Everything you need to know about shirts to upgrade your wardrobe
What makes a quality shirt? And how can I easily recognise one? These are questions we’ve been asked many times – and if you’re reading this, you’re probably wondering about this too. Luckily, the answer isn’t that complicated. Recognising a well-made shirt is quite easy when you know where to look: shirts have subtle tells that reveal their make.
Materials and construction are the building blocks of a well-made shirt: together they determine how it feels, looks and ages. Many characteristics that are considered to be markers of high quality and craftsmanship enhance the durability of a shirt. This is probably because traditional shirtmakers aspired to maximize the lifetime of their creation.
As true shirt-enthusiasts, we have an endless list of details we consider. In this guide we boiled it down to the essentials.
Whether you want to know what two-ply means or you are just searching for a checklist for your next shirt purchase, this guide will hopefully provide the information you’re looking for and help you find that durable wardrobe staple.
In many ways, the fabric determines the character of the shirt.
Whether it’s made from cotton, linen, wool, silk or a blend of these, we recommend fabrics that are produced from 100% natural fibres. As you might have guessed, cotton is the most popular material for shirts. It’s soft and can be worn throughout the year. Naturally, there are great seasonal options such as linen for the summer or cotton-cashmere for the winter, but cotton is suitable for essentially any season and any occasion.
But there is far more to a fabric than just the raw material. You may have come across a claim such as “This twill fabric is made from 100s two-ply Egyptian cotton”. What’s that all about?
All you need to know are the four main ingredients that determine the quality and character of a fabric: Origin, ply, yarn count and weave.
Origin of cotton
Raw cotton is a soft and fluffy fibre that grows on the Gossypium plant. Its quality is for a large part determined by the length of the fibre. Longer fibres can be spun into finer yarns, without sacrificing the strength. Some types of cotton – such as Egyptian and American Pima cotton – have extra-long fibres and are therefore known to produce the finest fabrics.
An extremely rare type of cotton is grown in the Caribbean, where the unique weather conditions produce the finest, longest and strongest fibres. This luxurious variety is called Sea Island cotton. Apart from the rarest and the finest, it is also the most expensive cotton in the world.
If the origin of cotton is not clearly communicated, this does not necessarily mean the materials themselves are of poor quality. Some brands actively promote the origin of the fabrics, others simply don’t.
Where the fabric shapes the character of the shirt, the weave shapes the character of the fabric.
In short, the weave is the way in which the yarns are put together to make a fabric. Yarns that run vertically are called warps, horizontal yarns are called wefts. The pattern, direction and number of wefts and warps are defined by the weave.
Most shirt fabrics can be categorised in three weaves: the plain, twill and basket weave.
The plain weave is a simple over and under pattern.
The best-known example is probably poplin. End-on-end – also known as fil-a-fil – is also a plain weave where the warp yarn has a different colour than the weft yarn, producing a rich heathered texture. Both are crisp fabrics and great options for business shirts.
On the downside, they are less absorbent and resistant to creasing than for example a twill weave.
The twill weave has a weft yarn that runs over and under multiple warp yarns. It is easily recognised because of the distinctive diagonal texture.
Twills are denser than other weaves and often have a bit of sheen – it is therefore considered a more formal fabric. But there are some casual twill weaves as well, such as denim, where the indigo dyeing of the warp creates its casual character. Other variations you might be familiar with are herringbone and houndstooth.
A benefit of twill fabrics is that they are usually quite easy to iron and that they don’t crease as much.
The basket weave – also known as the panama weave – has multiple weft threads that run over an equal number of warp threads.
The most famous version is unquestionably the oxford cloth – a single colour of weft is crossed with a white warp yarn creating its unique checkerboard appearance. The oxford cloth is used so often on button down shirts, that it eventually became its own thing – the oxford cloth button down (or O.B.C.D. as the connoisseurs like to call it). Oxford cloth is a great option for casual shirts: it is absorbent, breathable and easy to iron.
If you’re an oxford cloth enthusiast like we are, but if you also wear business shirts, consider alternatives such as pinpoint oxford or royal oxford – they have comparable characteristics but a more formal appearance.
Single ply, two-ply and three-ply
You have probably come across the term two-ply – or two-fold – cotton, as this is often stated on labels of premium shirts. But what is it exactly?
Ply refers to the amount of fibres that are spun into a yarn. Single-ply means a yarn is spun from one fibre. If two fibres are twisted into a yarn, it’s called two-ply. The latter tends to be stronger and more hardwearing – and definitely adds value to your shirt.
You may see a fabric’s construction being described as something like “80/2×80/2”. This means that for both the warp and weft two-ply yarns are used. The number 80 refers to the yarn count, which we will dive into now.
The yarn count – or thread count – refers to fineness of the yarns used to make the fabric. It is indicated by labels such as 60s, 80s, 100s and 120s. The higher the yarn count, the softer and silkier the fabric.
High yarn count fabrics, however, are often quite delicate and tend to crease easily. It is very similar to super numbers used in suit fabrics – a super 150s cloth is very soft, but it usually is not very hardwearing.
As a rule of thumb, aim for a yarn count between 80 and 120 for business shirts. For casual shirts – such as an oxford cloth button down shirt – a lower yarn count is rather common: you probably don’t want your casual shirt to be too shiny and preferably resistant to creasing.
Mother of pearl buttons
It has been said that shell buttons are the hallmark of luxury shirts. And we couldn’t agree more.
Carved from the inner layer of pearl oysters – shell buttons will outlive just about any fabric. In fact, they say mother of pearl buttons are so hard, that the needle of a sewing machine would break on them.
And they aren’t just robust and durable. Each button has a deep and unique sheen, complementing the understated appearance of a shirt perfectly.
Shanked buttons have an additional thread wrapped around the stitch that attaches the button to the shirt. This enforcement ensures that they will not loosen with wear. It also creates some space between the button and the cloth, limiting the strain on the button when it’s fastened.
Shanked buttons are preferred as they increase the life expectancy of a shirt. In any case, they reduce – or eliminate entirely – time spent on sewing buttons back onto your shirts.
Single needle stitching
The English call them French seams and the French call them English seams (couture anglaise). Although they disagree on the name, they do agree that the seams of a well-made shirt are sewn with a single needle.
Single needle stitching – also known as single needle tailoring – is regarded as one of the signs of premium shirtmaking. The difference with double needle stitching is that only one line of thread is visible on the outside of the shirt. The fabric is folded over three times and sewn together tightly, resulting in a subtle bump at the seam.
This superior technique is becoming rarer and can only be found on premium dress shirts. It takes experienced seamstresses about twice as long to finish a shirt, but it’s a true sign of craftsmanship.
Stitches per inch
The density of stitching is an easy way to recognize a quality shirt. When examining the collar and cuffs, pay attention to this important marker. There should be around 18-20 stitches per inch (7-8 per cm). Now, we realise that you might not always carry a measuring tape with you, but you’ll notice that the dense stitching on well-made shirts looks neat and refined.
The horizontal piece of fabric that covers the top of your shoulder is called a yoke. This part is either made from one piece of fabric – known as a single yoke – or two pieces sewn together in the middle – known as split yokes.
We particularly like split yokes because its origins lie in bespoke shirtmaking. The two pieces of fabric can be used to tailor the fit to shoulders of different heights. Nowadays this is rarely the reason for choosing split yokes. We simply believe it looks better – especially on striped or checked shirts, where the pattern naturally follows the angle of the shoulder.
But apart from the style, what is often forgotten is that split yokes still have a functional purpose.
Remember the warp and the weft that are woven into fabric? Most fabrics are quite rigid when you pull in the horizontal or vertical direction. But try to pull the fabric in the diagonal direction: you will notice there is some degree of stretch.
So the real advantage of split yokes is that rotation of the fabric increases the stretchability around the shoulders. This might come in handy when you’re driving your car, riding your bike or just tying your shoes.
Some shirts have a triangular piece of fabric at the bottom of the side seams. The French call this la mouche and the Italians la mosca, which both interestingly enough translate into fly. In plain English it is called a gusset.
The purpose of the reinforcing gusset is to prevent the shirt from ripping at the seam. Is this feature really necessary? Probably not. Does it look elegant? Definitely yes.
So if you find yourself holding two shirts, one with plastic buttons and gussets, the other with mother of pearl buttons and no gussets – choose the latter, gussets aren’t visible most of the time anyway.