Recently, ETON shirts joined the Gentleman’s Gazette as an advertiser, and since we only accept advertisers of products we have tested and liked, I was invited to attend an extensive factory visit and brand experience called ETON College. In this article, I will share the brand history, detail how they produce shirts, review ETON shirts & Give you a chance to win one of our three prizes totaling over $1,000.
The History of ETON Shirts
It all started in 1928 in the small village of Gånghester near Gothenborg, Sweden where Annie and David Pettersson started to sew shirts in their kitchen and sold them under the name “Skjortfabriken Special” which translates roughly to “Shirt Factory Special”. Soon thereafter, these shirts became popular among locals and since the area around Gånghester was known for textile manufacturing, it was easy for ETON to expand. However, it wasn’t until the fifties that the company established itself as a sizable shirt producer in Sweden.
One aspect that allowed ETON to grow was state of the art factory built in Gånghester in the late 1940s, which is still in use and remains the headquarters of the company today. The other big step was the expansion to England in 1955.
Around that time, Mr. Pettersson had travelled to Eton in England and since he liked to name and nimbus so much, a shirt collection Eton was released shortly after he returned to Sweden from the UK. Since the line was successful, the entire company was rebranded from “Skjortfabriken Special” to “ETON” shortly thereafter.
Subsequently, they tried to improve their product constantly by testing new finishing methods and creating new machines.
Quality Aspects of an ETON Shirt
Over the years, I have had the chance to speak to many shirt manufacturers and cloth weavers. One of the thing they all have in common, is that they claim to make the “highest quality shirts” with the “best fabrics” without ever outlining why exactly they consider themselves to be the best.
Just like all the others, ETON claims to make highest quality shirts. But why exactly do they claim that and is that justified? I was skeptical in the beginning. However, during the factory tour, I noticed a number of things in which they stand apart, such as their fabric and their machines.
One of the things ETON is very proud of is their fabric. Just like any other fabric it starts with choosing the fiber, spinning it, dyeing, weaving (sometimes printing) and finishing it.
All shirts at Eton are made of natural fibers at the moment, but in an ongoing effort to be as green as possible they are experimenting with Tencel, a special Viscose fiber. However, at the moment the number one fiber in shirt production is cotton.
Just like with many things, not all cotton is created equal, and some plants are technically from a different species. The quality of cotton is mostly determined by its staple length, because the longer the staple, the stronger and better yarns and fabrics are.
Raw Material – Cotton
The top 10% of cotton in the world is the Giza 45 from Egypt with a staple length of 45mm, American or Peruvian Pima Cotton of 35mm or more and the very best cotton comes from the West Indies in the Caribbean, also known as the West Indian Sea Island cotton.
Unfortunately, the name Sea Island is often abused because only 0.0004% of the world cotton production are actually true West Indian Sea Island with over 50mm staple length. It’s so precious that it is only harvested by hand to prevent any impurities.
Currently, Eton is producing 800,000 shirts a year and hence the amount of West Indian Sea Island cotton is not available for the entire production. Instead they use the so-called Star Cotton from J.C. Holloway and Egyptian cotton.
In the U.S., the USDA classifies their top level as ELS (Extra Long Staple) for all lengths of more than 35mm. Star cotton is 2 steps above this level and represents the best 3-5% at any given year. The cotton is harvested by machine and then cleaned, packaged and sent to Italy to be spun into yarn and then woven into fine cloth.
All ETON fabrics are true 2×2 ply, meaning both warp and weft are 2 ply yarns, unlike others who use a single ply warp and a 2 ply weft while still incorrectly selling it as a 2 ply.
All shirts of the ETON Red Line are treated with a proprietary “non-iron” finish. Now first of all, there is no such thing as a truly non-iron cotton shirt. I tested the Eton shirt, and while it is more wrinkle resistant than a regular high quality shirt, it will definitely show wrinkles when it is not ironed. Once ironed, it will wrinkle less than a regular shirt. As such, it is an improvement over regular shirts.
Today, you can find a number of those “non-iron shirts” on the market. While, most of them feel cheap because the fiber is coated with formaldehyde, which is bad for your skin, the Eton finish is 100% organic and feels just like real cotton. Furthermore, at the end of the 4 week finishing process, the shirt contains less chemicals than a cup of black tea. As such, it surpasses all Oekotex standards.
The finishing process takes place in Switzerland and is performed by a joint venture between Eton and Alumo. Eton experimented with their organic finishing process in the seventies, and today they are the only one who can achieve this wrinkle reducing finish without any chemicals.
Overall, I think this finish is one of the biggest competitive advantages ETON has in the industry, even though it is not a true non-iron finish. Without ironing, you still have some winkles on the shirt, but fewer than with a regular one. Over the course of a (work)day, an Eton shirt will also wrinkle less than another shirt made of similar fabric.
Because ETON is large and they have this fantastic proprietary finish, they decided to create their own shirt designs, and as such they don’t utilize stock fabrics and they don’t visit fabric shows. However, their expertise goes way beyond visible designs. They also decide what kinds of yarns with how many ends (warps) and picks (wefts) are used to create a unique fabrics of their choice. That way they can decide what kind of fabric they want to create, how dense it is, and what weight it will have. They also source the cotton directly, and so they can decide what thickness the yarns need to have etc.
Not too long ago, they hired an Italian fabric designer from Albini who has greatly helped the way they work. By utilizing a special computer program they can design new fabrics on their computers and directly transmit that design to the mill so the fabric can be woven more quickly and efficiently. Overall, the design department of ETON it is very much cutting edge, and I would absolutely consider them to be industry leading.
That being said, ETON creates designs that are anything but classic and targeted towards a younger artist crowd while they also sell typical white and blue business shirts. For example, they used their instagram pictures and made them into a shirt, or they collaborate with artists to create unique printed designs that you will not find anywhere else. Of course, they also create fabrics that are neither classic, nor contemporary, such as their polka dot shirt. The process of the fabric is quite interesting in the sense that it is woven with all the dots first. Whenever you weave a dot, in a contrasting color, the threads are visible on the backside of the fabric. Most of the time, you will never see the backside of a woven jacquard tie, but you definitely see it in a shirt fabric. Therefore ETON developed a process that allows them to cut off the excess threads on the backside without damaging the dots or another fabric. Of course this extra step requires more time, and so the shirt is a bit more expensive. At the same time, it provides ETON with a competitive design advantage because other dotted shirts are usually printed, and not actually woven!
Once the fabric is woven and finished, shirts are created at the factory. Overall, I noticed that ETON is big on recycling and being green. As such, they try to reuse and rebuild rather than just throw-away and create from scratch. The same is true for their shirt factories.
Sweden is very expensive when it comes to manufacturing, and it is very difficult to find qualified sewers who can produce a top quality shirt. As such they only produce their top quality line DNA shirts and Made t0 Measure shirts at the company headquarters in Gånghester. This is reflected in the retail prices for these shirts, which are around $500.
All other shirts, including the red business line and the more contemporary green line are made in Romania, Estonia and Lithuania. While ETON does not own these Eastern European companies, they operate with them on an exclusive agreement and provide them with the necessary knowledge. Rather than building new factories, they decided to seek out existing shirt factories with underutilized capacities and turn them into a profitable operations.
Over the years, Eton has done more than just produce shirts – they have consistently improved their internal systems and workflow. As a consequence they developed a ceiling mounted shirt assembly line that delivers the right part of the shirt to the right sewer at any time. Moreover, they invented special machines and additions to machines. All the hardware (including shelves) is made by ETON as well! I have never seen this kind of clothing company before. Eventually, this specific know-how was outsourced to another company: ETON systems, which is wholly owned by ETON, but they apply their own expertise to other industries and manufacturing facilities. So, whenever they collaborate with a manufacturing unit, they bring their knowledge to the table and install all of their time saving and quality enhancing features and mechanisms as part of the deal.
In line with a very Swedish spirit, ETON ads daycares and other work-life features to the factories, improving the quality of life of the workers.
The making of the shirt starts of course with the pattern. Made to Measure patterns are cut by hand, while ready to wear shirts are cut using state of the art machines. It should be mentioned that ETON does not offer fully bespoke shirts, so it is not possible for example to have different shoulder yokes when you have a sloping shoulder. That being said, their RTW cuts are very good and feature extremely long sleeves, probably because Swedes are taller than the average as a nation. Personally, I have long arms and usually require an arm length of 35.75 inches. ETON and IGN Joseph are the only shirts whose sleeves fit me off the rack. Eton even offers a long version, of their shirts were a 15.75″ collar has a 38.5″ sleeve. So if you have long arms, ETON offers a great selection. I liked their slim fit cut the best. Of course, they also offer a classic cut that is a little fuller, and recently they also introduced a super slim fit, which really deserves its name. For my taste, it is too slim, but in Sweden young men love to pull off a very snug fit, and so if you are looking for a very slim shirt, ETON offers it! I am not aware of any other company in the U.S. that offers such a slim shirt at the moment.
Once the individual shirt pieces are cut, they are bundled and send through the assembly line, which is quite fascinating. Collar, cuffs, side seams etc – and ready is your shirt. Once it is completed it is not just folded by hand, but also folded by machine so you have a wrinkle free, perfectly looking shirt within 5 seconds. Some of the machines are even made so two collars can be sewn at the same time and little additional tools ensure that the stitch has always the same distance to the edge. All seams are single, done with needle stitching machines with a stitch density of 18 – 20 stitches per inch (7 to 8 stitches per cm).
For interlinings, they only use quality German material and they offer fused as well as unlined variations. Of course, different fabrics require different interlinings. Generally, the red ribbon line is targeted to business customers and features fused interlinings, resulting in beautifully crisp collars while the green ribbon line is a bit more relaxed and hence is made with sewn interlinings. While sewn ones are softer, they are more difficult to iron and more prone to wrinkles. It all comes down to personal preference.
Once the shirt sewing is completed, it’s time for buttons. All buttonholes are machine made, but ETON used the finest machines there are with an extremely high stitch density. Personally, I am a big fan of mother of pearl buttons and ETON uses them for their DNA shirts. However, since they produce over 800,000 shirts a year it was difficult for them to source a consistent quality of buttons for all their shirts, which is why they developed a system that crushes mother of pearl and then makes it into consistent buttons. Personally, I still prefer the mother of pearl because of its sheen, feel and luster but I can totally understand why it would not be feasible on such a large scale. All buttons are sewn on with a proper shank that is reinforced by the Ascolite machine , so a button will most likely never come off, which is truly fantastic. Due to the smart setup and all the special machines, production time for a shirt can be as little as 100 minutes.
All DNA shirts feature some extra details such as the extended inside front placket. So even after a good lunch, rest assured no skin will peek through your shirt.
Sweden is very advanced when it comes to worker’s safety, ergonomically optimized offices and environmental consciousness. As such it doesn’t come as a huge surprise that ETON is constantly working on becoming greener. For example, the company is currently in the process of reducing all plastic parts from their packaging and at the same time, they are experimenting with new, cellulosic fibers such as TENCEL because they are more eco-friendly. Cotton requires a lot of water grow and many chemicals to process it. At the end of the day, it’s refreshing to see a company that focuses on more that profits.
In recent years, ETON also branched into shirt accessories such as ties, scarves, pocket squares, etc. None of these goods are actually made by them, but they maintain design of the patterns and looks, so every ETON scarf is in fact unique. Considering they have a huge dealer network and the scale, it only makes sense for them to branch into different areas. At the same time, they want to be sure to maintain the level of quality their customers are used to.
At the end of the day I think ETON’s future is bright, because they really provide high quality, sustainably sourced goods with unique innovations and designs that you cannot find anywhere else. At the same time, the commitment to the environment and to constant improvement may soon propel them to become the largest shirt manufacturer in the world.