By Ben Bowers
on 5.2.14

The difference between a $5,000 suit and a $50,000 bespoke suit, besides a raise to a C-letter job title, is fabric. Sure, a documented Neapolitan lineage, a tastefully wood paneled dressing room and savant-level sewing help, but beyond a certain point, luxurious materials create the ludicrous price tags attached to the world’s highest profile suits. The math is fairly simple. The rarer and more elusive the sheep or other furry mammal that supplies the hair/wool/what have you, the more premium the fabric. Those with sensitive skin and desensitized bank accounts can find the threads and fabrics to key in on below.

The “Supers”

Super-250-Gear-Patrol

Super is a generic marketing term you’ll find on high-end sheep’s wool past a certain count. Count in this case isn’t a measure of threads per inch or “thread count” as many assume. Instead it refers to the amount of hanks (a 560 yard spool of yarn) that can be spun out of a single pound of wool. Higher-count wools demand premiums because it produces more yarn per pound and is softer and silkier to the touch. While counts of 60 were once considered fine back in the day, selective sheep breeding and advances in production have created ever higher echelons of wool, reaching as high as 250 today. So-called Supers are unquestionably buttery to the touch, but their value as a suiting material is a source of controversy in the industry today, fueled as much by marketing cache as they are by exclusivity. In fact, high-end supers have developed a reputation for being shiny and easily worn through.

Vicuña

Vicuna-Gear-Patrol

The vicuña is a relative of the llama and may have originated from domesticated alpacas. The South American creature’s wool is warm, light and, at 12 micrometers in diameter, the finest on earth. These qualities made the remarkable fur the material of choice for Incan royalty centuries ago. The conquistadors called it “the silk of the New World.”

A single vicuña produces a mere pound of wool a year — which retails from $1,800 per yard — and can only be shorn once every three years. Efforts to domesticate the animal in order to increase supply have also failed for the most part, since the animal is known to starve itself in captivity. In 1974, the vicuña was declared an endangered species thanks to aggressive hunting and poaching; however, conservation efforts have restored the population to safer numbers in recent decades.

Today, the pristine fur is fought over by luxury brands across the world producing Vicuña garments in incredibly limited quantities at astounding prices. The fur is collected today much like it was by the Incas, by temporarily herding them into groups, shaving them and releasing them back into the wild.

Guanaco

Guanaco-Gear-Patrol

The guanaco is another member of the camelid (llama) family found in South America. Its fur is prized only behind the vicuña’s, particularly when shorn from the bellies of the young, known as chulengos. Only two to three pounds of wool can be harvested per adult, and the process of separating the soft downy undercoat from the rough overcoat add to its high price.

Qiviut

Quivuit-Gear-Patrol

The Inuktitut word refers specifically to the soft underwool found beneath the longer fur of the muskox (or musk ox). Unlike the creatures above, muskox are not shorn. Instead, the rare fur, which is stronger and eight times warmer than sheep’s wool and softer than cashmere, is collected in Northern Canada during the annual molt in the spring when the muskox sheds — or from hunted pelts. An adult muskox produces between four and seven pounds of qivuit each year.

The Blends

Guanashina-Gear-Patrol

Many of the ultra-luxurious fabrics offered by the world’s top cloth makers are actually a blend of several of the wools above, along with other known premier offerings like Cashmere and Pashmina. So-called Guanashina, produced by France’s legendary cloth maker Dormeuil, is known as one of the most luxurious and technically advanced fabrics in the world. The name is an amalgamation of the rare wools used in the blend: guanaco (Guan), baby Cashmere (ash) and kid Pashmina (ina), with a bit of Super 200 wool thrown in for good measure. Suits in Guanashina likely start at $15,000 or more.

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