I’m currently going through a mid-life clothing crisis. I’m dressing a little too… frumpy, sloppy, casual. Its not that I don’t want to look stylish, its that I’m lazy about dressing and given the choice between the old comfy knit cotton sweater with jeans or the more fitted button down shirt with slacks, I’ll generally choose the first. But as I get older I feel more like dressing like an adult and I’m taking an interest in wearing woven tailored clothing that actually fits, rather than the over sized potato sacks I’ve been known to wear.
Needless to say, this new found interest in clothing affords me the opportunity to take a look at some of the simple and inventive wovens that are the world of men’s suiting. As a designer, its a term that I hear thrown around often in reference to what kind of trend the customer is looking for. “Men’s suiting” is their shorthand for a sophisticated woven classy textile in understated colors. “Men’s suiting” is woven fabric that does more with less, where the weave is simple and the yarn does the heavy lifting; that is materially and functionally rich without being obnoxious or overstated, unless you’re Herb Tarlek.
The other jumping off point for this article is a recent look at innovations from sharkskin where I only had a cursory look at the original sharkskin textile, the grand daddy of them all, the fabric that is the foundation of many swanky suits. I speak of course of woven sharkskin. Between that and the occasion to wear a suit recently, I thought I’d take a look at simple weaves from men’s suiting that have animal names. Here are three of them: Sharkskin, Herringbone, and Houndstooth:
Sharkskin suits are the domain of lawyers, executives, Mad Men, and the Rat Pack. Done right it can be sophisticated and classy. Amp it up a bit and you’ve got a 2 week run in Vegas. Either way, its achieved a legendary status in suits. This fabric is also known as “Pick/Pick” in England.
This fabric is surprisingly simple in structure. It is a simple 2/2 twill with a 2 color warp and 2 color fill rotation, which I’ll explain in a second. It gets its quality from its use of a fine worsted wool or mohair, sometimes with rayon or acetate. It often exhibits a ‘shimmering’ effect from the yarn’s fineness combined with the color effect, finish and/or addition of other yarn types.
So what the heck is a 2/2 twill? To oversimplify, its a fabric where 2 ends of warp are up for every two ends of warp down, in a stair step configuration.
Its the same structure as most denim used in Jeans. [Denim structure is a 3/1 warp face twill. -seth] Here are some diagrams:
Here’s how it works for the non weavers: black means warp is up, white means fill is up. This is not what the fabric looks like, this is what the loom is being instructed to do.
Above is how the yarns are actually interacting on the face of the fabric, with white being the weft and black the warp.
And finally, this is what makes it shark skin: warp is running odd ends light gray, even ends dark gray; weft is running odd picks light gray and even ends dark gray.
This is what it looks like repeated out, zoomed in. Always use a strong contrast between the two colors for best effect.
A final note on sharkskin: Disregard the entry at Wikipedia for sharkskin at this point in time, as it is completely and utterly wrong, and unfortunately looks to be spreading around various forums on the internet. Also worth noting is that textile terms are elusive and ever changing. In researching this article, I’ve noticed many textiles being called ‘sharkskin’ that are something else. In my own career, I’ve been constantly annoyed by patterns that are named after weaving terms that have nothing to do with that term whatsoever, like a flat woven pattern named ‘mattelasse’…
This one’s pretty straightforward and is more about the weave itself than the quality of the end fabric. A Herringbone is simply a series of even stripes of broken twill that are alternately left and right handed. Again, this one has seen its day in men’s suiting, especially in overcoats and hats.
As far as weaving setup, what you see is what you get. Warp and fill are solid contrasting colors, often warp is black, fill is white. Commonly its woven with thicker yarns that pronounce the pattern. Here’s the setup:
That’s it. Thats all it is. The twill reverses and steps down to ‘break’. Apply the yarns to the weave and it looks like this:
And here it is in repeat:
Houndstooth is the textile with the coolest name ever. Its also an excellent example of how to do more with less. This is a bit bolder, a bit more active, but can still manage to be classy. It can also manage to be obnoxious. Choose wisely.
The weave structure is the same as the Sharkskin; a 2/2 twill.
As the yarns lie; still the same as Sharkskin, but now for the addition of the color:
The pattern is created from a rotation of 4 dark and 4 light picks with a rotation of 4 dark warps and 4 light warps. The way the dark and light yarns interact with the twill create the ‘tooth’. Variations on color patterning and stripe width can create diverse variations but I prefer the even and simple balanced checkered look.
Note that the current trend toward super sized houndstooth looks are abominations that I do not and will not consider houndstooth, just out of principle.
That concludes our look at classic men’s suiting. Class dismissed.
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