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.
The appeal
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.