Suits can be designed in an infinite number of combinations – from the buttons, to the lapel, to the leg break, to the pockets. But two of the most central and visible elements of a suit are the fabric and the pattern. Because these elements are so integral to a suit design, we wanted to break them down for you so you go into your next suit purchase with a solid understanding of these basics.
The Suit Fabric
The fabric of a suit goes beyond aesthetics. You’re looking for a fabric that wears well – one that forms to your body as you wear it and one that is season and weather-appropriate. Some fabrics are more casual, while others are only to be used in the most formal of situations. So where do you start?
Wool is known as the industry-standard for formal menswear – the majority of suits you find on the racks or while browsing online are made of wool. Wool comes in a wide variety of options, including different weights and preparations.
When To Wear Wool
This means you can wear wool in many different situations. We often think of wool as being better suited for winter months that call for heavier, warmer clothes, but wool is actually extremely versatile. There are lighter weights that are perfect for warmer weather, and all weights of wool are breathable, so even the heavier weights aren’t stifling.
Types of Wool
Additionally, wool comes in two different preparations: woolen and worsted.
Worsted wools are smooth, dense, and compact. The wool lays flat when woven, and is smooth to the touch. Woolen wool, on the other hand, is what those lovely chunky winter blankets and sweaters are made of. The yarn is thicker in circumference but lighter and fluffier in makeup. It creates a more textured look when woven into fabric. Lighter weight suits are typically made from worsted wool, while the thicker, heavier suits are made from woolen wool.
Cashmere is the name given to fabric that is made from the long, thin fibers of goat hair harvested in Kashmir, India. It has a long-standing reputation as one of the softest fabrics on the planet, and is often used in high-end, luxury suits. As such, it does carry a hefty pricetag. Generally, suits that are not 100% wool are a blend. For instance, the fabric might entail 85% wool, 9% cashmere, and 6% silk.
Cotton is light and breathable, which makes it a pretty popular choice for suits as well. However, cotton is susceptible to creasing more frequently than other fabrics, so cotton suits must be tended to and maintained. They’re less expensive from the get-go but are unlikely to last as long as a wool suit. It’s best for more casual events in the warmer months.
Linen has secured its place as the fabric of summer. It’s light, airy, and flexible – made from the fibers of the flax plant. However, linen does have a reputation as being very easy to wrinkle, so, like cotton, it requires regular upkeep and dry-cleaning.
Suit Fabric Patterns
Anything can be used as a pattern in clothing! That being said, there are some staple patterns that have been used in mens’ formal wear throughout the years. Each pattern has its own flavor and uses – levels of formality, seasons, type of event, and so on. While a solid-color suit is appropriate in any situation, you can make a statement and have a bit of fun with your attire when you wear a pattern.
The crosshatch pattern isn’t so much a pattern as it is an elaboration on solid color. It is a pattern that is woven of extremely similar threads so that the finished product looks almost entirely solid. However, there are some lighter threads woven into the fabric so that it has a bit of a watercolor effect that breaks up the solid color. It’s perfect if you want to try a pattern but are a little nervous about being too loud with your attire.
Originally conceived by the Romans when creating their roadways, Herringbone pattern’s use in textiles can be traced to 600 B.C.-era Ireland. It looks like the letter V repeated over the fabric, but it’s actually made up of rows of diagonal lines that look like slashes. The rows alternate so that two together make up the V-shape. It’s a relatively discrete pattern that can be worn in more formal settings without drawing too much attention to itself.
The earliest examples found of Houndstooth textiles are from what is today called Austria, dating back to sometime between 1500 and 1200 B.C. It’s a two-tone pattern that includes broken-up checks made up of pointed shapes. Houndstooth is an example of a tessellation – a pattern made up of geometric tiles that slot into each other like puzzle pieces in a continuing pattern, with no gaps and no overlaps. It’s on the louder side of commonly-used patterns, and as such, is not often used in more formal settings, but can make a fun statement piece as a sport jacket.
Vertical stripes can be called either pinstripe or chalkstripe, depending on the thickness. Chalkstripes are thicker and more broadly spaced, while pinstripes are very fine and placed closer together. Self-stripe is similar to pinstripe, but instead of using a different color thread, self-stripes are formed through a weaving technique, so the pattern itself is woven into the fabric.
Patterns: Plaids and Checks
A plaid or check pattern is, essentially, a pattern in which rectangular shapes are made by the intersection of criss-crossing vertical and horizontal lines or bars. There are a few different varieties of checks, but they all follow that general pattern. Glen plaid is made up of a variety of horizontal and vertical lines of different shades – usually, two dark and two light alternating with four dark and four light, creating a collection of check shapes in different sizes throughout the pattern. Windowpane checks are squares of equal size that are sectioned off by a repeating pattern of equidistant horizontal and vertical lines. It is a much simpler pattern when compared to the crowdedness of glen check. Buffalo check is the plaid style that you might expect to find a lumberjack wearing – often in red and black. It’s far more casual than the other checks mentioned here, so should be reserved for statement pieces in less formal events.
Using what you’ve learned here, you can make more informed decisions about how to dress depending on the situation, season, and level of formality. Patterns and fabrics are the two most basic elements of a suit that will declare a look’s style – the framework, the bones – and everything that comes after is seasoning. Before you worry about details like button number and vent style, ensuring you’re dressing in the right fabric with an appropriate pattern is priority number one. From there you’ll have a much easier time making decisions regarding the more minute details, and then you’ll have a perfect custom look ready to go.