Choosing the Best Fabrics for your Look and Lifestyle

Fill in the blank: “The touch, the feel of ________, the fabric of our lives!”

Did you get it right away? It may depend on your age. Complete with a catchy tune that has been updated for each successive generation (and that is probably now playing in your mind. You’re welcome!), the familiar sentence is the slogan for a long-running ad campaign of the trade organization, Cotton Incorporated. For most of us, the fabrics of our lives include cotton, several other natural fibers and an assortment of synthetics. During the next two or three weeks we will put some focus on fibers and fabrics, and how to choose the fabrics that are best suited for your chosen look and lifestyle.

We begin this series with fabrics for tailored clothing. The ideal cloth for a particular suit, jacket, or pant will consider several factors. In the context of a complete wardrobe, the most important factor for one garment may not be as important for another. The highest value for a travel suit might be durability and wrinkle resistance while the key factors of a suit for special occasions or public speaking might be a look that is dressy and refined. To keep it simple, consider three things when choosing the cloth for your next tailored garment:

  • Look
  • Feel
  • Performance

During a recent visit, a San Francisco based attorney, Michael S., was deciding on a new suit. On previous occasions he had ordered a suit from Holland & Sherry’s Crispaire collection, as well as two suits made from finer cloths. Having experienced a range of feel and performance, he agreed that the Crispaire cloth was more wrinkle resistant and has held up incredibly well, but he prefers the soft hand of his more recent suits made from a fine worsted twill cloth. While the softer cloth creases a bit more easily than the crisper cloth, it performs well enough and, to him, is more comfortable. I also suggested that he may want to consider a clear finish solid cloth, to which he reminded me that for suits and jackets he prefers a cloth with subtle texture and/or pattern. Personally, I am a big fan of very clear finish cloth, but for him, a clear finish solid is just “too boring!”

Fabric Factors that contribute to look, feel, and performance:

  • Quality and type of fibers (i.e. length, strength, elasticity, micron count, all one type of fiber or a blend of two or more different fibers, worsted or woolen, etc.)
  • Yarn and weave characteristics (i.e., the tightness and/or type of twist put into the yarn, how compact the weave of the cloth, whether a plain or harness weave, etc.)
  • Weight
  • Fabric Finish (i.e. clear, milled, or otherwise)
  • Color
  • Pattern
  • Texture

While each characteristic could be the subject of a blog post, again to simplify, we will look briefly at three often used and historically meaningful ways categorize men’s tailored clothing based on look and lifestyle.

The three main schools of thought that define modern style for men’s tailored clothing and dress shirts are: Classic American, Italian, and British. While the lines between them have been blurred in recent years, each one borrowing from the other, a simple framework for identifying the clothing that matches your preferred look and lifestyle can begin with deciding which of those school’s you most closely align.

They are briefly summarized as follows:

Classic American

Italian

British

Traditional Contemporary Sophisticated
Timeless Stylish Distinguished
Refined Artistic Elegant
Subtle Unique Reserved
Medium Light Substantial

The Classic American style presents a look of timeless elegance and understated refinement. The basic silhouette and look is more stable and constant that other schools of style. Think JFK, Ralph Lauren, Brooks Brothers, and Ivy League Prep and you will never be far off when wanting to dress in a Classic American style. The traditional patterns, with an occasional, fresh twist, quietly project a subtle strength and self-assurance. The fabrics are simple plain weave and gabardine in wool, cotton, and a poplin blend dominate. Wool and cotton flannel are strong in the mix as well as classic tweeds, camel’s hair, and cashmere. Do you like having oxford cloth shirts, boat shoes, flat front khakis, and a comfortable cardigan sweater in your wardrobe? Those are all classic American pieces.

The Italian school (not that there’s just one, but for this purpose we will simplify) exemplifies a contemporary attitude and urban sophistication while embodying classic sartorial style. The heritage and exceptional artistry of Italian weavers makes their fabrics a benchmark of sophistication, while maintaining uniqueness of design. Dark, earthy tones, subtle and fine patterns, and a noticeable luster all fit this aesthetic. Clothing with an Italian sensibility is sought by those who want to see and be seen, who live their lives in the public square (so to speak). Finer and lighter worsteds (Super 130’s and beyond), silk and mohair, and of course, cashmere, are all staples in the Italian style diet. While much of the world’s finest cashmere knitwear is produced in Scotland, the Italian masters produce a tantalizing array of worsted cashmere cloth for suits and blazers that are the absolute epitome of luxury and extravagance.

British clothing embodies the reserved elegance and distinguished demeanor associated with the bespoke tailoring tradition. The sophisticated, even regal, air of this approach to dress is enhanced by the substantial structure yet luxurious, soft hand of the cloth. British style is exemplified by a solid suit and a boldly patterned and colored shirt. Dignified and stately, the style fits easily at a private club or local pub. Authentic tweeds, mostly from Scotland, are an essential part of the tailored casual wardrobe for this gentleman. Several of the permanent cloth collections from Holland & Sherry of London epitomize a British sensibility, revered by tailors around the world as the pinnacle of weaving excellence. Substantial worsted plain weaves and twills, classic flannel, tweeds, velvet, and corduroy are all very British in origin.

Whether your style preference fits neatly into one of those three schools, or you tend, like I do, to fish from all three ponds depending on the wardrobe item in question, I would advise that choosing one style or school as your foundation will make building a functional, versatile, and appealing wardrobe both easier and far more satisfying in the long run.

All things Sartorial,

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