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A Discourse on Shirt Fabrics

 

 

Caveat Emptor - Shirtings, A Primer: Fabrics for Shirts and Blouses


Fabrics for Shirts and BlousesYes ... two small sections of our stockroom on one of their neater days.


Shirtings, to set the definitions correctly at the outset, are the fabrics from which shirts, blouses, and pajamas are made.
Shirtings are not shirts.

 
 

Disclaimer: I am a shirtmaker, not a textile engineer. The following article is written from my 35+ years of experience as such and is as accurate as research, practical experience, rumor, innuendo, bravado, and arguing with vendors can make it.

 
      

Questions constantly arise involving the differences amongst broadcloths, poplins, oxfords, twills, basket weaves, voiles, gabardines, dobbies, jacquards, and other lesser-known types of shirtings. Here I shall explain what each type is, the differences between it and other types, and in some cases the advantages or disadvantages of each type.

You cannot understand fabric types and quality without a basic knowledge of the manner in which cloth is woven:

Fabric is made of yarns which run in two directions. In the length, the yarns are known as the warp. The warp is made by winding up thousands of yarns on a large metal roll called a warp beam. These yarns are then threaded into the loom. The other yarns run across the fabric and are known as the weft. These yarns are actually (usually) one long yarn on a cone which is fed in sideways through the warp yarns. This photo shows the basics:

The cotton weaving processI know, I know. The photos are very old. But ... they're not quite as old as I ... so live with it!
      

Back in the old days weaving was a much more mechanical process than it is today. The shuttle of old was a wooden device which had points on both ends and a spool of yarn in the middle. It literally flew back and forth across the loom going in-between the warp yarns. The faster it traveled, the greater the strain on the yarn coming off the spool. If it ran too fast, or came to a weak spot in the yarn, the yarn would break. The loom would have to be stopped, the broken end tied (by hand) back to the yarn it broke from, and the loom restarted. Practical experience netted the realization that about the smallest yarns which could withstand this process were the 120's ... and then only if the loom was run quite slowly.


In the last quarter century or so, a smart inventor said, "Why can't I shoot this yarn through on a fine jet of high-speed air?" And so the 'air shuttle' was born. Now that the yarns would no longer be broken by the friction of the shuttle, the weavers could use finer ones. Hence the birth of the 2x2 140s, the 160s, the 170s, 180s, 200s, 240s, and, more recently, 300s. But more about the quality differences later. Now that you know the basics of cloth weaving we can delve into the more popular types of shirt fabric which result from the weaving process. Here's a list of the common ones, each of which will be discussed in greater detail below:

 
  • Broadcloth and Poplin
  • Oxford, Pinpoint, and Basketweave
  • Twill, Gabardine, Cavalry and Herringbone
  • End-on-End
  • Voile and its cousin, Zendaline
  • Dobby & Jacquard
  • Satin
 

Before discussing the specific types of cloth, there are three factors which influence all of the types. These factors are:

 
  • Ply
  • Count of the Cloth
  • Yarn Number
 

PLY
Here is where the least scrupulous manufacturers often misuse technical terms to mislead ignorant consumers. Yarns used to make cloth are spun from raw cotton as illustrated above. Once spun, the yarn can then be used directly to weave fabric. Or, for higher quality fabrics, yarns can be twisted together into a yarn made of two yarns.

This is known as Two-Ply Yarn. The twisted Two-Ply yarn resists the normal tendency of yarn to 'pill'. Therefore, fabrics woven of this Two-Ply yarn will have a much greater durability and longevity than fabrics woven of "Singles", or yarns which have not been plied. Where the unscrupulous prey on the unsuspecting is by using a Two-Ply yarn in one direction of the cloth and a Single Yarn in the other direction and calling it "Two-Ply". True high quality cloth uses Two-Ply yarns in both the Warp and Weft directions and is known as 2x2. And to further enhance/complicate the matter, Switzerland's Alumo released the first 3x3 shirting, Salvatore Triplo, in 2008. 

COUNT OF THE CLOTH
Confusion often (purposefully!) reigns between the "Thread Count" and the "Yarn Number". The improperly named "Thread Count", which is correctly termed "Yarn Count", consists of the number of yarns-per-inch in the Warp and the number of yarns-per-inch in the Weft. This determines whether the cloth is loosely or tightly woven. Common high-quality broadcloths have a Count of 144 x 76, or 144 Warp (lengthwise) Yarns per inch and 76 Weft (crosswise) Yarns per inch. Logically - assuming the yarn size remains the same - the fewer the yarns-per-inch, the more space there will be between the yarns and the sheerer the resulting cloth.
      
YARN NUMBER
This is the number most commonly bandied about ... and usually confused with Thread Count. For cottons, using the most commonly accepted numbering system, yarn numbers run from 24's (thickest and coarsest) to 300's (thinnest and finest). Here, as a difficult to view comparison, is a 100's right next to a 200's. If you look carefully, you can see the thickness of the red plaid 100's yarns on the left is almost double that of the wine striped 200's on the right. The thinner yarns can be spun only from the thinnest, smoothest, longest cotton fibers, known in the trade as E.L.S. or Extra Long Staple. It is the rarest and most expensive cotton grown in the world, comprising in total well under 1% of all the cotton produced. Naturally, the thinner the yarn the softer and more supple the resulting cloth.

   Yarn number comparison of cotton cloths

      

One final note about yarn number. During the past few years, a great amount of "high number" Chinese cotton has flooded the "high-end" market. Although ostensibly 200's, this cotton is of much lower quality than the Egyptian. Much of it is being woven in China and Turkey. The better Italian and Swiss mills still use the Egyptian. As an indicator, in 2008 raw Chinese 200s cotton cost about $1.60/pound while the Egyptian varieties were in the $4.50/pound range.

A word to the wise: Inquire about the country in which the fabric was woven. You want to hear "Swiss" or "Italian". That will offer a good indicator of quality.

Want the best indicator? Ask the name of the weaver. You want to hear Alumo (#1), Albini (#2), and, following in no particular order, Carlo Riva, Bonfanti, Grandi & Rubinelli, and Testa. Having the extreme luxury of choice at this point in my career, I use mainly Alumo with a bit of Albini.


OK. Tired of the Science? Good. Me, too. Let's get on to the Types of Shirtings.


     

Bespoke Shirts and Blouses by Alexander Kabbaz-Joelle Kelly & Sons

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BROADCLOTH or POPLIN (or Popline fr.)

    


Ha! Thought you were finally going to find out the difference, eh? Well, you're
not. Why? Because for all practical purposes, Broadcloth and Poplin are exactly the same thing. Historically, there had been one slight difference which is all but ignored today. That difference would have been that some poplins had a slightly larger filling, or weft, yarn than broadcloths resulting in a slightly more pronounced 'ridge' effect crosswise on the cloth.


That out of the way, just what is a broadcloth or poplin? Quite simply, it is a
Plain Weave. What is meant by a plain weave is that each weft yarn passes over one warp yarn, under one warp yarn, over one warp yarn, and so on until it reaches the other side of the cloth. It then returns to the starting side in exactly the same sequence, merely alternating by one the warp yarns which it goes under - over - under. 

   Broadcloth weaving pattern

This diagram illustrates the Broadcloth/Poplin construction.


To the right is an actual broadcloth example. You can easily see the simple over-under-over repetition.

This results in a smooth, strong cloth which is durable, shrinkage resistant, and quite dimensionally stable. In other words, it will last a long time and not tend to warp or bend as time passes. It is the most common and widely used of all the shirtings and available in qualities from 30s singles to 200s 2x2. Higher qualities range upwards of 100s 2x2.

To answer a recent question, MESH is usually made using the same plain weave construction as a broadcloth although I have seen some in a basketweave. The main differences are that the yarns are usually much thicker and are spaced much farther apart.

Have a fabric question you'd like to see answered here? Just ask!

   

Example of Broadcloth/Poplin construction

      


PINPOINT, OXFORD, & BASKET WEAVE

    


Pinpoint is a very simple type of Oxford - of which there are dozens - almost a broadcloth in nature. The only usual difference between broadcloth and pinpoint, which is woven of broadcloth type yarns, is that the weft thread passes over two closely-spaced warp yarns before passing under two and then repeating.

Oxford, named for Oxford University by the Scottish mill which first wove it, is a basket weave. These range from simple, plain Oxfords, usually woven - except in the case of white - from two different colored yarns to the most intricate weaving imaginable. In most instances, the second color of yarn is white.

Basket weaves are simple weaves. What differentiates them from the plain weave is that each warp and/or weft yarn passes over and under multiple yarns. These multiples generally range from two to four and can create quite an exciting array of fabrics.

To the right is shown the basic weaving patterns for 2x1 and 2x2 Basket Weaves. Do not confuse these denominations with ply - they signify how many yarns are being passed over and under.

   Illustration of Oxford Cloth/Basketweave weaving
On the right is the weaving diagram; the left an illustration of the yarns. The upper diagrams illustrate the 2x1 construction where one weft (crosswise) yarn passes over and under two warp (lengthwise) yarns; alternating which two to pass over or under in each succeeding row. The lower diagram shows the 2x2 construction where two weft (crosswise) yarns pass over and under two warp (lengthwise) yarns; again alternating which two to pass over or under in each succeeding row.
      

 

Here are three illustrations in actual cloth of Oxford & Basket Weave constructions:

   Oxford Cloth

A 2x2 (ply) 140's Thomas Mason Royal Oxford which is a very fancy construction, indescribable in lay terms but consisting of four yarns in each direction. Some pass over two yarns, others over four.


Suffice it to say that there exists a huge array of different Oxford constructions, all of which are characterized by the basket weave construction and most of which are made from at least two different colors of yarn. 

   Oxford Cloth

A 4x4 weave, 2x2 ply 80's Oltolina Oxford called Duke


One overarching characteristic of most of the fancier Oxfords, or basket weaves, is that their irregularity tends to decrease their durability. As will be noted below in the Satin description, the more warp or weft yarns its crosswise partner passes over, the more chance there is that the untethered, "floating" yarn may catch, or snag, on an external sharp protrusion such as a splinter or broken fingernail.

   Basket weave cloth

A white basket weave, so complex it would require a microscope to unravel

      


TWILL: GABARDINE, CAVALRY, & HERRINGBONE

    


Yup. They're all the same. Twill is the weave type; Gabardine, Cavalry, and Herringbone just various manifestations thereof. A Twill is characterized by the weft (crosswise) yarns passing over multiple warp yarns and then under one warp yarn. The succeeding row does the same, but begins one warp yarn later, etc. This creates a pronounced diagonal rib effect as is seen in this weaving diagram:

   Illustration of Twill weaving patterns


Here are a few simple examples of actual twills of an equilateral and regular weave construction.

The topmost, shown to the right, is a Hounds tooth patterned twill.

   Houndstooth twill


A so-called Tick weave in a twill construction:

   Tick weave twill


A very fine 2x2 170's twill cloth from Alumo:

   Alumo 2x2 170s twill


Finally, a very heavy Cavalry twill:

   Wide wale cavalry twill


In all twills, the diagonal ribs are termed 'wales'.



Two important characteristics of twills are that they are the most durable of cloths and they are the least likely to soil - but the hardest to clean once they do.



Gabardine Twill for shirts is also a regular and equilateral weave characterized by a hard surface finish and usually a high yarn count.

A most popular and common twill is the Herringbone, so named for its likeness to the backbone of the fish of the same name. It also utilizes a regular and equilateral twill construction - but the construction reverses direction every certain number of yarns in order that the diagonal ribs change direction by ninety degrees.

To the right is the weaving diagram and a magnified example of a herringbone cloth followed by an example of the actual shirting, a 2x2 100s from Thomas Mason (Albini).

   Herringbone twill illustration

Cotton herringbone twill fabric

      


END-ON-END (or fil-a-fil fr.)

    


The variety of available end-on-end cloths is probably immeasurable. In the simplest terms, end-on-end is a plain weave just like a broadcloth. It is characterized by the interspersion of colored yarns with other colored yarns. 

Right, the most common blue & white broadcloth end-on-end.

 

   Broadcloth End-on-End cotton fabric

Though one of the colors is most frequently white, a great diversity of end-on-ends have arisen in recent years. The simplest and most common - the medium blue broadcloth end-on-end often associated with the white collar & cuff style - is constructed from a warp of alternating white and blue yarns and a weft of white yarns. This yields the familiar 'crosshatched' appearance.

 

What is usually not realized about end-on-ends is that they are not always woven of the standard broadcloth yarns. A few years back, voile end-on-ends were quite popular as well.

The red swatch is an example of a voile-end-on-end construction.



   Voile End-on-End Cotton fabric

Though most end-on-ends which don't use white as one of the colors use lighter and darker shades of the same color, for example, sky and royal, I have seen some really strange combinations in recent times - blue & purple with magenta & fuscia, for example - which when finally made up yielded some awesome, unique fabrics.


Another example of a voile, this time in blue,

   Voile End-on-End cotton fabric


Finally, a 200s 2x2 end-on-end, greatly megnified yet with two colors of yarns so fine it is almost impossible to discern the end-on-end construction.

   200s Cotton Two Ply End-on-End cloth
      

 

VOILE ... and its cousin, Zendaline

    


Voile is a most popular Summer-weight fabric among the cognoscenti. As broadcloth, many voiles are plain weaves. The difference in this cloth lies in the manner of spinning the yarn. Voile yarns are spun to an extremely high twist. This high twist causes the yarns to bulk up in a process called creping. It is illustrated to the right with a thick cotton twine. The top shows the twine in its natural, relaxed position, similar to a broadcloth yarn. The bottom demonstrates what happens when the twine is twisted to the point where it doubles over upon itself - exactly like a voile yarn.

The fact that the yarns are 'bulked up' permits the use of fewer of them per square inch (a lower yarn count). This corresponding decrease in the quantity of fiber is the property which makes voiles semi-sheer and extremely breathable, for what they have actually become is quite porous. Additionally, this minimal yarn combined with a soft, high twist makes for an extremely soft, supple, and lightweight fabric.


   Voile yarn construction

To the right is an example of a 2x2 140's 'French Striated' Voile from the looms of Italy's S.I.C.Tessuti.

A hybrid of Voile is known as Zendaline. Woven of the high-twist voile yarns in the weft (crosswise), the Zendaline warp is made from Broadcloth yarns. The resulting cloth, for many technical reasons, exhibits the best features of both yarns. Zendaline has an extremely high sheen reminiscent of the finest broadcloths, but retains the soft hand of the Voiles. Among the upper crust of bespoke shirt wearers, Zendaline is one of the 'must haves' in every wardrobe.

   High count voile plain weave
      

 

DOBBY & JACQUARD

    


I am treating Dobbies and Jacquards together because they are both methods of achieving the same goal - that of creating a design on cloth without using colors to do so. Their most obvious difference lies in the size of the design they can produce. Dobby looms are capable of producing small, uncomplicated designs whereas Jacquard looms can create the most complex designs of any size desired.

The manner in which the weft thread is inserted through the warp threads naturally varies with the type of cloth being woven. In simple cloths such as those described above, the warp yarns pass through heddles which, together, comprise what is called a harness. In the simplest loom, one designed for making only Plain Weave cloths, there are two harnesses. Half of the warp yarns (#'s 1,3,5,7,9 and so on) are passed through the heddles of one harness. The other half of the yarns (#'s 2,4,6,8 and so on) are passed through the heddles of the other harness. When the first harness is lifted up and the second pushed down, the weft thread is then shot through the resulting triangle of space. The harnesses then reverse and the weft thread is shot through again, and so on.
Note the triangle on this simple hand loom where the weft thread passes through as one harness sheds half of the warp upward while the other harness sheds the other half of the warp downward.

   Loom

The Dobby loom, or technique, is a manner of controlling up to 32 different harnesses which permits the degree of variation necessary to produce simple designs.

To the right are two examples. The uppermost is a common satin stripe, in this case adorning a blue voile solid.


   dobby stripe
 The second example is a truly rare piece, a white-on-white woven by David and John Andersen in Scotland during the first half of the 20th Century. It is called 'Clocks'.    dobby pattern cotton clocks

The Jacquard Loom, invented in 1801 by Joseph Marie Jacquard, is a horse of an entirely different color! There are no heddles or harnesses. Instead, there are thousands of fine steel wires suspended from above, the end of each consisting of an eye through which one ... just one ... warp yarn is passed.

Then, through the use of an extremely complex series of punch cards, each fine steel wire is individually raised and lowered as the weft thread passes through resulting in even the most complex of repeating designs.

On the right is a very complex example in White-on-White:

   Jacquard cotton cloth
      
Most modern shirtings do not feature designs so complex as to necessitate the use of a Jacquard loom. The small, repeating designs featured in the majority of White-on-Whites, Tone-on-Tones, and simple satin stripes or checks are quite easily accomplished with the 32 harnesses of the Dobby system.

Hold on ... we're almost at the end! Just one more type of cloth to go:
      

SATIN


    

Though a rarity in cotton shirtings, many silk shirts on today's store shelves are of the satin variety. Similarly, satin components are used in the construction of garments such as the tuxedo.

Satins are the most delicate and least impervious to snagging of all fabrics. The reason for this is a magnification of the oxford concept of 'floating' the warp or the weft to permit the natural luster of mercerized thread to show. Satin fabrics, as illustrated in the diagram to the right, feature warp or weft yarns floating out above the surface for a distance ranging anywhere from 4 to 16 yarns! As is obvious, the opportunity for snagging one of these floating yarns is enormous ... though in proper circumstance, the use of satin can be quite attractive.

   Illustration of Satin Fabric weaving pattern
      

Though that concludes the description of the common shirting constructions, no such treatise would be complete without a paragraph or two on a couple of the other important factors which influence the quality of fabrics.

Someone also told me that it would be a bit disingenuous to write thousands of words about shirtings and show no shirts.

     

Bespoke Shirts and Blouses by Alexander Kabbaz-Joelle Kelly & Sons

Shop Bespoke Shirts and Blouses

      

 A FEW SHIRTS


IN CONCLUSION


 A FEW MORE SHIRTS


 A few Kabbaz-Kelly Shirts

 

THE FINISHING  


Although you now know the basics of constructing the cloth, cloth is not ready for the sewing needle until it is "finished". After weaving, fabric then goes through one or all of a variety of 'finishing' processes. These include dyeing, sizing, mercerization, sanforization, and pre-shrinking to name just a few common ones. Each of these processes has a direct effect not only upon the appearance of the cloth, but on its performance characteristics as well.

Environmental responsibility has become more and more of an ethos in the arena of fine textile weaving. As of a number of years ago, all of the fabric coming from Alumo, my preferred weavers, conforms to the OkeoTex Standard 100. This means that no environmentally harmful chemicals are used in the finishing processes. You would be interested to note that, previous to this standard, most fabric finishing involved the use of formaldehyde. It is for this reason that many older sewing factories smelled like mortuaries!



Interesting Sidebar - You've probably heard of the 47 common varieties of Scotch whiskey. One of the primary factors in the variety lies in the water used in the fermenting process. Just as with Scotch, water is one of the key components in many of the fabric finishing processes. Not so strangely, many of the fabrics used to be finished in Scotland. Variety in fabric finished was obtained, in part, by the weaver's selection of which of those 47 waters was to be used. Now, thanks to population increases and pollution, that extensive variety of waters is no longer available. Due to this, many of the characteristics of, for example, the "clocks" example above, can no longer be repeated.



LONGEVITY


I have a few yards of some 240s woven for me by Oltolina in the 1990's. In order to do so, the mill said they ran the loom at a rate of 35 meters per day. Even so, there were still some broken weft yarns and the requisite knots therein. And that was the fastest they could be run. Loom speed today is measured in the multiple thousands of yards per loom per day. The better shirtings (Italian, Swiss - best mills) are made on looms running much more slowly. And this is what happens: The faster you run the loom, the greater the inherent tension in the yarns of the resulting fabric. On today's super high-speed looms, microscopic breaks in the yarns are caused. These do not become evident until the tension begins to really relax. This happens when the fabric is wet (in the laundry). As the number of launderings increases, those fabrics begin to degrade rapidly. Fabrics woven on the slower looms - in other words those without the high tension breakage - do not begin to degrade anywhere near as rapidly.

This is why I can show you a 2x2 170's shirt made in the mid-1980's and laundered more than 200 times which is perfectly serviceable while a new shirt made of high-speed woven fabric is ready for the trash bucket after 25 washes.


Hence, it is not merely the construction details of the weaving of a particular cloth which influence its appearance, its hand, and its serviceability. There are other factors - regarding two of which I have just briefly touched the surface - which demand consideration in your selection of that next shirt ... but those are topics for another day.

Thanks for slogging through.


Copyright © 2003-2018 Alexander S. Kabbaz, All Rights Reserved.


Comments? Questions?

Fire away!

The Author will be happy to answer one and all.

 A few Kabbaz-Kelly Shirts