The following is a guest post from Dottie, a daily reader of this blog, who is sharing her insights on how to spot quality in fabric and construction of women’s clothing. Dottie learned to sew as a teenager and has used her knowledge of clothing construction to look for well-made clothing, preferably on sale. She lives in a 4-season climate, so some of her tips may resonate less with people in warm climates. Dottie welcomes feedback from “Recovering Shopaholic” readers, especially those of you who have additional tips for – or tales of – finding quality clothing.
You spot it from across the store – the perfect dress in “your” color, in the style that flatters your body, at a price that won’t bankrupt you. A quick dash into the fitting room – and you decide it’s perfect!
Or is it? Before you head to the sales desk, take a few minutes to really examine the dress (blouse, pants, jacket, sweater, etc.), preferably in good light. This may require you to leave the more dimly lit dressing room for natural light or even the more brightly lit check-out area.
I am fortunate that I learned to sew in my teens and learned a lot about clothing construction from making my own clothes. I also learned to alter patterns and make substantial alterations (lengthening or shortening a skirt’s silhouette, lengthening sleeves, etc.). Because I know what is needed to make a well-constructed garment, I have been able to search out well-made clothing at various price points.
Price alone is no guarantee of quality – I’ve learned this the hard way. You really need to look over everything you buy – there’s a lot of sloppy workmanship out there — and the amount of what I think is substandard clothing is increasing. The prevalence of “fast fashion” promotes quantity over quality. Personally, I prefer quality over quantity.
So How Do You Identify Quality?
I’ve provided here some design and construction basics that I look for when making a purchase. Please note that I try to buy all of my clothes on sale, but I’m a stickler for quality. However, I do not find that a famous brand name always equates quality. I’ve been disappointed with an overall decline in quality in women’s ready-to-wear clothes, and I have all but stopped buying clothes. (I still score a few excellent buys here and there but the search for quality is more time-consuming.) Fortunately, my current wardrobe has some excellent clothes that I think are irreplaceable.
I hope other readers of this blog will share their tips on how they spot quality in clothing.
Check the Fabric Content
Check the content label at the neck, in the waist band of jeans, or in the left side seam to determine the fabric content and care instructions. Generally, natural fibers (silk, cotton, wool) stand up better than synthetics, but some new synthetics are also worth your consideration, especially for technical or performance wear. However, I tend to stick with natural fibers (Lycra in jeans for stretchiness is okay). For example, I prefer cotton or wool (cashmere) sweaters over acrylic because I think the fibers wear better, retain their shape, and withstand repeated washings.
It’s getting harder to find quality 100% wool, 100% cotton, 100% silk, etc. This may not be an issue for some garments, but for a big ticket item like a winter coat or business suit, you may want to purchase garments with the highest wool content for your budget. Wool blend fabric (depending on the ratio of wool to other fibers) can lead to pilling or wear patterns at the neck, cuffs, around buttons, etc.
The “Hand” of the Fabric
I also test for the “hand” of the fabric – how it feels when touched. You can really feel the difference between a good quality wool garment and one with lesser quality fiber content. You can use this test on clothing constructed from man-made fibers – some will feel better, drape better, and wear better than others. (The definition of “hand” of fabric is the “feel” of the fabric against your skin. There are many adjectives that can be used to describe the hand, or feel, of a fabric, such as soft, smooth, rough, stretchy, stiff, heavy, thin, etc.)
The Trend toward Increasingly Thin Fabric
One of the trends I’ve seen is the increasing thinness of fabric. T-shirt fabric is thinner (and more revealing), blouse fabric is thinner, jeans fabric is thinner, etc. I try to find heavy weight denim for jeans, not the lighter weight twill that is most often available in colors and patterns.
Even when you find a garment that is 100% wool or silk or cotton, the fabric may be of lesser quality. A lot of people bemoan the decline in quality in cashmere sweaters, even within the past 10 years. A lot of women’s cashmere I see today is almost see-through. My advice is to look at men’s cashmere sweaters and buy a classic men’s crew neck or v-neck instead of a women’s sweater. (I have several men’s sweaters that don’t scream “men’s department” when I wear them.)
These Pictures Speak a Thousand Words…
To illustrate the “thinness” issue, here are examples of two silk blouses held up against strong light. The first one was bought in a high-end department store 20 years ago – and my hand inside the blouse can barely be seen through the thick silk fabric. The second one was purchased in a different (but equally high-end) department store 10 years ago for about the same price, and the silhouette of my hand is clearly visible. It’s nice silk, just less luxurious and opaque than the first blouse.
The fabric of the 20-year-old blouse has a thick luscious “hand.” The blouse is delicious to wear – and less revealing! It also has design details that are harder and harder to find, like a placket to cover buttons (I don’t like visible buttons on my blouses), French cuffs, and double darts for better fit. Yes, I keep and wear my clothes for decades – if they are well-made of high quality fabric.
Clothing Construction and What to Look For
Look for Self-Facing
Another quality details on both of the above blouses (the kind of detail I look for) is self-facing on the front placket, cuffs, and collars. This means that the same silk was used to provide additional thickness to these areas for better drape and strength.
I also look for self-facing on cotton shirts instead of fusible (fusible web that is heat-released and provides stiffness, depending on the thickness of the web. If you’ve used fusible – iron-on – hem-mending tape, it’s similar material.) I don’t mind fusible facings but I find too often that too thick a facing is used for light-weight fabrics – and once fused it can’t be removed.
Fabric Grain and Nap
Clothing should be cut along the grain of the fabric (except for bias-cut clothing and a few other exceptions). You can tell the grain by looking closely for the longest line of woven thread. Anyone who sews knows that you have to buy enough fabric (yardage) to ensure that all of the pattern pieces are placed following the grain of the fabric before cutting. The extra fabric increases the cost of clothes, but the garment will have a better and more uniform look.
Also, look for fabric with an obvious nap (velour, corduroy, velvet, etc.). The nap should run in the same direction on both legs of the pants, both front and back of the top, etc. (Some parts of clothing with a nap, such as waistbands, will most likely run horizontally, not vertically.)
Give Fabric the “Scrunch Test”
I always give fabric the scrunch test. If it wrinkles up right away and doesn’t “de-wrinkle,” I may walk away from the garment. Wrinkling alone isn’t necessarily a sign of poor quality; some fabrics (cotton, linen, rayon) wrinkle more than others. I hate to iron, so I tend to look for “wrinkle release” or “wrinkle free” cotton or even a cotton blend.
The Hazards of “Fussy” Details
I recently passed on a gorgeous lined tweed skirt with a bit of gold thread in the lovely thick weave – and it was a steal at a famous discount retailer. That gold thread was probably the reason that the care label required hand washing and drying flat. (What?) While I thought I could handle this fussy care requirement, I didn’t think the lining would hold up to washing – and once I added the possible cost of relining the skirt (at least once) to the price of the skirt, I decided to pass. I also avoid sequins and other do-dads that, once lost, render the garment virtually unwearable.
Behind the Seams
Stitching & Seam Allowance
I look at the quality of stitching as a test of quality. This includes seams and any top-stitching. If you gently pull a seam from the inside of the garment, you will see a lot of daylight between stitches in a poorly made garment. Better quality garments have more stitches per inch and thus have tighter seams – and thus less of a chance to have the seam come apart. Quality top-stitching should be straight, in matching thread (unless the top-stitching is designed for contrast) and have a high number of stitches per inch. The stitches should lie flat to avoid snags (no loopy stitches).
Since the introduction of sergers that create an overlock stitch, it’s very hard these days to find ready-to-wear clothing with flat-felled seams (seen on a lot of jeans), french seams (for sheer fabric), or taped seams. Sergers are great for knit fabrics, providing a bit more stretchiness than other finishing techniques, but now they are also used on woven fabric for blouses, pants, etc. If the seams are serged, make sure that the stitching is tight and all of the edge fabric is completely stitched. There should be no obvious loops or loose ends.
While inspecting the seams, also look at how much seam allowance is available, especially if you need to lengthen sleeves or hems or let out a waist. Seam allowance is getting very rare these days, too.
Skirt Hem Allowance Guidelines
The hem allowance is the width between the hemline and the hem edge. The hem allowance is folded back under the garment to the wrong side of the fabric; the clean finished edge is the finished hemline. The fabric and garment silhouette determine the width of the hem allowance. In general, the wider and fuller the skirt, the narrower the hem width needs to be.
Generally speaking, straight or pencil skirts made in a medium- to heavy-weight fabric can have 1-1/2-inch to 2-inch hem allowances (I think a 2-inch hem can indicate quality but of course there are many other factors to consider). A-line skirts should have 1-½ inch hem allowance to reduce bulk. A flared skirt should have a 1-inch hem, and a full-circle skirt should have about ½-inch allowance. Hem allowances in knits are generally to ½- to1-inch regardless of the style.
Do the Patterns Match Up at the Seams?
In better quality clothing, a pattern like a plaid or horizontal stripes should match up at the seams, plackets, yokes, sleeves, etc. This is a bit trickier with large patterns or with garments with a lot of seams (like a blouse). For vertical stripes or smaller scale patterns (polka dots, etc.), non-matching in a garment might not be an issue.
Obviously, matching a plaid or horizontal stripe may mean using more fabric to cut out the individual pieces of the garment, so this drives up the cost of the garment. All too often manufacturers of inexpensive garments forego matching to keep costs affordable. If I’m buying an inexpensive t-shirt with an overall pattern, I try to find a small scale pattern to mitigate the lack of alignment with the pattern. (Conversely, a dramatic large-scale pattern can also mitigate the “non-matching” problem because the size of the pattern prevents any matching.) But in a more expensive garment I either avoid pattern or only buy patterned garments if the manufacturer has done a fairly good job aligning the pattern.
Above is an example of a Jones New York wrap-front blouse with set in sleeves that I’ve owned for years. Notice that extra care was used to match the strong horizontal pattern at the back seam (barely visible, lower right and in line with vertical inset) and at the sleeves. The shoulder insert (upper right vertical section) is fairly unobtrusive. This silk blouse was on sale at a famous department store’s outlet, and was well worth the money for the luscious quality of the silk and the attention to details.
Closures, Zippers, and Pockets
Look for Extra Buttons and Trim
Always check for — and keep — extra buttons, sequins, and other details that come attached to garments. These extras save you money (and time searching for look-alikes) should a button pop off or sequin go missing. I tend to avoid clothes with fussy details and fragile trim, but if I decided to buy something with unusual buttons, I only do so if the garment comes with extra buttons. Replacing cheesy buttons with something adorable from the fabric store or with vintage buttons can really transform a garment and is a worthwhile investment.
Unless an exposed zipper is a design element, zippers should lie flat and be covered with a placket (see photograph below). There should also be an additional closure at the top of the zipper – button, hook and eye, snap – to help keep the zipper closed and lying flat. Unless it’s part of the design (like top-stitching on jeans), the stitching holding the zipper in place should match the fabric.
Ideally, pockets should be constructed from the same material as the rest of the garment or from a sturdy pocket material (used a lot in men’s casual pants). Unfortunately, there has been a trend to use lesser quality materials – like lining material – to make pockets. One advantage of lining material is that the pocket area is less bulky, but a downside can be that this material, lacking weight, rides up and can tear more easily.
Other Design Details
Some additional design and construction details can also improve the fit, drape, and wearability of a garment.
I tend to buy blouses with a back yoke because I think they fit better on me. The horizontal piece of fabric can allow for better draping or fit across shoulders. While a back yoke is not critical for many blouses, you might want to look for this design detail if getting blouses to fit at your shoulders has been an issue. A back yoke can also make a dramatic statement as seen in the Banana Republic blouse at left above.
A front yoke can also be an important design element, but I think a yoked blouse looks better on a slender body type. A front yoke tends to emphasize my ample bosom, so I prefer other styles! The image at right above is an example of a front yoke. This is a cute blouse (love the tie) from Fashion Notebook’s Ask a Stylist!
Skirts, jackets, coats, and pants used to be lined all the time. Lined pants have all but gone the way of the buggy whip, but I occasionally see (and buy) them – but I live in a 4-season climate and welcome lined pants in the fall and winter. I also prefer lined wool jackets, coats, and skirts for better drape, ease of getting on and off (jackets), and so on.
Linings should be made of quality material and should be ample enough to allow for sitting, stretching, and so forth (a squat test is critical for lined pants). Most jackets and coats have a vertical gusset/pleat on the back lining to allow for arm movement, bending, etc. Well-made jackets have a taped edge holding lining to the jacket material (see photo above).
Some jackets – linen, cotton, knit – work well without linings if the exposed stitching on the jacket’s interior is tight and secure. Loopy seams can loosen when the fabric rubs during wear or can snag of a purse, jewelry, etc.
It’s almost impossible to find hand-made buttonholes or even good machine-made buttonholes, but I include this photo of what good buttonholes should look like – just in case you see them! I prefer to buy jackets with operational buttonholes vs. fake ones.
Final Points to Consider…
Men’s Clothing is Often of Higher Quality
If you are unfamiliar with quality construction, head for the men’s department and look at how men’s clothing (suits, coats, business shirts, sweaters, etc.) is made. Most men demand quality in the clothes they buy because they expect their clothes to last a few years (if not decades).
On Vintage Clothing and Hand-Me-Downs
One last tip: there is some great vintage clothing out there, but it may be sitting in a relative’s closet. I have a gorgeous Jaeger sweater that is probably 50 years old, and it was given to me by an elderly neighbor. You might want to visit your mother’s (or grandmother’s) closet – with consent, of course – to look for good stuff that your friend or relative may no longer want.
Some Timely Observations
Here are some timely observations by Clare Waight Keller, the creative director at the French fashion house Chloé, in an interview with Luke Leitch, deputy fashion editor of the (London) Telegraph, published on January 11, 2014:
… French women are very particular about what they buy, and they always choose quality over quantity for sure. They prefer very, very good fabrics in everyday staples. That’s why they always look so chic – it looks like just a skirt and a top, but the fabric and the colour elevate it.”
“This…is about a rejection of vulgarity, and a preference for the eternal over the ephemeral. That’s a tough message to transmit in fashion, which tends to focus on the short-term over the long game.”
Additional Articles of Interest
- The Art of the Well-Made Shirt – Some tips from a famous purveyor of men’s (and women’s) clothing.
- Shopping for Quality and Longevity – More hints on how to spot quality, and an interesting discussion of the impact (cost and otherwise) of dry cleaning).
- Quality Standards in Clothing Construction – An exhaustive list of benchmarks for clothing quality from Penn State and New Mexico State Extension. I bet all the kids in 4-H who have sewing projects (that used to be me!) know this stuff.
Good luck with your search for well-made clothing.