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Picking Quality Fabric For Your Shirts and Trousers: Thread Counts Explained

September 29, 2009

Antonio Valente Double Stitch Bespoke Shirt

I often point out that clothing, in many ways, is a numbers game. Before a shirt, trouser or suit is even made the numbers have already begun to influence the quality of the garment. That is to say, poorly constructed menswear can still be made from excellent fabric but elegantly produced clothing can never be made from inferior fabric.

In deciphering the quality of a cotton shirt fabric take note of its thread count, which refers to the number of threads within one square inch. A high count indicates durability, fineness and luxury whereas a low count obviously implies the opposite. For our bespoke program and ready-to-wear lines, Antonio Valente hand picks fabrics from Italian boutique mills that have a minimum thread  count of 2 by 2 ply 100’s and as high as 2 by 2 ply 200’s.

When a fabric is woven, the length is called the weft and the width is the warp. A thread count per square inch of 1 by 1 ply 120’s, for example,  has 120 threads along the weft and 120 strands running across the warp for a total of 240 threads. However, a fabric’s count and quality may significantly increase if the ply is doubled. Consequently, a 2 by 2 ply 120’s, which has two threads twisted together within each strand, will have 240 threads along the weft and 240 across the warp for a total of 480 threads per square inch. By augmenting the number of threads per square inch, a fabric becomes stronger and more durable. Also, the threads that are used to weave a 2 by 2 ply fabric must be finer so a shirt will feel softer and more luxurious. Lastly, the amount of thread woven into a 2 by 2 ply fabric is drastically greater, meaning less space in between the strands, which creates a smoother surface and notably decreases the risk of shrinkage. As the thread count increases, these attributes become more and more prevalent. On the other end of the quality spectrum, low end shirts may have a count as low as 1 by 1 ply 50’s! In some cases, thread counts may be vaguely labeled to imply a higher quality than is actually the case, for example, if an 80’s fabric has a 2 ply warp but a 1 ply weft, it may be described as a 2 ply 80’s. Moreover, vague terms, such as Sea Island Cotton or Egyptian Cotton, may be used to mislead or avoid naming a fabric’s specifications. If uncertain about the true quality of a shirt then also inspect how it is made. A poorly manufactured garment will always show its true colours.

Unlike a dress shirt, deciphering the thread count of a trouser, sport jacket or suit is a little more complicated. To start, the best wool yarns are found in Australia and New Zealand, specifically Merino Wool, while the best fabrics are from Italy. A fabric’s quality is based on the fibre’s diameter, which is measured by microns, and then translated into Super numbers to indicate the wool’s fineness, for example, a Super 160’s wool is equivalent to 15.75 microns, which is considered excellent. In fact, any fibre with a diameter lower than 19.5 microns or a count of Super 90’s and higher is categorized, to varying degrees, as “Fine” quality wool. Antonio visits only the best mills in Italy to hand-pick woolens for his ready-to-wear collections and bespoke program with a minimum count of Super 100’s high twist Merino Wool (18.75 microns) and goes as high as Super 160’s 4 harness Merino Wool.

A wool’s thread count becomes more intricate when different types of weaves are introduced. A Super 100’s, for instance, may be woven 4 different ways, all of which will have varying degrees of quality. For example, a basic wool will not perform as well as a high twist and a high twist will not equal a 3 or even 4 harness fabric. With a high twist, the yarns are first twisted then woven, which infuses them with a tendency to spring back to their original form. As a result, a high twist trouser performs extremely well. However, drape and durability are most impressive if a trouser is sewn from a 4 harness fabric, which has the most yarns per square inch since they are woven in four directions, length, width and on both diagonals.

When shopping for fine menswear, thread count isn’t the only indicator of quality but it is a great starting point. A well-made garment should begin with excellent fabrics but also include innovative procedures, quality materials and inspiring designs. For other relevant shirt and trouser quality indicators, click on our look book link and flip to the last few pages.

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