Acorn Shirt Fabrics
“Please, would you tell me,” said Alice, a little timidly, … “why your cat grins like that?”
“It’s a Cheshire cat,” said the Duchess, “and that’s why.”
There is an English taste and it resides in the mind and the culture and the place that is England. Developed and refined over time, the patterns colors and textures they choose say as much about their evolution as any social or archaeological history could. But just where is the English taste to be found? Indeed where is anything of a culture to be found in this time of Web and satellite based communications which seem to be on pace to reduce the world to one tedious mono-culture? Luckily there is still one shirt fabric merchant who maintains the colors and finishes associated with English taste and is still owned and operated by the natives who direct the art and the quality and the completion of shirt goods which can still be described as resolutely English.
At Acorn, all fabrics are designed in collaboration with and woven nearby in England and then sent to Italy for finishing. In terms of colors, patterns and uniformity of theme in their cloth ranges, Acorn are the most English of all the fabric makers ; they are also the last of them.
Acorn produce beautiful luxury cottons in their Grassmere 160s 2×2 range but their strength is a fine and dependable shirt cloth in a 100s. In an industry which often appears bent on a race to produce the emperors new shirt fabric it is sometimes relieving to see a firm simply updating a classic. Well made 100s 2×2 cloth is at a crossroads of fabric weight, comfort, opaqueness, durability, price and wrinkle resistance.
Once woven and off the loom, the goods go through one or more of a variety of finishing processes. Pre-shrinking and mercerizing or “brushing” create different cotton looks; the later makes for that flannel appearance. The lesson here is that finishing of the cloth is key. After brushing, mercerizing etc., the fabrics are bathed in chemical solutions then rinsed in water; sometimes several times.
Finishers from two different finishing plants create a different look and feel (handle) to the same woven cotton. Some finishers aim for a softer more buttery result and others shoot for a crisper handle. Finishing is not an exact science and can vary from batch to batch within the same finishing house. However, finishing is less “hit and miss” today than it used to be; it also employs more environmentally friendly chemical ingredients.
Think of England and the colors she loves
Made in England is undeniably patriotic and economically supportive. However, there is another reason to weave in England and that is increased quality control and faster feedback. This in turn allows Acorn to take greater chances with design and thus offer greater variety. There is also the benefit of all that unwritten, unspoken almost incommunicable cultural understanding that local weavers will already possess about what exact textures, colors and patterns the English prefer. It would be almost impossible to get another culture up to speed about what exact range of blues or what resolution of stripe the English will prefer.
Although this is not a shirt pattern that would ordinarily spark the English tastes, this one is compelling to them. Its plainness accentuated with a repeating combination of a plum, lilac, blue and navy colored stripe combines all the virtues of a shirt for them. If the stripes were any closer together or farther apart, the shirt would lose caste with them immediately. This is Classic Shirtings’ Regent 3/20 Lilac. The plainer 3/30 blue ( Only blue and navy alternating stripes) would also be popular.
And on the subject of English color preferences, it would seem the English are imprecise about it verbally but know exactly what they want visually. Which is why it is paramount that someone brought up in the English aesthetic indeed does the color selection.
According to Acorn the American customers know what they want shade wise and thus aqua blues and sage greens, are asked for with specificity. This is probably as a result of American male exposure to designers and interior decorators. They have trained us to see that there is no such thing as “just” blue and that, to be content, we need twenty different shades of the color in anything we buy. Whatever the social comment about our times, it does make Acorn’s job a lot easier.
In England by contrast, the English have no idea what to label sub shades of color and you will get requests like “More pink and blue only not quite as pink and blue as the last time”. You will overhear interactions like “But you asked for pink, sir” with the response “I know, but that is VERY pink”. This goes some way to explaining why “pink” can run into lilac or wine or lavender or even damasque red or ultimately royal purple itself.
The upshot of all this imprecision is that you either know what shades and colors the English will buy or you’re stuffed. Unlike with the Americans if a shade is wrong, you cannot sell the item at any discount. The English like what they like, end of story. The good news is you can come up with unlimited and slight permutations of the same dratted thing and sell it by the mile.
Although English simplification of color would at first glance to make an outside observer’s job easier it does not. For instance It took me quite a while to understand that colors referred to as wine, burgundy or even lilac are the color of actual wine dried on a white cloth or a dark rose color and not always the dried blood red we associate it with in the States. That the color we might refer to as a palest purple here can also be called lilac in England or alternatively mauve or lavender. Mistakes like this can lead to an American buying a dark red striped shirt only to find it’s not as English (although it is somewhat English) as he thought and what he wanted was actually a faded red-purple color.
Lilac in England is close to pink. In fact, it is a sort of dark pink. Notice that this shirt is a fine stripe on a white background. The English are very fond of simple patterns which appear as a solid from a few feet away.
Pink and blue, lilac and blue, red and blue, blue on blue as well as yellow and blue are very popular as combinations for shirts. Usually (but far from always) there is some white involved on the shirt as well in each case.
Pink on white, blues on white, and even to a degree a scarlet red on white are all classics for one purpose or another. Red in particular is considered the shock color par excellence, the “Go to hell” stance of the city lad and the “I can wear what I please” stance of the West End habitue.
Although considered on the fashion-y side, lilac, lavender, purple and mauve are much more popular in England than anywhere else. In fact, they are not that popular anywhere else. In Italy, they sell none because there is superstition attached to it. In America, outside of the largest cities and the most sophisticated circles, these colors are considered effeminate. Although, happily, this attitude is changing.
Pink with blue stripe. Pink and blue reside coiled around the English cerebral cortex. This handsome example might be sported by a mandarin of the civil service. English professional men, even those in positions of seriousness or authority, are not afraid of color. This is Grange FR Pink. The pigs on the tie are a recurring fun theme with the English. Being a Benny Hill like chauvinist “twit” is considered part of the fun of being a lad.
Even pink is frowned upon beyond England’s shores but for the occasional client with exceptional tastes. In Canada, pink is never to be seen. But why is Pink so popular with the Englishmen? A recent survey in England suggests that pink is the color the fairer sex most wants to see on its men, and perhaps that gives us some direction.
No matter how much of an expert you believe you become in predicting what the English will like in a shirt pattern, bear in mind that even when all the proper colors are present, they still abhor complexity and there exist very real dimensions to their preferences. To a greater degree, only someone raised within the culture can see these dimensions with regularity. This might explain why one seemingly bold shirt is acceptable and another is far too byzantine.
Navy and Blue Jumbo Check. This is real English taste. The English are not afraid of scale on a shirt nor are they interested in uniformity. This is true City Lad chutzpah. Believe it or not, in England this is a classic. A shirt like this one (#22 in the classic shirting book) necessarily demands cufflinks loud enough to be seen through the pattern.
Thus, even when using the same exact colors it is crucial to set and combine them in the way the English (and their many fans) like them. Improper controversy in an Englishman’s shirt is tantamount to suffering self imposed ostracism. Acorn makes sure all the proper tribal markings are present and this is why Acorn is such an important cultural institution.
Of course, Acorn does cater to the worldwide customer who wants to either buy trademark Acorn and English designs or English takes on international styles and colors. However, the Harvie and Hudson look has come round again; a look that really took hold in the 1970s. Now, due to this English look taking hold again, even notorious holdouts of “le style drab” like the Japanese corporate elite are beginning to wear bolder stripes and checks of all sorts.
English Fabric preferences:
White is still the number one seller, followed by the end-on-end blue (you know the one with a hint of grey).
This is the workhorse of the English wardrobe. The Bengal stripe comes in many gauges and scales. On the left is Grange HC navy which is about as dark as the English will choose. In the center is King HD blue which is a staple for just about anyone who owns a jacket in England. On the right is Grassmere GF Navy. The GF sky is actually more popular but this runs a reasonable second. The English love the Bengal stripe so much that they like to see it in different qualities of cotton.
Bengal stripes are a perennial. Black stripes (and solid blacks) are a fashion statement. Many of the more fashion forward designers like them and they have a certain modern flavor. More typically the English go for three shades of blue (ice, sky and royal), pink and wine.
The black solid is getting more popular in England for evenings out; at least for younger people. Their Savile row customers probably wouldn’t be caught dead in (or would only be caught dead in) a black solid shirt. There is the idea that the black shirt reminds the collective memory of British fascists from the 1930s.
The English like to vary standards and favorites. This is nothing more than a conceptually pulled out gingham check. Its key acceptability factor is in color and paleness. Regent 8/30 Sky. In the States we would have a hard time putting a conservative tie on what we would consider a “wild” shirt but for the English, this shirt is not wild but rather a classic. Note the spitfire cufflinks (available through Harvie and Hudson). Ordinarily, the English eschew idolatry but they are rightfully proud of their contributions in WW2.
The Butcher stripe, so called because of the width of stripe worn on aprons of actual English butchers is a very popular stripe in England as is it’s permutated brother, the butcher check. These gauges along with Bengal striped and checked gauges form the backbone of the shirts worn by those in the city, in the legal temples and at the civil service.
The Grassmere GF Navy with a standard blue tie with white spots. The English love the spot theme on a tie.
A close-up of King HD blue. There is a paler version (HD sky) which the English also like.
*Grange* HD Navy. The variation in gauges and spacing of Bengal stripes is as varied as snowflake patterns.
Acorn makes both a 36” wide goods book (Acorn) and a 60” wide book (Classic Shirtings) and that’s the only difference between them. Something like 850 fabrics exists in their ranges at any one time.
The Kent range is a twill weave for those who wanted a bit more beef to their shirts. Actually the Americans wanted them more even if they’re made up by English makers. Americans also like the pinpoint oxford cloth. Burnside is more an open fabric. It is more delicate than twill.
The Grange line is the standard 100s 2×2 poplin fabric. Riviera blue is the most popular blue amongst the darker colors; the English generally wont go darker. In the Grange ET range of solids, almost every color is popular except for green, tan, yellow and grey.
The Windermere is a 120s 2×2 which feels similar to a sea island cotton, recently switched from a piece dyed fabric to a yarn dyed fabric which has increased its luster and crispness of color. White and a few solid colors are popular but mostly in the USA.
Grassmere is the most popular range (160s 2×2 ) when the English want to upgrade. And the English are known to spoil themselves on their shirts. Grassmere feels like silk; it’s that fine. They don’t do a lot of bold choices in the Grassmere because it costs the customer and the mill a lot of money thus the effect is to increase the conservatism of all parties involved in the fabric design. The English like the white, sky, and the azure most. At present there really are no Grassmere pinks and pink/blue and/or white combinations but there is a feeling that this is about to change.
Again for the present, GE, GF, GH sky are the most popular Grassmere choices in England. A true 160s 2×2 is as good a quality as anyone needs, after that level the cloth becomes increasingly more difficult to work with and the consistency is more like a tissue. The higher count fabrics are a good gimmick for a shirt maker who wants to keep making shirts for a handful of clients.
The Malham range is white on white which used to be popular in the 80s and actually outsold plain white. It’s having a revival as a “hip” item amongst young mavericks and the fashion houses. The English use this fabric as sleeves and body in conjunction with a white pique bib fronted formal shirt. White on white herringbone is also quite popular.
Royal Oxford is more popular in Italy than England. The English like the pinpoint oxford and the full blown oxford cloth because they feel it has a more American look!
The English like the solid, striped and checked Summer Pinpoint (even more than the normal Pinpoint) for both dress and weekend shirts. Although the English usually eschew texture in day shirts for the office, something about the summer pinpoint appeals to them; perhaps because it is only somewhat textured and appears smooth at a distance.
Zephyr is a sheer, soft and open weave which is popular everywhere, including England, as is the voile. It seems global warming is catching up with all of us. Zephyr in plains colours and the ZL and ZC sell well but the ZD – ZG never took off – a classic example of nice design, wrong quality.
The Balmoral is another twill which has a lot of patterns the English like in blue on white checks and stripes.
Top qualities and more specific Acorn choices that define the English.
Big checks (Like BG in the Acorn book and #22 in the Classic shirting book) with self collar and cuffs and very widely spaced large gauge stripes (Regent #200 and the like in the Classic book) with a white collar and cuffs. You hardly see the stripes under a jacket and the effect is a seemingly solid white shirt until the jacket is removed; the sort of trompe l’oeil the English admire.
DA (blue with hairline stripe in white) with white collar and cuff appeals to the English.
ET blue is vastly popular, almost everyone on the island seems to wear one.
CC sky, a medium gauge bengal stripe in the Grange range, is so popular that some men get a dozen of just that, same for GD Grassmere sky.
With the advent of the reality of multi-media monitors and their negative effect on the white shirt, blue has become the new white in England.
English Top Ten Sellers and Choices:
According to Acorn, in no particular order……
- EE Blue
- AZ pink
- CC Sky/Navy
- GM Blue
- NNG pink
- Grange white
- FJ Blue
- MC Blue
- ET Blue
- EE Pink
AZ Pink is a pink mini-houndstooth with a thin blue overcheck or windowpane which they simply cannot produce enough of (it’s also very difficult to photograph well). NNG pink is a blue poplin with a beautiful pink end on end stripe. MC Blue is (small blue and black check on a white background)
Rather classical but I guess that’s where we are at!!
Of course, there are other shirt colors and patterns popular with the English and these will be covered from time to time in future essays.
Acorn Fabric’s take on English style:
The suits are generally classical but the Englishman will “go to town with the shirt”. The English today aren’t as bad as simply putting whatever tie on top of their shirts as in times past and they are now matching their ties to their shirts a bit better.
The English enjoy a subtle, discreet customization such as having
contrasting button holes on the cuff. Or a complementing fabric on the inside of the collar or the inside/underside of a cuff. For example, having a shirt made up in Windermere Bluebell and having Grange HC Sky on the inside/underside of the cuffs. The inside of the collar may be too much in this specific case.
It should be mentioned that demographically, younger guys like the flamboyant checks and stripes ala Harvie and Hudson. The Savile row customers prefer the solids and Bengal stripes in Grassmere qualities.
How to spot an American or an Italian vs. an Englishman by his shirt? Acorn believes the cut of the shirt and suit are more of a tip off to who is English and who is not. The English are masters of making beautiful things they dare not wear. Acorn often designs something and has it made into a shirt before they decide to run a quantity of it.
*_Did you say pig, or fig?’ said the Cat.
`I said pig,’ replied Alice; `and I wish you wouldn’t keep appearing and vanishing so suddenly: you make on quite giddy.’
`All right,’ said the Cat; and this time it vanished quite slowly, beginning with the end of the tail, and ending with the grin, which remained some time after the rest of it had gone.
`Well! I’ve often seen a cat without a grin,’ thought Alice; `but a grin without a cat! It’s the most curious thing I ever say in my life!’_*
What the Future holds for Acorn Fabrics:
They will be expanding the total number of offerings in both the classic shirtings and the Acorn ranges to 500 each (1,000) total. At the moment there are only about 850 total.
A new range of bamboo and linen which from a distance looks like linen but it is softer and a little more fluid than linen (trust me, I will be reviewing it). Solids to start (no white, the material doesn’t react well to the process) in cream, pink, blue, and lime green! It will be called the Barbados range. Bamboo is an ecologically friendly fabric and it is quite hip. The cloth merchant, Scabal has been using bamboo for jacket and pants fabrics for a while now but no one has yet really offered a shirt fabric. If it’s a hit, then patterned additions will be introduced.
There will be more pinpoints including a selection of patterns. There will be both pink and blue color ways.
Skipton Panama will be expanded with a pink and a grey. Oddly enough this highly textured, Italian looking fabric sells quite well in England.
More plain colors on the Lycra range because the ladies like that.
Expansion of the Windsor 140s range. The 140s has more in common with the 100s than the 160s. It is not as silky and it will not wrinkle as much but it does feel finer against the body than 100s and it takes color better. The 140s offers a good crossroads of luxury and solidity.
The Imperial 170s range will also be expanded, there is a building desire for finer fabrics that even a traditional stalwart like Acorn cannot ignore. O Tempora O Mores.
Grassmere will be expanded, more yellow and blue. Green is coming back again (not for the UK but they sell to the greater world.) No orange and brown additions.
The wool/cotton Kendall and brushed cotton Fife ranges will be expanded upon.
Many of the jumbo sized patterns in stripes and checks will be offered in new colors and combinations. Acorn’s dedication is to continue to supply the world with fabrics they can use for both business and casual; and also to keep the English tradition of shirt tastes alive. You might ask how they are they doing in this category? For the moment, the Cheshire cat grins on.
Acorn have their own web site at www.acornfabrics.com