Shirt fabrics are typically made from natural fibers: cotton, linen, wool, or some blend of them. Sea Island Cotton and Egyptian cotton are typically considered to be the world's best cottons, one could also add the American Supima to this list. (To learn more about Sea Island cotton see here).
From the original cotton, yarn is made, and when yard is spun, we get whole cloth. The end cloth is often referred to as "one-ply" or "two-ply." When two yarns are spun into a single yarn, we then get "two-ply." From the spinning of the yarn, we get warp and weft. Warp is the lengthwise thread in the loom, while weft is the transverse or latitudinal thread. A weave is known as balanced when there is a one weft yarn per warp yarn, or to say it somewhat differently when there is a 1:1 ratio between warp and weft. If the cloth does not have a 1:1 ratio it is known as unbalanced.
Broadcloth, perhaps the most common shirt fabric is an unbalanced weave; it typically has 144 warp yarns by 76 weft yarns. A fabric can also be known as "two-ply" when the yarn is double spun in either the warp or the weft yarn. However, true "two-ply" is when the fabric is double spun in both the warp and the weft directions.
Types of Fabric
This yarn can be woven into a variety of different types of fabric. The most common are: broadcloth, poplin, dobby, twill, oxford, end-on-end or fil-a-fil.
Broadcloth is a tightly woven fabric with a simple warp and weft weave and a slight sheen. They are woven in a plain weave. White broadcloth fabrics can often be transparent.
Poplin is very similar to broadcloth, many often refer to the broadcloth as poplin and vice-a-versa. The sheen on poplin can vary from fabric to fabric, with some poplins having a high amount of sheen. Poplin cloth may have different weights of yarns in the warp and weft, while broadcloth will have a symmetric construction. Proper Cloth, explains: broadcloths could be 100/2 x 100/2 (meaning 100s two-ply in the warp and weft), while a poplin could be 100/2 x 60/1 (meaning 100s two-ply in the warp and 60s single-ply in the weft).
Dobby fabrics are woven on a dobby loom and are characterized by small geometric patterns in the cloth. Pique cotton is a dobby fabric, found in polo shirts.
Twill also has a pattern with a diagonal parallel ribs, which is done by passing the wedt thread over one or more warp threads and then under two or more warp threads.
Oxford cloth is made with a basketweave and is known for its thicker and heavier texture.
End-on-end is a plain weave cloth created by altering light and dark warp and weft threads.
The higher thread count typically is indicative of smoother, finer, and consequently more expensive fabric. Thread count is often given as: 60s, 80s, 100s, 120s, going up to 200s. These number are indicative of the yarn size, such that a 120s shirt will have 120 hanks (where 1 hank = 840 yards) of yarn in one pound. Thread count can be indicative of quality, but its ply, where it was milled (or made), and the type of cotton are all factors that will impact a fabrics quality.
The Best Fabrics
There are a handful of fabric mills in the world that make the overwhelming majority of mens shirting fabrics, most are in Europe. Amongst those the Albini Group produces exceptionally fine fabrics under various brands, including: Cotonificio Albini, Thomas Mason, David & John Anderson, Albiate 1830, and Ashton Shirtings. Others mills include Tessitura Monti, and Alumo. Alumo fabrics, made in Switzerland, are often considered to be the world's very best.