Performance fabrics are very in. Every retailer seems to be offering travel shirts that resist wrinkling, staining or soaking.
Fans of classic clothing are usually sceptical about such fabrics.
This is largely because they can seem like a short cut. When everyone buys lightweight suits, spends little time looking after them, and dry cleans continuously, of course the performance is poor. What they need is a proper suit or shirt, and better maintenance.
However, for someone that travels frequently, or is very time poor, performance treatments might be the only option. And they have improved hugely in recent years (largely driven by that demand).
Here, then, is a summary of the ways a shirting fabric can be given extra performance, their pluses and minuses, and advice on picking between them.
How do you add performance?
Artificial performance is usually added to a shirt fabric by putting it in a chemical mixture that coats it. This used to be synthetic, but with high-end shirts is now usually ammonia-based (both natural and sustainable).
The treatment can make the fabric better at reflecting UV rays, at regulating temperature, at avoiding odour, at reducing wrinkles, at deflecting water and so on.
With water-repellency, for example, the mixture coats the cotton yarn and stops it absorbing liquid. When the liquid can’t soak in, it just beads and runs off the surface.
Some treatments like UV protection have been used on suits and technical clothing for a while, but are very new on shirts. Those around odour and temperature are also becoming popular for guys cycling to work.
One treatment I find interesting is adding natural stretch.
The same liquids can be used to take a larger-than-normal piece of cloth, and shrink it down. When it has been enlarged a little again, the resulting fabric has natural stretch to it – without using lycra or other synthetics.
Lycra or polyester often have the disadvantage (in suitings as well as shirtings) of reducing breathability and retaining odours.
But today they’re also avoided because they don’t biodegrade. Fibres like tensel are used in fabric ranges for the same reason – they’re natural materials that are 100% recyclable.
What are the downsides?
The most obvious disadvantage is that these treatments can alter the feel of the shirt: not as soft a cotton, not as nice a drape.
This varies considerably between treatments and between qualities. You can usually feel the difference with a water-repellent treatment, for example, but not with an odour-resistant one.
Older, cheaper treatments are often more damaging to the feel of the cotton. Newer, more expensive ones are better.
And, the more extreme the effect, the more it changes the feel of the shirt. For example, anti-wrinkle treatments don’t change the feel much, but non-iron ones – which promise to have no wrinkles at all – are more extreme and do change it.
That’s why these non-iron treatments tend to only be used on cheaper fabrics, and therefore cheaper shirts.
The Journey range from Thomas Mason is a good example of a high-quality treatment, retaining the feel of the cotton but being very anti-wrinkle.
Lastly, the other disadvantage to these treatments is they don’t last forever. Good ones (like Journey) guarantee it will last for 40 washes, though it may well last for more. Cheaper ones, again, will fade quicker.
Performance for all?
If a treatment like odour-repellency doesn’t change the nature of the fabric, why not do it on all shirtings?
Well, first of all it adds to the cost. Not a lot (maybe 10%) but if everyone doesn’t wants those performance points, manufacturers don’t want to force them to pay for it.
Second, it’s not possible on all fabrics. Linen, for example, doesn’t take the treatments in the same way cotton does. Neither do superfines – which is why you rarely see such treatments on Super 140s cottons or finer.
And with open-weave fabrics it doesn’t work because the fabric isn’t dense enough for the treatment to control the air or water flow.
Of course, it should be said that the various different fibres and weaves used in normal shirts also have performance aspects.
A voile shirting needs less ironing because of its extra-twisted yarn. Linen shirts breathe better because the fibre’s strength means it can be woven quite openly.
And dense weaves like oxfords or twills wrinkle less and need less ironing too.
All these performance aspects are described in our previous piece in this series, The Guide to Weaves and Designs.
Fortunately, assessing treatments is a lot easier than understanding those weaves.
Just feel the cotton in your fingers, to see whether the cotton feels any different. Then consider whether you’re happy to have that feeling, or pay that price, in return for the added performance.
Simon, the non irons use Formaldehyde which is a carcinogen – this is very dangerous not only to the environment but to ones skin. AVOID at all costs. Check the net on this…
Some do Peter, but not the high-end mills we talk about – they stopped using if a while ago
Softness matters but so does the drape. I am reluctant to use Travelers as I fear the fabric will not flow in the same way when I move.
Since I travel a lot I have succumbed to non-iron shirts, usually poplin, and I find no difference in how they feel on the skin. I’m sold. However the performance treatment that does bother me is with regard to chinos. It is now almost impossible to buy them without “stretch” – usually presented on the label as “2% elastane”. I’m not sure what this even means, and I’d be interested if you had the detail on how exactly synthetic stretch material is incorporated. I can’t get away from the feeling that this stretchy component will degrade faster – or at least differently – from the cotton and thus longevity may be compromised. More than that, I dislike the clingy feel that’s sold as being more comfortable. I prefer the cotton to separate from my skin, not adhere to it.
Of course one could just use an old fashioned iron and ironing board, usually found in the hotel room, to do a quick touch up on the shirt or shirts which works very well.
Well yes (obviously!) but what about times you don’t have access to an iron? E.g. Going straight to a meeting from the airport? Or straight to a dinner from the office?
I’m usually happy with not re-ironing and just being wrinkled in those situations
I’m sure there’s a market for such fabrics, otherwise you wouldn’t have written about them, Simon. I’m just not in it. I don’t think I’ll ever get past the association in my mind of cheap, uncomfortable, and flimsy cotton & polyester shirts and non-iron treatments. But it’s good to learn that the technology has improved, even if I’ll never use it.
I could have written this. These fabris are not for me either. I’d rather go wrinkled than eerily ironed….
Going along the health lines of the previous comment, the stain-resistant and water-resistant treatments often use fluorocarbons, which are extremely harmful to the environment and health and very persistent, among the longest-lasting pollutants.
It is always best to go natural.
The high-end treatments no longer no, they are all natural. Clearly this is something I should have included more on in the piece.
Thanks for the clarification. This is good to know. I am still a purist, though, in preferring no special finishing or treatments.
Simon, what is your personal take on such fabrics? Do you use any?
I don’t personally, no, but having seen a few recently at Milano Unica, I have a higher opinion of them. They have changed a lot at the top of the market.
I would use them if I was particularly concerned about wrinkling or one of the other benefits
There’s something like the anti-GMO sentiment among those who rail at modern synthetics or treatments: antagonism without evidence. I’ve seen no evidence of categorical durability differences between synthetic/treated fabrics and natural ones. In my experience, stretch fabrics are less prone to tearing and can last longer. The breathability differences are in my experience trivial, especially if one regularly wears a jacket, and synthetics wick sweat much more readily than cotton. Synthetics hang onto odor-causing microbes more than cotton, but the difference is only observable in days-old gym clothes and perhaps for profuse sweaters; it’s also nothing a good wash can’t solve. Yes, some treated and synthetics fabrics definitely feel rough and stiff, and some drape poorly, but not all do. These are flaws easily identified in the purchasing process. Drape also becomes obsolete after a few hours sitting at your desk putting that nice deep crease in the front of your shirt.
As a comment above evinces, the prejudice against synthetics and treatments mostly stem from associations with obsolete fabrics and non-apparel applications of those materials. Sure, one can argue that even imagined discomforts figure into wardrobe-building. His I regard in the same way as I do most anti-GMO arguments.
How would the water repellent finish affect sweating? Would the cloth still become damp?
Would the sweat just bead and drop to your waistband?
Good question Matt, I’ll ask
Thank you. I’m also curious whether this treatment can be applied to existing, untreated shirts.
Most of these can’t, no. Only the cheaper ones tend to be possible to do on a finished shirt
Very interesting article. Probably like most people here, I prefer natural untreated fabrics. But I can also see the benefit of a treated fabric, particularly for shirts, which do crease easily when travelling etc. What prevents me from using any is the total lack of transparency about the processes and chemicals applied. How to tell, for example, which use formaldehyde, as this is never disclosed and the industry simply hides behind marketing platitudes (a ‘special treatment’ etc)? If there is a possibility of a further article, shedding some light on this and making some recommendations for travel etc, I think at least some of your readers would find this useful.
Thanks Simon, and good point.
As a general rule of thumb, the fabrics from the European mills (Albini, Canclini, Alumo etc) will always be the best for this and use more natural treatments. But that’s not an exact guide obviously.
Simon’s (Miles) points are equally without scientific detail as those he criticises. There are three issues of environmental pollution: the initial process, the washing of the garment’s chemicals into the water system (consider, as a percentage that many garments have a finish, multiply by the millions of washes done in the UK each week), lastly that the garment sheds small amounts of fibre each wash, if partly synthetic, it has a major impact (as recent studies have shown). https://amp.theguardian.com/environment/2016/jun/20/microfibers-plastic-pollution-oceans-patagonia-synthetic-clothes-microbeads
But none of either the cloth nor the finish is synthetic? So nothing is being washed out
It’s not very accurate or helpful to compare a 100% cotton material finished with an organic product, to an outerwear company whose clothes are almost entirely synthetic
Interesting topic and one I hadn’t given much thought to previously as, like many readers, I find it hard to shake the cheap associations of many non-iron shirts (and perhaps a touch of the naturalistic fallacy too).
That said, would love to know which bunches you would recommend trying (aside from the TM Journey range). Also, you said in one of the comments that you hadn’t used any of them personally. What’s your reason for this? Lack of need, or something else? Do you think you will commission something in the future?
Nice comment and good questions as usual, BNYC.
I don’t know any other bunches well other than Journey, but I will add more if I learn more about them.
I haven’t used any personally just because I don’t have any of the problems they fix, so lack of need.
I don’t have a problem with sweat/odour, don’t have a problem with wrinkled shirts when travelling (or am less fussy about it) and so on.
As ever, though, I find it interesting exploring an area like this, providing information and seeing with existing prejudices (including my own) still have any foundation
Simon, you have misunderstood the comment: the issue is about pollution of water. Only the last (referenced) is about synthetic cloth. The first two are about the general use of chemical additives (which can be organic or non-organic) to cloth and subsequent washing into the environment. It is important to note that an organic chemical is defined by it’s carbon base not because it is eco-friendly. Moreover there is plenty of evidence that such chemicals cause pollution and harm to life. Simple cotton is made more expensive through these additions yet may only exist on the garment for a limited time. You mention ammonia which, though widespread in use, can be harmful as an air-borne pollutant but, commonly, is a more serious threat to aquatic marine life. http://www.apis.ac.uk/overview/pollutants/overview_NH3.htm
Your article, though welcome, is very general, does not give any real detail to the chemicals used, the processes involved, nor the wider environmental implications. I accept that at the low production, elite level, the process may be as clean as possible but at a mass production level (wherein cloth is now increasingly treated for anti-deo, anti-wrinkle properties) pollution does occur. Transparency about chemical processes, environmental pollution and fighting the normalisation of unneeded treatments is therefore at issue.
Thank you, and good points. Unfortunately there isn’t really space here to go into that kind of detail. And you’re right, at this high end of the market there is less harm and a huge amount of work going on by the makers to reduce this impact – Italian mills are the best in the world for reusing water and using green energy for power, for instance
Much thanks for working on this primer, Simon. ’twas a good read.
Of all the treatments available for fabrics, the one that will always make me chuckle – and which I’ll never understand the necessity of – is artificial stretch.
If you’re buying clothes or having them made, and you’re terribly concerned about not making them unflatteringly tight when you so much as change your posture, why not just pick a cut with a wee bit of fullness instead of a form-fitting one? Give our craftsmen and manufacturers a bit of credit; they’re pros who likely know how to create a garment that won’t restrict you while still being svelte enough for your tastes.
Personally I really don’t mind having slightly wrinkled shirts, though I rarely travel with menswear so it never gets all that bad. In the case of linen, I quite like the rumpled and typical look of it. Unfortunately not everyone appreciates this.