High-Tech Manufacturing has Transformed Modern Fabrics into Lightweight Cloth for Everyday Wear
G. Bruce Boyer
From the Print Edition:
Jack Nicholson, Summer 95
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Everyone agrees that woolen cloth is the best thing that ever happened to tailored clothing. The first revolution in men's dress occurred at the end of the eighteenth century, when heavily embroidered silks and satins (along with silver-buckled shoes and powdered wigs) were given up for the more utilitarian, more flexible wool. Historians called it the "Great Renunciation," as men turned their sartorial backs on gorgeousness in favor of somber utility. Wool has indeed proved itself. It can be produced in a variety of weights, takes color well, resists wrinkling, breathes and generally cleans up better than other natural fabrics. It also tailors well because woolen cloth has natural draping qualities.
The biggest advance in woolens today is the story of the "Supers." Over the 6,000 years or so that wool has been woven into fabric, there have been several main systems of categorization: the "blood system," is based on the bloodline, or breed of sheep; the "count system," based on the number of yards of yarn that can be spun from a pound of wool; and the newest, the "micron system," which separates wool into 16 grades according to the average fiber diameter as measured by a micrometer. This method is the most scientifically sophisticated, particularly when you consider that a micron (the basic measurement) is .00004 of an inch.
Well, we don't need a lot of statistics, do we? Not among friends. The point of the micron system is that the fineness of the cloth can actually be categorized and labeled, a job that has been done by the National Wool Textile Export Corporation of Britain. The quality designation "Super" refers to a micron count of fewer than 20 (the number refers to the diameter of the wool fiber itself). The finer the fibers, the smaller the micron count, and thus the more expensive the cloth. Super 80s have a micron count of 19.5, while Super 150s have a count of 15.5, which is as fine as it comes at the moment.
"Actually, you wouldn't really want to go much lighter than that," explains Stanley Cohen, president of Isles Textile Group, merchant for an array of fine British woolens. "Only the finest tailors can work with the superlight cloths, ones under eight ounces or so. Weight, after all, isn't the only issue. The cloth should have good drape, resiliency and a luxurious hand."
A standard-sized suit needs four yards of cloth. If it's made from Supers, you can expect to pay more, certainly upward of $200 per yard and upward of $500 for Super 150s. But you can expect to get considerably more. The fibers are finer and lighter in weight, as well as stronger: a pound of Super 100s can be spun into a thread of wool 31 miles long. This means that when the cloth is actually woven, more threads can be packed into the weave without increasing the weight and bulkiness of the cloth. The results are said to be "high performance": wonderful drape and wrinkle resistance without additional heft.
"I'd say that a full 60 percent of our business is in Super 150s cloth," says Andrew Tanner, spokesman for the Italian clothing firm of Kiton, often regarded as the world's top manufacturer of luxury tailored clothing (suits retail for $2,500 and up). "We like to use an eight-and-a-half-ounce merino wool, which in today's environment is really a year-round cloth."
There are other luxury cloths, of course. Woolen houses like Scabal, Wain Shiell, Loro Piana, Dormeuil, Holland & Sherry and Ermenegildo Zegna all produce superb cashmeres, high-twist worsteds, flannel and cashmere blends. This is actually the second point to remember about cloths: always trust the name on the label and selvage (the strip of tape that runs along the edge of the cloth). Top woolen firms and fabric houses are the best guarantee of quality there is.
"As the largest weavers of cashmere in the world, I can tell you with confidence that name is a guarantee of top quality," states Aldo Moschini of Loro Piana. "There are so many different qualities in the marketplace today. Top-quality cashmere has certain characteristics: it has a hand that is soft yet substantially firm, and the nap of the cloth should run in one direction and recover instantly when it is brushed against the grain. This is called a beaver finish, but it's really more like the sensation of stroking a cat." Good cashmere won't pull, and with a little care and consideration, a quality cashmere sports jacket will age extremely gracefully.
The latest development along these rather sybaritic lines is worsted cashmere. Up until just a few short years ago, cashmere, like flannel, was always woven with a napped surface. But in the past decade or so there have been successful experiments with worsted-woven cashmere, in which the yarn is combed flat before being woven. This process gives it a smooth, silky hand while retaining all the wonderful properties of supple softness and the ability to take deep, rich colors as well as infinitely subtle ones. In the words of Linda Richman--the Mike Myers character from "Saturday Night Live" who adores Barbra Streisand--the cloth is "like buttah" and in fact can be woven in weights comfortable enough for warm weather.
In luxury cloths, though, the big news is the return of vicuña--the smallest of the South American llamas--whose undercoat is considered unequaled for softness and beauty. The ungulate lives in flocks in the higher reaches of the Andes of Peru, Chile, Bolivia, and Argentina. In the past, because it was undomesticated, it was commonly killed for shearing. Herds became so small that the animal was put on the endangered species list, and the production and sale of vicuña cloth was made illegal throughout the world in the early 1970s.
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