Closeup of Twill Dress Shirt Fabric

Men’s Dress Shirt Fabric Fundamentals

A comprehensive guide to understanding the basics of men's shirt fabrics

A great dress shirt is the sum of all it’s parts, and fabric is the cornerstone. The fit and style can be exceptional, but without high quality fabric your shirt will feel uncomfortable. The most common fabric used for men's dress shirts is 100% cotton. This is for good reason. Let's look into the elements of great dress shirt fabrics below.

 

It all begins with cotton

Cotton is a soft, fluffy, natural fiber that grows in a boll, or protective case, around the seeds of the cotton plants of the genus Gossypium in the family of Malvaceae. The fiber is spun into yarn or thread and woven into a soft, breathable textile.
Cotton Crop Close-up

Cotton Quality

Cotton quality is based on the fiber length and thickness. The best cotton grows with longer, finer fibers. These longer fibers increase the strength of your shirt because there are less breaks in the yarn structure. Also, longer fibers make smoother yarns because there are less fiber ends. The ends of a fiber are what create the the look of fuzz on the fabric surface. The finer the fiber, the finer the yarn. This in turn creates a finer fabric. When a finer weight fabric is not necessary, finer yarns are combined together to make multiple ply fabrics. These finer fabrics have increased durability and abrasion resistance and are smoother to the touch.

Cotton Quality

Cotton Source

The location of where the cotton plants are grown and the variety makes a difference. A few examples of this are Egyptian cotton, Pima cotton (America & Peru), and Sea Island cotton (Caribbean). The climate and natural conditions make a difference for the cotton species. Climate affects consistent growing conditions;

the more even the growing conditions, the smoother the fibers.

Temperature and weather fluctuations cause the plant to grow the cotton fibers at different rates. Prized cotton matures through climate consistency. Prized cotton is also more rare and expensive if there is less agricultural planting space; such is the case for Sea Island Cotton.
Cotton Field

4 species of cotton:

Gossypium Hirsutum
Gossypium Barbadense
Gossypium Arboreum
Gossypium Herbaceum
Cotton Cones
Fabric Ply
Depending on the fiber thickness, yarns are composed of one to two threads (aka plys) twisted together to make a single yarn. This yarn is woven together to make the fabric. The number of plys in a fabric depends on the needs of the fabric, cost, and look. Single ply fabrics can be heavy with more course yarns or, single ply fabrics can be fine as silk as the yarn count increases. Two-ply fabrics are common in fine dress or casual shirts. They are generally finer and tighter weave than 1-ply fabrics. The finest cotton can need 3 plys to create a substantial fabric. An example of this is 200 thread count.
Thread Count
Thread count is referred to by size numbers: 30’s, 60’s, 80’s, 100’s, 120’s, etc. up to 200’s. This number refers to the yarn size. The larger the number, the finer the yarn. The higher the thread count the smoother, silkier and more expensive the fabric. Also the higher the thread count the more plys necessary to create the fabric, for example 2/120’s means 2 plys of 120’s thread count. We use 2-ply fabrics with an average of 80’s thread count to achieve a soft smooth feel with a weight, density, and durability.
Fabric Finish

The final step after the yarns have been woven together. This step can make all the difference. Most shirt makers and customers overlook the importance of finishing. Depending on the desired results, fabrics are passed though large machines that do the following finishes:

Gasing

This is a process of burning/singeing the excess fibers off the final goods to give a smoother finish.

Polishing/Calendering

This is a process of the fabric being passed between heated rollers to generate a smooth, polished or embossed effect depending on the roller surface.

Mercerizing

This process treats the fabric with a caustic soda solution which causes the fibers to swell; resulting in an improved luster, strength, and dying/color absorption.

Brushing/Raising

During raising, the fabric surface is treated with sharp teeth to lift the surface fibers, thereby imparting hairiness, softness and warmth, as in flannel.

Enzyme Washing

During this process the fabric is washed in a solution with a mild enzyme that “eats” the hairs off the surface to create a smoother hand.

Non-iron

Chemicals can be applied to the fabric to achieve non-iron properties. Most often true non-iron shirts are treated in garment form with a spray or dip process. Learn more about our stance on non-iron here
Next: Shirt Fabric Weaves Guide