Take the finest tailor in the world and give him a piece of polyester and it will probably end in tears. When it comes to making a bespoke suit, using the right cloth is vital.
In my opinion, there is one animal whose fleece stands shank and shoulders above the rest and here’s one I spotted whilst fly-fishing in the Yorkshire Dales.
It’s unlikely this chap was born to be worn, as the only cloth that is made from a British sheep today is Tweed. This is because their coats have evolved ‘thicker’ to survive our crappy weather and so are not suitable for the production of cooler cloths.
So, in our search for fine threads, some bright spark in 1797 shipped thirteen sheep to Australia. Not as you might guess to improve the IQ ‘down under,’ but to start what is now called the Merino sheep industry.
The processing of wool involves shearing, sorting and grading the fibres, making these into yarn (thread) and lastly, weaving it into fabric. The best wool comes from the shoulders and sides of the sheep and wool fibers are judged on their strength, length, crimp (waviness), colour and most importantly fineness (diameter),
Merino wool is typically 3-5 inches in length and is very fine, between 12-24 microns – one human hair is about 40-120 microns thick. The finer the wool, the softer it will be, while coarser grades are more durable.
You may have seen ‘Super Numbers’ on cloth labels – ‘Super100’s,’ ‘Super 150’s’ -which is basically a classification system, whereby the higher the Super number, the finer the fibres from which the fabric was made.
However, just because a cloth is made of very fine fibres doesn’t mean it is going to perform or ‘make-up’ (tailor) well. Longer fibres are also important as they allow stronger yarn to be produced which can then be twisted together (two yarns twisted together is called two-ply, three yarns three-ply etc) to produce tightly woven cloth which will be more durable and reduce creasing.
The weight of a cloth (measured in ounces or grammes per running metre), the way it is woven – such as a plain weave (panama), satin weave (venetian), fancy weave (crepe) or as a twill (prunelle, gabadine, herringbone, serge) – and how it is ‘finished’ (by companies such as TW Johnson of Huddersfield) will also have a major influence on how the cloth feels to the touch, known in the trade as how it ‘handles,’ and how cool it is to wear.
Helping my customers choose the right cloth is the most important part of the process and one where I believe I really add value. I don’t claim to be an expert, but I’m always trying to improve my knowledge. My father ran the family textile business for thirty years, so perhaps it’s in in my blood. I love to visit working mills like Taylor & Lodge, read trade magazines such as “Twist” and speak to the more knowledgeable cloth merchants, which I’ll discuss in a later blog.
A lot of it is common sense. The first questions I ask a customer are what is the suit for, how often will it be worn, what is your budget? If the chap in front of me is an eighteen stone hedge-fund manager and his backside is going to be rubbing on an office chair all day, even if he can afford a light-weight Super 200’s with cashmere and vicuna, I know that within six months there’s going to be a hole under his nether-regions and the jacket is going to look like a rag. Far better off to go for a mid weight worsted cloth with a bit of meat to it.
If it’s a work suit for the Managing Partner of a law firm, then less is usually more, so it’s out with the chalk stripes and we’ll put the pimp-daddy linings to one side. If wedding bells are imminent, or you want to win ‘best in show’ at the races, then perhaps we’ll check out sexy Miss Mohair, or a design that is so funky, it deserves it’s own Afro and flashing dance-floor.
Yes, when I sit down with a new customer, choosing the right cloth is where it all begins, and isn’t it nice to think that chances are, the threads on your back started out sun-bathing in Australia, before coming to England to be expertly crafted into Huddersfield’s finest.