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Hi-Tech Suits

High-Tech Manufacturing has Transformed Modern Fabrics into Lightweight Cloth for Everyday Wear
G. Bruce Boyer
From the Print Edition:
Jack Nicholson, Summer 95

"Well, when it comes to cloth, you can talk about the fineness of the weave, the feel, the weight or a dozen other things, but the main questions are how will it be worn and how will it wear."

Forget about the trendy suit made out of 100 percent recycled-polyester beverage bottles. We're talking about the real thing. Tony Holland, chairman of Holland & Sherry of Savile Row, London, the British woolen merchant that sells a goodly portion of the world's top-quality cloths, is expounding on what to look for in fine fabrics. "The essential consideration is what type of clothing is going to be made from it. Are you looking for a new business suit, something to wear regularly to the office? Or is it to be an eye-stopping sports jacket that you'll put on once or twice a season to go to the country club? It's not unlike buying a car: there's a big difference between a Land Rover and a Rolls and a Volkswagen. They're all wonderful cars in their way, but with decidedly different uses. What's your objective? That's the question to ask."

Exactly. "In England we say it's like 'horses for courses,'" offers James Sheed, North American manager for the prestigious Anglo-French fabric house of Dormeuil. "Meaning that you pick the horse depending on the race: jumpers are for the steeplechase, and flat runners are for the track. Performance is based on character. It's the same with cloth. Linen is totally different from superfine woolen. You never want a cloth with loose construction or a rough hand, but beyond that you've got to know what kind of race you want it to run."

With fashions returning to decidedly classic styling, the real excitement is coming from fabrics, especially those constructed to allow for the newer, "softer" dressing. Men have realized today that they can be elegant and still be comfortable, that dignity and ease are not as mutually exclusive as they were for our Victorian forebears. And living in climate-controlled environments, we don't need all that heavy, stiffly padded, dark clothing. "Our Sportex line, which we invented in 1922, was considered the cloth of sports champions," says Sheed. "It was wonderful Scottish cheviot cloth, worn by all the great golfers and tennis stars of that era. It weighed 20 ounces. Today we make the same weave and similar patterns in a cloth that weighs a mere 12 ounces. That's the real story behind the fashion news." Fabrics are becoming softer to the touch and lighter in weight, which makes for a decidedly comfortable approach to dressing. If a man goes from his air-conditioned home to his air-conditioned car to his air-conditioned office and back again, the notion of summer and winter wardrobes loses some of its relevance.

Yet if you're going to invest in some new gear you hope to hold on to for more than a season or two--and with the price of clothing today, you certainly should want to--how do you know you're getting good cloth?

Everyone in the clothing business today, from CEOs of fabric houses and cloth merchants to tailors and manufacturers, agrees that the technology of making cloth has improved so much in the past quarter century that clothing is a whole new story.

"Up until World War II, men's tailored clothing was still a pretty bulky, unyielding affair," explains Ken Bates, president of the textile firm of Roger La Viale. "There were a few lightweight summer suitings, such as cotton seersucker, but most suiting was still in the 14-ounce-and-heavier range. Even the linens and silks were much heavier and stiffer than we would consider comfortable today, and many men simply wore light-colored flannels, as opposed to lightweight ones. Winter suiting was absolutely bulletproof: thick tweeds and worsteds customarily weighing 16 to 18 ounces per yard. A man would be wearing 10 pounds or so of unyielding wool on his back. Things have changed considerably."

Thank the gods. Today we tend to forget that men sweltered away in un-air-conditioned offices, encased in pounds of scratchy wool, not to mention the layers of fabric in the collars and ties tightly wrapped around their necks. Men were forbidden to remove their jackets in many offices. That was considered a sign of moral depravity.

Then came the invention of tropical worsteds, in which finer threads were woven to produce lighter weights that were as resistant to wrinkles as heavier cloth was. It was the harbinger of today's advances.

"Technology has made the difference," says Neal Boyarsky, president of Beckenstein Men's Fabrics, a leading cloth merchant in New York City. "The looms that do the weaving, for example, are much more sophisticated than they were even a decade ago. They can weave finer yarns at a higher density; computers allow for more intricate use of color and pattern, and new techniques for twisting the yarns and finishing the cloth have emerged." Beckenstein's mainstay is the line of fine British and Italian cloth from the woolen houses of Scabal and Wain Shiell. "While we carry traditional-weight tweeds, worsteds and flannels," acknowledges Boyarsky, "our emphasis is on the newer luxury lightweights: nine-ounce wool crepes, Super 130s worsteds and very lightweight blends of Super 120s worsted and cashmere."

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