The subject of yarn count isn’t a topic that draws a crowd. When I worked in textiles and dealt with fabric thread count, the topic was rarely discussed, since merely the words ‘thread count’ caused blank stares and the sudden onset of attention deficit.
Still, we can’t deny that the fabrics that morph into our shirts and suits at the hands of an able cutter and tailor have different levels of quality, and if you start with a trash fabric, you will end with a trash suit.
Cloth is a numbers game, and to win the game, it doesn’t hurt to understand the ground rules, because great fabric can hide a few tailoring faults, but the best cutter and tailors in the world are not able to make a cheap fabric look good.
SHIRTS – A QUICK BAROMETER
Above, the supernatural choice of shirting fabrics permanently available at Charvet in Paris, probably the Everest of bespoke shirt making.
The Individual Thread — Choose 2 Ply thread, which yields a softer, stronger shirt, that is less prone to wrinkles.
A quality shirt is usually made with 2 by 2 ply thread (two pieces of thread intertwined to make a ‘pseudo single thread’). A fabric woven of two ply yarn has more durability and longevity than a fabric woven in singles.
Yarn count is the number of threads per square inch within a fabric.
Directly affecting the yarn count is how fine or wide the yarn fiber is within the fabric. Larger fibers in diameter take up more space, so will have a smaller thread count. However these large fibers may have a nice advantage, like durability, although large yarn fibers can be more ‘rough’ and when used, may sacrifice fabric softness.
In contrast, smaller fabric fibers need more threads to fill a one inch square space, and are usually smoother and produce a beautiful drape. However, fibers that are too thin in diameter may break and scuff easily, due to their fragility.
Another point about yarn count that is sometimes forgotten—yarn count can also indicate how loosely or tightly the yarn is woven. If very fine fibers are tightly woven together, the yarn count will be boosted. But, if these same fine fibers are woven loosely, the yarn count will be reduced. Tighter weaves with quality yarn within reason, can be pleasurable to the eye, as the feel and the consistency of the appearance of the fabric moves more towards the emotion of smoothness, even flawlessness.
A simple equation that is generally true when contemplating higher and lower yarn counts:
Higher Yarn Count = Finer Thread Diameter and/or More tightly woven yarn
Lower Yarn Count = Wider Thread Diameter and/or More loosely woven yarn
If you have a microscope, you can measure off a square inch on a piece of fabric, slide the fabric swatch under the scope—and count the threads in each sewn-direction within the area of one square inch. If the threads are 2 by 2 ply, then double the final number to get the actual yarn count result.
Usually, the higher the yarn count of a shirt, the nicer the shirt. A good base yarn count number starts somewhere in the 100s, but if you are seeking a maximum standard, yarn count can move up further, towards 200. But, any yarn count above 140 should be adequately soft to the touch. Egyptian and Italian cottons for shirts are among the best.
When visiting a shirtmaker, ask for a few examples of different thread counts in the 100s and select your fabric based on how it feels and how much you want to spend.
Weft and Warp
Threads are generally sewn in the directions of length and width to create a fabric. But referring to lengths and widths is awkward, so the terms “warp and weft” are used instead.
* WARP is the lengthwise yarns (as shown above)
* WEFT is the widthwise yarns passed over and under the warp yarn.
An old trick that I used (when working in textiles) to spot quality fabric, was to hold the fabric up against a light source. The less light that escapes through the fabric, the higher the thread count. If you see sunshine bursting through the fabric when you hold it up to the sun, then the fabric you are holding has a lower thread count. This method is really useful when manufacturers exaggerate thread count by using single-ply thread in one fabric direction and double-ply thread in the other direction.
As Thread Count Increases, Individual Fibers Get Thinner
There is only so many threads that a fabric mill can squeeze within a little one-inch area, so increasing the thread count often means working with finer and thinner threads in order to fit more threads within a one square-inch area.
A thread’s diameter is measured in microns. In shirt and suit making, how fat or thin an individual thread is (or isn’t) becomes of paramount importance in terms of drape, softness and strength.
SUITS – GETTING TO THE POINT – <19 micron fiber size and 100-160 Thread Count Fabric
Suit Fabric: How the Diameter of Thread is Related to Yarn Count
Fabric quality is directly related to the diameter of the individual thread (measured in microns).
Unlike shirts, the yarn count of a suit is often reported in “super numbers”, since not only is yarn threads per inch calculated, but also the micron diameter of the individual thread is a key factor in the super number.
Super numbers indicate a wool’s fineness in combination with the overall thread count per inch.The word “super” in terms of thread is elusive for good reason, for a far as we know, there aren’t any technical parameters that differentiate between super 100s, and garden variety 100s.
To understand standards of fabric quality:
* a fiber with a diameter lower than 19 microns is considered a quality fiber, if its crimp and length are acceptable,
* a thread count of Super 100, or higher, qualifies as a “fine quality wool”.
A Super 160s wool is an excellent fabric with individual threads measuring around 15.75 microns, but any quality yarns that meet the above criteria should be met with a good result at the hands of a talented tailor.
High Twist Wool and Beating the Heat
High Twist «Fresco» Fabric (J & J Minnis). The twisting of the yarn makes for a very open weave, which is ideal for wearing in warmer climates. Although slightly coarse, the fabric is highly durable.
“High twist” simply means that individual yarns (typically worsted wool) are twisted more times than usual and are also quite taut.
After wool is combed, washed and carded, fibers can actually be too fine to be woven. In this case, individual fibers are “twisted” together during the spinning process. However, the quality of the fiber in high twist wool must have nice “crimp and length”— otherwise, the short fabric fibers will break down and pil and fabric quality will suffer. Wool originating from Australia, New Zealand, and Tasmania are generally of the finest quality.
When made with quality yarn, these tightly twisted fibers (twisted more times than the 60 – 80 twist norm) have several benefits:
1. Taut spinning makes for stronger yarn.
2. Tightly spun yarn makes a lighter and more breathable fabric (near perfect for summer suits)
3. Yarns that are twisted help fabric springback to it’s original form, which means your suit (especially trousers) should drape quite well, with few wrinkles.
Four-harness woven fabric not only has a warp and a weft, but also is sewn on both diagonals. This four-way method of sewing yields more thread count than most other fabrics. If drape and durability are really important, then 4-harness fabric will stand up well to the challenge of frequent wear and counter the pesky problem of wrinkles in fabric. Most plaids are four-harness weaves.
WHEN IS TOO MUCH — TOO MUCH ?
If super count 160 makes for an excellent suit, how about super counts that exceed 160? When going higher than SC 160, it is possible to reach a point of diminishing returns. It is also possible to reach a point of choosing a thread count that is so high with fibers so thin that the integrity of the fabric is significantly weakened.
Super high thread counts can be problematic since, once again, as thread count increases, it is necessary to use thinner fibers in order to increase the count within a one square inch space. Fibers that are less than 15.5 microns in diameter can be highly fragile. These thin fibers can be so fragile that a mild abrasion against the fabric can scrape the cloth and even cleaning the fabric can break fibers and damage the integrity of the cloth.
Even a super 100 suit can be a great choice for those who have a rigorous travel schedule or need a basic strong fabric to withstand vigorous wear. And, a super 100 suit will generally smooth out after a day or two of rest, so wrinkling problems are kept to a minimum. The best way to choose a fabric is to know its parameters while at the same time, taking the fabric in hand to find out if you like the way the cloth feels and drapes, as well as factoring in whether the fabric will be worn during summer, winter, or any season in-between.
Sonya Glyn Nicholson, Senior Editor.