There has been a lot of debate in recent years as to what should be called a Superfine cloth for suiting.
As wools got finer and finer, and more and more expensive, it looked increasingly silly to focus on a single attribute like fineness, when so many other things contribute to good cloth.
Those other things include the length of the fibre and its natural crimp, as well as broader points like sustainability. Today a lot of mills try to combine these in their top-end or Superfine cloths.
Shirting fabrics are much simpler. The fineness of the yarn drives everything else: achieving it means a certain cotton, a certain spinning method, and a certain construction.
There is no room for other attributes. It’s just too hard to make a Superfine shirting at all.
There are also disadvantages as well as advantages to a Superfine shirting. It feels wonderfully light and silky to wear, but is prone to wrinkling.
Superfine shirtings are precious, but probably not for everyone.
It’s just hard to do
A Superfine shirting is generally defined as one with a yarn count of 160 or higher. (Yarn count measures the fineness of the yarn – a count of how much you get, in terms of length, in a particular weight.)
Today Superfines range from 160/2 (the two indicating it is two-ply yarn) up to 330/4, and most round numbers in between.
But while the first Superfine on this definition has been around for a while – since ‘Zendaline’ from D&J Anderson (now Thomas Mason) in the late 1960s – it’s only in the past 15 years that the count has got that much higher.
That’s because a Superfine shirting is hard to make (certainly harder than equivalent suitings), and it’s only recently that mills have worked out the best way to do it.
First, you need a particular fibre – not just extra long staple, but specifically Giza 45 from Egypt. Which is only harvested every second or third year.
Second, you need to spin it with an extra high twist, to make it stable. Next, you need to weave it very densely: a lot of ends (yarns in the warp) and picks (yarns in the weft). A 300/2 shirting has 15,000 yarns across its 1.5 metre width.
You also need to set the warp in a particular way – more like a silk. And you can only weave slowly. A modern loom is fine, but it needs to be working at half speed. Otherwise the yarn will snap.
Even the shirtmaker’s job is tricky. Shirts in Superfine fabric need tight stitching in good yarn, and some sewing machines simply reject it as too fine.
So what do you get for all this effort? Well, a shirt that feels like no other. It’s extremely light, feels lovely and fresh when you put it on, and has a smooth, silky touch.
One friend likens it to the feeling of getting into a bed with new sheets.
The downside is that it wrinkles quickly, and is not easy to iron. That’s unavoidable: adding an anti-wrinkle treatment or finish would mask the Superfine’s feel, and therefore the point of having it.
As a result, it tends to be worn on special occasions, or by people that can easily take extra shirts when they travel (and probably don’t iron them themselves…).
I have a white spread-collar shirt from D’Avino in a Superfine shirting, with a covered placket and double cuffs. I wear it with black tie or on similar occasions. It feels special and the silky sheen is fitting. But it is a pain to iron.
A last, and lesser-known attribute of Superfine shirting is that it wears warm.
Because it is has to be woven densely (all those ends and picks) it isn’t very porous, and keeps warm air next to the skin.
So even though it feels very light and fine, it is arguably better in colder weather – even the Winter – than in the warmer months. Which of course is unlike Superfine suitings, which are more associated with lightweight summer suits.
I would describe Superfine shirtings as a matter of taste, and a luxury. As with many fine materials, it takes more looking after and is therefore a luxury in anyone’s wardrobe.
And it’s a question of taste, because not everyone will like the silky look and feel – and the points about care and ironing are then irrelevant.
Superfines are an indulgence, and only for those that really understand what they are getting.
Any quick search online will unearth thousands of blogs and websites discussing how bedding companies are “cheating” the threadcount system by using plying… namely take a medium weight thread that’ll produce a 250 count sheet, split that in 4 and ply it together and suddenly that same thread now makes a 1,000 count sheet and “worth” twice the price.
Is the shirting industry currently immune to similar temptations of manipulation?
At this end of the market – luxury and bespoke – certainly.
Whilst you mention Giza 45, you overlook Sea Island, which is as good, if not better.
It’s certainly lovely, but it’s not used to make superfines
Sorry to have to contradict you, but West Indian Sea Island Cotton is considered superior to Giza 45, less widely available, longer and stronger than Giza 45, and is considerably more expensive.
I don’t think you are contradicting me though? I’m not saying any of those things, merely that it’s not used for superfine fabrics?
Sorry again, but I don’t believe there is a “category” of shirting called superfine. It is more a technical description based on yarn count/tex etc.
Giza 45 is an example of a type of cotton which fits this technical measure. So is WISIC; it just happens that the latter is of significantly higher quality than the former, and this should be of interest to your readers.
Don’t worry, it’s nice to talk it through.
I defined a superfine in the article on that basis of yarn count – 160 or higher. That was based on conversation with a few mills. They also then said that only Giza 45 is used to make fabrics with that yarn count or higher.
If that’s wrong and you know ones that are, please do say. It would be great to have it clarified.
Great, thanks Simon.
I think you’ll find that WISIC is over that, possibly around 170. And as much as 10 times more expensive.
Thanks. I’ll check back with the those mills.
Presumably you mean it can be spun into that, given WISIC is a fibre not a yarn?
OK, points checked.
1 – Until three years ago, it was only possible to achieve 120/2 yarn counts with Sea Island. Way off Superfine. Today, it’s possible to achieve 170/2 but nothing higher. This just qualifies by our definition, but it’s still a long way off the counts in the 200s and up to 300 that are associated with Superfines today. They all use Giza 45.
2 – Sea Island is most noticeable for its long fibre, which is great for many things, particularly resistance. However, it doesn’t have the brightness or silkiness of Giza 45, which are the things most valued for a Superfine with that high yarn count.
Sea Island cotton is fantastic in many respects, including price, rarity and many other things. But not fineness of yarn, and therefore Superfines.
Whether that matters or not to you, of course, is entirely subjective.
@anonymous I agree with Simon – see my other comment below. Some time ago there has been discussions on a major US menswear forum about Giza 45 vs WISICA Sea Island cotton and the like. The conclusion is the same: WISICA is good, but for some (poorly understood) reasons is not used to make very high counts. Personally I also do not regard 140/2 (typical high count for Sea Island – as that’s the highest count of WISICA Sea Island cotton yarns offered by Spoerry; Albini spin their own so they have 170/2 WISICA Sea Island fabric) as superfine or high count. But this can, arguably be subjective: if one wears mainly 80/2 Oxford cotton, then 140/2 is probably perceived as superfine on the corresponding scale.
What Simon did not mention, but does not detract from the piece, is that sometimes cheaper varieties of cotton are also spun into very fine yarns e.g. Ne 240/2, 300/2. These cotton varieties include Xinjiang cotton and Supima. The resulting cloth is passable, but not great. I have shirts in these cotton and found Giza 45 cotton fabric superior (by a clear margin).
Do you or any readers remember that heavy Sea Island Cotton that was around in the ’70’s’80’s. I remember it as being really thick and there was just nothing I have ever worn that felt like that. I can’t remember what the label said but they came from Simpsons, not one of the Jermyn Street makers.
Modern Sea Island Cotton/quality just feels nothing like it, I would love to know if/where it is still obtainable.
In cotton shirting ply-ing is a good thing: quality dress shirts are made from 2-ply x 2-ply cotton, extreme quality is showcased by 330/4 (as mentioned by Simon). With multiple “ply” the fabric tends to get more robust and has a more solid feel.
There is a general saying that 200/2 “feels like” 100/1, 240/2 “feels like” 120/1 and so forth. The core idea being that when two yarns are twisted into one, you lose fineness but gain durability.
So in short: no, the shirting world is still immune from these inflations…
Superfine in Zephyr or Voile weave don’t feel as warm. And Oxford cotton in superfine Ne (e.g. super Oxford from Carlo Riva, Oxford DJA from Albini) are generally much cooler than more robust Oxford – a major drawback being neither is actually Oxford in look, to be honest. Simon’s cloth with Canclini looks way more authentic, hands down.
For cool superfine cotton one is pointed to Carlo Riva, DJA (Albini) and Atelier Romentino (Testa) where Voile or Zephyr at Ne 170/2 or 180/2 in Giza 45 are routinely offered.
It remains a mystery why WISICA is never woven to beyond 170/2, despite being the Queen of all cottons (whether in price or in fibre length). In the near future Giza 93 may be able to partly replace Giza 45 – but that’s uncertain.
Pretty much sums up what my Italian bespoke shirtmaker says. They do not recommend “superfines” for normal everyday shirts, only special occasions. Or as she asked me with a little smile: “How often do you visit the queen?”
Bit in the region of what my (also Italian) tailor said, when i asked why they generally only suggested UK made fabrics. The message was that they are generally much more durable, drape better, has a much nicer hand & you overall get much more “bang for the buck”. Especially the latter surprised me somewhat, but who am i to argue.
I’ve got a few older T&A shirts made from sea island cotton, probably dating back to the 90’s. They don’t get much wear these days but are extremely soft and silky to the hand and seemed to get better the more they were washed.
Presumably the Giza cloth mentioned in this post is really only available as bespoke shirting; if this is the case, will Mason be the best source?
Giza 45 is the cotton fibre – it’s spun and woven into lots of different fabrics, not necessarily all superfine.
If you want a superfine bespoke, then yes Albini/Thomas Mason will be best.
I was thinking about superfine the other day – thanks for the article. I have purchased a few RTW shirts (German) that were exceptional in the fineness of weave, feel and comfort. Simon are you aware of any current RTW manufacturers for superfine? On a different but related topic you have covered cloths such as Crispaire which are light, but more importantly, resistant to creasing. Are you aware of a heavier cloth that has the same crease free properties but is more suitable for winter wear?
I don’t I’m afraid. Perhaps Turnbull & Asser, but I don’t know the range well enough to say.
On winter trouser cloths, avoiding creasing is a lot easier here as you have more weight. So winter cloths don’t tend to use a high-twist wool. Cavalry twills and coverts are great, but most wool trouserings (apart from flannel) would be as good at avoiding wrinkles as Crispaire in the summer
Simon, why “apart from flannel”? I find my heavy Fox Bros. flannel trousers very crease-resistant (then again they’re quite heavy, something like 18oz)
Agree, my heavy vintage flannels hardly show any creases. At least that is true for the ones that are worsted. The woolens i have are still pretty good, but not on par with worsted flannel.
What about shirtings directly below the Superfines in fineness? (shall we call them the Fines?) I’m talking about the 100s, 120s, and 140s. I have a personal rule never to go above 100, as I believe thinner cloth does not last long, wrinkles easily, etc. I’m very interested in your take on the “Fines”, Simon.
As a reference point, I believe Alex Kabbaz deals exclusive in shirtings 120s and above.
We’ve dealt with this in the other posts in the series – have a look at the intro and the business shirts post. I’d never go above 120 myself
Regarding fine hand. What’s your thoughts on cotton/wool or cotton/tencel blends to increase softness? I realize they mske the shirt fabric more casual though.
Cotton/wool can be nice, but in a shirting it often makes it wrinkle quickly and have little drape. I’d prefer a brushed cotton
Not a fan of tencel really
T&A go up to 200 in RTW. Budd has some 170.
Simon, a mildly related question: have you had experience with Eton shirts? I read somewhere they develop their own shirtings that are supposedly very good. I just ordered a white one in a fabric called ‘Cambridge’. It was a present and old Cambs being my alma mater (sorry) I went for that without much thought. Thanks for any insight.
No, but I know they’re decent.
I wouldn’t set much store by their own fabric development unless it’s in unusual patterns or cloths though. The collections from the mills cover pretty much everything
I recently had 3 x T & A bespoke shirts made in super 200. They are softer and silkier than any others I have. The first couple of wears had my wife remarking how easily they creased. With more washes they seem to have improved and crease less. The big advantage is they are cool in summer and warm in winter. Luckily I have a cleaner who also irons them. She hasn’t complained yet!
Re. Eton shirts: my experience is the cut and cloth are good but found that wear on the collar was exceptionally fast – much faster than other RTW brands (unsure why…construction, fit, thiness of cloth?)
I would like to ask if the article could be amended to include specific mills and their superfine ranges ( names of ranges etc ). It might seem like product placement but it would be extremely helpful to know what is available.
Thanks George, and good point.
My hope is to add that in the future – though it will need regular updating
Question for you, please:
“A last, and lesser-known attribute of Superfine shirting is that it wears warm.
Because it is has to be woven densely (all those ends and picks) it isn’t very porous, and keeps warm air next to the skin. ”
Is this statement universally correct? The reason I ask is that — at least when it comes to expensive fabrics — many of those that use extremely fine yarn are lighter weight (when measured in GSM). So, for example, would you expect a fabric that is 90 GSM that uses very fine yarn to be warmer and less breathable than a fabric that uses high-quality (but not extremely fine) yarn weighing 100-110 GSM? I am curious about this. Many thanks.
Yes, that what I’m saying. There are other variables, of course, but the dense weave of a superfine will generally make it wear warmer than something else not woven as fine
Article wish: an expansion of the superfine fabrics article; specific examples, comparisons, images etc. discussing the superfine ranges of the six (or more) mills that actually produce these. Alumo, DJA, G&R, SIC TESS, Carlo Riva, Bonfanti. Perhaps a comparison at each number e.g. 170, 200, 240, 300+. I understand the limitations of these fabrics but nonetheless they are gorgeous and it’s time to get out whether it’s work or enjoyment looking great and crisp is more important than ever. And I would imagine having a most beautiful shirt would be part of that. Just a suggestion.
Thanks Jacob, noted!