What the Super Numbers on Suits Mean—and Why They Really Don’t Mean That Much
Those super numbers—i.e., Super 120s, Super 130s, Super 150s—appear frequently on suit labels. These numbers purportedly denote the overall quality of a suit’s fabric and usually dictate the price (the higher the super number, the higher the price). But what do those super numbers actually mean, and do they even matter?
Let’s face it: high super numbers sound good. After you read this article, it may not sound as though we agree with their appeal (for the record, we do). Still, the siren call of the high super number is undeniable.
Ever walked through the Neiman Marcus men’s suiting floor and headed right for the Brioni and Kiton section to touch their ultra-rare (and phenomenally expensive) Super 180s, Super 200s, and Super 220s suiting? You should.
The fabrics glide through your fingers. The perfection and mastery of each seam beguiles. Just imagining all the tailoring hours required to make every stitch at just the right tension on such delicate, soft fabrics is mind blowing #suitporn. These suits are Holy-Grail items, with prices to match: $9,000-$10,000, plus or minus.
I make suits for a living—building a Super 200s-plus suit is well within my capabilities. I just find it hard to justify the cost (or the need, for that matter). Those super numbers seem to say a lot, but they don’t actually mean much.
Super Numbers Have Nothing to do With Thread Count
Contrary to popular belief, super numbers do not refer to thread count. But what do they actually show?
The super numbers found on suiting fabrics are a grading system used to denote the fineness of the sheep’s-wool fiber twisted into the fabric’s yarn. The yarn is then woven to make the fabric. In other words, when a sheep is shorn, the wool processors examine the wool and grade it. The slimmer it is (measured in microns), the higher the super numbers become. Certain sheep are bred to produce finer wool, and generally, the finer the fiber, the rarer the stock. Hence, the higher the super number, the more expensive the suit. The super number represents supply versus perceived demand more than anything else.
So the Higher the Super Number, the Better. Right?
For the most part, nope. Actually, no relation exists between a fabric’s super number and its quality. A high super number does denote exclusivity, because something like a Super 220s fabric contains some of the rarest wool fibers available. In fact, a Super 220s fabric would run about $1,000 per yard wholesale (bear in mind that an average-sized suit usually requires 3.75 yards—more, if the fabric has a pattern). So, before a bespoke suit maker spends any time cutting or tailoring, that company is already into the suit for at least $3,750. The profit margin, together with labor, will more than double the cost of the wholesale raw materials.
Paramount among the challenges of high-super-number fabrics: these textiles are incredibly temperamental and hard to care for. The thin fibers may have an amazing hand, but they break down far more quickly than heftier fibers. High-super-number suits aren’t meant for wearing week in and week out. In a lot of ways, having a suit made from a Super 220s fabric is like buying a Bugatti Veyron. Yes, it has a ton of horsepower, but what does it matter? You can’t drive it on the street because the first pothole or Starbucks driveway dip will bottom out your car and rip up your exhaust.
It’s easy to fall in love with that super number, but it’s important to take it with a grain of salt. No one regulates super numbers’ usage: any mill can call any fabric any super number it wants. Some mills even use super numbers to denote the fibers used on their synthetics—the tag might say “Super 200s”… with a wool designation conspicuously missing. It’s also common to use short but high-micron fibers to achieve a high super number. These fibers are often rejected by quality fabric mills because short-staple fibers don’t make very durable yarn. Shady mills buy up these lesser fibers in order to produce high-super-number fabrics. These misleadingly labeled textiles are hard to tailor (because the weaves aren’t stable) and even harder to care for (because every wearing and pressing breaks down short fibers more quickly than long-staple fibers).
Base Your Fabric Choice on Need
We tell our clients that suiting fabric is best selected by need. Far more goes into making a quality suiting fabric than the super number, but because it is the most tangible value, it’s often considered first. Some general guidelines for choosing fabric via super number:
- Day-in, day-out wear: Super 110s – Super 120s
Most mills are capable of producing this grade of fabric well, because raw long-staple fibers in this range of breadth are readily available. This means that the quality yarns can be twisted tightly, making the fabric more wrinkle-resistant and durable.
- Big meeting: Super 130s – Super 150s
This range of fibers represents the edge of the common stock. Roughly 30% of harvested wool falls into this category, making it fairly attainable but still possessed of a noticeable softness and richness compared to the Super 110s – Super 120s range. While a Super 150s might be too delicate for weekly wear, it will work as a power suit worn one to three times a month.
- Special event: Super 180s+
Only 3% of wool yields qualify as Super 180s and higher. These fibers are exceedingly rare and quite expensive. Suits made from these fabrics are to be worn sparingly. They look incredible when freshly pressed, but the fabric’s softness and drape tend to wear down and bag after a long day—no matter how precise the tailoring, suits made from high-super-number fabrics lose their shape swiftly.
Ultimately, when it comes to overall quality, the fit and finish of a suit make a bigger difference than the fabric’s super number. Beautiful, high-quality suiting fabrics come in every super number—so, first and foremost, base your purchasing selection on the way the suit is cut and made. Don’t fall for the super-number hype.