High-Tech Manufacturing has Transformed Modern Fabrics into Lightweight Cloth for Everyday Wear
"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."
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.
Then the Peruvian government set about to restore the population and find a way to shear the beasts without harming them. This has now been accomplished, and it is a great success story in the fabric industry. The Peruvian government has awarded the worldwide distribution rights to Loro Piana. Through a joint arrangement, the Peruvians will control the processing and weaving and Loro Piana will handle the finishing and distribution. As a result, one of the true luxury cloths will be available once again. In case you're interested, vicuña cloth--whether woolen- or worsted-woven--will retail for more than $1,000 per yard.
Each cloth has its own character. Each is like a child with his own personality. Crepes have a "pebbly" hand (and a granular appearance) and are virtually impervious to wrinkles. Tweeds are often called "lofty" because of their spongy hand and have incomparable depth of color and texture. Many high twists have a "dry" and "crisp" hand, which produces a lively, springy impression. Cashmere takes the most subtle coloration and lays with a calm luster.
These finer, lighter-weight fabrics are specifically constructed to accommodate a softer approach to tailored clothing. If the 1980s were characterized by the power suit, the '90s have eased us into less construction and more supple fabrics. The softer suit is part of the trend toward a more relaxed, understated approach to business wear: Armani's designs, sweater coats, casual Fridays, mélange dressing, all point in that direction. If we're comfortable inside our homes, offices and cars, why not in our clothes?
G. Bruce Boyer is the author of Eminently Suitable (1990), 206 pages, W.W. Norton, $19.95.
A Glossary of Cloth Terms Worth Knowing
Cashmere: Knit or woven cloth from the downy undercoat of the cashmere goat, found mainly in Kashmir, Tibet and Mongolia. The hair is characterized by an exceptional silkiness and strength, so the cloth produced from it is both soft and warm without being either heavy or coarse. The supply of raw cashmere is stable and limited, while demand continues to grow. As a result, cashmere cloth is decidedly expensive.
Cheviot: The name of the sheep (from the Cheviot Hills that mark the boundary between England and Scotland), the wool, and the cloth that comes from them. Characterized as sturdy and rugged, the cloth has a slightly harsh and crisp hand. It is used mainly for cold-weather suiting, sports jackets and overcoats.
Crepe (wool): Used first for women's suiting and now for men's as well, the cloth is woven of highly twisted yarn, giving it a pebbly hand and grainy appearance. It is very wrinkle resistant and, when produced with fine woolen yarn, makes good warm-weather suiting.
Drape: The characteristic of flexibility and suppleness in a fabric. Cloth that follows the bodily configurations nicely is said to have good drape.
Flannel: From the Welsh word for wool, gwlanen, a soft, loosely woven woolen with a napped surface on both sides. Today, flannel comes in a variety of weights--from eight to 15 ounces--and is considered ideal for all suiting except summer wear; it is less formal in appearance and more easily wrinkled than worsteds.
Hand: Short for "handle" (meaning to feel), the quality or characteristic of fabric perceived by the sense of touch; hand covers the tactile qualities of cloth.
High Twist: Wool cloth in which the yarn has been lightly twisted before being woven. This produces a springy, crisp, wrinkle-resistant cloth that has a dry, pebbly hand. It drapes well and has been taken up these past few years as lightweight men's suiting. Sometimes called "cool wool" and "high-performance" worsted.
Micron System: The current and most scientific method of grading wool. A micron is one millionth of a meter (.00004 of an inch), and micron counts refer to the actual diameter of the wool's fibers. The two important points to remember are 1) the smaller the micron count, the finer the fiber, and 2) in the "Super" labeling system, the higher the number, the finer the cloth. Thus, Super 80s cloth has a micron count of 19.5, while Super 150s has a count of 15.5.
Selvage: The narrow border or edge of the cloth, attached when weaving to prevent unraveling. The trade name is usually woven into the selvage and is a guarantee of the cloth's quality.
Super Wools: Finer-worsted cloth resulting from the weaving of fibers with a micron count of fewer than 20. At the moment, Super 150s are the finest quality, but the clear direction of technology is to make finer, lighter cloths all the time.