When you start to get interested in fine tailoring, it becomes important to understand fabric. However, RTW salespeople — and many tailors — are of little help in my experience. Many of them simply repeat what there were told by the sales rep from the cloth maker. And cloth makers aren’t the most transparent bunch, as we will see below.
We’ve been witnessing an arms race towards ever higher super numbers (Super 150’s, 180’s, 200’s, and so on), as a justification for selling fabrics at always higher prices. But the super number tells us nothing of actual significance other than how thin the thread of wool is — the higher the number, the finer the thread. Sure, a finer wool thread is more difficult to make, so why not charge more… But customers have been mistaking this as a sign of quality assurance.
It has proven an effective marketing ploy on the part of many top-tier cloth makers, to distinguish themselves from the competition, and to value their technical prowess, in order to command premium pricing. The luxury brands have all gone for it, as they themselves were able to pass on the cloth price premium by charging even more to end customers.
It’s time to put an end to some of this ‘super’ myth — and yet, we must avoid throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
My extensive first-hand experience has demonstrated to me that a thinner thread (higher super number) is not necessarily a better thing for your suit, automatically justifying a higher price tag. Inversely, we should not go to the other extreme by assuming that a thicker thread (lower super number) makes better suiting fabric, as recently suggested by some world class bespoke tailors in the film ‘O’Mast’.
Following the super number arms race, we started to witness the pendulum swing back the other way, with tailors now telling customers to go for lower super numbers, perhaps as a way of showing customers that they know what’s up.
My point — which no tailor seems to put forth — is that a super number, whether high or low, tells us absolutely nothing of any practical use. Why? Because modern cloth making and weaving techniques can produce very different fabrics from the same base thread. However, this weaving information is a well-kept trade secret, never printed on any technical label, as cloth makers don’t want the competition to be able to copy the texture & draping properties of a given cloth.
Real information about the properties of the fabric when used to make a suit (i.e. how it drapes, how it absorbs light, how it insulates, how it holds up to creasing, etc.) would all be much more on point than knowing the super number.
For example, I own S110’s suits that look and feel smooth, shiny & silky like what you expect from a high super number. Inversely, I also own a S180’s suit that holds its trouser crease for months on end (Schofield S180’s recommended by Camps de Luca for my bespoke suit.)
Cloth makers can weave wool in so many different ways, giving the finished cloth all sorts of different properties, independently of the width (super number) of the base thread they’re using. They will also sometimes blend in other types of threads, which they don’t actually have to report on the label.
For example, it’s my understanding that any wool with under 5% of cashmere blend does not have to mention cashmere by law on the label. I’m guessing the same thing applies for under 5% silk. So, if a cloth maker is adding silk or cashmere threads to the blend, and not telling you, the resulting cloth will still say 100% wool, and yet it will look & feel very different from what you would expect from a fabric labeled 100% wool. (And I’m not even getting into the differences between ‘wool’ and ‘virgin wool’ on a label, which no one pays attention to.)
At the end of the day, all we care about is how a fabric looks, feels and performs, and the only way to properly assess that is:
A) examine a large bolt of fabric up close, to see how it drapes and catches light — small swatch books don’t reveal this, particularly when considering check pattern size;
B) get first-hand information from a tailor who has already made a suit or jacket in the same fabric for another customer.
At this point, we can get a sense for more accurate information about a fabric. The rest is just literature and iGent fantasy.
All pictures © Lyle Roblin for Vitale Barberis Canonico and Parisian Gentleman.