In a previous article in The Gentleman’s Gazette, we discussed the nature of summer fabrics including linen, seersucker, and fresco; it remains essential reading as we hit the “Dog Days” of summer. In this follow-up, we take a closer look at other aspects and properties of these fabrics as well as some specialty materials that make for excellent summer wear for men who like dressing up no matter the temperature.
Summer Fabrics for Shirts
The first fabric mentioned in our Guide to Summer Fabrics was cotton, which is widely promoted as a breathable natural material. Cotton has a high absorbency rate, meaning it will soak up sweat in hot weather, which then makes you feel cool as the damp material evaporates on your skin. The key to its usefulness as a summer fabric is the process of absorption followed by dissipation of moisture even if it can mean sweat stains. The vast majority of your dress shirts are already cotton (hopefully you’ve banned synthetic shirts from your wardrobe), but you can’t just wear any cotton as the weight and weave matter as well. Flannel is a cotton and standard OCBDs are too, but both of these would be hot wearing because of their thickness or weight. So in summer, you might choose lightweight cotton for your shirts, which you can judge simply by feeling the fabric or by their sheer appearance. Other than regular lightweight Egyptian cotton, an example is cotton voile, a semi-sheer fabric that is also quite soft because of its high thread count. Another is cotton jersey, which is knitted rather than woven. Jersey has a slight stretch to it and is used for t-shirt and polos but can also appear as a lightweight long sleeve dress shirt with buttons.
Yet, unless you’re ripped and interested in sexing it up, sheer cotton shirts can be embarrassing to wear on their own, but under a summer sport coat or suit, their transparency is obscured. Note though that the sheer nature of lightweight kinds of cotton will still allow your skin color to show through, which can give white shirts a beige, brownish or pink cast depending on your skin tone. This may seem like a small point, but it can affect how you coordinate your tie, jacket, and pants if you want to use a plain white shirt as your canvas. Sheer shirts also don’t look as crisp, especially because your pants will not be sheer, so the contrast between a light shirt and the thicker fabric of your trousers will not look as sharp. However, when it’s hot out, compromises usually need to be made, though you could try to locate a shirt in cotton batiste fabric, which is light but more opaque.
Open Weave Cotton
An alternative to the sheer cotton shirt is the open weave, which is usually heavier or coarser than a light cotton. This is because when the shirt is woven, more space is left between the threads, which ventilates the fabric more readily. If the material is too light, with such spaces, it won’t drape well, so an open-weave fabric can be thicker than a lighter cotton but still remain cooler because of its airiness. The most famous woven example is Giro Inglese (“English turn” or “English weave”), which looks like fine mesh, allowing light and air to pass through it freely. The origin of the name likely comes from the Aertex (or Airtex) company begun in the late 19th century in Lancashire, England. The company innovated a “cellular” pattern in the cloth and still produces the material today under the same name. Because of its perforated texture, Giro Inglese looks great when paired with sport coats that have a similar honeycomb look as well as birdseye patterns and perhaps a grenadine tie.
While the Giro Inglese or Airtex shirt may be the most widely marketed, other weaves exist, such as Panama (a basket-weave that recalls Panama hats) and leno, which looks like the mesh bag for a sack of potatoes, though in a far smaller form. Among knitted (as opposed to woven fabrics) the equivalent is cotton piqué, which is the other common material, besides jersey, that is used for polo shirts. Piqué is heavier and stiffer to the touch but more breathable than jersey because its waffle or honeycomb structure is more open to the passage of air.
The next fabric addressed in our Guide to Summer Fabrics is linen, which is usually thought of as the quintessential summer cloth. Made from fibers of the flax plant, linen is one of the oldest materials to be used for clothing and is touted as the strongest natural fiber. The complaint about linen is that it wrinkles easily and has a rough, scratchy feeling, especially noticeable when worn as shirting or pants. Wrinkling is owed to the nature of linen as a long staple material, meaning its individual fibers are longer than others and don’t bend or spring back as easily, which leads to visible folds. The roughness of linen can be attributed to the presence of lignan, an enzyme, that can be reduced by washing, which is easy to do with a shirt. The more you wash a linen shirt, the softer it gets. However, the same properties that lead to wrinkling and stiffness also keep the fibers from clinging to your skin and thus make the fabric feel cooler. Linen also has a high absorbency, though slightly less than cotton, which similarly helps it absorb sweat and cool you via evaporation. Irish linen is heavier (10-13 ounces) a few ounces more than other European linens because of the way the flax is processed in Ireland, resulting in a cloth that wrinkles less. Avoid linens made in Russia or China, as the quality tends to be low, but do try a cotton-linen blend shirt, which has the best of both fabrics: the softness and greater absorbency of cotton with the heat conductivity and durability of linen.
Summer Weaves for Jackets
The same fabrics used for shirts are usually available for summer sport coats as well, but a jacket will never be as thin or lightweight as a shirt: you’ll never find a sheer sport coat. Cotton is a recommended fabric for warm weather jackets, but this is more because of its casual appearance than for its ability to absorb and release moisture since it’s not directly on your skin. Linen is also used for summer wear primarily because its wrinkled laid-back appearance would look out of place in other seasons. Some of the value attributed to these jacket fabrics is owed to reduced linings, though some of their benefits–general breathability–still apply when worn over another layer. Yet, if ventilation is the primary goal, an open or loose weave should be your preferred choice, which also means you’ll usually be wearing wool.
A popular summer wool option is hopsack, which doesn’t describe the material but how the cloth is woven: like a sack designed to store and transport hops used for beer-making, in other words, having a fine mesh structure. In addition to being very breathable, hopsack has the quality of being resistant to wrinkling, draping well and regaining its shape when hung after use. Additionally, since it’s wool, hopsack can have more extended wear since, unlike linen, it doesn’t scream summer unless you get it in a bright color, such as yellow.
A similar alternative is Fresco, a trademarked “high twist wool” produced by J&J Minnis, a brand of the Huddersfield textile mill in Northern England. High twist means the individual threads are spun more than usual, resulting in a strong but light yarn. These are resistant to flattening, so when the cloth is woven from Fresco, space remains open between the fibers, resulting in good air circulation as well as resistance to wrinkling. Thus, the springiness of the twist is directly responsible for the openness of the weave. A Fresco jacket will wear even cooler than hopsack, though it is also quite sheer, so if you wear a light colored shirt under it, odds are it’ll show through. This can happen with any open weave jacket and for some, it is a deal breaker, as it’s less elegant, but those who love to wear tailoring in hot weather may settle for the compromise.
You can also find other, different open weaves for jackets such as the proprietary “balloon wool” made by the Japanese company Ring Jacket, which is described as having the same properties as a hopsack: “a fabric with the ease of jersey, but without the wrinkling and bagging…woven with a natural stretch for comfort, but…extremely wrinkle resistant, allowing the jackets to retain their shape.” Giro Inglese has also been done in sport coats whether in wool or other materials, like linen and silk blends.
Summer Pants Fabrics
The exciting thing about trousers is that a large variety of summer fabrics can be used to make them, including, of course, linen, tropical wool and cotton. Fresco can also be made into trousers, though any open weave material will also be see-through, particularly in light colors. Therefore, they would need to be lined to the knee to avoid exposing your underwear to view. Open-weave fabrics can also make it difficult for a pair of pants to hold a crease if the material is too loosely woven. They also have a “dry hand,” a crisp feel that is desirable in hot conditions because it seems cool. However, this dryness is a function of the roughness of the cloth, which is another reason Fresco pants need a lining that reduces its cooling value. Otherwise, the material will feel scratchy on your legs. An alternative is a different high twist wool, such as Crispaire from Holland & Sherry or another competing product for Fresco, Smith’s Finmeresco. These are said to be smoother while having the qualities of open weaves. They may be hard to find off the rack, but you can certainly do a made-to-measure or bespoke pair either at a tailor or via a company like Luxire if budget is a consideration.
Though synthetic fabrics are usually to be avoided, I want to mention one last trouser option from Ring Jacket made of Advansa ThermoCool fabric, which may represent the future of fabrics designed for specific climate conditions. It’s a 54% polyester, 46% wool blend that is supposed to thermo-regulate the wearer’s body temperature, making it appropriate for both warm and cold weather. Usually, polyester is known for holding in heat, but some fabrics designed to wick moisture away from the body are synthetic, and Advansa claims the “special hybrid fiber blend enables evaporative cooling when wearers perspire, plus thermo-buffering to maintain a comfortable body temperature.” Technological advancement shows increasing promise as a tool for fabrics that optimize personal comfort. I’ve picked up a pair because of the sharpness of the tailoring and plan to give them a test run.
There are a number of fabrics that are optimal for summer wear, from the classics–cotton, linen and tropical wool–to cutting-edge blends that have made their way into tailoring, all designed for temperature regulation. The two main considerations when choosing a warm weather cloth are weight and weave, and both lightweight and open-weave fabrics have their advantages and challenges, depending on the specific article of clothing you are using them for. Ultimately, as with most things in life, experimentation and experience are the best teachers in terms of which materials you prefer to stay cool while looking your best during the season.