The aim of a shirt bought for summer might seem easy: to stay cool. But there are several variations here, and crossovers with styles and other functionality.
This, then, is our substantive yet focused guide to buying a shirt fabric for the warmer months.
As ever, it is not aimed at recommending specific cloths, because the mills don’t vary that much in the things discussed here – fibres, weaves and finishes.
Rather, it should enable you to know whether you want a linen, a muslin or a zephyr, and why. Then you can pick what weight and colour you want.
So, how do you make a cool shirting fabric? Well generally you want it to be breathable – that’s the priority, rather than being lightweight.
Superfine fabrics, for example, are often lightweight. But they are also densely woven, which makes them not very breathable and so not great in warm weather. (See our Superfines article here.)
That breathability will come from three things: the fibre, the yarn or the weave.
First, the fibre. Most shirtings are cotton, and this is pretty breathable and cool – certainly more than fibres like wools, cashmere or synthetics.
However, linen is better. Linen is such a strong fibre that it can be woven quite loosely, making it breathable. It is also cool to the touch, because the fibre is a good conductor. (Metal feels cool for the same reason.)
Linen wrinkles of course. For some, that’s part of the charm, but it might also make it too casual for smarter shirts.
In that situation it’s worth turning to linen/cotton mixes, which balance the sharpness of cotton and the breathability of linen.
In fact, I’d recommend linen/cotton through most of the year, because it has that breathability (but not too much) and because it looks more casual than cotton (but not too much).
And while you do often need a cooler shirt in the summer, in the winter it’s easy to just wear knitwear or heavier tailoring over the top.
Next, the weave. In general here you want a more open, less dense weave.
So in a basic cotton, a plain weave (or broadcloth) is more open than a twill, and will breathe better.
Then there are more specialist warm-weather weaves, such as zephyr. Zephyr has a square weave construction, with an almost equal number of threads per inch in warp and weft, which makes it very breathable.
Specialist cotton yarns can also make a difference. So voile, for example, uses a high-twist yarn. This gives the yarn extra strength (like linen) and enables it to be woven more openly.
Muslin, on the other hand, uses a normal yarn but a very lightweight one. This makes it softer, but also quite liable to wrinkle, and therefore not as smart. Both voile and muslin are more commonly used in women’s clothing.
The biggest problem with some of these cotton weaves and yarns is that they can become sheer, and transparent. Not good for a formal shirt, for those with a lot of dark body hair, or perhaps from a style point of view.
The best way to mitigate this is to only use them in darker colours. This is the same for lightweight pique cottons used for polo shirts, and some jerseys (though jersey isn’t usually that breathable – it’s more used for stretch and comfort).
However, dark shirts are also quite limiting in terms of style, which is a big reason linen and linen/cotton continue to be so popular.
Two other options to throw in are seersucker, and chambray.
Seersucker is more usually seen in tailoring, but its waffley weave does make it light and breathable. The only disadvantage is style: not everyone wants a bubbly-looking shirt.
Chambray, meanwhile, isn’t necessarily light and breathable, but it can be, and it’s a good summer alternative for those that wear a lot of denim the rest of the year.
Finally, finishing on shirts can help in hot weather, either in terms of reflecting UV rays or in ‘thermoregulation’.
Both are treatments that are done on the cottons – and something we covered more extensively in our article on performance fabrics. Linens are also available with anti-wrinkle treatments.
These options should not be simply dismissed, as they have greatly increased in quality over the years and often now have the same feel and breathability as regular cottons.
But still, personally I’d use fibre or weave to remain cool, unless you particularly dislike wrinkling (an issue with anything that has any linen in it) and any suggestion of transparency.
Treatments can also help deal with odour, but these suggested linens and cottons are so breathable that odour isn’t usually more of a problem in the summer than the winter.
A bigger issue is longevity: being lighter and more open, a lot of these fabrics are more delicate.
But again, that’s an area where linen comes into its own. Being such a strong fibre, it should last better than almost any cotton, and doesn’t pill.
Linen also takes colour well, particularly natural and earthy colours – which can be an aim with summer shirts.
Overall, I’d say cotton/linen is the best general option for a versatile summer shirt, but it’s worth having some shirts in other fibres for particular situations.
Linen is beautiful when freshly ironed, and perhaps best for holiday and other casual occasions. A weave like Giro Inglese is amazingly lightweight and suited to those that really suffer from the heat, or humidity. And zephyr can be both breathable and unusual.
Wrong post but I see the Armoury are stealing your terminology with “How great things age”…
Small things but I noticed!
You mention Giro Inglese at the end, without discussing it earlier. Or is it just another name for voile?
No, slightly different – I’d treat it in the same way in a summer shirt though
Are there any plans for a Permanent Style linen shirt, as with the denim / oxford examples?
No, not currently. The denims and oxfords are unique and fill a very particular gap in the market. I haven’t seen a similar lack in linens yet – always open to suggestions though
Good Linen / Chambray mix would be nice (RTW) and a good linen cotton Button down (without pocket)
Although I don’t see a ‘PS’ niche for summer shirting (I think the usual suspects cover it well and A&S in particular have a great selection of linens) , I do think there is a great Autumn/Winter opportunity for ‘PS’ to develop the perfect grey flannel shirt in absolutely the correct shade of grey.
I bought exactly this specimen many years ago from ‘Dunhill’ and found it indispensable. Great with jeans, cords, sweaters and jackets of all descriptions. A truly versatile piece that is now at the end of its tether and which I’m finding impossible to replace.
Go to it ‘PS’ no self respecting flaneur should be without the grey flannel!
Jason is right. The perfect grey flannel shirt would make for a great ‘PS’ project.
Cut in the same style as your ‘Everyday Denim’ it would be a killer and as for the correct shade of grey, may I suggest the same as the most recent ‘Friday Polo’. That would be perfect.
Flannel for the flaneurs seems to be the cri de coeur!
Congratulations on your fabulous site – my ‘PS’ trench continues to be one of the most admired pieces in my wardrobe.
Is zephyr used for linens and cotton/linen mixes as well as cottons?
What is it that gives some linen fabrics that slubby texture (and actually I notice it on the muslin image as well)? Is it the fibre or weave or …?
Not sure on zephyr, I’ll check
Slubbiness on linen is down to the fibre mostly. Shorter and coarser fibres product more slubs
Informative piece. I had always thought that as long as the fabric was lightweight – you were good for the hotter weather. Not so it seems. This article nicely explained the factors that one should consider for warmer weather shirting.
This expands things for me.
I’m pleased that point about weight came across. Thanks Jeff
Could you describe what you are wearing in the first picture in this post? looks great
All details here.
Any particular recommendations on cotton/linen fabric bunches?
I’m a fan. I find the stiffness of the linen helps keep the collar standing even when the collar is open.
Not really Alec – the usual suspects all do good ones: Thomas Mason, Alumo, Canclini etc.
Dont pick too much on mill
What would you say is the right linen/cotton mix so the shirts are appropriate for office wear? I find the end result is very different depending on the mix.
To be honest I hadn’t noticed so much of a difference. I’m struggling now to remember what they’ve been. What is the range of yours?
Any experience of cellulare?
Personally I never really think of linen as exceptionally wrinkly. I mean, a linen shirt will wrinkle, but so too does a cotton one, unless in a heftier weight, which is less likely in the summer.
A shirt made with good quality 100% linen will still look pretty smart, along with whatever wrinkles it has, in all but the most formal environments, I’d think.
I know there is so little of it and it is almost impossible to buy but it would be fascinating to have an article on sea slik
I like the tobacco safari shirt, did you purchase it ready-made or made bespoke? If bespoke, may I know the fabric manufacturer and swatch number.
Ready made, from The Armoury
Never considered muslin to be a shirting fabric. It’s a cheap option most frequently used to set a pattern.
I find breathability trumps all other factors, even the oft-touted cotton vs linen debate. A thin, tightly woven broadcloth is murder in heat and humidity. What I do with any fabric to test its breathability is cover my mouth with it, leaving one hand behind the fabric. Then I gently exhale, like fogging a mirror. If I feel my breath bouncing back, it’s no good for summer. Rather, if my breath goes through as if nothing’s impeding, that’s a shirt I can wear in the summer.
Do you see chambray as primarily a spring/summer material, or also suitable for fall/winter?
It varies a lot. Chambray is really defined by colour, not yarn or weave
What do you think about Emma Willis shirts Simon?
I have had a couple made in the past, and they were well done. A good fit and good quality.
I would only put them in the same bracket as most English shirtmakers, in being more suited to more formal shirts and those worn with a tie.
do you have any experience with Acorn Fabrics from the UK and would recommend them?
Their Barbados (Linen & bamboo 50/50) and Cambridge (3ply open weave cotton) fabrics seem to be ideal for summer shirts.
Not for a long time Thomas, no. I can’t really pass comment. Sorry.
I find linen fairly unforgiving when it comes to sizing. Maybe it’s something to do with the fineness of the fabric, or perhaps its lack of stretch, but as I’m in the middle of nowhere and have to order my clothes online linen shirting is always a crap shoot. I’ve had at least 5 shirts that were completely unwearable because they either gaped at the buttons in the chest or billowed like a circus tent, and the difference between the two can be little more than a fraction of an inch. It’s infuriating (and expensive).
Fortunately my father-in-law isn’t as fussy about fit as I am, so he gets my rejects. He’s the best dressed nomad on the Mongolian steppe 🙂
Very commendable post. thanks for sharing. keep up the good work
Do you have any experience with merino shirts?
I’ve had merino flannel shirts in the winter, yes. Also experimenting with a new Reda fine merino for shirting, though a little worried it looks quite slick
Actually those are the ones I was wondering about. Naturally wrinkle free and odor resistant. And in thin material that can be worn outside winter time. But cannot be made in white color.
Yes. In person they have a bit of a sheen too. As you’d expect fine wool to have
I was thinking that it might be a good travel option but given the sheen probably not suitable for business wear 🙁
Anyhow, will probably order one just to try.
E.g., Proper Cloth offers MTM shirts with cloth by Reda. Mostly in darker colors (like slate blue or navy blue), however.
Any guidance on fabric weight for summer? I need a shirting fabric to accompany a more formal suit during the height of summer in Southern Europe. Would poplin be my best choice? I could go with a linen/cotton mix but my concern is it will look too casual with a fresco fabric suit.
If you want formal, then yes poplin is a good solid option – as light as possible. There are several other formal options, but they are quite personal as to whether you like them or not – voile etc. Have you tried those?
Personally I’d still say wear cotton/linen though. Unless it is the most formal of occasions, no one will notice or think it is too casual. Particularly if the colour, the tie etc are all quite formal
Morning. It’s for a wedding, so quite formal. The suit will be an unlined navy fresco suit. Would you still recommend a linen(60)/cotton(40) mix? I’ve seen a royal oxford at 160g and 120/2. Do you think this would be too warm? Any weight range that I should concentrate on?
Thanks in advance.
In white, yes I think that would still be fine. But if you’d worry about it, go for the lightest poplin – similar to the oxford or lighter
Would it ever be possible to list the stockists/manufacturers/colours of the material pictured in your articles. I’m primarily thinking of shirting here, and I know you do it occasionally, but its a great source of inspiration.
Sure – they’re often taken from a single maker, or showing ones from old posts, so it’s not too hard. Just let me know which you want info on?
Its actually the fabrics in the header image to summer shirt fabrics
These are from Thomas Mason, I believe it’s muslin. That should be enough to find them.
I was wondering if I could ask some advice. I read your guidance about summer shirt fabrics and also your post about the Budd safari jacket. I have also used Luca Avitabile a bit in the past. I’m interested in getting some ‘safari’ shirts made with pockets on the chest. Ideally I would like them made of airtex/aertex. I think that pique might be too stretchy and too delicate, as I may wish to use the pockets and may wear the shirts in jungle etc. Would Luca be able to source this fabric? If not, which alternative fabric would you use. And who else might you use?
I wouldn’t personally use Luca, because I haven’t seen any safari jackets that he has made and I think the style is absolutely crucial here. I would only commission one when I’ve had the chance to see and try one. I would suggest seeing the ones 100 Hands have made though, and possibly D’Avino, as well as Budd.
I’m afraid I don’t know on the cloth though – it’s not something I’ve ever tried to search out.
What do you think about bamboo both as a shorting fabric but also for tailoring (usually blended with something else)?
I haven’t tried it as either I’m afraid (I assume you mean shirting…). But I’ve seen some suits made in bamboo cloth, and while it clearly has some nice properties around breathability and lightness, it also seems to have a sheen, a little like silk, which I didn’t like that much.
Do you think cotton/linen is too casual for work?
No I don’t think so. It’s a subtle difference from normal cotton – nowhere as noticeable as full linen, for example
Specifically, in regards to linen shirting, is there a specific fabric weight range (or thread count) that you ought to stick to?
Not particularly. I find the real choice is mostly between lighter but perhaps more transparent Italian fabrics (eg Albini), and slightly heavier but less transparent Irish ones (eg Spence Bryson). I prefer the Irish, but then I’m not in a tropical country.
Thanks so much!
Fresco has a very “dry” (maybe a bit rough) but in my opinion “summery” feel to it. Is there something equivalent to that in shirt fabrics?
You do get it sometimes, yes. For example when twisted yarns are used – the same technique as fresco – or with coarser, handspun yarn.
Unfortunately there aren’t as many clear categories with shirting so it’s hard to say exactly what you want there. But look in the summer books from mills that are a bit more creative, like Canclini
I am thinking of commissioning some linen shirts and my tailor suggested me to get a couple of shirts which would drape mid crotch so that it could be worn untucked to give it a cool summery vibe.
Would linen shirts untucked with chinos and nice suede loafers qualify as elegant?
If In nice materials and colours I think they could, yes, although it’s a spectrum rather than a binary thing – you’re more elegant than a T-shirt and shorts, less so than if it was tucked in probably
When you say that ‘linen shirt could be quite informal for office because of its wrinkling and therefore not very smart’, then do you suggest the same for linen trousers?
I have never really owned any linen trousers and therefore wanted to understand if it could be good alternative to chinos and tropical wool?
They can be a nice alternative, yes. The wrinkling will make them less smart than tropical wool, but they will still usually be smarter than chinos. Go for heavier, Irish linen to be smarter.
Excellent series on shirt cloths! In terms of a summer cloth, what would you recommend for something more formal to wear under a suit in the Tuscan heat? I’ve been offered several white broadcloth / poplin fabrics that range from 140, 120 to 100, as well as an 80 pinpoint oxford. The maker — Mercer & Sons recommends the 100 broadcloth (which you’ve mentioned used to be the ‘gold standard’) as it will crease less and hold better shape in the heat. Am I right in thinking a 100 will also breath better than a 140?
Yes you are Cedric, though all of them would be quite warm. Could I suggest a linen/cotton blend? They’re great – look more like a fine cotton, but really cool. Under a suit it would be great at a wedding
Thanks, and absolutely! I have a couple of linen / cotton blend shirts, but all casual and quite textured. The ones you illustrate in this article look good — can you suggest any cloth mills, or makers?
The mills don’t really vary that much – any European one, like Thomas Mason, Canclini, Alumo etc will be good. The variation will be more in the fineness of the cotton and the proportions of cotton/linen.
On makers, you mean shirtmakers Cedric? Who do you usually use?
Thanks again Simon! Most of my shirts are from Jake’s, Mercer & Sons and Drake’s. Jake’s has made me a few with your Oxford cloths, as well as Testa 1919 — all of which I’m very happy with. Mercer only work with their range of cloths. I’ve been meaning to try Drake’s MTO. Though for this particular shirt, I was thinking of sourcing the cloth and working with Jake.
For a wedding, it might be worth trying something a bit smarter, presuming that’s still your style. Maybe with a bit more structure in the collar, maybe a bit sharper. Those are all much more relaxed and Ivy-like – which I know is your normal style
Good point, and definitely open to something smarter for this occasion.
Nice. I’d try someone like Simone Abbarchi then, who is here in a couple of weeks. Or if you want someone based here, Budd or someone like that. Though they may have a minimum for a first order
Hi Simon, could I ask if you prefer a button-down collar for the linen or cotton/linen shirts?
I like both, but I go for slightly more spread collars rather than button downs with linen.