Buying Guide to Well-Made and Essential Henleys Every Denimhead Should Consider
The henley is an absolutely essential layering piece. For those who like to wear their shirts open at the neck, the henley can provide extra warmth and shape, especially when worn under a soft chambray.
Almost always worn unbuttoned, the two ends of the round collar, when loose, lend a distinctively rugged touch to any look—but especially if your style is steeped in vintage workwear.
For whatever reason, henleys are one of the last well-made items that denimheads add into their rotation. The jeans, the jacket, the shirts, the boots—these are understandably the priorities.
However, since the henley is often worn next to the skin, it can change (and change dramatically) how an outfit feels. The change to how it looks might be minor, but with a well-made henley as our base layer, we can wrap ourselves in soft and well-worn cotton.
Once we get used to adding a henley into the mix, it’s tough to remember what life was like in the pre-henley age. It will quickly become one of the most essential items in your wardrobe, and, if you follow our advice, you’ll be glad you splashed out for a good one.
The sections we cover in this guide:
- Why well-made henleys are essential
- How to identify a well-made henley
- Our of list of well-made and essential henleys
If you want to know more about why we created these guides, please read our Manifesto. If you want to understand the criteria we apply for each item, read our definitions of ‘well-made’ and ‘essential’.
An honest disclosure: There are affiliate links in our guides. We earn a small commission when you click any of these links and buy something. It doesn’t cost you anything, but it helps us continue the important work we’re doing. Availability and price of the products we recommend are subject to change.
Why Well-Made Henleys Are Essential
Well-made henleys tick two crucial essential boxes: they are timeless and they are adaptable. They work with a wide range of looks (sometimes doing that work silently and unseen), and, in all their long history, they have never been out of style.
They’re a pillar of comfortable and fashionable looks, and we’re going to help you find one that will be the first thing you reach for in the morning.
Well-Made Henleys Are Timeless
Why are henleys called henleys? You might suspect that the name has English roots, and you’d be correct. Early in the nineteenth century, competitive rowers in the small Oxfordshire town of Henley on Thames adopted short-sleeved versions of the half-buttoned shirts. Each year, at the Henley Royal Regatta, it became practice for the losing squad to give their shirts to the victors.
If the spread of the henley is any indication, the Oxfordshire rowers lost more contests than they won. The shirts started turning up at rowing clubs all over England, and not just as trophies. They quickly became a staple for English athletes, and they soon made the leap out of the water and into the farms and factories.
The reasons for the shirt’s popularity are fairly obvious. Whether made of thin cotton or wool, it provides a warm base layer for cool mornings or evenings. When the day’s work properly begins, it can be unbuttoned and the sleeves (if long) can be rolled up to the elbows. It can be worn as a base layer or as a stand-alone shirt.
Because of its clear and lasting connection to athletes and working men, the henley only becomes a truly timeless piece when it’s had its face rubbed in the dirt a few times. It is not meant to stay crisp and new for long. It’s meant to be used and abused. Like jeans, a white or cream henley is never fully our own until it’s started to take on sepia tones.
Whether your looks recall the factory worker, the ranch hand, or the Appalachian moonshine outlaw, the henley is just the ticket. It’s never been out of style, and it never will be.
Well-Made Henleys Are Adaptable
You might already be incorporating a henley or two into your looks. If this is an area of your wardrobe where you’ve settled for mass-market, the henley is probably not doing much more than keeping you warm (and even that might be a stretch).
For the henley to be truly adaptable, it needs to be well made. The cuffs keep their shape, and the collar doesn’t wilt like a slice of processed cheese. For the henley to work its magic, it needs to have a little bit of heft, and it needs to be prepared to go the distance with us.
Provided it can do this, it can look amazing under soft twills or hard denims. It can join forces with just about any well-made long-sleeved top, or it can be a stand-alone piece on warmer days. However you wear it and whatever you pair it with, you’ll be glad that you spent a bit of time (and a bit of money) finding a good one.
How to Identify a Well-Made Henley
The differences between a well-made henley and a barely passable one might not be immediately apparent, but once you know what to look for, you’ll have no trouble telling the pretenders from the genuine well-made article.
With the basics, it’s all about the little things, the crucial little details that turn a henley from a disposable garment to an indispensable one. Here’s what to look for.
What It’s Made of
100% cotton or 100% wool are good starting points, but we need to get a good feel for the fabric to really know what we’re dealing with. Henleys often come in boxes or other packaging, so don’t be shy. Open it up (ask first if it’s sealed). Dont’t let the price or even the brand name convince you. Get up close and personal with it.
Rub the face of the garment between your fingers. It shouldn’t feel thin or flimsy. At the same time, it shouldn’t be stiff or rough to the touch. It shouldn’t feel silky smooth either, but you should feel a strong desire to put the henley on and feel it next to your skin.
There should be considerable weight to the garment. This isn’t soft-as-silk cotton. Yes, it’s soft and comfortable, but it’s also a warmth-giving base layer. The knit should feel extremely breathable. A low-tension weave will be the mediating layer between your skin and the air around you. This breathability is key to temperature, which is key to comfort.
Finally, the colour is important here. A crisp, white henley is a must for some folks, but we’re keener on off-whites, vibrant blues, and textured greys. You won’t see any striped patterns on the list below, but this doesn’t mean that patterns are out. The best makers, though, tend to work their magic with solid colours and simple palettes.
What to look for in a well-made henley:
- 100% cotton for comfort
- 100% wool for warmth
- Solid, muted colours for adaptability
- Soft but not too smooth
- Substantial but not stiff
How It’s Made
A henley is a simple garment. It doesn’t feature the kind of stand-out details that you’d find on a denim jacket or a button-up shirt. It’s closest siblings are the tee shirt and the long sleeve, and, as with the tee shirt, it’s the little things that count here.
The one point of difference is the placket (the part of the shirt that buttons up). A top-shelf henley should feature high-quality buttons (mother of pearl is always a nice touch). The placket should be simple. It might be short, or it might be long. Henleys look their best unbuttoned, so pick a placket depth that suits how much skin (or cleavage) you do or do not want to show.
The best makers use loopwheeled cotton. What selvedge is to denim, loopwheel is to cotton, and it’s even easier to spot once you know what to look for. Loopwheeled cotton is woven around a cylinder, so it has a huge advantage over other forms of cotton: no side seams. Once you’ve ditched the side seams, the premium you pay for loopwheeled tees and henleys (and that trademark tubular fit) is more than worth it.
The stitching should be smooth and clean. Any puckering is a sign that you’re looking at an inferior, mass-produced garment. The cuffs on well-made henleys cover the entire wrist and then some. A good henley will feel like it’s got you in a gentle wrist lock—like a lover drawing you back to bed.
Construction details to look for in well-made henleys:
- Loopwheeled cotton (not essential, but very nice to have)
- Simple placket (nothing too complex)
- Fine buttons (mother of pearl are a nice touch)
- Long cuffs with snug feeling
- Clean and tight stitching throughout
- No puckering around the stitches
- Carefully designed neckline
Why It’s Made
Great henleys are made to last. Their makers expect that they will be worn next to the skin, and worn over and over and over again. You can feel this in the cuffs, which don’t relax, even after multiple washes. They keep going, and they keep fitting great.
You can feel it as well in the fit. There are plenty of loose and flowy henleys on the market, but the well-made and essential ones fit snugly, making them a perfect layering piece, and a great opportunity to show off the body’s contours. They’re not skin-tight (far from it), but they’re far from the shapeless long-sleeves that inevitably end up stacking up at the back of our closet.
Henleys might not be as tough or long-lasting as denim, but they’re neck and neck in terms of their essentialness. Invest in a well-made henley and it’ll stay with you (and on you) for ages.
Our List of Well-Made and Essential Henleys
As with most of the items on these lists, location will be a good guide. When you’re looking for a good henley, start at a reputable well-made goods stockist.
If you want the best selection, try one that specialises in vintage workwear. They’re the ones most likely to have at least a few of the well-made and essential henleys we’ve included on this list.
We’re leading off with Merz B. Schwanen’s version of the henley because their cotton basics are first and last on many well-made lists. Merz is one of only factories in the world (the others being in Japan) that produce authentic loopwheeled cotton, and this means that their tees, henleys, and sweatshirts are in high demand.
The Germany company first started producing garments in 1911, and it was one of these first-run items that caught the eye of Peter and Gitta Plotnicki at a Berlin flea market shortly after the company had wound down production.
The husband and wife team breathed new life into the brand, and their basics have been well-made staples ever since. Their henleys are a careful reproduction of the vintage designs, and (like the one that caught Peter and Gitta’s eye), it might just outlast the century. The very definition of the timeless henley.
- 4.6 oz. loopwheeled cotton blend
- 67% cotton / 33% viscose
- Based on 1911 design
- Made in Germany
- Hand-turned collar
- Authentic fabric-clad buttons
- Flat knitted cuffs
Merz b. Schwanen ships from Germany. If you’re looking for other places to buy Merz, try: Franklin & Poe (USA), Self Edge (USA), Burg & Schild (Germany), Maplestore (Australia), Lost & Found (Canada), Son of a Stag (UK)
Like a number of the other Japanese heavyweights, The Real McCoy’s cleverly silos its production, creating sub-labels that cater to particular niches. Joe McCoy is the brand’s Westernmost outpost. The brand’s love for vintage Americana is on full display, and everything in the spotlight shines like Klondike gold.
This means that, if anybody can give Merz a run for their money in the vintage henley game, it’s Joe McCoy. They’ve been making thermals and henleys for some time, but they’ve only recently started combining them into what might be the ultimate vintage-styled warming piece. It cries out to be ridden hard and put away wet. Be warned, though. It comes out of the package in a brilliant white, so messy eaters need not apply.
- 100% cotton
- Made on vintage tubular knit machines
- Flat-locked seams
- Made in Japan
- Based on 1940s design
- Ribbed collar and cuffs
- Runs a little small, so size up
Other Real McCoy’s henleys to consider: USN Wool Henley Undershirt (warm and military-grade tough), Double Diamond Eyelet Knit Henley (looks a thousand years old brand new), Double Diamond Wale Knit Henley (micro-rib classic)
Clutch Café ship from the UK. If you’re looking for somewhere else to buy Real McCoy’s, try: Brooklyn (Canada), Standard & Strange (USA), Frans Boone (Belgium), Real McCoy’s directly (Japan), Real McCoy’s international (UK)
When not just any blue will do, it’s got to be Pure Blue Japan. They are the undisputed world champions when it comes to textured, vibrant blues. Though their reputation is largely based on their slubby and character-drenched denim, they’ve really upped their basic game in recent years. Their slubby tees and longsleeves have leapt off the shelves, and it’s not hard to see why when you get up close with one.
Their Flat Seam Military Thermal Henley might look like a blue long sleeve from across the room, but get closer and you start to see why stockists are having trouble keeping them in the store. Blues and blacks lace fingers and wrestle for all they’re worth. The contest won’t be decided until you fade it (and, like everything PBJ makes, this thing will fade beautifully).
- 100% cotton waffle knit
- Rope dyed with indigo
- Made in Japan
- Military style metal buttons
- Indigo leaf embroidery
- Contrasting cuffs and placket
Clutch Café ships from the UK. If you’re looking for other places to buy PBJ, try: Corlection (Australia), Okayama Denim (Japan), Rivet & Hide (UK), DC4 (Germany), Self Edge (USA), Second Sunrise (Sweden)
Freenote does American classics right. We’ve featured them before on both the jackets and the flannels lists, and we’re bringing them back for the henleys. Their jeans are very good, but if it’s something above the belt you’re looking for, and if Mad-in-America is something you look for, Freenote should be at the top of your list.
Their 100% cotton henley, like the SDA, is a simple, no-frills design. The cuffs don’t announce themselves as anything special, and the white is as basic as it comes. This thing really shines in the other details, though.
The steely blue chambray hiding behind the front placket gives this henley a nice colourful touch, the custom mother of pearl fisheye buttons have been imported from Italy, and the flat lock seams hold everything together snugly. It’s a carefully made classic that’ll pair perfectly with denim and never let you down.
- 100% custom open-ended 13 oz. cotton knit
- Sewn in the USA
- ⅛” double-needle hems
- Contrast chambray on interior placket
- Custom Italian mother of pearl buttons
- Cotton binding from Japan
- Custom made-in-Italy label
Freenote Cloth ship from the USA. If they are sold out, or if you’re looking for other places to buy the brand, start with these: Franklin & Poe (US), American Classics London (UK), Stuff (Germany), Populess (Canada)
Pherrow’s covers a lot of ground with their collection, but they’ve always done basics exceptionally well. They built a stellar reputation on the back of their impeccable reproduction of the iconic L-2A flight jacket. Every piece since then seems to have one foot in the past and the other in the present. This balancing act has made the brand a hot commodity among connoisseurs, so don’t expect to find any of their gear kicking around in bargain bins.
Their henley is one of their most conservative pieces, but it’s still got their trademark eye-catching details. The contrasting placket and cuffs draw deeply on vintage varsity and military looks, and the cotton blend (with a touch of lyocell) marries softness and warmth. It’s a slightly relaxed fit, so if you’re looking for a form-fitting henley, try one of the others. If you’re looking for comfort, though, it doesn’t get much better than this.
- 85% cotton / 15% lyocell
- Made in Japan
- Contrasting placket and cuffs
- Ribbed sleeves
- Crew neck collar
- Relaxed fit
- Extremely plush and soft feel
Other Pherrow’s henleys to consider: Henley also makes their PHSW1 Henley in Oatmeal, and a PWT-GC Henley (100% cotton with a plaid check weave) in Black, Navy, and White
Loop & Weft is relatively new to the scene. They might not have the vintage bonafides of a Merz, but what they do have is a clear passion for their craft. Founded by denim veteran Ryota Seguchi in 2011, the company started with a clear vision: assemble a line of meticulously constructed cotton garments that will pair perfectly with raw denim.
They’ve quickly placed themselves on equal footing with the established brands in Japan (no easy feat). Depending on who you ask, thanks to their impeccable details (especially their cuffs), Loop & Weft might be making the best knitwear in Japan right now. Their thermal henley is one of their flagship products. Since they’re not made in large batches, they don’t last long. Definitely not a piece to put in the maybe later pile. Get ‘em while they’re hot.
- 100% high tension combed yarn
- Made in Japan
- 4 needle flat seam construction
- Sewn on a Union Special 36200
- Form fitting sleeves
- Incredible vintage-inspired cuffs
- Raglan and back yoke sleeve construction
Other Loop & Weft henleys to consider: The combed yarn honeycomb is also available in D. Cherry and in Crewneck versions.
If you want to skip straight to that sepia-toned vintage look, Phigvel’s henley might be just the thing. The brand seems to do their best work in muted creams, which lend themselves well to the brand’s simple and classic silhouettes. The brand was founded in 2003 in Japan, and their straightforward unbranded designs have quickly made them a favourite among discerning denimheads (particularly those who love a good vintage kit).
Their thermal henley is muted and understated. It’s not something that will get noticed from afar (few henleys will), but it’ll quickly become a go-to piece whenever the temperature drops. The mother of pearl buttons and beautiful natural cream tone work beautifully when paired with dark or faded blue pieces.
- 100% cotton
- Made in Japan
- Rib knit design
- Ribbed cuffs
- Rounded hem
- Mother of pearl buttons
Other Phigvel henleys to consider: Phigvel also offers their Thermal Henley in Grey
As one of the Osaka Five, Studio D’Artisan is a name that is perfectly at home on any of our essential lists. They helped put Japanese denim on the map, and they continue, year after year, to produce landmark, category-leading pieces. Their ultra-soft white henley in Suvin Gold cotton is a perfect example of this.
Suvin Gold cotton might not be exclusive to SDA, but they’ve made it one of their signature fabrics. The extra-long-staple cotton is one of the thinnest strains of the white stuff you can find, so Suvin Gold is also a strong contender for the title of softest, supplest cotton on the planet. It’s expensive to produce, and this cost is passed on to the consumer, but those who’ve tried it often come back for seconds and thirds.
- 100% Suvin Gold Cotton
- Made in Japan
- Original SDA Metal Buttons
- Super-soft feel
- Slim-fit silhouette
- Simple cuff design
Other SDA henleys to consider: the SDA Suvin Gold Henley is also available in mock black, and you can also get a Suvin Gold Crewneck.
Okayama Denim ships from Japan. If you’re looking for other places to buy Studio D’Artisan, try: Redcast Heritage (Spain), Corlection (Australia), Self Edge (USA), Rivet & Hide (UK), Son of a Stag (UK)
Got the Henley? Time to Layer Up
Henleys are a layering ace in the hole, so to take full advantage of its potential, you’ve got to find the perfect piece to layer over top of it. Henleys look their best under heavy flannel, but they can also look great under a slim-fitting denim jacket. Of course, the best thing to pair a henley with is always a pair of well-made raw selvedge jeans. Happy layering!