Well-made dress shirt 3-2-2011

Are you wearing a lemon?

How to spot a well-made dress shirt.

Before you buy a car, you look at dependability, options, and cost. You want something you’ll look great in, but isn’t so cheap it’ll blow up in the middle of the freeway. When it comes to dress shirts, you’re probably used to looking only at the price tag. But that needs to change. Because just like you wouldn’t buy a Yugo, a poorly made dress shirt is just as much of a lemon. With shirts, you’re looking for quality fabric, outstanding construction, and superb fit. Here’s how to get all three.

Fab fab.

The best dress shirts come in a two-ply cotton fabric construction and will have yarn counts from 80 on up to 220. The higher the yarn count, the softer and silkier the fabric. The trade-off is in durability, as a higher yarn count shirt is made with very fine yarn. Blessed with sharp basketball elbows and don’t want them shredding your shirtsleeves? Avoid very high yarn counts.

Keep in mind, high yarn count alone doesn’t mean you’re looking at a well-made shirt. The quality of the mill where the shirt was made also comes into play. Well-respected labels generally have their shirts made at top-quality mills. So an 80-yarn count shirt can actually feel and wear better than a 220-yarn count shirt made at a substandard facility. So, you’ll need to look at how the shirt is constructed.

Staying single.

Take a look at the side seam. You’re looking for single-needle stitching, or lockstitch, where an upper thread “locks” with a lower thread. This gives the shirt a nice, flat seam and a clean, finished appearance. And, as you might expect, you’ll only see a single line of stitches on the outside of the shirt.

Double-needle stitching, done to save time and money, will have two rows of stitches side by side on the outside of the shirt. Sewn this way, the seam has a tendency to pucker, like the waves in a corrugated tin roof. The only rippling in your shirt should be when you encounter a breeze, not when you’re working at your desk.

A high SPI is A-OK.

A durable shirt has a high number of stitches per inch, or SPI. Just like you want a higher SPF you want a higher SPI. A seam with a low SPI may blow out when you least want it to. Like when you’re gesturing to emphasize a point in a meeting. And while you can make a joke about your muscles being too big to be contained, you’ll still be standing there in a shredded shirt when the laughter dies down.

A good match.

An immediate sign of quality is whether a shirt’s stripes or patterns match in certain areas. For instance, the pocket should be placed so that at a distance it’s almost invisible. Look for mirroring, too, where the fabric on one side matches the fabric on the other side. Both matching and mirroring require more effort and fabric. Not having them is fine in a shirt you’re throwing on before chopping wood. But for a business setting, where attention to detail is everything, they’re important to have.

All buttoned up.

Few things are more deflating than putting on a shirt, buttoning one, then two buttons, only to discover the third is MIA and probably rattling around in your washing machine. To avoid this, look for buttons sewn on with a cross-stitch, the most secure way.

For button types, you’ll run across those made from polyester composite and shell. Poly buttons are more durable, but shell buttons are definitely more stylish (and fragile). Also, take a look at the shirt’s bottom buttonhole. Is it horizontal instead of vertical like the others? Originally this was done because the shirt buttoned into your pants. They don’t anymore, but you’ll still find this feature in better shirts. It’s kind of pointless, like someone coming out on stage before a concert begins and screaming “Are you ready?”, but it’s expected.

Get all yolked up.

The yoke is the panel of your shirt across the upper back. Having a split in it that creates two pieces means the shirt can undergo detailed alterations from your tailor. This way, if your lats expand wildly because you’re furiously training for a triathlon, you won’t have to buy new shirts.

Cuff detail

Details, details.

Look for detailing around and on the cuff. A buttoning sleeve placket is a pretty common feature, but it’s an extra detail and is most often found on more formal shirts.

Shirt tag

Your shirt should be true to you.

Finer dress shirts will offer true sizing. That means an exact neck measurement and an exact sleeve length. So, if you’re a 16 ½ 34 that’s what the shirt tag should say. Not 16 ½ 34/35. And certainly not S, M, L, or XL. True sizing means great detail has gone into the making of the shirt. With dress shirts, one approximate size for a certain body type doesn’t cut it. When fit is paramount—and it always is—you want a shirt that’s sized to fit you. Period.

Wear it well.

What it all boils down to (by the way, dress shirts were once referred to as “boiled shirts” because they were boiled to remove the starch that made them stiff) is that if you’re confronted by a high price tag, but don’t see any of the features listed here, then reconsider your purchase. Conversely, if you see these features, you can expect to pay a little more, but you can also be sure you’re wearing a quality dress shirt—one that will remain stylish, and likely last longer than a Yugo ever would.

TAGS: Buttons | Collar stays | construction | Cotton | Cross-stitch | Cuff | Dress shirt | fabric | Fit | Matching | Mirroring | Placket | Shirts | SPI | Stitches per inch | stitching | Yoke

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  • avatar
    DavidCapranos
    Surprised to see no mention of the shirt's placket. Personally I go for a standard placket because I like the way they wear and they seem to always look better longer than my Frechn placketed shirts.
    37 months ago | Report abuse |