It’s September 1st and the bus is taking a turn down Autumn Avenue. Toronto has had an excruciatingly hot summer this year and I for one welcome the change in season. It’s almost time to get out the woolens, add a blanket to the bed, put on a sweater in the evening, and pull on a pair of socks.
Canadians live through complex seasonal changes and our weather goes to extremes. Canadians have seasonal wardrobes appropriate to each season, but some of us go to extremes in our dressing during transition seasons (spring, fall) – i.e. people who wear shorts on a “warm” day in March, flip-flops in November (if there isn’t any snow), or overdress in August because they’re longing for a change in temperature or perhaps a change in wardrobe. I’m not big on stripping down before the warm weather hits, but by the end of the summer, I am more than ready to change my light wardrobe to pieces more substantial and cozy.
The people who like to go to the extremes explained above and dress out-of-season look odd. At least they do to me. Why? 1) Wearing the bright colours of spring’s new growth in winter stands out and feels weird, and wearing winter’s dark, subdued colours that reflect the limited light feels weird to wear in the spring, and 2) the weight and fabric of their out-of-season garments are not suited to the temperatures – wearer will be too cold or too hot and they stand apart, but not in a particularly good way.
My goal today is to educate you gentlemen about seasonal dressing as we turn and face the fall this week, so that YOU don’t look odd.
Let the colours of nature guide you through seasonal dressing. In the longer days of spring, bright colours are appropriate, mimicking the flowers, green grass, brightly coloured birds, and general freshness of the season. During the fall, we like to wear the mustards, browns, oranges, and rusts of the foliage around us and later, darker hues that echo the lack of light in winter. The design and retail industries understand this and cater to our need to feel comfortable in clothes suited for seasonal elements, and our desire to change with the seasons.
I’m warm and spring-coloured and find it hard to find good pieces in good colours during the winter, so during the dim season, I force myself to succumb to the darkness of my palette (cinnamons, navies, and candy colours like caramel and chocolate). Secretly though, I’m dying to trade in my brown mohair dress in for a hyacinth-coloured knitted wool dress, but I’ve never seen one. That’s because the clothing industry follows the seasonal colour changes; spring-coloured wool garments are hard to come by for the same reason you can’t find a turquoise sports jacket in winter. Perhaps because it’s natural or perhaps because we’ve been conditioned by the clothing industry to accept this colour practice, I know that even if I could find a hyacinth-coloured mohair dress, I would feel weird wearing it during the winter due to its brightness.
True spring colours are high-frequency, highly active colours that seem to take up a lot of space. A large piece like a dress in hyacinth would really stand out and practically vibrate in winter, but not in spring. Similarly, the often-seen sidewalk greys, blacks, and other drabs of winter look so hard to me in spring; without life and ill-matched to the environment. That’s why wearing out-of-season colours look odd to me. Take this chance to observe the people who try to pull this off and see what you think.
As with the colour cycle, fabrics change through the year. During the warmer months, we wear light fabrics that will keep us cool like cottons and linens, but during the fall and winter, we reach for richer, heavier fabrics to keep us dry and warm. With the exception of cruise wear that hits the racks early in the New Year, we won’t find lightweight cottons and absolutely no linens during the winter, because they just aren’t practical, as in, you’d freeze wearing them in the wrong season. Similarly, you would not find heavy woolen clothing in spring because that isn’t practical either. And you’d look weird. You might even feel weird too.
This gives Canadians two distinct wardrobes for our whole lives, and this can take up space and cost a lot of money, but sometimes we get a break. In this case, we’ve been blessed with animals who provide their hair so we can use their fleece to clothe ourselves and keep us warm. Wool is the most varied and versatile fibers on the planet and can be worn in all seasons - yes! even summer.
Wool comes from sheep (Shetland, Merino), rabbits (Angora), goats (cashmere, mohair), camels, and llama-like alpacas, giving wool of different textures and differing degrees of warmth.
“The degree of thickness determines whether the finished fabric will be a fine dress material or a coarse floor covering,” says the Canadian Sheep Federation. The thickness of the fibers and the weave of the resulting fabric can produce extremely varied wools, some spun so fine that they might be mistook for cotton!
Important concepts in wool
There are some basics to understand when shopping for wool suits, trousers, coats, or jackets:
TWIST – Yarns are twisted to bind the fibers together and strengthen the yarn. With a tighter yarn twist, the harder-wearing the fabric, and the less likely to pill (rogue fibers that are not twisted into the yarn will tangle on the surface of the garment and create a pill, or a fuzzy ball). Also, the higher the twist, the higher the price – one must pay for quality, you know.
WORSTED – Worsted wool is made of even, equal length combed wool fibers that are spun into smooth, firmly twisted yarn or threads. Worsted wool is high quality and will often cost more than a carded wool due to the extra processes that give the yarns a high twist and a longer wearing garment.
WOOLEN – Wool that is carded, that is, worked though with instruments to smooth the fibers and clean vegetable matter from the fleece, varies in length and is looser, bulkier, and less regular than worsted wools. Soft garments like sweaters and other knits are made of carded wool.
Types of wool: worsted
Good suits and trousers are made of fine wools, often worsted, and some can be worn all year around (called all-weather wool). Suits made of all-weather wool are great investments because they’re so versatile (though I advise to keep a pair of long johns close by on cold winter days!).
GABARDINE is a fine worsted wool fabric with a twill weave, giving it a cross-wise raised texture. Wool Gabardine is a tightly woven fabric that is lightweight and often has a natural luster. Gabardine is strong, wears and drapes well, and resists wrinkling. A good wool choice for the spring and summer.
SHARKSKIN is a smooth-textured fine wool worsted fabric with a high twist and a bit of a sheen, resembling the skin of a shark. It has a two-toned appearance because a white thread is woven with a coloured thread to produce this effect. Sharkskin is lightweight and hard-wearing. Another good wool choice for warm weather.
Types of wool: woolen
TWEED is an example of woolen fabric for gent’s coats, jackets, suits, trousers, waistcoats, and outer/sportswear. This rough, unfinished wool fabric is flexible and soft to the touch (but not meant to be worn next to the skin). Tweed is often woven into subdued “heather” colour blends, herringbone, houndstooth, or check patterns.
The most famous tweed is Harris Tweed, hand-spun and woven on the island of Harris, in the Scottish Isles. The cloth was created about 150 years ago by Harris islanders and to this day is spun and woven by hand, as far as I can make out. Have a look at the Harris Tweed website and watch the short, charming video about the history of the fabric.
If you’ve taken this post to heart, you’ll understand the logic of seasonal dressing in terms of weight and colour: generally, light-coloured, light weight fabrics for warm weather and dark-coloured, heavy fabrics for cool weather, with the exception of all-weather wool garments which can be worn any time. My advice is to check the weather daily and find the most comfortable and appropriate clothing for it.
PS - While I was publishing image inc., Canada’s first image quarterly for men, I did a textile series on natural fibers – you may find the wool issue of interest.