In this next article in our series on shirtings, we describe and define the different types of fabric (oxford, chambray, denim) with both text descriptions and illustrations.
They are set out in groups by the part of the process that largely defines them – whether it be the weave, the yarn or the finishing. Hopefully this will help explain those processes as well as categorising the fabrics.
As with our cloth series, this piece is quite technical and may not be of interest to everyone. But it provides the basis upon which all other pieces can be built – with references back to these definitions. And I’m sure there will be some geeks that will love it.
It’s worth also saying that the fibre is usually the most important thing to how a fabric looks and feels. Cotton, linen and wool have their own properties, and within cotton in particular, the thickness varies enormously – from 30s thread count to 330s, so 11 times finer.
These aren’t mentioned below, but we’ll discuss them in a separate piece.
Below, then, the main types of shirting, numbered and set out in groups by process. Starting with by far the biggest group, which is determined by weave structure.
There are four main types of weave or weave structure (the pattern in which the warp and weft threads are woven together) used in shirting fabrics.
Many shirtings are variations, or secondary types, of these core structures.
The first is plain weave. Plain weaves have had a few different phases over the centuries. The original was a striped ‘gengham’, which came to the UK from Malaysia in the 17th century and became known as gingham. (Despite “gingham“ today referring to a check.)
David and John Anderson developed a much finer version of gingham in the 19th century, and called it Zephyr.
The name has since become generic, however, and today refers to fine, lightweight plain weaves, with equal warp and weft threads.
They are fresh and lightweight in feel, and are good for warm weather.
By far the most recognisable plain weave is poplin. This has twice as many vertical warp threads (ends) as horizontal weft threads (picks) compared to other plain weaves.
Poplin became popular in the second half of the 20th century, partly because it took less time (and was therefore cheaper) to weave and partly because it suited the lively stripes of the 1960s.
Because of this differential in warp and weft, poplin is ideal for lengthwise stripes. It also feels crisp and has good body to it, making it a great choice for business shirts.
(Broadcloth is a term used in the US for plain weaves; in the UK it has only ever been used for woollen fabrics.)
Oxford was created as a tougher fabric for more active use than zephyr, and was originally one of a collection of four qualities named after Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard and Yale.
Oxfords have two coloured warp threads together, and then a much thicker white weft thread woven across them. The contrast of colour results in the white dot effect that is characteristic of Oxford fabrics.
Oxfords are robust and sporty with good body, and the white weft softens the colours, giving them a slightly chalky appearance.
4 Pinpoint oxford
A variation on the oxford weave, pinpoint weaves two yarns over and two under, in the same way as a hopsack in suiting. Technically this is known as a matt weave.
Pinpoints are more popular in the United States and are generally considered more informal than poplins.
5 Royal Oxford
Royal Oxford is a refined variation of an oxford weave, using finer two-fold yarns that make it more suitable for business as well as casual shirts. Its complex weave structure is actually similar to a birdseye or houndstooth in suiting.
Royal Oxford looks much like an oxford but is richer with brighter colours. It can also be woven into checks, where regular true oxford structures can only be plains or stripes. It is a brand name of Thomas Mason.
Twills are easily identifiable, having a weave structure that is diagonal to the fabric, traditionally running from bottom left to top right.
As in suiting, twills are denser than other shirtings, and therefore are particularly suitable for a heavier weight fabric that is not too rigid.
There are different types of twill which vary the crossing of the warp and weft ends and picks, such as 2×2, 3×1 or 4×4, and each has diffrent lustre and drape. Heavier versions of twills are often used for military looks and overshirts, or with indigo yarns as denim.
Herringbone is a variation on a twill weave, where the twill changes repeatedly from left to right, giving a zig-zag effect which is said to resemble the backbone of a herring fish.
A herringbone cloth feels very similar to a twill, and has the same properties.
This section includes all of the more complicated structures that produce figured effects, such as different small shapes, ribs, satin, fil-coupé (isolated motifs) up to the most complicated weaves, jacquards.
Dobby is a general name for complex structures in woven fabric. (It is derived from the term “draw boy” which referred to the small child that perched on top of a loom lifting the shafts with strings in order to help the weaver achieve these structures.)
It is not a derivation of twill, oxford or plain weave, but rather can be inserted into those simpler weaves to add extra interest or texture.
Piqué is another complex construction, sometimes with raised parallel cords as commonly seen as a Marcella front on a dress shirt.
Piqués sometimes use satin, a lustrous weave structure, either plain or in stripes. And they can resemble the appearance of knitted fabrics, although the piqué used on a polo shirt is actual a knitted fabric.
10 Jacquard and fil-coupé
Jacquards (above) are the most complex weaves of all, with intricate pictorial woven images. Sometimes the images use isolated motifs which require trimming of threads and this is called fil-coupé (below).
Designs differ from weave structures, in that they use one of the weaves structures above and then vary the colours of the yarns.
This forms repeating patterns and textures across the surface of the fabric both in the vertical warp and the horizontal weft, of which there are thousands of variations.
The two most commonly thought of as fabrics, rather than patterns, are mentioned below. Not mentioned here are the more recognisable patterns such as pin stripes, Prince of Wales, tartan, gingham, tattersall or bengal stripe.
11 End on end
With end on end, the warp of the shirting (which runs down the fabric) alternates a coloured yarn with a white yarn, while the weft (running across the fabric) is just one colour, usually white.
Chambray is a plain weave with a coloured warp and a white weft. It normally uses quite fine yarn, and sometimes slubby weft yarns that create extra texture.
It is also known as batiste, having supposedly been introduced by a weaver called Jean-Baptiste from Cambrai, France.
Chambray is usually quite soft and has a casual, varied texture.
As well as varying the colours of the yarn, the yarn itself can vary by how it is dyed or spun, and special yarns can be used for the whole fabric or to add visual interest within the design.
The most universal special yarn is indigo – a deep blue or black which is used for denim. Usually woven in a twill with the reverse side in a natural undyed yarn, denim can range substantially in weight, from that used for jeans and outerwear to the most refined shirtings.
Denim is mostly identified by its characteristic twill and colour, and by the fading that comes with wear or (more often) by treatment of the finished garment.
Delavé yarns are dyed with special dyestuffs that fade with washing, and are available in every colour.
They are particularly used for fabrics that are designed to look retro or vintage, with an aged appearance.
15 Melange and mouliné
A melange (above) is two yarns spun together to give a flecked appearance in the finished fabric – often a grey, blue or brown yarn spun together with a natural one.
Mouliné yarns (below) are one coloured and one natural yarn twisted together.
Melange and mouliné yarns can be incorporated into any design or structure to add visual interest.
Shirtings pass through over a dozen processes to transform them from the raw state, known as ‘greige’, into the finished product. These include stages readers may be familiar with from other areas of menswear, such as mercerisation and sanforisation.
Some of the processes improve appearance, whilst many are for performance, such as tear strength and resistance to shrinkage, since shirtings are worn next to the skin and therefore must be strong enough to be worn and washed repeatedly at quite high temperatures.
Easy iron or non-iron effects are added at the finishing stage, helping shirts remain wrinkle-free during the day and crumple less when taken travelling. (We haven’t used an image here, given the effect is not visible.)
17 Brushed and emerised
Cotton shirtings, sometimes with wool or cashmere blends, are often brushed (above) to create a flannelly or woollen feeling for wearing in colder months. These tend to use thicker yarns in a looser construction, so that the wire brushes can lift out the pile onto the surface.
An alternative for finer shirtings is to use a diamond emerising process (below), which is more akin to sandpapering and produces a soft, peach-skin finish.
These sorts of fabrics are usually used for more casual, weekend shirts and are often made in less formal colours and patterns.
An increasingly popular finishing process is the application of designs or patterns onto already woven fabrics using different methods.
The more traditional methods are silk screen printing and discharge printing, although more today is done with digital printing, which can achieve an almost photographic effect.
Many thanks to everyone at the Albini team in Italy and England for their help researching this article
You can see the first part in this series, an introduction to selecting shirt cloth, here
Thank you! This was very helpful for me to understand the terminology often used here and in product descriptions.
Really pleased to hear it, thanks
What a wonderful reference to have. Excellent detail and a record wotht having for sure. Well done and thank you
Any idea of what the Harvard, Yale and Cambridge cloths looked like and why the Oxford type became preeminent? I have always wondered.
I know Cambridge was a twill in similarly rugged yarns, but don’t know on the others.
That’s a terrific article, Simon.
I have some nice casual shirts which I now know are fil coupe or dobby. Bewspoke makers vere seem to have these types of things though – I suppose a lot of them are commissioned by shirt manufacturers, generally teh high end Italian ones.
Exactly. It’s easy to think as a bespoke customer you’re getting a lot of choice, but actually it’s very narrow compared to what brands can pick from
Would love an article on this very topic. Makes you re-evaluate the need for bespoke (in some cases)
Are there any “easy iron” or “non-iron” treatments/fabrics that don’t compromise on the quality PS readers would hope for? (Especially within the bespoke or perhaps mtm sphere)
I currently like Eton’s RTW specifically for this aspect, but I’m hoping to move shirts to something more in line with the quality level of the rest of my wardrobe without creating a lot of extra ironing work for myself…
Thomas mason do a journey range of cottons that have been treated. In my opinion the treated fabrics will never feel quite as soft as the untreated natural cottons , also be aware that the treatments wear off after 15-20 washes.
Fantastic guide! I never heard of delavé or mouliné before!
Just one thing:
“Royal Oxford is a refined variation of an oxford weave, using finer two-fold yarns that make it more suitable for business as well as casual shirts. Its complex weave structure is actually similar to a birdseye or houndstooth in suiting.”
While birdseye is comparable to Royal Oxford, houndstooth is not. Houndstooth does not have a complex weave structure and is woven in a basic 2×2 twill with alternating 4 light yarns and 4 dark yarns in both the warp and the weft, so it’s just a design and not a specific weave like birdseye is.
Otherwise I loved the guide!
Thanks Matt. That section refers to the fact that the royal oxford weave resembles a houndstooth pattern.
Excellent go-to guide. Thanks, Simon.
Cheers Barry, it was a lot of work
When buying a shirt, does the weave make the slightest difference to ones choice?
What is of course far more important is weight, feel, sheen, impact of 10 trips through the washer,etc,etc.
I buy sea island cotton, rugged oxfords, standard two fold poplins,and the like without giving a thought to what weaves they are.
It’s possible to overthink things, and sorry but I think this piece does exactly that.
I know this is a level of detail that most people won’t need, but what you’re describing is defined by everything we talk about – weave, yarn etc. Those oxfords are rugged because of the way they are woven and the coarseness of the yarn they use.
Future pieces, as I say at the beginning and as our Cloth series has done, willprovide much more accessible advice and reference this for more detail
Thanks, and yes I absolutely get that, but I buy an oxford shirt because I know it looks and feels a certain way, without ever wondering how it’s made. In the same way, I’ve always favoured a mid blue end on end shirt because of the way they look, and have had very many, but it was only recently that I learnt the cloth had a name.
I look forward to your next piece which I hope will offer something of a more practical nature.
Good, thanks. There are also a few details here in the piece about how different cloths look and feel – such as the crispness of poplin or the richness of twill, for those that haven’t perhaps bought as much as you and want to know what to try to find what they like.
Thank you!! Nice descriptions, wonderful close-up photos, greatly appreciated.
An outstanding piece…well written, informative…and mostly, just fun. This made me run into my closet, pull some of my old Isaias off the shelf…and actually see what I own!
A long-awaited post has come! Great work as always, Simon. Kudos also to Albini.
Given these definitions, what weave or sub-weave is a chambray design most usually made with?
Or to rephrase my question, is it possible to tell that a cloth has a chambray design by look and feel? If so, what telltale signs should I look for? If not, what other options do I have to identify it without asking a salesperson?
For a bit of context, I live in a country where even textile shop owners themselves seldom have complete knowledge of what they are selling. As my sartorial journey is in its infancy, I’ve little option at the moment but to shop locally and really work at my “cloth selection sense”, if you will.
Chambray is a plain weave (have a look at the chambray section above) with a colour one way (usually blue) and white the other. However, chambrays vary hugely, with often slubbier yarns or variations put in to make it look more casual. I’m afraid this makes it very hard to identify things just from looking at them.
That description is quite close to oxford, which is why I was looking for further distinction. Indeed, most sellers here I talk to would just tell me that oxford and chambray are one and the same, which I suppose is partially true as one can be made with the other as a design. There probably is no way around that conundrum though, apart from the presence of a slubby weft.
Ah well, one can’t totally eliminate uncertainties in life so I’ll just take the plunge when sourcing cloth. Regardless, your advice will prove indispensable for my adventures and is immensely appreciated, Simon. I do hope I wasn’t a bother.
Not at all Joseph, happy I could help.
They aren’t really the same, as a chambray is always in a plain weave and Oxford weave is different. However, as with all these fabric and cloth definitions, many things are built on top of those basic points, some of which become more important to a commonly accepted view of the material (such as slubbiness with Oxford, colour variation with chambray)
Oh! Silly me, I hadn’t noticed that Oxfords were an entirely different header altogether in the article. That clears up a lot.
Rest assured, you’ve been a lot of help. The definitions make more sense to me now, and I’ve also finally realized what I was really looking at in the photos, so altogether I’m set. Thanks, Simon.
Wonderful in-depth work as usual Simon – well done. For business formal shirts do you prefer twill or poplin. Why? I really like the crisp, ‘rigid’ spread collar and tie formal look. At the margin are twills or poplins best used for that effect or is it really the fusing that matters. Thanks in advance.
The fusing makes more of a difference in the collar and cuffs, fabric more in the body. And for that formal look I generally prefer poplins
Thanks Simon. I was interested to read about the denim finish. I’m greatly enjoying wearing my PS denim shirt, made up in a button-down by Luca. I wasn’t sure at first, but it’s fading beautifully now.
Super, good to know. Yes, you have to slightly ignore the colour when you first get it – it’s the colour after a few washes that you want
Dear Simon, As ever thank you.
Building on your description of how to use different cloths it would be very helpful to have some pictures of examples. I once had some shirts made in herringbone and find I seldom wear them. I suppose because it is a bit of a more informal, and when I wear informal jackets they tend to have a pattern, and the two clash a little. But surely I lack imagination.
Also Elia Caliendo made me some wonderful dress shirts in a cloth that he said was cotton but with weave as it were linen, it gave a varied look to it. Any idea what that might be, maybe melange?
Probably chambray. It commonly has a lot more texture and slubbiness than the image here suggests
Wow, I have been making custom shirts for 35 years and there is some new things in here for me to learn
Interesting but I look forward to more dialogue on collars.
Probably the most important aspect of shirts – providing the rest fits !
I say this because now that lapels are taking on their rightful size (larger) and the DB is enjoying a justified renaissance, it surprises me how many are sporting the wider lapel with a cutaway collar.
To my eyes this looks wrong and personally I think that a man size lapel requires a longer, more pointed collar as popular in the ‘40s and early ‘50s or alternatively the higher and deaper collar as sported by Prince Michael of Kent.
Of course, face shape comes into it but I do think lapel width is even more of a consideration.
Thoughts and article please Simon.
Thanks, and will do.
Personally, I’m not sure the scale of the lapel suggests either a point or spread collar, but the size and height of each perhaps should be considered
I think the more important aspect of a collar is where the points sit relative to the coat. Too often they don’t meet at all, or the collar points are lost under the coat.
In my view the coat should JUST sit over the tips of the collar, and nothing more.
I’m not sure there is a natural relationship between lapel width and collar shape.
Thanks Nick – not my view (I prefer the points hidden under the lapel, but a point collar could sit outside them) but thanks for yours.
I think we are agreeing! Maybe my wording wasn’t too good, but yes I meant to say the collars points should just be covered, but only just, not swamped!!
I think we should look at some live examples from past and present in the article.
In my opinion, not to recalibrate your collar and tie knot appropriately for the (thank God) wider lapel is a styling faux pas.
David I think you will find that, if you stay at the traditional end of the tailoring spectrum, there has been little, if any, change to the size or shape of collars and lapels. It is at the fashion end where the tiny collars and skinny lapels were/are to be found. In turn this means that they can be happily ignored.
This is brilliant – thanks, Simon (and Albini) – very interesting indeed.
God knows how I’m ever going to walk into a shop and just choose a shirt now though!
Clearly some work has gone into the detail and the highly effective illustrations – one of the best in the cloth series of reference articles – thank you Simon. To pick up on the comments re. collar shape I wrote to Matt Spaiser (his site) on the subject of Frank Foster’s excellent collar shape, in my view the best I have seen. Superficially a small thing but the collar forms the frame (and thus the epicentre) to both the tie/gorge area as well as providing a frame above to the face. I would be grateful on your views Simon (an article please?). Clearly there is a relationship between face shape and collar style (i.e. spread collar more suitable for longer, thinner face shapes), but I’m more interested in the ideal balance achieved between the upper and lower framing created by the collar angles as well as collar point positioning.
I’m enjoying your series on shirting!
I want to ask about collar fraying – I’ve read its from sharp whiskers – but I’m not convinced. Some shirts can have it happen quickly. Some people will wear shirts with the fraying.
I’d like to know what do do fabric wise to avoid it, and any other comments you have on this.
Does it have to do with how the collar is made?
A closer or higher collar will be more at risk of fraying, and lighter weight, more delicate or more open weave shirtings will also fray quicker. Stick with mid-weight poplins and twills, or even heavier cloths, and you should minimise the fraying. Care is also a factor – try not to dry clean as this is harsh on the fabric.
However, for casual shirts I quite like a little fraying. Not for something smart, but in a button down with a tweed jacket perhaps.
It’s a tricky taxonomy problem, writing a post about shirting fabrics. The etymology of fabric names are, as you note, multifaceted and don’t adhere to the scheme of single-characteristic categorization. Any result to group them accordingly—by fiber, yarn, weave, finish— then, fail to give satisfying order. For instance, you suggest that denim and delavé are primarily designated by the yarn used; as far as I know they both also always feature twill weaves. A better (and less work-intensive) write-up, then, might be simply to note the four aforementioned defining property categories and then provide the pertinent defining properties of well-known fabrics in those categories.
An alternative taxonomy is to group fabrics by distinct occasions of wear (formality, season, “paradigm”). Such a post would discuss the primary elements that make a fabric appropriate for a given occasion and provide examples (with an appropriate weave/yarn/finish/fiber discussion). This approach prioritizes utility over comprehensiveness (an ambitious goal for a blog post), providing readers with the knowledge to determine how to wear even fabrics unmentioned.
Thank you. The latter approach is one we will take up in future posts, which will give much more practical advice and will group fabrics by use, eg formal and casual
I never thought I would see the words taxonomy or etymology used in this same sentence in respect of shirt fabrics! Fantastic!
Good post. I have shirts in all weaves. I am not sure one can consider himself to possess a complete wardrobe until he owns an Oxford button down by mercer and sons. I have no idea where they source their cloth, however, it is a shirt akin to a fine burgundy. It gets so much better with age. It is the humble every mans shirt that, when paired with a fine bespoke navy or grey worsted or flannel suit, is a pleasure that far surpasses anything in the world in terms of innocent charm and class.
One question: tumble dry or not? Specifically on different types?
In general, no never. And the more delicate the cloth, the worse it will be
Excellent piece, Mr Crompton. Writing about oxford weave, you said true oxford can be only plains or stripes. What about “oxford” shirt B.B. or Gant sell as plaid oxford? You can see them on their e-shop. Technically Are these not real oxford? Thank you very much for your precious advice.
They are still technically Oxfords, as the only pure definition of the Oxford is the weave. However, it’s not really in keeping with the style of the shirt and how it’s normally worn
hey simon are you aware if it is possible to take in the waist of a shirt without reducing the armhole size as well?
Yes, absolutely. You can alter anything in the back of a shirt using darts, and even cut open the side seams and narrow there if you want.
You couldn’t use the latter method to alter the upper back, but I doubt you’d want to.
Do you view end-on-end shirting as more of a spring/summer thing, or is it suitable for year-round wear?
Year round really
I’ve been reading about Giza 45 & 87 cotton and was wondering what the difference is when they are weaved into poplin shirting. Is it true that Giza 87 is shiny? Any other differences you can point out?
Yes it is a little. Have you read the superfines chapter in this series?
Hi Simon, thanks for the great post. I handsew my own clothes and am always looking to make the best possible garment possible, and so I love reading your observations and plan to incorporate them into my own sewing.
After reading this post, I recognised the fabric used in my favorite shirt that had been worn till I couldn’t wear it anymore. It is the herringbone, and in pink. Have been looking for that fabric since that shirt wore out, and I have now purchased what I think was the exact same fabric used in that shirt, given that it was made in the UK. Am so looking forward to making that fabric into a shirt. Your blog is much appreciated, and as a woman, living in New Zealand incredibly enlightening.
Love style love to sew
What about Jersey ? Even on quality polos, it tends to not age well around the seams. Now they offer jersey fabric for jackets. Would you recommend it for a bespoke (handmade) garment?
What do you mean by not ageing well? Being colour fast? Fraying?
I wouldn’t recommend jersey for a bespoke jacket, no. It’s harder to tailor and, because of its stretch, there’s less point.
It crinkles around the stitches on most shirts (maybe the washing and ironing does not help) and I fear it also would on a jacket (maybe not with hand stitching).
On jackets, would the fabric still stretch if 450g heavy and without elasthane? Ariston has some jersey for jackets that I like in the new Leisure and Sport bunch (c 179-5).
Yes it should do, but it will depend more on the yarn and weave structure rather than the weight
A certain manufacturer offers a summer weight oxford shirt. I haven’t had the opportunity get my hands on one yet. Do you have any thoughts on this lighter cloth?
It’s hard to have any opinion without seeing it Tim, sorry
This is a great reference for cottons, thank you for posting.
I’m still looking for examples of a somewhat rarely used fine bedford cotton or warp pique (not sure of specific name). I’ve seen it as shirting and also in a bit heavier weave. It’s an old staple that was crisp, usually white but there were other colors. Do you know it?
No, sorry Delly. The only cloth I know that sounds familiar at all is Bedford cord