How can you tell a high quality dress shirt? Luckily, what distinguishes a high quality dress shirt, is more than just black magic and flashy marketing. There are a few things you can look for. These things are generally signs that the shirt took longer to produce and will help you identify a dress shirt made without shortcuts and capable of lasting you a long time.
High Quality Collar
A close inspection of the shirt’s collar will often give a sense for the quality of the shirt. A quality collar will be cut perfectly symmetrical, with straight and clean stitching along the edges. If the collar is a fused collar, then it should have a nice crispness to it, with sharp, clean edges along the bottom. Bending the collar, it should feel flexible and resilient. It should not feel like paper or board that can be creased. The collar should naturally curve in a circle when buttoned and not be prone to hold some unnatural shape. The stiffness and weight of the collar is not necessarily a sign of poor quality, but rather an element of design.
If the collar is an unfused collar style, this is not necessarily a sign of poor or high quality. Often unfused collars are softer and a bit more casual, or in the case of the handmade Saville Row shirts, a stiff unfused collar is certainly dressy, but shows more personality and can be very beautiful. Unfused collars generally require a bit more skill to finish perfectly, so a high quality one can be fantastic, while a poorly made knockoff will be terrible.
A sure-fire sign of a high quality shirt construction is the split yoke. The shirt yoke is the panel of fabric that runs across the shoulders, just behind the collar. A “split” yoke is where the yoke is made of two different pieces of fabrics. A true split yoke will have the two pieces of fabric cut at an angle or “on the bias”. The stylistic benefit of cutting the fabric like this is that if the shirt has stripes or some kind of pattern, this pattern will run parallel to the front seam of the yoke, producing a neater look to the front of the shirt. In the back below the collar the stripes will meet in a chevron pattern. The functional benefit is that when a fabric is cut at this angle (also referred to as “cut on the bias”), the fabric stretches more length wise. This means you’ll have a greater range of motion when you’re reaching forward.
Generally speaking, a split yoke requires more sewing and more expertise on the part of the shirtmaker and is a great sign of a hiqh quality dress shirt.
Removable Collar Stays
Going back to the collar, if the shirt has a dressy style business collar, then it will almost always require collar stays (little pieces of metal or plastic that are inserted into the points of the collar) – they keep the collar points pointing straight and looking sharp. A high quality dress shirt will come with removable collar stays. Some shirts may come with sewn-in collar stays that you can never remove, or no collar stays at all. Both of these options are a sign of a poor quality dress shirt.
Premium Cotton Fabric
We won’t go into this too much in this post, because dress shirt fabrics is a deep subject with varying opinions on thread count, ply, country of origin, mill, type of weave, yarn treatment, materials, etc. But suffice it to say, the quality of the fabric is very, very important to the quality of the shirt. Generally speaking, fabrics with thread count of 80s two-ply or greater are a great quality, though there are many exceptions on both sides of this rule. We’re generally a bit skeptical of 50s single-ply fabrics, very skeptical of 40s single-ply fabric, and very, very skeptical of anything with a polyester blend.
That said, how the fabric looks, feels and performs is ultimately what really matters. If the dress shirt’s fabric is at all rough to the touch, wrinkles particularly easily, or shrinks a large amount with normal washing then you likely have a poor quality fabric.
Mother of Pearl Buttons
The quality of the buttons is certainly a way to get a sense for the quality of the dress shirt. We generally favor high quality Mother of Pearl buttons for their depth of color and shine. Mother of Pearl buttons are also very resilient to degradation caused by cleaners and heat, and as such can last a long time. Thicker or “Tall Mother of Pearl” buttons are quite expensive and are a sure sign of a high quality dress shirt. That said, mother of pearl buttons are not the only nice buttons there are. Some plastic/resin buttons can be very attractive and last a long time and other materials such as horn or Tagua nut can also work really well.
Dress shirts can come with a variety of button sizes and the size and shape of the buttons is more a matter of style or design, than it is quality. Thicker or thinner, bigger or smaller buttons can be found on both poor or high quality dress shirts alike so be sure not to draw conclusions based simply on this parameter.
Cleanly Finished Button Holes
If there are loose threads around the button hole, or any sign of fraying, this is the sign of a low quality shirt. Premium quality dress shirts will have more stitches on the button hole and very clean openings with no sign of fraying.
Hand Sewn Cuffs
It doesn’t really matter if we’re talking about French cuffs or barrel cuffs. Like collars, you can get either fused or unfused construction. The appeal of each is the same as it is with collars: fused for a clean, professional look and unfused for a relaxed, casual vibe. They should be hand sewn and this is where experience, skill, and patience makes a difference. It takes a lot of focus, practice and time to get the details on the cuffs right and it will show the most in the pointedness of the corners and the straightness of the stitching.
If the shirt fabric has a noticeable stripe or check pattern, then you’ll want to see how well the pattern matches where different pieces of the fabric come together. A high quality shirt will certainly have perfect pattern matching at the center back of the split yoke, as well as along the front of the shirt and at the pocket (if the shirt has a pocket). If the pattern matching is not precise, the stripes or checks will not align down the front of the shirt and look sloppy. Horizontal lines should run seamlessly from the left to right side of the shirt and vertical stripes should be spaced such that there is no stripe missing at either sides of the shirt placket. The stripes on one side of a collar should be identical in elevation to the stripes on the opposite side of the collar. A really good sign of a high quality dress shirt is when the pattern at the end of the yoke matches perfectly with the pattern at the top of the sleeves. This is a really great detail that is difficult to accomplish consistently.
Keep in mind that, the way the curves and angles of a shirt pattern go, it will be impossible to match all of the patterns perfectly. It’s normal for patterns to not align where the sleeves meet the cuffs, at the side seams and in many other parts of the shirt.
Clean, Tight Stitching
In general, the stitching throughout the shirt should be straight or smoothly curved in the curves. A high quality dress shirt should have at least 18 stitches per inch around the cuffs and collars. Some casual shirts may be sewn with thicker thread and less stitches per inch, which is certainly acceptable, although these shirts would not be acceptable for most business or evening wear.
Single Needle Side Seam Stitching
Another way to tell a high quality dress shirt is to check if it has single needle side seam stitching along the sides of the shirt and bottom of the sleeves. This will produce an incredibly tight seam that is very narrow and elegant. Only one line of thread will be visible on the outside of the shirt and the tightness of the seam will make it such that no puckering can show when the shirt is washed and dried. The way to check for single needle stitching is to look at the front and back of this seam along the sides of the shirt and check if you can see one or two lines of sewing. Sewing the side seams in this tight way is more difficult for the shirtmaker. It’s also less forgiving if a mistake is made and correspondingly more expensive. If two lines of stitching are visible here it makes for a less elegant shirt and a side seam that shows more puckering after washing.
One exception to this rule of thumb is if the side seam is sewn such that only one line of stitching is visible from the outside, but two lines are visible from the inside. Technically not “single needle” stitching, this is a bit of a compromise that is also a sign of good quality. It produces a clean look and a tight seam without the cost and difficulty of the classic single needle side seam.
Tightly Sewn Buttons
Check closely to see how the buttons are attached to the shirt. The buttons should be firmly attached to the shirt without too much looseness. Ideally the stitching should go in a criss-cross “X” shape which makes for a stronger button attachment. If the button is attached with two stitches in parallel that don’t criss-cross each other it is a sign of a poor quality shirt. Attaching buttons this way is cheaper and faster for the shirt maker and generally not as secure as the aforementioned method.
Furthermore, another nice detail that is a sign of a high quality shirt is if the buttons are “shanked”. Generally this is not necessary for finer dress shirt fabrics, but the attention to detail that it implies should be appreciated. A shanked button will have another thread wrapped around the threads that hold the button to the shirt behind the button. This can cause the buttons to stand out ever so slightly and makes for an elegant look.
Small Button at Sleeve Placket
Below the opening of the shirt is what is called the shirt sleeve placket. This is the part of the shirt sleeve that opens up when the cuff is unbuttoned. This area is necessary so that you can get your hand through the opening of the sleeve or roll your sleeves up your arm. A high quality dress shirt will feature an extra button in the center of this placket that prevents this part of the sleeve from gaping open. Some lower quality shirts will try to skip this detail to save a few pennies, resulting in either a large gaping opening just below the cuff, or a sleeve placket so short that the sleeves cannot be rolled up the forearm without feeling uncomfortably tight.
A high quality dress shirt will come with some spare buttons attached somewhere on the shirt. A high quality shirtmaker will expect your shirt to last you for years, and be aware that, inevitably, a button or two will be lost and need replacing. High quality shirts will come with a spare large button as well as a spare small button so that you’re prepared for the worst. Typically these will be sewn on the front shirt tail, but they also may be found on a tag at the side seam.
Reinforced Side Seam Gussets
Another sign of a high quality dress shirt can be found at the bottom of the side seams. Premium shirts will have some sort of reinforcing here that is called a gusset. This extra piece of fabric will prevent the shirt from ripping at the seam that can be caused by aggressive tucking/untucking or an overzealous cleaner. It also adds just a bit of minimal, practical design to the shirt. The extra time and effort that it takes to add details like this is a good sign of a high quality dress shirt.