Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday afternoon outing with Senator Rand Paul at the Kentucky Derby was ripe with political symbolism. A piece in yesterday’s New York Times on the “Murdoch stakes”—the conservative power broker’s search for a candidate to back in the 2016 presidential elections—divined signs of the News Corp chairman’s intentions from the day’s straw hats, seersucker suits, mint juleps, and kettle corn.
But the story got one sartorial detail wrong: Paul’s powder-blue herringbone blazer was mistakenly described as houndstooth. The Times later ran a correction after a reader spotted the error.
So what are herringbone and houndstooth, and how can you tell them apart?
Both are twill patterns with strong associations to menswear. Herringbone gets its name from its bands of V-shaped lines, which resemble a fish’s skeleton. Typically made from wool, herringbone has long been a popular choice for men’s suits because it adds subtle texture without overwhelming the eye. “Herringbone is probably one of the easiest patterns men can wear,” GQ says. Clark Gable, Ronald Reagan, and Jesus were all fans.
Houndstooth is a bit bolder, especially when the pattern is repeated at larger sizes. With its staggered shapes and sharp edges, it’s said to resemble a dog’s canines or a four-pointed star. (In French, it’s called pied de poule, or “hen’s foot.”) Houndstooth likely originated in Scotland, and it’s usually woven with wool, as blazers, overcoats, or blankets.
To understand how houndstooth and herringbone are made, it helps to know a few basics about textiles. Fabrics are constructed by weaving together two perpendicular thread sets—the warp (vertical) and the weft (horizontal). In the simplest pattern—called a plain, or tabby, weave—the warp crosses just once over the weft, then once under, then once over, and so on. Herringbone and houndstooth, on the other hand, are both twills. In a twill pattern, the warp crosses over, and then under, multiple weft threads. The result is an interlocking weave with diagonal ridges across the fabric. Twill is thicker and more durable than a plain weave, drapes better, and lends itself well to complex patterns.
Houndstooth is the pattern you get when you combine a 2/2 twill (two over, two under) with simple alternations of color—four white, then four black, then four white, and so on—on both the warp and weft. Herringbone is also a 2/2 twill, but the weft is periodically reversed, giving the pattern its characteristic bands of broken diagonal lines.
Most important, which pattern is better suited to a day at the races? According to the Derby’s fashion guide, Paul would have been fine either way: “This is the one day of the year that more is better.”