He walked into the ocean [wearing a seersucker suit], took it off and let it dry and wore it to a party that night. It made Haspel suits famous.
— Laurie Lipsey Aronson quoted in "Haspel Suits Have Been Popular with Presidents and in Hollywood" by Karen Martin, 2 The Advocate, 4 April 2005
The name "seersucker" comes to us from the Hindi sirsaker, derived from the Persian shiroshakar or shroshakar, meaning "milk and sugar". The word shakar, meaning sugar, comes from the Sanskrit arkar, while the shr is Persian for milk. The term is a figurative one, referring to the different textures — smooth and rough,— just as how smooth milk and rough sugar have different texture. (Don't blame me; I don't name these things.)
Seersucker Weaver from Vasquez, Mexico
A lightweight weave, either plain or crepe, the puckers arise from tightening and slackening some threads during weaving. The loom is a twin-beam with two warps (vertical); one with loose threads the other with tight. It took skill for the weaver to create a uniform appearance; nowadays, the work is done by soulless weaving machines:
When the ground weave of the fabric is all plain weave, two warp beams are necessary. The bottom beam used for the plain cloth is usually made from single yarns and woven with regular tension from the warp. The top beam which is used for the seersucker stripe, can be made from either single or ply yarns. When made from single yarns the threads are doubled in the harnesses and crowded in the reed. When made from plied yarns they are not usually doubled, unless fine yarns are used. As the plain weave is used for both ground fabric and seersucker stripe, four harness shafts can be used. It is advisable to operate the seersucker on separate harness shafts and not on the same shafts as the ground threads. The number of shafts used will depend on the construction of the fabric. If the heddles or the harness eyes are crowded on the shafts, more shafts should be used. The reeding of the fabric for the plain ground is usually two single threads per dent and for the seersucker stripe is usually two double threads in a dent.
There are several methods by which the seersucker effect can be produced. The first method is done by having the top seersucker warp beam weaving comparatively slack. In this method the regulation of the weight on the beam is made according to the effect to be produced in the fabric. This slack weaving of the warp, together with the crowding of the threads in the reed, creates the crimp of the cloth.
In the second method the warp beam for the seersucker stripe is woven tight, as in regular warp regulation. The seersucker yarn passes around an easer rod. As the lay comes to the fell of the cloth, the easer rod is pulled forward, slackening the yarn. This slackening on every pick affords a good crimp. Adjusting the collar as to give more or less movement to the easer rod can regulate the motion.
In the third method a cam is used on the crankshaft to operate the easer rod, thereby slackening the yarn on each pick. The cam must be set to ease the yarn when the reed is close to the fell of the cloth. The tension on the beam for the seersucker stripe should be set so that the pull of the yarn will be away from the weight of the spring.
Another kind of seersucker is often called “serpentine” crêpe, which is done by a chemical treatment. In this method certain parts of the fabric are treated with caustic soda which causes the fabric to shrink in those areas and gives a puckered effect.
Technical Methods of weaving a Seersucker
The crinkly-textured fabric had been used in India for centuries, but it only attained worldwide notice when the British Raj began to wear silk nightshirts and pajamas made from it. The first recorded English use of the phrase is in 1722, as "Sea Sucker".
Seersucker Fabric Color Variations
Seersucker suits became popular in the south during the jazz era (mid-1920s) because the fabric was cool and humidity would take the creases out of any suit. (The argument that the wrinkles gave the wearer some appeal because, after all, if you rich you had the right to look like you'd slept in your clothes, doesn't hold water. Rich southern men were all about style and looking good.) The north was less receptive because the fashion there was elegant, and razor-sharp, creases, not comfort.
The fabric really took off when clothier Joseph Haspel popularized the wash-and-wear suit:
In 1907, New Orleanian Joseph Haspel seized on the cotton and set out to create a suit whose primary selling point would be wash-and-wearability.
"My great-grandfather was known for starting the wash-and-wear suit," said Laurie Aaronson, president and co-owner of the Haspel clothing company. "In one of his ad campaigns there is a picture of him wearing a seersucker suit and he walks into the Atlantic Ocean. Then he wrings it out, hangs it up and when he puts it back on he goes straight to a cocktail party that night."
The lightweight nature of the material and lack of creases also appealed to him because of the weather in which he found himself. Suit creases fall in New Orleans' humidity.
It is said that the low cost and rumpled state of the often-pinstriped garment made the cognoscenti initially look down on it. But soon after World War I, presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman, as well as movie stars Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant, were seen wearing not just seersucker, but Haspel seersucker.
"Gregory Peck wore a Haspel seersucker suit in 'To Kill A Mockingbird,' " Aaronson recounts.
"Stripes Are Solid" by Karen Sommer Shalett, Times Picayune, 23 July 2004
Haspel was an ambitious, and clever, man, and his PR ploy with swim-and-wear suits worked wonders for his company's reputation. I don't know if this was paid placement — and it wouldn't surprise me, given how Hollywood popularized diamonds — but seersucker started showing up in movies like A Lion in the Streets (James Cagney), The Seven Year Itch (Tom Ewell) and To Kill a Mockingbird (Gregory Peck). I remember the seersucker suit from the movie, because it looked so rumpled. Haspel remains a big men's clothing company.
MonarchCAD Textile Software for Weaving Seersucker
Today's seersucker is available in all sorts of colors and materials, including the ever-versatile polyester, harvested by hand from the finest sacred polyester lambs in the Andes. (I myself am too profane to allow polyester to touch my skin, and restrict myself to 100% natural fabrics that breathe. But what do I know?) The weaving, however, is virtually always done by machine.