Wednesday, January 25, 2012
A link-cuffed and signet ring wearing T. S. Eliot, the naturalized English poet and playwright known for The Wasteland, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and other modernist things is shown in the photo (probably taken before the second world war) wearing a heavy worsted suit which I will guess weighs in at 18 ounces (540 grams). That would make a topcoat today but was once a standard English suiting.
Worsteds of that weight predated central heating and passed from the scene as homes and offices grew warmer. Indeed, the 16 ounce (480 gram) suit is about as heavy as a man can comfortably wear for hours indoors in a place like New York where the steam heat is always turned up, and 13 ounces (400 grams) is more common. But the best cloth of those weights makes for clothing that is comfortable and lasts decades.
The move to Super wool qualities has done much to cause these weights to go on life support. Not too long ago, good quality wool from an entire fleece averaged about a Super 80s, where the Super number refers to the width of the wool fibers (higher numbers represent finer fibers). Then came demand from mills in emerging countries weaving cloth in great volume for lower end ready to wear, whose indicator of quality became the Super number. These Supers are in turn woven into suits that are lighter in weight and less expensive because they use less wool. The result is that most of what was once suiting quality wool has had the finer fibers sorted and as I understand it what remains is less than satisfactory for tailored clothing. So it is relatively easy to make more fragile lightweight cloth and much more difficult to weave heavier stuff with a nice hand. My one suit from Smith Woolens now sold out 15 ounce (450 gram) Whole Fleece has a lovely feel without being in any way Super, but only five or so years after it was offered Smith can no longer replicate it.
This is obscure stuff of course, that matters only to those few who understand that heavier cloth drapes better, wrinkles less and is warmer in the cold while remaining comfortable indoors. Cloth for summer is easier than ever to obtain, but the best worsteds for winter may rarely be seen again.
Mr. Eliot would have found that a bleak prospect.