The guide to winter shirt fabrics
I’m a relatively new convert to winter shirts.
Although I’ve had brushed cottons in the past (such as my grey made by Simone Abbarchi, above) it’s only this season that I’ve started wearing heavier flannels and cords.
Perhaps it’s because I’m wearing more casual tailoring - usually without a tie - and a shirt with texture adds some useful interest. That makes patterns easier too, and brushed cottons often come in herringbone patterns or checks.
Or it might just be the steady drip of fashion, seeping into the unconscious. Flannel shirts seem to be everywhere at the moment - the red/black buffalo check is almost becoming ubiquitous.
In this piece, the latest in our Guide to Shirt Fabrics, I thought I would run through the types of winter shirtings, and their relative advantages and disadvantages.
I’ll give my personal experiences along the way, and do chip in, as always.
In general, the property you expect from a specifically winter shirt is a warm handle - a smooth, perhaps cashmere-like feeling.
This can be achieved in different ways.
The most obvious is adding different fibres - putting cashmere, wool, or even both wool and silk into the yarn alongside cotton.
Historically, the most common mix was wool/cotton (old Viyella) but as cashmere has become more accessible, it has become a common alternative.
Personally, I’ve tried these cashmere mixes and find them a little more likely to pill, and they certainly need more care than the pure cottons - washing at 30 degrees at the most.
I tend to prefer brushed cottons for those reasons.
Brushed cottons divide into two types, by weight and perhaps by use.
Lighter versions (perhaps around 120g-130g) use finer yarns, are emerised rather than brushed, and have what’s called a ‘peached’ effect.
These, like my grey shown at the top, are easy to wear under all jackets and can be OK with a tie too.
The heavier and softer the material gets (closer to 180g-200g), the less advisable it is to wear a tie and the harder to wear under a jacket. These heavier cottons tend to be brushed, not emerised.
The shirts I’ve been wearing of recently are in this heavier category, and wouldn’t suit a tie but are OK under any Autumn or Winter jacket.
They’re not heavy enough to be called flannels although, rather like heavy denims, I do like the look on others of a flannel shirt under a winter jacket - presuming the jacket is roomy enough to accommodate it happily.
(Emerisation, by the way, involves passing the fabric over a series of emery-covered cylinders to produce that suede-like fabric. With brushing, metal brushes are used to raise fine fibres from the yarn.)
The last way to achieve that warm, wintery handle is through a velvet weave - which includes corduroy.
Fine cord (perhaps 110g-130g) can be very attractive as a winter fabric. It’s unusual, yet subtle, definitely casual yet quite classic.
The big disadvantage is its friction, or stickiness. This makes it virtually impossible to wear under a sweater, and sometimes awkward under a jacket.
Most mills would say it’s only for wear on its own, at least in the thicker wales (more like 300g), but that makes it quite limited as a cold-weather fabric. Personally, I find it’s OK under a fully lined jacket. It just needs the occasional adjustment.
I have a cream and a mushroom-coloured cord shirt, and particularly recommend the former. Cream seems particularly nice in fabrics with greater texture.
(Do also note that cord needs similar care with washing as cashmere blends.)
Another point on weaves in winter shirts is that they will usually be twills - because a twill is denser and therefore heavier than other weave structures.
(If you don’t know what a weave structure is - and want to know - read the second chapter in this series, here.)
A twill allows the designer to build rich fabrics, which still have a pleasant handle. And it’s versatile. The structure can be translated in a thousand ways, from from 2/1 to 2/2 to 4/4, and in broken twills, i.e. herringbone.
Finally, winter shirtings also tend towards more patterns and richer, darker colours.
You’re more likely to see tartans, irregular checks and tattersalls in winter, as well as melanges that add the impression of texture.
And colours include dark - sometimes called ‘burnt’ - greens, creams, mid- to light grey, and all shades of brown/beige.
My advice on these stronger colours is to always think carefully about what jackets and trousers they will be worn with. Grey shirts are quite limiting if you wear a lot of grey trousers, and dark colours often need similar dark or rich jackets alongside them.
If in doubt, start with something simple and relatively pale, like cream.