Within the world of tailoring and menswear manufacturing there are countless variations of wool used to create the items we wear, each having unique characteristics which make them either well or poorly suited to the environment they’re worn in. Knowing the properties of the most commonly used wool variations helps make informed decisions when commissioning or buying a new item of clothing. The list below isn’t exhaustive, but, it provides an easily understood overview of the types of cloth you’re most likely to be confronted with in a retail or bespoke/made-to-measure environment.
The most useful aspects of understanding why certain cloths behave and feel the way they do is that it allows you to apply the right cloth to the right situation, be it the time of year, such as hopsack for Summer or tweed for Winter, or the formality – as I’ve written about previously, the texture of the cloth has a direct correlation to its formality.
Worsted: Pronounced “wuss-ted” not “war-sted” as it’s often mistakenly called, is the most familiar fibre to anyone who has worn a suit. It’s the wool from which the overwhelming majority of mens suits, throughout the world, are made and in all likelihood the majority of your wardrobe is made up of suits made with worsted wool. Originating in the village of Worsted in Norfolk, England, the weave is comprised of long straight parallel fibres. The term “worsted” refers to both the way the raw fibres are spun as well as the way in which they’re woven, but the end result is a smooth, finely woven and versatile cloth which is ideally suited to professional suiting.
Birdseye: The design originally comes from finely interlinked chain armour used during the Crusades and is now applied to modern textiles. The weave forms a small round or diamond shaped pattern with the central hole (which looks like a birds eye), so the logic goes. The raised front weave adds texture to the cloth, creating visual interest and weavers frequently use different coloured fibres for the front and rear cloth to create a two toned coloured garment.
Hopsack: Loosely woven and more coarse than many other cloths, but ideal for hot weather. Almost like netting, the looseness of the weave allows air to pass through unencumbered, letting cool air in and warm air out. It’s also highly resistant to creasing and wants to spring back into shape as soon as the creasing force is removed, making it a very suitable alternative to linen, which will usually go out of its way to crease itself into oblivion the moment you take your eyes off it.
Flannel: One of my favourite cloths. Flannel’s muted softness and light absorbing qualities have a rare ability to bring a quietness and dignity to everything worn with it. I trust a man who wears flannel. Where worsted wool is woven with long fibres, flannel uses shorter fibres and a brushed finish. The brushing of the cloth raises the fibres and hides the weave, creating a soft, matte finish and beautiful feel to the hand. Almost all of my flannel coats and trousers are made using Fox Brothers wool, the original creators of flannel and still weaving cloth in Wellington, near Somerset in the west of England. Whilst usually worn in cooler climates, light weight flannel can still be worn on warm (but rarely on hot) days, meaning that in all but the hottest months of the year, I’m likely to be in flannel.
Mohair: Sheep tend to get all the credit whenever wool is discussed, but goats deserve equal praise, just for the fact that they produce not only cashmere but also Mohair (from Angora goats). Mohair is widely regarded as the ideal cloth for a travel blazer, given its hard-wearing nature, refusal to crease and ability to breathe. Most Mohair cloths have a slight sheen to the surface, but not so much that it appears cheap, which has made it a popular choice for dinner suits in warm climates, with the sheen complementing evening events and the weave allowing the wearer to remain cool. Pure mohair can be a little coarse, which is why you’ll often find it blended with other fibres to capitalise on the best qualities of each, so it’s not uncommon to find a worsted/mohair blend.
Tweed: Originating from the Scottish word “tweel” (for twill – given the style of weave) tweed still suffers from being associated with older men or the country, which is a shame as it has so much character and versatility. The reason it’s associated with older men is just an unfair coincidence, particularly when you consider the fact that it has been enormously popular for generations and was worn by young men well into the 60’s. The cultural revolution saw its popularity wain with a younger crowd who were calling for change, meaning that many young men who did wear it before this time, kept on wearing it as they aged, eventually giving tweed the perception that it was something which only old men wore. The fact is, that those who wore it when they were younger understood just how good it is and simply kept wearing it. Fortunately, it is enjoying a resurgence in recent times and one which I’m sure will see it return as a staple cloth choice for a lot of us.
The provenance of tweed is among the most fiercely protected of any cloth in the world, with different regions having globally recognised certifications and restrictions, such as Harris Tweed (Scotland) and Donegal Tweed (Ireland), each hailing from their respective counties within those nations and defended just as robustly as the French certify and defend Champagne (from the Champagne region) or the Italian’s defend Parmesan cheese (from Parma).
Tweed has character and its countless colour combinations offer a high degree of personalisation to reflect the wearer. Typically woven using several different shades of dyed wool (usually earthy, country tones, which were originally designed for camouflage) and roughly finished it will typically be found in heavier, winter weight cloths, given how warm and hard-wearing it is, which brought about the term “thorn-proof tweed” for it’s ability to take a beating from thorns and scrub, without causing any harm to the body it was shielding.
Recently, some mills have been refining their processes, producing softer tweeds in single, solid colours, which is helping to bring it into the mainstream consciousness once more.
Fresco: Woven by Martin and Sons and owned by J&J Minnis (which is now owned by Huddersfield Fine Worsteds) Fresco is a unique creation with a high twist wool which doesn’t flatten when pressure is applied. This resistance to flattening keeps the weave open, allowing air to pass through, making it ideal for warm weather. It achieves a similar outcome to linen, hopsack and mohair but in a different way, relying more on the twist of the wool itself, rather than only the openness the weave. It tends to be quite sheer and has a slightly rough handle, so it’s rare you’ll find a fresco coat or trousers without lining.
Cashmere: Regarded by many as the pinnacle of wools (it isn’t, Vicuna is, but the prohibitive cost and rarity of Vicuna – around $6,000 per metre, make it an unrealistic acquisition for most). Cashmere used for knitwear is the hidden down-like fibre which sits under the goats outer guard hair, with the softest hair coming from under the neck. It’s often combed out, rather than shorn off and it is highly insulating, making it, pound for pound, among the warmest natural fibres on the planet and with an incredible level of softness. The yield per goat is much lower, however (compared to sheep), which is a major reason for its significantly higher cost, as the guard hair is usually discarded. If cashmere has a downside, it’s that it is less able to hold its shape under stress, resulting in irreparable bagging, meaning that it’s rarely used in trousers, without a significant contribution needing to be made up from other varieties of wool, to give strength to the cloth. I’m unlikely to have trousers made from anything with more than a 50% component of cashmere, as the risk of ruining the trousers after sitting down a few times is too unappealing.
When you’re purchasing or commissioning your next coat, suit or trousers, if you keep the above characteristics in mind, the end result will be a piece of clothing much better suited to the purpose you want to use it for.