I was suit shopping with a friend a couple weekends ago when we were introduced to the Brooks Brothers Special Order program. In our case my friend wanted a Milano suit (Brooks Brothers slimmest cut, with natural shoulders) in grey or charcoal. The problem was Milano suits only come in navy blue. Salvation came in the form of the Brooks Brothers Special Order program. The Special Order program allows the customer to select a model of suit currently in production, and modify it with a selection of premium fabrics, liners, and details not found on suits regularly stocked.
Made-to-measure this is not; the purchaser is still limited to standard sizing, but at least he has the option of ordering his jacket and pants in sizes that are not necessarily paired together (a 40R suit traditionally comes with 34 waist pants for example).
Though the thought of a tone-on-tone paisley liner in your new Brooks Brothers suit certainly helps close the deal, the real value in the Special Order program is the better fabrics. You pay a premium for a Special Order suit, but the better wool makes the upgrade an investment rather than a mere indulgence in flashy bemberg.
How a suit holds together over time, how it creases when you sit, how it breathes, and how it hangs when you stand is largely determined by the quality of wool it’s cut from. Yes, the construction of the suit is important too (floating or fused canvas? Natural or padded shoulders?) but for those of us who buy off the peg – quality of wool is probably the single biggest indicator of the calibre of a suit. When paying a little extra for better wool is an option, it’s always worth doing.
But how do you evaluate the quality of wool a suit is made from? The simplest answer to this question is to trust your senses: handling the suit thoroughly, and inspecting it closely for defects in the weaving are good first steps.
Good worsted wool should be soft, consistent in texture, and smooth. While good wool will have some natural oils in it, under no circumstances should wool feel greasy. Some manufacturers will dress-up poorer quality wool with chemicals to give it a uniform sheen, and cover up defects. These chemicals will break down over time, and leave you disappointed with a second-rate product. After being crumpled in your hand, a sleeve should fall naturally back into place. The wool should also have a natural elasticity, rebounding quickly from a slight tug.
A close examination of the wool itself will also tell you a lot about the craftsmanship that went into the manufacturing of the fabric. A tailor of mine used to remind me of this whenever I brought him in a suit jacket to alter. Although more apparent on patterned materials, wool that has been cheaply woven will be riddled with slight imperfections: missing or raised threads, miss-coloured threads, or threads that are knotted, broken or woven out of sync. While these imperfections are rarely so egregious as to attract the ire of the casual observer, they are indicative of a poorly woven fabric that was likely sourced for a cheaply made suit.
A superficial examination of fabric will only take you so far: you must also consult the label. It is here where you are likely to see the familiar label “Super 100s” or “S120s” or something of the like. I hear that on Savile Row you can find Super 250s. But what does this mean? And is it a reliable indicator of quality?
Answering this question involves a little bit of historical understanding, but the short answer is “no”.
Nearly all the suiting-grade wool produced today comes from Australia, and to a lesser degree New Zealand and Tasmania. But Australia does not have a large weaving industry. For over 150 years the fleece of Australian sheep has been spun into yarn, and that yarn spun into cloth, in factories in England and Italy.
The City of Huddersfield, Yorkshire, was formerly the epicentre of the world’s wool trade. Here, in the mid-19th century before modern grading technology could measure the width of a single thread of yarn, the “fineness” of wool was judged by how much yarn could be spun out of one pound of the stuff. The finer the fibres the more “hanks” (a spool totaling 560 yards of yarn) could be spun out of a single pound of wool. Thus a “60s” count wool meant that one pound of the yarn could yield 60 hanks. The higher the count number, the finer the wool. Finer wool is softer, silkier, lighter, and of course proportionately harder to source.
Various parts of the sheep, and indeed different breeds of sheep, produce fleece of different quality. Spainish sheep (merinos) in the early years of wool production produced the finest fibres in the world, their undercoats could produce wool as fine as 70s and 80s. Not content, Australian growers eager to break into the Savile Row market (who demanded the finest wools available) relied on selective breeding practices to produce generations of sheep with undercoats that were finer still than the 70s and 80s counts that had long dominated the high-end wool market.
During this period fibre count numbers were strictly an industry measuring stick that the average consumer would never encounter. This changed in the 1960s when Joseph Lumb & Sons – perhaps the most famous spinners of the day – introduced to Savile Row the 100s count wool and branded it “Lumb’s Huddersfield Super 100s.” The choice of the adjective Super proved to be such a powerful marketing tool that the suiting world has never looked back. The introduction of the Super 100s wool was to #menswear what the four-minute mile was to track and field: it was not only ground breaking event, but also a new industry standard.
By the early 1990s, “Super” 120s had become the industry standard fabric for a decent high-end suit, with 150s available for those with expensive tastes. Today the most exclusive brands don’t work with anything below 150s and are more likely to use 180s.
It’s worth noting that “hanks” are no longer used to grade wool destined for commercial use. Raw wool is now evaluated using industry standards related to the thickness of the natural fibres, as measured in microns under a microscope. This system is unquestionably more accurate than its predecessor, but nevertheless the measurements are still scaled in the traditional way. For example any raw wool measured to be finer than 18.5 microns is said to be at least “100s Grade”.
The rise of the Supers however has been controversial. Thread count was never meant to be an exact science, instead it was shorthand for wool merchants to sort fabrics without close examination. Indeed until recently even good cloth labeled as 90s might have had a smattering of thicker 60s or 70s unavoidably mixed in. I suspect that even today, despite improved sorting and grading technology, wools out of less reputable mills are likely several counts courser then they advertise.
Like everything you read on a label, be skeptical: if it seems too good to be true it probably is. Good wool is expensive. Comparatively few sheep can produce especially fine wool. So when you’re talking about wool finer than 150s you are talking about a true luxury product. If the made-to-measure suit you’re looking at online is advertising that it’s made of 120s wool, but costs less than $500, I don’t know what you’re getting but its not 120s wool.
Ultimately there is more to wool than fibre diameter. The length of the fibres, the amount and quality of lanolin and natural oil present in the fabric, as well the strength and consistency of the weave itself are all integral to the quality of the finished product. Another consideration is warmth and wear and tear. The finer the fabric, the lighter the suit. The finer the fabric the quicker the suit may wear. While these aren’t significant considerations for most consumers buying in the 100s - 120s range, if you start looking at 150s or finer it can start to be an issue.
The moral of the story is this: trust your instincts when shopping for a new suit, and don’t get too caught up in the numbers game.
Thanks to Nicholas Antongiavanni and his book, “The Suit: A Machiavellian Approach to Men’s Style,” published last year by Collins.