Friday, 8 October 2010

Guest Post: Suit Up Series - Materials

Primus Sartorius returns to instruct on selecting the right material for your suit.

Now, my dear readers, having surveyed—alas, all too briefly—the three domains of bespoke, made-to-measure, and off-the-rack, let us now take a step back and look at the wonderful, varied world of materials that can be used to make a suit.

First, we must mention (in passing only) the synthetic materials: polyester and microfibers. For the love of God, ladies and gentlemen, stay away from this unless you are a disreputable American named Larry. (Those born in the 1980s who had access to computers in the 80s and 90s will know what I am talking about. Those who do not, there is always Google.)

Now, with that dismal fabric consigned to the place it so rightly belongs, let's take a brief meander through the natural fabrics that have historically been used to make suits: cashmere, cotton, flannel, herringbone, linen, seersucker, silk, tweed and worsted.

As this is being addressed to gentlemen living in the tropics, I will skip over flannel, herringbone, and tweed. These are winter weight materials, designed for the gentleman who experiences snow and temperatures in the single digits.

Cashmere practically needs no introduction. It is frightfully expensive. It is also the most sensual, soft and elegant woolen fabric par excellence. It is also remarkable for its unique properties: it tends to insulate you against temperature changes, keeping you cool in warmer--but not hot--temperatures and warm in cool temperatures. There are not all that many tailors who will work with cashmere; it is not an easy material to work with. And even among those who will work with cashmere, the skills of those tailors in handling that delicate fabric can vary widely. If you can afford it, and you can find a tailor who knows what he is doing, it may be the perfect material for that “once in a blue moon” event where you want to feel and look like a million sterling.

Cotton, linen and seersucker are summer fabrics, they are practically the exclusive provenance of those countries that have four seasons. In fact, I think seersucker is practically exclusive to the United States of America, specifically the states south of the Mason-Dixon Line. I do not believe there are many tailors in Southeast Asia who will make suits of cotton or linen. These fabrics tend to wrinkle and stain easily, which can severely compromise the lifespan of the suit. They require more frequent maintenance including dry cleaning, which again compromises the lifespan of the suit. Furthermore, they lack a certain... panache when compared to worsted and cashmere.

Silk is a very unusual material for a suit, although satin or silk is used for the piping and lapels of a black tie ensemble. It has a very distinct sheen which makes it rather unsuitable for anything except tacky suits to be worn for nightclubs, or mandarin jackets which are meant to be made with silk.

And now, my dears, we come to the workhorse of suits, the classic fabric selected by most men and recommended by most tailors: worsted. Most good quality worsted is woven from merino wool from Australia or New Zealand, although you can get worsted woven from wool from other sources. Worsted is typically rated by numbers, for example Super 120, Super 150, etc. Super refers to the fact that the worsted is woven from pure new wool; in the past this was a reference to the fact that the wool was the “best” wool available. The number refers to the fineness of the wool used in the worsted. The higher the number, the softer and finer the wool. Alas, the higher the number, the higher the cost and the less durable the fabric; this is the tragedy of the Super fines.

For suits that you will wear often, a good 90 or Super 100 will probably be best; they are durable and reasonably comfortable. For suits that you reserve for special occasions, if one has the money, splurge on a Super 120 or 150 and know true luxury.

Speak to your tailor when making your suit, if he is worthy of his craft he should be able to show you samples of fabrics appropriate to the intended uses of your suit: durable fabrics for your regular corporate attire, and more elegant and attractive fabrics for your power suits and formal evening wear. He can also recommend fabrics of different weights suitable for different climes. This will be crucial in determining whether you feel like a million bucks, or are bedraggled and sweat-soaked here in the tropics. Yours truly, for example, has a few suits that are thoroughly unusable here in the tropics because they were tailored for my winters and autumns in Europe, which were made from fairly robust fabrics and quite heavy weights in order to keep me comfortably warm in cold climes; I reserve them for my business trips back to Europe in autumn and winter.

And with that, my dears, we come to the end of our rather brief tour of suit fabrics.

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