The Oxford Dictionaries have two definitions for “worsted”. The first describes worsted yarn: “A fine smooth yarn spun from combed long-staple wool.” The second describes worsted fabric: “Fabric made from worsted yarn, having a close-textured surface with no nap.” Worsted can be used to refer to either a type of wool yarn to the fabric made from this yarn, but it is a very general term for the fabric.
Worsted wool is generally thought of as a fine, smooth wool fabric without any noticeable texture, but that is not always the case. When people talk about the cloth of a worsted wool suit, they’re usually talking about something in a plain weave or a flat twill like serge or prunelle, but the term “worsted wool” alone does not specify a weave, a weight or what it most suitable for. “Worsted wool” merely describes the type of wool the fabric is made from, and it can end up in many different forms depending on the weave and finishing.
Worsted yarns contrast with woollen yarns, which are carded rather than combed and fuzzier than worsted yarns. Woollen yarns are used for flannel, tweed, melton, knitwear and felt.
Worsted wool can be made up into many different cloths, which may be appropriate for suits, jacket and/or trousers. The following cloths, categorised by weave, are just some of the common forms of worsted wool.
A plain weave is the most basic type of weave, and the most basic worsted cloths are made in this weave. It is a simple one over and one under weave. It has very little texture and is the most breathable type of weave. It makes for warm-weather suits and trousers, and it is often used in ready-to-wear for dinner suits and tailcoats. Small checks are often woven in plain weave worsted.
Tropical wool is a loosely woven plain-weave worsted in a light weight. It makes for good summer suits and trousers, though basic tropical wool wrinkles more than other worsteds.
When a worsted yarn has a higher twist than usual, it allows for more space between the yarns and thus more breathability, even in weights heavier than tropical. High-twist yarns also don’t wrinkle like ordinary tropical wool. This type of worsted is often called “Fresco”, which is a registered trademark of Hardy Minnis, but the term is frequently used generically. It makes for excellent summer suits, trousers and blazers.
Hopsack is a worsted wool in a basketweave, where multiple yarns pass over one or more yarns in a group. It makes for a textured and airy fabric, and it is commonly used for blazers and sometimes for suits and trousers. Fine checks are often woven in a hopsack weave.
Twill is a family of diagonally ribbed weaves, and these ribs are known as “wales”. A twill worsted usually is a right-hand twill, with the ribs pointing up to the right. It is also known as a “Z” twill, after the letterform’s diagonal stroke.
One of the most standard worsted cloths is serge, which is woven in an even twill with a 45-degree wale on both sides of the cloth. This is commonly used for suits, blazers, trousers and military uniforms. In heavy weights it is used for coats. Sometimes it is woven with both worsted and woollen yarns, but typically it is all worsted.
Pick-and-pick (also known as sharkskin) is worsted serge with a fine pattern that gives it a unique look, but it is not a unique weave or made of a unique fibre. The pattern alternates contrasting-coloured yarns in both the warp and the weft, so up close it looks like steps going down. From a distance the contrasting colours give the cloth an iridescent or crosshatched look. It is best used for a suit.
Many other patterns can be woven with serge, such as nailhead, rope stripe, houndstooth check, shepherds check and Glen Urquhart check.
Worsted flannel is a worsted wool (usually in an even twill weave like serge) with its surface brushed to resemble a fuzzy woollen flannel. Compared to woollen flannel, its worsted cousin is more durable and can be woven in lighter weights, but woollen flannel is the more genuine type with a more interesting texture and wears warmer in cold weater. James Bond typically prefers his flannels in woollen rather than worsted.
Prunelle is a smooth 45-degree twill with ribs on one side, commonly used for suits and trousers. This is one of the standard worsted cloths.
Gabardine is commonly made of either worsted, cotton, polyester, or blends of any of these fibres. In any case it is a durable tightly woven steep twill that is made in light to moderately heavy weights. It is good for trousers and suits.
A steep double twill, cavalry twill is a heavy and hard-wearing cloth. It is best used for trousers. Sometimes it is woven with both worsted and woollen yarns.
Whipcord is a heavy, hard-wearing steep twill. Compared to cavalry twill it has a single rib. Is used for trousers, topcoats and, occasionally, suits.
Herringbone is a twill where the wale reverses direction, and it looks like a broken zigzag. Any of the above cloths can be the basis for a herringbone, though even twills such as serge are the most common foundation herringbone weaves. In a suit, a solid herringbone weave can add additional interest without changing the wearability compared to a regular solid twill. Herringbone cloths are often woven with different colours in the warp and weft to emphasise the pattern inherent in the weave, giving a slightly sporty look to the suit.
Birdseye is a specific weave used with worsted wool that can create the birdseye pattern, which is small dots on a diagonal repeat. Is best used for suits.
Barrathea is a worsted with a pebbled appearance, woven in a hopsack twill weave. Traditionally it was a heavy weight but now can be found in light weights. It is used for more formal clothes such as dinner suits, tailcoats and morning coats. Also spelled barathea.
Worsted wool can be blended with other fibres, such as mohair, silk, cashmere or cotton. James Bond commonly wears worsted and mohair blended suits, which are usually woven in a plain weave. Many of his fancier suits and dinner suits are made of worsted and mohair blends.