This is the beginning of an occasional series on shirtings, following a similar model to our Guide to Cloth on tailoring fabrics. As with that, we start with the basics here and will then burrow ever deeper in the coming months...
Picking cloth for a shirt can be a little tricky, perhaps even more so than for a suit.
You may have an opinion on shades of grey suits, but few will have given much thought to casts of blue poplin.
Fortunately, this is a good thing.
Selecting shirt cloth can be confusing because so many of the options look similar - and that’s because often there isn’t much to choose between them.
Most men, at least for a formal business shirt, will want some blues, some whites, and maybe a pink. They will want - at least for their first shirts - a standard cotton that feels nice but lasts well. And the pattern of the weave is unlikely to be their top priority.
But even if this is all you want, it’s worth knowing the basics, so you can have confidence in your decision and easily navigate the various bunches.
Anyone that cares about the finer details will find some interesting tips here - and can then bury themselves in the details as we get into raw fibres, and the technical aspects of spinning and weaving.
Perhaps counter-intuitively, the first thing to consider when selecting a shirt is weave pattern and formality.
This is because shirt books tend to be divided up this way.
There will be a book or two with casual cloths (denims, flannels, strong colours and big patterns), and then the rest will be divided by a combination of weave - poplin, oxford, twill - and fineness of the cotton (100, 120, 140).
If you’re after a casual cloth, go for those books and your choice will be largely down to colour, pattern and texture. Not too many varieties by weave or fineness.
If you’re looking for something more formal, you’ll need to make a choice in weave and fineness, before moving onto colour and pattern.
We will go into weaves in more detail later, but the biggest difference they make is to the texture and the feel of the shirt.
Have a look at that texture, to see if there is any pattern you instinctively prefer.
Then feel the cloth between your fingers. Twills tend to feel richer and have a little more shine; oxfords are rawer and usually more casual; poplins are the most popular for smart shirts, and feel a little crisper.
These are relatively small differences, but considering them is part and parcel of enjoying the shirting you are selecting. It’s worth doing, even if you just end up going for a poplin - the most popular and probably most versatile weave.
Next, the fineness. When a shirting says ‘120/2’ beside it, this means that it used 120-count thread and two-ply yarn.
Most quality shirtings will be two ply, so you can largely ignore that. The other number, the thread count, makes a big difference. Something like 80 thread count will feel rugged and strong; a 140 will feel silky and soft.
It’s up to you which feeling you prefer, but bear in mind that coarser fabrics will often wrinkle less and drape better over the day - and that’s often something men prioritise.
Most shirtmakers will start customers off with something in the middle, say 100 or 120.
Again, we’ll go into more detail on fineness in a separate post. There’s a lot to say there. (And we haven’t even mentioned the different cottons yet.)
So we wanted a basic, office-ready blue and white. We’re happy with 120/2 poplin. How do we pick the colour?
Whites are fairly easy. Although there are many different casts of white (and they go through fashions, like everything else) most books will offer just one plain white for a particular fineness and weave.
Blues are harder. Often there will be three choices of light blue, and the selection can make a big difference.
I have at least one shirt where I picked the wrong shade of blue, and rarely wear it as a result. It’s a little too strong. Only a little, but that stops it looking as good with all my ties and jackets.
Two tips here. First, wear a blue shirt you already know you like the shade of. This is the easiest and quickest method of selecting the right one again. (And indeed, many men re-order the same shade again and again with a shirtmaker, to be on the safe side.)
Second, try the potential shade against the suit, jacket or tie you are wearing. Colour can often be quite relative. You don’t realise how strong a blue colour is until you put it against something lighter - or against a light-coloured tie.
Also, some of the basic advice of selecting a suit cloth applies.
So look at the shirting in natural light, as well as inside; try to see the biggest swatch available; and if in doubt, see if you can take a small swatch away to compare to things at home.
If in doubt, go for the lighter of the two shades you’re deciding between - any blue, no matter how light, will still be fine with a navy jacket. And stronger, brighter colours will always tend to be more casual.
As I said, this is just the beginning of the journey.
But understanding these basics should allow you to make that first, slightly surreal selection of a fine shirting.
Many thanks to Albini and to the various shirtmakers and suppliers that contributed their thoughts to this piece
Photography: Jamie Ferguson @jkf_man except numbers 3 4, Luke Carby.