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What Makes A High Quality Dress Shirt?

How do you tell a high quality dress shirt apart from average quality dress shirts?

 A beautifully made shirt is harder to make and will last you a long time. An inexpensive mass produced shirt will only last a few wears and tends to be visually inferior. So it's worth investing in high quality clothing. Luckily, it is hard to fake quality and cutting corners on shirt quality is easy to see. Knowing what to look for is the best place to start. Below is a list of the key parts of a high quality dress shirt.

Details for a high quality dress shirt

Tailored Fit

The first and most important part of a high quality shirt is a great tailored fit. It is cheaper to make a big box shirt that fits everyone, just not well. Look for back seams or back darts to contour your back. A well fitted shoulder and armhole take expertise to perfect and make a huge difference in the way a shirt hangs off your frame. No matter how great the stitching or fabric quality is if the shirt does not fit well your just not going enjoy it.
Dress shirt with tailored fit

High Quality Collar

Collars are made from three pieces of fabric, the top collar, the under collar and interlining that is sandwiched between. Interlining is basically another layer of fabric of comparable fiber composition. The interlining give the collar the stiffness and “body” that allow the collar to stand up with a rigid formal look. The stiffness and drape of a collar can be altered by changing the interlining. Also the interlining is cut on bias to give the collar a better “roll” at the top edge. World class shirts do not use press-on fusing, similar to fine bespoke suits do not use press-on fusing. The reason for this is longevity of the shirt. No matter how wonderful a shirt looks with crisp press on fusing, after enough washes the glue of the press on fusing will start to fail and you will see bubbling. This is especially noticeable at the collar roll/fold that gets the most wear and tear. A stiff interlining not fused into your collar will give you the same look, it is simply much more difficult to sew into the shirt properly and requires a highly skilled tailor. Fused collars just require a hot iron and steam and little skill so that is why they are generally used. The most expensive shirt collars have a beautiful “roll” to them at the top edge. The top roll edge should not look pressed, but rather gently bend over the collar stand and have a softness in contrast to the rigid collar points.
Cutaway Collar Close Up Image

Fine Stitching

It’s easy to see great quality stitching on the outside of a shirt. The test is if you flip a shirt inside out. It should look of equal quality. No loose threads, no chain stitch, great stitch tension and a high stitch per inch count. Not only does a high stitch per inch count make for a longer lasting shirt, due to stitches not catching and breaking on sharp objects. It also makes for sharper lines and tighter seams. The fineness of the stitching in distance from the seam edge is also a consideration. 1/16” stitching away from a seam edge should be standard for a great quality shirt and no missed stitches or wobbling lines. Todays tailors have guides on their sewing machines that let them sew at very fine tolerances, but the need to sew faster and faster to mass produce makes it so this level of quality is seldom found any more.
Close Up Shirt Stitching Detail

Flat Felled Seams

Many shirts today are skipping this key element. Not all seams are created equal and when it comes to fine mens shirts flat felled seams are the mark of quality. A flat felled seam sandwiches with raw edge of the fabric inside the seam. From both the inside and outside the garment the look is clean and polished. To sew this seam takes three passes at the seam and considerable tailoring talent. The three stitches and hidden seam allowance make for a very durable seam. Due to the extra work involved in creating this seam shortcuts have been taken on many shirts today. A plain overlocked seam is very common today, this can leave uncomfortable seam allowances against your skin and a much less strong seam. Also very common is a flat felled seam made with a chain stitch. There are machines that make this seam in less steps without much human interaction, which is a plus for factories at disadvantage to customers. The chain stitch is much rougher on the inside of the garment than a single needle lock stitch.
flat felled seams closeup image

Premium Cotton Fabric

Let’s not get stuck on this subject as it is covered extensively in other posts. The main thing to understand is the fineness of yarn woven into a substantially thick fabric. Cheap shirts tend to have thin fabrics made of junky thick rough cotton. Fabric is the most expensive component of a shirt and the easiest way to save money for a maker so it is the thing that will be sacrificed the most. Try to find a good balance of fine weaving and mid thickness of fabric for less wrinkling and garment longevity. Also we have stayed away from fabrics with stretch for many years, being purists. But frankly 2% of spandex simply makes a really comfortable shirt.
Cotton Fabric Close-Up

Mother of Pearl Buttons

Buttons are an easy way to understand the quality of a shirt. Simply put a shirtmaker is not going to put cheap buttons on an expensive shirt or put expensive buttons on a cheap quality shirt. Plastic buttons are functional and durable but add little more to the look and can melt against a hot iron. They are the most used button in the market and are a fraction of the cost of nicer alternatives. The best option is mother-of-pearl buttons, they are natural, beautiful, heat resilient, and feel great to the touch. The natural luster and one-of-a-kind look of each individual button gives them a rare look that can’t be duplicated. There are many kinds of natural shell that can be made into buttons, each with their own special look. Just be careful that if you get a mother-of-pearl button that is too thin it will crack easily. Some other options to consider are horn buttons, wood, coconut and metal. All come with their own care requirements and can be found in both natural and faux versions.
Mother-of-pearl buttons image

Cleanly Finished Button Holes

Button holes should be machine stitched for a clean uniform appearance. The more stitches the better, the stitches should surround the cut slit giving extra strength to a place that is vulnerable to fraying. No loose threads should be left unclipped and the slit should be size accordingly for the button.
Clean finished button holes on mens shirts image

Hand Sewn Cuffs

Similar to the collar the application and attention to detail sewing a cuff makes for a better shirt. A cuff with fused interfacing can be sewn very quickly by machines that are able to do the whole operation in one pass. Those cuffs are acceptable for good shirts. If you want a great shirt you will need to hand apply sew in interlining that is cut on bias. The interlining will add the stiffness and structure that a shirt needs while staying soft and supple. A good tailor is needed to control the three layers of fabric that comprise a hand sewn cuff and each layer needs to be slightly smaller than the one above it to create the barrel shape.
Barrel cuff image

Pattern Matching

Do you notice the pocket in this image? Hint: look for the stitching. Pattern matching is an unnoticed part of a high quality shirt if done right. You should not notice that it is even happening. It’s patterns that match poorly or don’t match at all that you notice. There are many different levels of pattern matching to watch out for. Plaids can be notoriously hard as they need to be matching and balanced throughout the entire garment. Most makers will place the pockets on diagonal to avoid having to match the pattern. If there are two pockets take not if the pattern is cut as a mirror image or from a different part of the fabric to save on cost. Also note if the pattern is the same on both collar points, and matches down the front placket. Stripes should match at the back yoke if it is a two piece. Also keep in mind most prints used have a direction, say there is a palm tree in the pattern, is it facing the right direction? To make things easier most manufactures will make “tossed” prints that have elements facing both ways so there is no up or down. High quality shirts will tend to not take these cost cutting options. The largest consideration with pattern matching is fabric wastage, it is much more efficient to cut the shirt out of any part of the fabric. On the other hand, it requires a very skilled cutter and tailor to take the time to position the pattern in a manner that aligns the elements throughout the shirt.
Pattern matching on high quality mens shirts image

Single Needle Stitching Allover

There are two main types of sewing machine used on garments to sew the seams and reinforcing top stitching. Single needle lock stitch and single needle chain stitch. The difference is that a lock stitch uses a thread on the top side of the fabric and a thread on the underside (bobbin side) that are looped to lock the stitches together. The chainstitch is made with one thread that stitches from the top side and is created into a chain on the underside to lock it into place. (You will find this seam technique on your jeans for most of the seams) The benefit of a chainstitch is a very strong seam, that’s why it is the most common stitch on jeans. It also has a bit of stretch(give) to it because of the looping of the chainstitch on the back side. It is also a much faster seam to sew due to not having a second bobbin thread. This means the operator can sew as fast as he wants and never be concerned the bobbin thread will run out. The downside of a chainstitch is the roughness of the seam on the backside due to the chain loops, also because it is only one thread if it starts to fray or gets nicked the whole seam can unravel because there is no second thread locking it in place. For the finest most comfortable stitching on a great shirt you should find a single needle lock stitch.
single needle stitching at armhole on high quality mens shirt

Tightly Sewn on Buttons

Having a button fall off your shirt in the middle of your day is a quick way to dislike your garment. Attaching the buttons on firmly is not taken lightly on great shirts. Specialized machines hold the button in place and stitch an “x” stitch through the holes or as a bar tack if it is a 2 hole button. The machines stitch very tightly and in such a manner that the stitches lock themselves together for a very secure end result. For very high end custom shirts a small drop of a specially formulated glue can be added to the backside of the stitches to make them never able to unravel. Buttons with a wrapped shank are not necessary for mens shirts because the shank is used to raise the button up when it is holding thicker fabrics like a suit or coat. A shirt needs the button to hold the front placket closed tightly with the least amount of gap.
tightly sewn on buttons

Spare Buttons

A high quality dress shirt will have spare buttons stitched on the shirt just in case a button breaks or is lost. Having the exact same button as is found on the shirt is important as there are so many button types and thicknesses that finding a replacement can be a huge hassle. The spare buttons are often stitched in the bottom front placket or side shirt tail. We don’t recommend either of these placements for two reasons, first you can often see the stitches used to secure them when wearing the shirt, second they are right where a d shirt is tucked in and can be uncomfortable extra bulk. We believe high quality shirts should always stitch them to the side seam label that hangs free.This leaves them easy to access and does not effect your comfort while wearing the shirt.
Spare buttons on high quality mens dress shirt

Fine Rolled Hem

Another sign of a high quality dress shirt is found at the bottom hem. World class shirts will have a very finely stitched rolled hem. Depending on the thickness of the fabric this can range from 1/8” -1/4” and should lay flat and not cause extra bulk. You actually do not want the hem to be too small and create a “bead” that will show through pants when worn tucked in. A slightly wider yet flatter hem can be preferable. Sewing a very fine rolled hem requires a level of talent and patience that mass produced shirt often will not take. “Roping” which is when the fabric creates a bubbly effect that makes it look like a rope is a sign of tailors rushing while sewing this finishing detail.
fine hem stitch on mens shirt

High quality shirts summed up

It takes many fine details all perfectly crafted to make a high quality shirt. Hopefully this list helps you understand what to look for when picking your shirts for work. You know how you feel when you use products that exude excellence. They make your life richer, smarter and more effective. A great quality dress shirt will do the same.