What makes for a fine piece of clothing?

favorite silk blouse
My favourite silk blouse.

I’m lucky to have grown up at a time when it was easy to find quality clothing at all price points. My mother’s best friend was a skilled seamstress, a German woman who was taught by the best in her home country. She could whip up leather shorts for her boys, and sew an Astrakhan 3/4 length coat without a purchased pattern. She made much of my mother’s wardrobe, and taught me about the characteristics of quality clothing. The most important lesson we can learn by wearing quality clothing is its classic appeal and longevity, so important, more than ever for a sustainable environment.

Quality is very different today than what it was prior to the 1990s. Fast fashion has made us lose an appreciation for fabrics, well-made clothing and finishing details. Learning to spot quality won’t happen overnight, but a good place to start is by exposing yourself to well-made clothes. Walk into the luxury retailers including vintage stores, touch the fabrics, and try garments on. Quality clothing feels amazing, is made to last, wears well, and looks great for years to come. Not all of your clothing has to be exquisitely made, but your capsule wardrobe plus winter coats, jackets, footwear, and handbags should be made to last.

The Quality Recipe

There are four main components of clothing to look at when determining the quality of a piece – fabric, construction, fit, and details.

Fabric

Fabric is the most important ingredient, and determines the appearance, comfort, durability, care, and the cost of your clothes. The first thing you need to do with the piece you’re interested in, is to inspect the fabric label, which is located at the neck, waist or side seam. The label indicates the fiber content and care instructions. My affinity is towards garments made of 100% natural fibers like wool, cotton, linen, and silk. It’s getting more difficult to find fabrics made of one fiber in a sea of blended fabrics. I do wear rayon and Tencel items. I try not to go less than 80% of one fiber. High-tech synthetics like polyester, nylon and acrylic have their place in activewear, swimwear, and outerwear. Even though you find that synthetics make up much of the everyday fashion clothing manufactured today, they aren’t the best choices and are used because they are inexpensive. There is just too much synthetic fibers used in clothing. Synthetics do not breathe, making you feel uncomfortable. Wool and cashmere make the best sweaters for warmth, appearance and breathability. Nothing is more beautiful and long-lasting than a 100% wool coat. You aren’t doing yourself, your comfort level and the planet any favors by continuing to purchase cheap, synthetic fabrics.

Aesthetics or the beauty of a garment is more important to fashionable, everyday clothing and formal wear. Quality woven fabrics have a beautiful texture and finish. A silk blouse will have a sheen with rich, intense colors. Silk and rayon fabrics will also drape or hang in a way that moves with the body.

Fabric also has a certain hand or feel to it. High quality fabrics are pleasing to touch. A 100% Pima cotton t-shirt is very soft, as is a merino wool sweater. Fabrics that feel stiff and rough are probably cheap and should be avoided. Even high quality denim feels smooth and not stiff. Manufacturers cheap out on fabric by using synthetics, but also by using thin or light weight fabrics. Look for sturdy, substantial fabrics unless it’s supposed to be sheer or a chiffon. 

Note the care of the garment, and if you’re willing to follow the instructions. From my experience, manufacturers are over cautious when it comes to care labels, and often indicate drycleaning even if the item can be safely laundered at home. Most knit items, including cashmere can be hand washed. Clothing can certainly be washed too often or not enough; do your research about the care of clothing and fabrics. Wool fabric actually repels dirt, whereas polyester and nylon are magnets for odours and stains, and will need to be cleaned more often.

fabric label in side seam
Fabric and care label in side seam.

Construction

Now is the time to look under the hood. No matter how much I like a piece, I always check out the construction on the inside of the garment. Check that the thread used to sew seams is strong and in a matching color. Tug at the seams, and if the thread breaks, this is an indicator of low quality. The stitches should be straight, evenly spaced, and all seam allowances should be a similar width. A hand-stitched item may show stitch variation.

Generally, the more stitches used per inch, the greater the seam strength. There are exceptions depending on the weight of the fabric; a heavier fabric with a longer stitch length looks better. In any manufacturing plant, the greater the number of stitches per inch increases the cost of production, and this is why cheap clothing uses fewer stitches per inch than quality fabric which is around 8 to 10 stitches per inch.

High stress areas in piece of quality clothing will be reinforced. For example, you’ll find a second row of stitching around the armholes. 

Test fasteners like buttons, zippers, and snaps to make sure they are securely attached, zippers move up and down without sticking, and any finishes don’t rub off. I bought a pair of $18 jeans once, and the zipper broke after a few wearings; a low quality lesson learned.

Seams should be sturdy and nicely finished. Much of the mass market clothes are finished with sergers that cut, and form tightly looped zigzag stitches over this edge. Serged seams are cheap and fast to make, and commonly seen in clothing. Look for loose and broken stitches, signs of poor quality. Higher quality pieces have more visually appealing seam finishes such as a French seam or Hong Kong (bias bound seam) that fully enclose the raw edges. I find that the inside seams of pockets and facings in low cost clothing are often unfinished. Even though these edges are not exposed they should still be finished or the threads unravel over time.

common serged seam
Common serged seam finish.

Hems are my pet peeve because if you snag the thread, the whole hem often comes undone. If you’ve experienced this you’ll notice that the thread is often very thin or a clear nylon thread was used. Hems are often made with cheap thread and machine stitched. I’ve had to re-hem many skirts and pants because of the lousy thread. Quality hems are stitched with very little or no stitches visible on the outside, and there will be extra material for alterations.

Fit

Many people equate fit with comfort, but that is only a small part of the equation. There are many people wandering around in ill-fitting clothes because they feel comfortable, but what they really mean is that they are in their “comfort zone”. Proper fitting clothes address your proportions and allow you to move with ease.

The fit of your clothing can only be ascertained in the fitting room. What you need to become aware of is how a garment feels and looks on the body. Can you sit down comfortably? Is the waistband gaping or falling down? Does the back of the jacket pull at the shoulders when your arms are outstretched? Is your bra exposed because the front of the blouse is pulling open at the buttonhole? Does your hem ride up? Are the seams sitting where they are supposed to be? Is the shoulder seam sitting on the outer tip of the shoulder? 

High quality brands will have a consistent fit from garment to garment. You may already own garments from the same line that you tend to purchase again and again.

Fine Construction Details

Exquisitely made clothing goes beyond the basics of stitching, seams and hems, with finishing details that may add functionality or design details that further enhance the beauty of a garment.

With low cost clothing, details are usually compromised so that the item meets the desired price point. High quality garments are generous with the basics, and details are considered based on the design and performance of a piece, rather than the cost of production. Details consist of lining in a jacket, extra buttons, bound buttonholes, extra fabric at the hemline for alterations, invisible hems, bias bound seams, contrasting topstitching, tailoring details like darts, and all the other fine details that craft an exquisite garment.

details in sports jacket
Fine details on men’s sports jacket.

Warranties are also included as extra assurance that a high quality product meets the brand’s standards, and that they stand behind their product. My partner recently purchased a Canali suit and inside the pocket was a lifetime maintenance guarantee by the retailer.

warranty included with suit
Lifetime maintenance guarantee included with suit purchase.

No matter how much we deny the importance of clothing to us, it is certainly an expression of who we are and has always been so. Fast fashion succeeded in diminishing our appreciation for luxury fabrics and well-made clothing. Learning to recognize quality apparel will help you choose better, longer lasting clothing that is ultimately good for our planet.