There are two important considerations related to how a suit fabric was manufactured: whether you can be certain of the quality, and whether you are comfortable with the process ethically.
In many cases your tailor may have already made most of this selection for you. Good tailors are picky about the fabrics they buy, and should already have weeded out any unacceptable sources. But if you don’t know how exacting your tailor’s standards are it’s always appropriate to ask about the fabric sourcing,
Some wools still come from registered “houses” or specific mills and looms. These tend to be reliable sources of quality suitings, though hardly the only source — many larger and newer mass-producers do turn out very fine products, simply by being exacting about the wool they use and the process of spinning and weaving it.
Good manufacture can take an experienced hand to judge. The raw data — weight, yarn number, etc. — can only get you so far. From there on the difference between, say, one bolt of Super 100s, 12 oz. worsted wool and another lies in subtleties of texture and sturdiness that are hard to measure.
A few telltale attributes of the wool are worth looking for in the finished cloth:
- Even Surface – Not all weaves, of course, are supposed to be perfectly smooth. A Harris tweed isn’t low-quality if it has bumps and hairy tufts. But the texture should be evenly-distributed, whatever it is. Run your hand over a long stretch of the cloth — if your skin is snagging and catching in some places and not others, there may be broken ends of wool fibers in the cloth that indicate a lower quality.
- Smooth Ends – Fabrics like flannel and tweed are particularly difficult to judge for this, but the individual threads shouldn’t have loose ends of wool sticking up off them. Look very closely at the middle of the bolt. If there are lots of fine fibers sticking out and ending every which way, like a head of hair with split ends, the threads aren’t as high-quality as you want.
- Consistent Weave – Except in a few unique cases like seersucker, a fabric’s weave should be evenly-spaced across the whole bolt. Gently stretch the fabric in a few different places and see how the weave looks, up-close — if it’s loose enough to gap in some places but bunched up tight in other, the cloth will eventually start to distort toward those differences. You want all points on the bolt to respond to pressure the same.
- Even Dye – Look at the threads up close. If individual threads are darker in some spots and lighter than others (when they’re all meant to be the same color, obviously), the dye job may not have been very high quality. In a few cloths this unevenness is prized (such as Madras plaid), but for the most part it is a sign to avoid.
Ethical and Environmental Concerns
There are a lot of steps that go into turning a live sheep’s coat into a bolt of wool cloth. There are more and less efficient ways to do those steps, and some of the most efficient ones aren’t always the best for the environment or the workers involved.
Not all men are concerned with the source of their wool garments or their larger impact — though we like to think that real gentlemen put some thought into it — but for those who do want to buy the most ethical garments out there, a few points are worth considering:
- Land Resources – Most traditional wool-producing regions have been sustainable for thousands of years. Indeed, most American and British sheep farms have reduced their impact over the last half-century or so, as demand has reduced and production methods have improved. Certain Chinese regions are more heavily-farmed, with over-grazing of both sheep and the goats for cashmere wool destroying fragile grasslands and leading to recent “Dust Bowl”-like conditions. Not all Chinese wool comes from these highland areas, of course, but smaller farms from more sustainable regions are always preferable sources for environmentally-responsible wool.
- Animal Treatment – Harvesting wool coats doesn’t harm sheep (though some rarer animal fibers are obtained by killing the creature, particularly when vicuna and alpaca undercoats are harvested illegally by poachers in South America). However, the treatment of a free-range sheep watched over by a shepherd is very different from that of a sheep in an enclosed metal pen with bars to hold its head in place. More and more farms these days are making a point of advertising their ethical animal treatment, and are worth looking for specifically. Some are even certified organic.
- Mill Conditions – Spinning and weaving wools can be industrialized on a very large scale (indeed, wool textile manufacturing was one of the first mechanized industries). Mills can employ thousands of people and massive machinery. If your wool comes from a larger mill it may be best to look for one in the U. S. or E. U., where standards for work conditions are higher than in many Asian countries.
- Profit Sharing – The more middlemen involved the smaller the share of the profit for farmers and crafters. That means that a small-batch wool bought directly from a mill puts more money directly in the workers’ hands than a bolt from a massive international textile provider with warehouses and fleets of transportation trucks. Good tailors will often have personal relationships with their best suppliers — and you can always feel good about buying those cloths.
At the end of the day, of course, a man has to decide how much these ethical considerations are worth to him. A 100% organic wool from an artisan farm and mill in Ireland may be several times more expensive than a similar wool from a large Italian producer — and the quality may not be significantly different. The price reflects the more localized, difficult-to-obtain, small-batch material rather than a higher physical quality.
So these are the two final examinations to make before selecting a custom suit fabric: a physical examination of the cloth’s quality and, if it interests you, a look at the cloth’s source and the details of its production.
Between the two, you should be able to make the final call on whether to go with a particular fabric or not. And at that point you’re done — you have a fabric selected and are ready to discuss the cut and measure of your suit with your tailor!
We’ll recap all the fabric-selection steps in brief in the final section, but if you’ve made it this far from the beginning…congrats, and good job!
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