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I’m tempted to start this column by writing: a well-made garment can be elusive, but we all know it when we see it. Unfortunately, I think saying so is about as helpful as the advice, “you do you”.
The reality is, the quality of our clothes has been in steady decline since the late 1990s, when fast fashion caused production and consumption to rise and prices to plummet.
Despite this, well-made garments do exist, if you know what you’re looking for. Here, in the first of a two-part series, experts explain how to tell if a garment has been made with care and skill before you take it into the fitting room.
The initial inspection
The owner of vintage consignment store Shop Bruce, Dan Neilsenbeck, says: “The best way to assess the quality of a garment’s construction is to look inside.”
When you do this, the first thing you should be checking is if the hem and seams are thoroughly sewn down. According to Max Sanderson, a lecturer in fashion design at Parson’s Paris, a loose hem is easy to snag with a thumb or big toe.
Next, Sanderson says to examine the stitching. He looks for small stitches because they’re more durable than long ones which are a giveaway that a garment has been made quickly. Finally, he inspects the whole thing for flaws to be sure there are no threads coming undone or obvious signs it has been damaged or pulled.
The tags inside the garment will tell you where the garment was made, what its fabric composition is and how to care for it – key things when deciding if something is going to suit your needs. For instance, if you are looking for something to wear on a day-to-day basis, you likely want to steer clear of garments labelled hand wash or dry clean only.
Similarly, the fabric composition tells you how the garment will wear. Anything made of a protein fibre like wool will keep you warm when it’s cold but will also breathe if you get hot. It also has a waxy coating, so it doesn’t need to be washed frequently and is resistant to wrinkles, so it is good for travelling.
Fibres made from plant matter including cotton, linen or viscose rayon are breathable but won’t keep you as warm. They are easy to wash making them great to wear close to the body, but crease easily.
Synthetic fibres such as polyester or nylon are trickier. They don’t breathe and trap body odour so if you are wearing them against your skin, you may notice they cause you to sweat and smell. But Sanderson says synthetics can be necessary for performance requirements like waterproof or windproof jackets and athletic wear.
How to pick good quality fabric
According to Neilsenbeck: “High-quality fabric will feel better on your skin and generally fit, drape and wear better.”
To judge the quality of a garment’s fabric, you need to get a sense of the fabric’s hand, or how it feels. To test this, designer Bianca Spender pulls the fabric between her thumbs to see if it stretches or holds its form then she will gently rub it to see if it pills.
Sanderson recommends rubbing the fabric against a part of your body that’s more sensitive than the palm of your hand, such as the side of your neck or forearm, where the skin is more delicate.
Where something is manufactured
While it may have been true 20 years ago that a made in Italy tag indicated a superior level of craftsmanship and quality, that’s not necessarily the case now. Knowledge and expertise vary widely across factories and within countries, and some of the most advanced technology and skilled workforces are in China and other parts of the global south.
But there are some other things to consider based on where something is made, including environmental protections and labour laws. Spender says: “You should always be asking yourself the question does the price of the clothing reflect the work that goes into it.”
A more technical way of judging the care and attention that went into making something are the seams. Spender says she “will always check to see if the seams are bubbling and whether the side seam is hanging straight, to check the fabric isn’t off grain”. If a garment is made of a patterned fabric, Neilsenbeck says to make sure the patterns are matched along the seams.
The finish of a seam on the inside of a garment can tell you a lot about the time and care that went into making it. A good rule of thumb is that there should be no raw edges. One way of covering raw edges is to overlock the seam. Overlocking is a type of stitch that goes right to the edge of the cloth and runs in tight, zigzag lines from the edge to about half a centimetre in.
According to Sanderson, an overlocked seam is the fastest way to make a garment and can be more fragile. But in certain things like jersey T-shirts or jumpers, this isn’t necessarily a problem. “It’s all about the right finishes for the right materials,” Spender says.
Generally speaking, better quality garments will have bound seams, so that the raw edge of the fabric is covered. Or flat-felled seams where there are no exposed edges, so the fabric has been folded twice and stitched along both sides. A French seam is similar to this but is less visible and usually used for high end, sheer garments.