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