The proliferation of made-to-measure suiting programs in recent years has given men access to custom tailoring once reserved for a select few. Men who opt for made-to-measure navigate the range of customizable options available, but often get waylaid at the most crucial step: selecting a fabric. But that’s no surprise. There is a world of fabric options available, and for the uninitiated, they can all seem very similar. While a proficient tailor will guide a customer through available options, it’s worth educating yourself if you’re in the market for a custom suit.
Tailors will have books of fabric swatches from different mills. Though the wools for suiting fabrics are sourced around the world, the majority of respected mills are located in the UK and in Italy. Though cheaper suits utilize synthetic materials like polyester, most high-end tailors only make suits from natural fiber fabrics. There are a few questions you should ask yourself before deciding on a fabric: When will you be wearing the suit? What’s the occasion? How much will you be wearing the suit? Have you considered a texture or pattern? What about a weight of fabric?
One aspect to consider is the time of year you’ll wear the suit. “There’s something nice about having a seasonal wardrobe,” said Jake Mueser, owner of high-end suiting shop J.Mueser Bespoke in Greenwich Village. “And you don’t need to have 100 suits to have a seasonal wardrobe, but you need to have more than a few.” Mueser advocates for linen-blends in the summer and heavier tweeds in winter. It allows for a wardrobe to take on more dimension and utilize fabrics designed for different conditions. As a customer, you can also talk to your tailor about different weight fabrics — lightweight (under 9-ounces for summer), mid-weight (around 12 ounces) for transitional wear, and heavy-weight (over 14-ounces) for winter. “We enjoy different foods and different drinks,” said Mueser. “I think that’s something to think about with our wardrobes. You don’t have to be so four-season — enjoy the different times of the year.”
Most of the fabrics a customer will encounter when ordering a custom suit are made from wool, but other options include cotton, linen and luxury fibers like cashmere, vicuña, silk and mohair. Once you have an idea of what you’re interested in, it’s best to trust your gut instinct because there are no hard-and-fast rules. Most importantly, pick a fabric that you’ll feel comfortable in and enjoy wearing. “Oftentimes there’s no right or wrong,” said Mueser. “There’re just different options.”
Wool yarn comes primarily from the fleece of sheep. Suiting fabrics made from wool are broken into two categories: worsted and woolen. Worsted fabrics are combed to remove any short fibers before spinning, leaving longer strands which generally produce a smoother, stronger yarn. Woolen fabrics, on the other hand, aren’t combed before spinning. “Most of the stuff you look at in any tailor shop will be worsted wool,” said Mueser.
How the yarns are woven produces different fabric textures and patterns. Some common types a customer will encounter are checks, pinstripes, plaids, houndstooths and herringbones, among others. Some weaves are associated with certain garments, as is the case with hopsacks for blazers. Other types of common fabrics are flannel, a woolen fabric with a softer face, and tweed, a traditional Scottish and Irish woolen fabric.
When exploring different fabrics, a customer will often see Super numbers attached to denote micron counts (e.g. Super 100s, Super 140s, Super 180s). The higher the micron count, the finer the diameter of fiber staple — this leads to a softer fabric with more drape. While fabrics with higher Super numbers are often very luxurious, they may not necessarily be better (and often, they’ll wear out much faster).
“It’s a little like the discussion the carat of a diamond,” said Mueser. “Listen, a 4 carat stone is a 4 carat stone — that’s a beautiful thing. One-eighties are a beautiful thing. Sometimes there’s a magic to getting a 2.5 carat stone that’s really perfect. And, you have fabrics that are using the longest fibers, the highest qualities, the best dyeing techniques, the best mills, the best finishing — and you see a 120s fabric that could be more expensive than another mill’s 180s. One’s not better or worse — they’re different.”
Along with wool, many tailors will also offer a much smaller range of luxury fibers that are finer and softer than fabric made with sheep’s wool. The most common is cashmere, a yarn spun from the hair of the cashmere goat. Alpaca, silk and mohair (yarn from the the hair of the angora goat) are also commonplace at many tailor shops. The most luxurious fiber comes from vicuña, a relative of the alpaca that lives in the Andes. The extremely soft and warm fibers can only be shorn from the animal every few years, so the resulting yarn is incredibly expensive.
Some mills will add these fibers to majority-wool blends to add elements of luxury to more functional and affordable fabrics. But, in most cases, suits made solely of a luxury fabric are a splurge item. “I tend to go for for that on sport coat or a sweater because I feel it on the skin,” said Mueser. “If I’m making myself a fine cashmere blazer, I want something that’s tactile where it matters — it’s wrapping around you. For a business suit or a pair of pants, I don’t really feel the same need.”
Cotton and Linen
Plant fibers represent another category of fabrics a customer can choose from. Cotton is an accepted option for many casual suits, and is, in most cases, less expensive than wool or linen. It is flexible and breathable, but shows creases more than wool fabrics. Another classic plant fiber is linen, which is made from the fibers of the flax plant. While it is very breathable, it does develop a characteristic wrinkle. “I like that it’s going to look a little disheveled, that’s there’s going to be imperfections in it,” said Mueser. “But it’s important that when you’re designing a suit for yourself that you’re aware of those things and you embrace that. I love the way a beat up old linen suit looks, but it’s not for everybody and it’s not for every occasion.”