[This is part of a series that aims to produce a comprehensive guide to shirt fabrics, from the simplest points to the most technical. So far we have introduced the basics of selecting shirt fabric, and gone into depth on weaves and designs. Here, we lay out the best choices for one category - the business shirt]
Even with increasingly dressed-down work environments, most bespoke shirts are made for professional, business use.
They need to look smart therefore: crisp and sharp, and smooth without being shiny.
They will generally be in muted tones of white, blue and (occasionally) pink. Any pattern will be small and discreet.
Given they are intended for frequent use, the fabric also needs to be hard wearing. Something that can be worn once or twice a week for months without fraying, and perhaps even treated to reduce ironing.
So which fabrics meet all these criteria?
The default weave for a business shirt is usually poplin (above). It’s crisp and smart, and similar plain weaves like Zephir are very lightweight and breathable.
A twill will wrinkle less, however. It’s heavier than poplin, but if creasing is an issue, then it might be preferable.
Oxford fabrics are popular in the US, but in general are less professional. At the very least, the oxford should be smooth and fine - or a smarter variation on the oxford, such as pinpoint.
The least suitable fabrics are those with the most texture, such as linen or brushed cotton.
As with suits, there is a tendency for certain, flashier businessmen to pick very fine shirt fabrics. They are rarer, more expensive, and something to talk about.
But while fabrics with such high yarn counts (140 to 300+) feel silky and nice against the skin, they do tend to crease faster.
A more normal shirting, say 2/100, will still look good, wrinkle less, and last longer. Certain English shirt makers used to refer to 100-count as the gold standard for shirts: a solid, safe investment.
If you want something a touch silkier, perhaps opt for 2/120; if a touch more hard-wearing, 2/80. It depends on the priorities.
And of course a twill in either will wrinkle less than poplin.
(The ‘2' in 2/80, by the way, refers to the yarn being two fold or two ply, and is pretty standard on quality shirts.)
Colours and patterns
While plain-white and plain-blue shirts will always be most popular for business, how much colour and pattern is appropriate will be down to the particular office.
Plains and hairline stripes will be largely anonymous. Bolder patterns, such as a butcher’s stripe, introduce a little more character, as do colours like pink and yellow.
Checks are generally more casual than stripes. But again, depending on the office, a pink gingham check (above) might be perfectly acceptable.
As with oxford cloths in the US, it’s also worth remembering that part of this is cultural.
The British have a particular tradition for bold shirts, originating from the limitations of being only able to wear a club or regimental tie, and therefore experimenting with the fabric underneath. Even today, a pink shirt tends to be more acceptable in the UK than in the US.
As mentioned, fabrics with lower yarn counts, and in weaves like twill, will always be harder wearing and easier to iron.
Beyond these options, shirts can also be treated with particular finishes.
Some 'non-iron' shirts are simply mixes of cotton and polyester. These should generally be avoided, as they tend to feel harder, are not as breathable, and hang onto odours.
Good treatments will coat a fabric, stopping the fibres absorbing water when they're being washed (Thomas Mason's 'Journey' is a good example).
This keeps the shirt fairly sleek, with some twills being OK with no ironing at all, and poplins requiring just a quick press.
The only downsides are that the fabric can feel a little dry (though that is greatly reduced in newer versions) and the treatment will eventually wash out. This tends to only be after 40 washes at a minimum, however.