Twill is made by weaving yarn into a pattern of parallel diagonals to produce a robust fabric with a distinctive look and feel. Shirts, chinos, jackets and even jeans can all be made from twill. Here we take a look at this most ubiquitous of fabrics to find out where it comes from, how it’s made and how to wear it to best effect.
The origins of twill
Twill is about as old as weaving itself – in fact, when the oldest sweater was discovered in Norway in 2013, the 1,700 year-old garment was found to be woven using a diamond twill pattern. And no wonder because one of the chief advantages of twill fabric is that it’s thicker, warmer and tougher than standard broadcloth. Perfect, in fact for freezing Nordic winters.
To understand what gives twill its strength and durability, we need to take a closer look at how it’s made.
How is twill made?
The threads which run the length of a bolt of cloth are called the warp; the threads which run widthways are its weft. At its most basic, weaving is the process by which the weft threads are passed through the warp in an over-under pattern. Particularly when it’s made from cotton, the resulting cloth is soft, airy, and good at wicking moisture away from the skin.
To make a basic twill, the weft threads are passed over and under several threads at the same time before the weave is “stepped” – passed over and under the same number of adjacent warp threads. This is what gives twill its diagonal pattern and, depending on both the number and combination of steps, you get different variations on the theme – herring bone is a kind of twill, and so is serge.
What’s so great about twill?
By passing the thread over and under different combinations of warp threads, you get to pack a lot more weft threads into the fabric. These extra filler threads make the resulting cloth stronger and, depending on the pattern, more wind resistant. Twill is also warmer, stiffer and wrinkle resistant – that’s one of the reasons a mens cotton twill jacket hangs better than its linen counterpart and is less prone to retaining creases.
Take a close look at your chinos and you’ll see that despite being a plain fabric, there’s a distinct diagonal pattern to the cloth – it’s twill. Examine your twill shirt and you’ll notice a more obvious pattern of parallel diagonals – it’s still twill, but a different weave. The same goes for your tweed jacket – its twill. Twill equals versatility, pattern and panache.
What is Cavalry twill?
The greater the number of weft threads that you pack into the warp, the thicker and more durable the fabric. Being designed for charging the enemy on horseback, cavalry twill is at the extreme end of the durability spectrum. It has a very high thread count, producing a bold, thickly woven fabric.
Cavalry twill is still used to make thick military uniforms and jodhpurs but is also a very traditional mens tailoring fabric – a pair of cavalry twill trousers is a very smart alternative to chinos. It takes a razor sharp crease, resists crumpling and retains the breathability of cotton. Wear yours with a tattersall shirt and wool mix jumper or cardigan, and finish off with a pair of brown Oxfords or Derbys.
Is denim the same as twill? In short – yes, it is. It’s often made by packing the warp – made up of indigo-dyed threads – with undyed weft threads so that you get that distinctive faded blue look which manufacturers enhance by stone washing and other treatments.
You’ll also find that a lot of ties are made from a kind of twill called foulard, the French word for scarf. That light diagonal pattern is often woven from silk to create a quality, lightly textured finish which works well on a plain tie, or accentuates a diagonal stripe.
A cotton twill shirt offers a similar texture – it’s a slightly thicker fabric than that used to make your standard cotton shirt and works well with chinos and loafers for a look that’s just a bit smarter than preppy. Top with a tweed jacket and though almost nobody will realise, you’ll be sporting twill from top to toe. Versatile, tough and crease-resistant, it’s no wonder twill is the ultimate menswear fabric.
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