A Comprehensive Guide to Dress Shirt Fabrics

When it comes to fabrics, there are literally hundreds if not thousands of terms.

However the list of core fabrics are a handful - cotton, linen, silk, polyester, lycra etc. 

The vast variation in terminology comes from 

  • how the individual strands of the fabric are woven together (a.k.a. the weave e.g. poplin, twill etc. ) and 
  • from combining these core fabrics to create blended fabrics that combine attributes of each individual fabric. E.g. 60% cotton, 40% linen to create a cotton-linen blend etc.

Core Fabrics

Cotton:

Cotton fibers are harvested from the Cotton plant. It is the most popular fabric for dress shirts due to its breathability, comfort, and versatility. It can be woven in various ways, such as pinpoint, oxford, and twill, each offering a different texture and formality level.

Linen:

Linen fibers are harvested from the Flax plant.  is a lightweight and breathable fabric that is ideal for hot weather. It has a natural, slightly textured appearance, giving it a relaxed and casual look. However, it wrinkles easily, which can be both a characteristic and a drawback.

 

Silk:

Silk is a natural protein fiber, produced by certain insect larvae like silk worms to form cocoons. Silk is considered to be luxurious fabric known for its smooth, soft texture and natural luster. It is often used for high-end, formal dress shirts or for special occasions. While silk is elegant and comfortable, it requires delicate hand.

 

Fabric Weaves

Many commonly used dress shirt fabric terms are not different fabrics, but different weaves (how the fabric strands are woven together).

Cotton can be woven using a plain weave, a poplin weave, a twill weave and so on. 

Similarly, linen can also be woven using a plain weave (more common) or a twill weave.

 

The weave of the fabric (along with the number of strands etc.) affects the feel of the fabric.

Here’s a summary of some of the most common weaves. We’ve categorized them into broad buckets of how they feel - smooth vs. having a perceptible texture.

 

Smooth Fabrics

These fabrics have a very smooth feel, with no visible texture.

They are popular for formal as well as office wear, but can also be found in casual shirts.

Poplin

Feel: Thin, smooth, silky, soft, cool

Texture: None, smooth

Weight: Lightweight

Shine: Minimal

Events: Office/Everyday business wear and  casual events in summer

Pros: Wonderfully comfortable for summer

Cons: Can wrinkle and be slightly transparent in bright light

Poplin is an excellent option for breathable, cool dress shirts. It has a soft, smooth, and crisp feel to it that makes it ideal for office shirts. 

Broadcloth

Feel: Robust, smooth, comfortable

Texture: None, smooth

Weight: Medium. Heavier than Poplin

Shine: Minimal

Events: Weddings, Formal Office wear, Business meetings, Interviews

Pros: Slightly warmer and heavier than Poplin

Cons: Can wrinkle and be slightly transparent in bright light

Broadcloth uses the same weave as Poplin but is made with a slightly thicker yarn. Historically, broadcloth was made from wool. Cotton Broadcloth, like Poplin, is a lightweight, smooth fabric with no discernable texture but slightly softer, thicker, and heavier than Poplin. It is a very popular formal dress shirt fabric, especially for formal office wear. 

End on End

Feel: Smooth to touch, cool to wear

Texture: Looks textured up close and solid from a distance. Feels smooth.

Weight: Lightweight

Shine: Minimal

Events: Casual, semi-formal


Pros: More interesting look than Poplin with all the same advantages

Cons: Can wrinkle and be slightly transparent in bright light

End-on-end uses the same weave as Poplin, except that it’s woven with one colored thread and one white. This gives it a distinct color contrast that looks solid from a distance but more textured up close even though it feels smooth and lightweight like Poplin. 

Pinpoint Oxford

Feel: Dressy with shine and texture

Texture: Slightly more grainy look than Poplin and Broadcloth

Weight: Slightly heavier than Poplin

Shine: Minimal

Events: Every-day business, Dinner date


Pros: Opaque, less transparent than Poplin and Broadcloth

Cons: Considered less formal than Poplin

A cross between Poplin and Oxford that uses the same weave as Oxford, but a thinner yarn. It is heavier, thicker, and less formal than Poplin and more formal than Oxford.

Satin

Feel: Thin, smooth, silky

Texture: None, smooth

Weight: Lightweight

Shine: Slightly more than Poplin

Events: Every-day business, Dinner date


Pros: Lightweight, smooth, comfy

Cons: Considered less formal than Poplin

Satin weave cotton uses a weave that results in a silky and soft finish. It is slightly lustrous and drapes more smoothly and softly compared to Poplin making it a light, smooth, comfy, and polished fabric that is popular for dinner dates and casual evenings.

 

Textured fabrics

These fabrics have a texture that is visible and can be felt.

They are popular for formal as well as office wear, but can also be found in casual shirts.

Twill

Feel: Soft and comfortable

Texture: Noticeable diagonal

Weight: Slightly heavier than Poplin

Shine: Slight

Events: Office/Everyday business wear, Business travel, Casual events

Pros: Crease-resistant, versatile for all occasions

Cons: Heavier than most other fabrics

Easily recognizable because of its distinctive diagonal weave or texture, Twill is heavier, warmer, and softer than Poplin. It is not as crisp as Poplin, but more resistant to wrinkles and a fantastic option for office wear when the weather is cooler.

Herringbone

Feel: Smooth feel and slight texture

Texture: Noticeable chevron ‘v’

Weight: Like Twill, slightly heavier than Poplin

Shine: Slight

Events: Business, Casual

Pros: Crease-resistant, versatile for all occasions

Cons: Heavier than most other fabrics

A variation of Twill that is woven to create a distinctive ‘v’  look. This fabric has texture and is popular for both dress shirts as well as casual wear.

Dobby

Feel: Dressy with shine and texture

Texture: Noticeable raised texture

Weight: Medium to Heavy

Shine: Lustrous

Events: Formal, Business

Used in: Business shirts, Tuxedo shirts

Pros: Subtle interesting patterns

Cons: Considered stylish, less conservative

The defining characteristic of a Dobby is a pattern that is woven into the fabric. The woven patterns are usually striped, dotted or geometric patterns that feel raised and luxurious. 

Jacquard

Feel: Dressy with shine and texture

Texture: Noticeable raised texture

Weight: Medium to Heavy

Shine: Lustrous

Events: Formal, Business

Pair with: Trousers

Used in: Business shirts, Tuxedo shirts

Pros: Complex, intricate patterns that add style to your shirt 

Cons:  None. Considered stylish, less conservative

Like Dobby, Jacquard fabrics have intricate intricate designs woven into the fabric giving them a discernible texture. The embroidered designs on Jacquard are much more intricate and complex than those on Dobby fabrics.

Royal Oxford

Feel: Dressy or sporty with shine and texture

Events: Business casual

Texture: Visible, elaborate texture

Weight: Medium to Heavy, heavier than Twill

Shine: Lustrous

Events: Formal

Pros: Dressy with significant texture and shine

Cons: None. Considered stylish, less conservative

A more dressy fabric than Oxfords because of the visible shine and elaborate texture/weave. It is also considered to be more casual and less polished than Pinpoint Oxfords or Poplin shirts.

 

Cotton itself comes in a variety of flavors. Here's a brief breakdown of the various terms used to refer to cotton.

 

Cotton Fiber Types

The cotton fiber used to make the cotton yarn plays a huge role in the quality of the final fabric. This section demystifies premium cotton fibers.

Upland Cotton

This is short-fiber cotton that comprises 90% of all worldwide cotton cultivation. Most shirts are made from this cotton.

Extra-long staple (ELS) cotton

The fibers in Extra long-staple cotton (ELS) are 50% longer than short-fiber cotton making stronger, softer, and smoother fabrics. Less than 3% of cotton production is ELS.

Pima Cotton

This is an extra long fiber cotton (ELS) that is grown in the Americas, Peru and Australia. 

Supima Cotton

This is a type of Pima cotton that meets the requirements of an American registered brand/trademark of “Supima”. The “Supima” brand guarantees quality and criteria such as Supima cotton is only grown in the United States. 

Egyptian Cotton

Egyptian cotton is simply cotton grown in Egypt. True Egyptian cotton that people think of as highly prized is Extra long staple (ELS) Egyptian cotton. Unfortunately, there is no governing quality standard for Egyptian cotton. So, products are often labeled as Egyptian cotton by suppliers who blend in or substitute less expensive cotton as. All Egyptian cotton is not necessarily premium Extra long-staple Egyptian cotton.

Giza cotton is one type of Extra long staple Egyptian cotton that is grown in the Giza Nile delta geographic location.

Sea Island Cotton

Another extra long fiber cotton (ELS) that is extremely rare because it is difficult to cultivate, delivers a low yield and must be hand-picked for best results. Today, it is mostly grown in the Carribbean e.g. Barbados.

Blended fibers e.g. Linen/Cotton, Polyester/Cotton etc.

Cotton yarn can be combined with many other fiber yarns (linen, polyester, silk etc.) to create infinite blends.

The benefit of a blended fabric is that it can sometimes balance out the negatives of one fabric with the benefits of the other. For example, a 55% linen-45% cotton blend fabric can result in a breathable fabric that keeps you warmer than 100% linen.