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.
I thought fresco specifically referred to an open plain weave made of a high twist blend of wool, silk, and cashmere or wool, silk, and mohair, not any open plain weave made from high twist worsted.
I have never heard this before. The Minnis Fresco is all wool, as is Simth Woollens Finmaresco.
Fresco can be made with any yarn or combinations of yarns, depending on what was looked for. The term “Fresco” is more like a trademark, where the weave itself is actually plain open weave. Even so, wool reign supreme over many others when it comes to a plain weave of high twist yarn.
Matt, thanks for another great article, my question is —- is worsted correctly pronounced worr-sted or woo-sted? I hear both, but think the latter might be right
Americans say werr-sted and the British say woo-stead, with the “oo” pronounced like in book. Essentially, the r is dropped if you speak with a non-rhotic accent.
Ah, thanks Matt. I’m British but I used to pronounced it werr-stead, but I noticed in the Live and Let Die audiobook that Rory Kinnear drops the r when pronouncing the word. Interesting about non-rhotic accents, that’s not a concept I was familiar with.
I see you talk about woollen yarns are used for flannel, tweed, and other things. What is the major difference between flannel and tweed? Is it how the yarns are woven? There is one suit Connery’s Bond wears that you identified as a blue herringbone flannel suit. Why would it be flannel and not tweed? Thanks as always.
The difference between flannel and tweed is in the finishing. Flannel has a nap that tweed doesn’t have. The weave has nothing to do with it.
As I plan to get a Navy and Charcoal suit respectively in the near future as a base for my more mature wardrobe, which among the plain weave worsted wools (that is Tropical Wool, Fresco, and Hopsack) would you recommend a man starting his suit wardrobe pick as his foundational suit fabrics, particularly something that he can wear for various situations, climates and could last for many years and hopefully decades? I would also like to know your thoughts on how durable (or delicate) are each of the respective fabrics, how good are they as a 4 season suit and how well they hold up as suits over time. Thank you. (I’m currently leaning on the Tropical Wool but I’d like to know if Fresco or Hopsack are much better long term and if they can be worn as 4 season fabrics)
P.S. For my needs, I live primarily in warmer to tropical climates and sometimes travel to places with more moderate Spring/Fall climates.
If you need a warm-weather suit, tropical wool is the most typical and versatile of them all. It’s a typical 3-season suit these days, although a lightweight twill is probably more common.
Would a lightweight Pick-and-pick or Herringbone be considered lightweight twill suit fabrics for 3-4 season suits?
Yes, they are. They’re not good for cold winter days or very hot summer days, but they work well most of the time.
I see. I guess then for my needs an ideal suit wardrobe for me could have one suit in tropical wool and the other a lightweight twill. Thank you Matt
Just to clarify Matt, a Twill weave (such as serge and pick-and-pick) can easily be determined by its typical diagonal right lines while a Plain weave (such as Tropical Wool or Fresco) doesn’t have diagonal lines and are more likely to have small open holes (which makes them more brethable)?
P.S. Looking carefully at my custom made Navy blazer that I’ve had for years, I realized it has diagonal right lines instead of an open structure, meaning my blazer is probably a lightweight serge or twill instead of a Tropical Wool as I initially thought! You were right Matt, that a lightweight twill can be worn year round as I wear it frequently and comfortably in my tropical country (being only unbearable in extreme humidity and heat) and have worn it comfortably in London winter. I should probably invest in more lightweight twill (such as serge) suits over Tropical Wool (though I may probably own at least one suit and a few trousers for the truly hot weather)
That is correct. I find that lightweight twills wear warmer than slightly heavier plain weaves. The heavier plain weave will also have the benefit of draping better. I find that some plain-weave wools are better at holding its shape better than others, whereas twill will in general hold its shape better, which is a reason to prefer twill.
I don’t catch the difference between draping better and holding its shape better ?
More weight helps something drape better, hang better and wrinkle less. But a cloth that holds its shape better is better at staying pressed. The trouser crease lasts longer and the trousers won’t bag as quickly.
For a man’s first suit, what worsted wool fabric would be ideal between a lightweight serge or medium weight plain weave?
(For context, I live in a Tropical Country, and can get cold or warm easily (though more on the former) and I plan to wear the suit in both my home country as well as places with more moderate (and sometimes cool) weather. I would like to take in consideration of course the suits’ longevity, drape, ability to hold shape, and versatility)
I recommend going with a 9 oz serge suit. It will hold its shape well but won’t feel too heavy or too light. I find that suitings under 9 oz don’t perform well.
Thank you for the suggestion Matt. If I may add, would you recommend that on a first suit for the trousers to be lined fully, lined to the knee (similar to what English tailors do), or unlined keeping in mind comfort and longevity?
(All of my tailored trousers to date are completely unlined and have held up well for about 5 years, though I heard lined trousers may last longer than unlined. I have worn fully lined trousers on my first ever suit which felt nice at first but also made my legs sweat quite a bit with the hot climate and felt uncomfortable)
Most of my trousers are lined to the knee. I definitely don’t recommend a full lining, which I haven’t worn in a long time. I have some unlined trousers, which are good in hot weather, but make sure there is a lining at the crotch. That makes a big difference for longevity.