How Sunspel fine-tunes its intelligent hybrid fabrics

For heritage brand Sunspel, its rich archive is its ace card for designing refined future classics

Style 18 Jun 2024

Sunspel’s silk cotton T-shirt, £245

Sunspel’s silk cotton T-shirt, £245, offers comfort, classic style and elegance

Sir Winston Churchill once famously quipped: ‘The longer you can look back, the farther you can look forward.’ This idea of tapping into your past experience in the spirit of betterment, forms the fabric of British firm Sunspel, which spun its first yarn in the premium rag trade in 1860. Its archive is bursting at the seams with clever creations that shaped modern menswear, such as its breezy cellular cotton mesh and lightweight merino wool separates, which provided the blueprint for early sportswear. This rich resource continues to drive the brand’s sense of quiet innovation today.

Its new silk-cotton T-shirt, for example, is made from a mix of organic cotton and mulberry silk, which brings a hint of gloss to a daily staple. ‘We’ve been looking at our archive more and more [as] we have loads of these fine fabrics. Obviously, you can’t make the best better and better, but you can blend it with another fibre to get the best properties of both,’ explains David Telfer, Sunspel’s creative director.

And the design team has gone to great lengths to fine-tune the fabric. While most brands buy their fabric ready-made from a supplier and then cut and sew their garments, the Sunspel team wanted to fashion its own blend that felt “just so” to the touch. First, they sourced the yarn from a specialist Italian supplier, with a golden-ratio blend of fibres that offers substance without sacrificing the refined tactility of silk. They found the combination of 62 per cent silk to 38 per cent organic cotton hit the sweet spot. The yarn was then knitted into fabric in Portugal, where Sunspel had complete creative control over the looms. ‘The [mill] specialises in knitting to the exact specification we want; there’s always quite a lot of development in the process,’ says Telfer of the challenge to ensure that the resultant material wasn’t too sheer. Finally, the fabric was cut and sewn at the brand’s factory in Long Eaton, Derbyshire, in 12 distinct steps, from hand-cutting to neckline construction, hemming and labelling, all by production staff who have worked at Sunspel for decades.

Sunspel’s silk cotton T-shirt, £245

Its fine knit and sleek feel give it a dressiness that’s more versatile than your standard cotton tee, making it a cool and comfortable substitute for a stiff-collared shirt. ‘Wearing a T-shirt with a blazer doesn’t always work, but the touch of silk and weight in this one elevates it and makes it work well with tailoring, too,’ explains Telfer. And while the mention of silk might conjure up images of a pile of dry-cleaning tickets, it doesn’t need VIP treatment – its considered blend means you can throw it in the drum with your weekly wash.

This approach to crafting intelligent hybrid fabrics isn’t limited to Sunspel’s staple tees. It’s also produced a range of knitted sweaters and polos, made from a mix of the brand’s signature Sea Island cotton – a West Indian variety famed for its cloud-soft handle – with the warmth and tactility of the “king of yarns”. Just think of it as a natural tech-fibre. ‘You get something soft, durable, lightweight but warmer than just cotton, with this amazing hand-feel,’ explains Telfer. Sunspel’s deconstructed blazers, which have the comfort of a softer structure but remain smart enough for work as well as play, have also been given the same treatment with a fibre mix of cotton, linen and silk. This amalgam of breathable, natural fibres contains both hardier tussah silk and sleek mulberry silk, which combine to strike the perfect middle ground between form and function. What else would you expect from a brand that’s all about material gains?