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Fine Fabrics

Jack Bettridge
From the Print Edition:
Cigar Aficionado's 20th Anniversary, September/October 2012

Fashion is a fickle thing that bounces from one season to the next seemingly without direction, creating new looks that are inevitably revamps of something that has been done before. But one aspect of style—the fabrics from which our suits are made—appears to take one course only: incomprehensible levels of fiber fineness.

Earlier this year when Loro Piana, the Italian producer of luxury fabrics, announced its annual choice in its Record Bale competition, it was but another step in the continuing march toward smaller and smaller diameters of sheep’s wool fibers. The winner, an Australia bale, measured 11.1 microns (millionths of a meter, or mil mils). Eight years ago, breeders first crossed the 12-micron barrier, which had seemed at the time the fabric equivalent of the four-minute mile. When the Super-80 (a measure of fineness that is inversely proportional to the micron scale) fabrics first started arriving, the quality seemed incredible, but now Super 220s make that wool seem like something for a Farmer Brown suit.

Sheep’s wool is not the only avenue to give cloth a gossamer feel. Such other animals as the goat that produces cashmere and vicuña (legal to shear again as a method was developed to harvest their fibers without killing them) produce the cloths that seem to be doing you a favor when you wear them and make women want to paw your jacket sleeve.

A coterie of other producers— Dormeiul, Holland & Sherry, Scabal, etc.—compete in the fine fabric game and the best custom tailors source from these as well. Furthermore, suit makers like Zegna, Brioni, Kiton and Oxxford also have their own programs to produce heavenly cloth.

But downsides exist in the search for the unbelievably soft. First some tailors point that fine isn’t better in every way. Super fabrics mightn’t be  as durable as rougher clothes and don’t drape as well, nor can they be worked as easily. Of course, your cash outlay increases exponentially (fabric quality is what largely accounts for suits that cost upwards of $30,000). And lastly, unscrupulous suit makers have taken to overstating the fineness of the fabrics they use, for instance, claiming a Super 170, when actually a Super 150 has been used (because afterall who’s going to put a microscope to their pin-striped double-breasted).

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