I believe that I’ve read every post you’ve written about shirts. Italian, Spanish, British, even the one on Charvet in How To Spend It. I’m always looking for the same thing but still haven’t found it. Maybe I missed one, maybe I didn’t.
What makes a quality shirt? Not fit, but the construction specifications that make quality. Are collars and cuffs fused or how are they supposed to be made? What parts need to be hand stitched? What are the materials that get used to make a quality shirt?
How does a quality shirt manage to hide the top button flap underneath the tie knot (poor quality shirts always seem to show some cloth and don’t allow the tie to sit between both sides of the collar).
I really hope you can help me with this because I’ve been puzzled by what makes a quality shirt for a long time and haven’t found any proper answers yet. Anywhere.
It’s a good question. One reason you haven’t found much so far is that there isn’t that much to the make of a shirt – at least not compared to a suit, or a bag.
In fact, it’s interesting that when most retailers talk about a high-quality shirt, they often mean the opposite of what the customer wants. The brand is offering a fine shirt, with more delicate material, whereas the customer wants something that will last well.
The most important things by far in a shirt are fit and style, not quality.
Still, it’s worth running through the quality points to provide context: to explain what difference each makes, and which are subjective, which objective.
The fabric of a shirt is a big area – indeed one we’ve written a whole Guide to.
However, most of those points are about design, style and formality. The actual quality of a good shirting – in terms of how it will wear over time – doesn’t vary that much.
If anything, more expensive fabrics tend to be made of a finer (thinner) cotton which makes it lighter on the skin but also more delicate (like big Super-number suitings). It can also give the cotton a sheen that is rather showy.
You generally want a two-ply cotton, but only something around 80-120 thread counts – often written as 2/80 to 2/120. And most basic shirts will have that.
Mother of pearl is nice, and certainly preferable to plastic. But where that mother of pearl comes doesn’t matter much, and more expensive ones just tend to be chunkier, which again is rather showy as well as being a little annoying to button.
As with many of these areas, what men want most is just buttons that will last and not break – and everything apart from the cheapest plastics is fine there.
Some shirts have more stitches to the inch, single-needle stitching, and French seams (where the material is folded over three times and then sewn together very closely).
Functionally, having more stitches to the inch is stronger, but it makes little real difference to longevity. I’ve had fairly cheap shirts for years and the side seams have never opened.
It’s more aesthetic – neatness that you might want if you’re not paying (a lot) for hand sewing these seams. But then, you might not.
These are the little bits that end the side seam at the bottom, stopping it coming apart (below). As with fine stitching, they are often listed as a sign of a quality shirt, but I’ve never known anyone whose shirt has split there.
Off-set side seams
Sometimes the side seam on a shirt and the sleeve seam don’t line up, because the sleeve has been turned to change its pitch. This is certainly a functional aspect, but I’ve worn shirts with it and shirts without, and never noticed a difference.
Pleats up the sleeve
When you attach a cuff to the sleeve, there is excess that must be taken in somewhere – as the cuff is smaller than the sleeve. You can do this through a few pleats, or in consistent gathering around the cuff like some Neapolitans do (below).
The latter is harder, but in no way better and too effeminate for some. There is an argument that pleats can throw fullness into the right places – perhaps around the elbow, where you need room – but it’s very minor.
This is where a lot of money is spent at the top end of luxury shirts: hand-sewn buttonholes, hand-sewn buttons, hand-sewn side seams, hand-finished bottom hems, hand-attached plackets.
These are mostly purely aesthetic, and I would only recommend paying for them if you want the look.
Some hand sewing can be functional, and in my view worth paying for in an expensive shirt.
One is having the collar attached by hand, while the shirt body is on a mannequin and the collar fastened, so the whole thing is done in the round. This gives the collar a natural roundness and curve, and makes it less likely to collapse when worn.
The second is having the sleeve attached by hand. This enables a better fit as a larger sleeve can be worked into a smaller armhole – fundamental to bespoke tailoring as well. It also makes it easier to do a wider seam around the sleeve, which can be more comfortable.
Fused and floating collars
A floating lining to a collar is often listed as a sign of quality. But whether you want one or not is largely a style choice – it’s just that a floating lining is harder to make.
Personally I find floating collars uncomfortable when buttoned and too ready to collapse when open. A good fused collar will not bubble when wet, or in any other way age badly, and it curves naturally around the collar of a jacket. It is more likely to require collar stiffeners when buttoned, however.
A lot of the points I’ve said are relatively unimportant are best used as short-hand for the general care that has been taken in the making of the shirt.
Care is important. If buying a brand for the first time, there may be weaknesses in the way the shirt is sewn that you can’t see easily – such as the way the thread is knotted off after a button is sewn on.
But then again, a manufacturer may also add fancy gussets in order to distract from all the shortcuts he has taken elsewhere.
Buy shirts for their fit, then their style, then functional hand-sewing. And look after them. Don’t dry clean; hang dry; tackle stains quickly. Most shirts get stained long before their side seams rip.
The point you make, Simon, about not hiding the collar button when worn with a tie, is one of design rather than manufacturing quality.
It may be that cheaper brands put less thought into this, but then it may also be that they use a different standard shape that doesn’t work for your particular neck.