or make its manufacturing relationships public, but in 2008 it was estimated that 98 percent of the dollar value of Ralph Lauren clothing was made in China.

That doesn’t mean the fabric is low quality. Brands at that level employ fabric designers, and can order massive quantities exclusive to their brands or stores, and can specify fabric content, appearance, shrinkage, etc. down to the dye of a single yarn fragment. Although the work is outsourced, brands that produce the volume of clothing that the RLs of the world do control the process from fabric design to production to cut and sew. These brands will also often wash fabrics or constructed garments so they look their best on display in a store—how they fare once you get them home and wash them may be less of a concern.

Rare exceptions like Brunello Cucinelli are more vertically integrated—Cucinelli employs the designers, fabric mills, and manufacturers. The Cucinelli empire is reported to be a borderline ridiculous utopia.

Medium-sized Wholesale Brands

Name brands that offer tailoring (think Rag + Bone, Band of Outsiders type brands) don’t usually own the means of production either. They buy from makers like Southwick, or Samuelsohn, or Individualized Shirts (these makers, in turn, sometimes have their own lines… it can get confusing). These makers don’t produce their own fabric though—they source it from textile mills all over the world.

Much like retail buyers go to Pitti Uomo and other tradeshows, makers and designers go to textile tradeshows and visit mills where they’re presented with a menu of classic and newly designed fabrics. A maker selects fabrics and, in turn, might present a designer with samples of dozens of different fabrics, some varying a lot season to season, and some evergreens (like cotton oxford, or wool flannel) that wax and wane in popularity but are pretty much always available. In this way, a maker has a lot of say in what you’ll be wearing seasons in advance—they’re narrowing down the range of available fabrics. Who knows what horse blankets you’ve missed out on?

So, for example: a fabric designer working for a mill designs a plaid fabric, the mills markets it, a maker takes it back to the factory, and a designer selects the plaid. The selection goes back up the chain—assured of an order, the mill churns out the fabric, the maker buys it and sews the clothes, selling them to the designer, who sells to a retailer, who sells to you. These people all need to get paid, contributing to the retail cost to you.

This system is also one reason you’ll see the same fabric from several different lines—they may have their tailored clothes made in the same place, and all picked the same fabric. Depending on the mill, buying exclusive rights to a fabric could mean buying thousands of yards of fabric. Most “designers” do not design their own fabrics—it’s just not realistic. A notable exception is Stephan Schneider.

House Labels and Small Lines

In part because classic tailoring involves a relatively limited number of possibilities (jackets, shirts, pants), and design comes down to selecting details, sometimes the retail and design operations overlap. Stores like Winn Perry or Epaulet don’t have the economies of scale of mall brands, so they’re less likely to be able to specify far in advance exactly what they want their fabric to look like. Likewise, they don’t have the time or money to custom design fabrics. For some garments, these stores can go through the same basic process as the mid-tier brands, ordering from a menu at a maker’s factory. Makers and fabrics mills have minimum quantities they need to make in order to profit, so if a store can only afford to make a small run of garments, their options are somewhat limited.

On the flipside, these smaller labels have flexibility larger operations do not, and sometimes stumble on unusual, short-run fabrics that fit their needs perfectly. Many of these fabrics come from Japan, which exports a lot of fabric in this small-run arena, fabric then marketed by regional salesmen or jobbers in the US and elsewhere. They can then take this fabric to a manufacturer who does “CMT” (cut, make, and trim—you provide the fabric), and have the garment made. Sometimes this means you get access to a rad shirt in a fabric you’ll never see elsewhere. On the other hand, that exclusive limited edition shirt you’re coveting might only be limited because it’s made from a roll of fabric that didn’t sell, and so was never made in quantity.

Quality

What does this all mean for fabric quality? Not much, to be honest. For us consumers, quality is often the extent to which a fabric meets our needs and wants. Are you looking for lightweight or heavy fabric? Does the fabric wrinkle easily? (Is it intended to do so, or is it just not behaving?) Does it have a dry hand, or is it silky? (“Hand” is to fabric description what “mouthfeel” is to food writing.) Sometimes you want a very refined fabric, and sometimes you want a reassuringly scratchy tweed. Sometimes all that matters is that the gingham is the perfect scale.

I’ll have another post up soon discussing some of the technical language used to market fabric (super 120s included).

-Pete

A selection of some very, very bright madras plaids from France. Obviously only to be worn in the summer, and only on days when you’re feeling extra, extra happy. 

(Hat tip to StyleForum member ltontheqt for the link. Also, in case you were wondering, I don’t think that French store will ship to the US, so this is for eye-candy purposes only)

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. 

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.