What Makes a High-Quality Piece?
It’s time to focus on quality — not just quantity — in all aspects of life, but especially when you shop. That doesn’t mean we can’t still embrace a bargain — but how do you define “value”? For many savvy American shoppers, it’s more than the sticker price. Long-term durability should be a significant factor when considering which clothing to buy, and which items to pass up.
But quality isn’t always immediately apparent to the untrained eye, and price alone can be deceiving. Here’s a guide to help you determine what’s truly valuable and put your potential purchases to the test.
Normal wear and tear is inevitable, even with the most exclusive fabrics. But as your closet will no doubt demonstrate, certain pieces age more gracefully than others. Predicting what will pill can feel like an impossible act of clairvoyance. Chances are, you have some expensive items that have pilled just as much as cheaper pieces, but there are a few rules of thumb to remember.
Cheap synthetics are notorious for showing their wear after a few wash and wears. This is true for sweaters, as well as knit tops and dresses. Sweaters that are over 50 percent acrylic should be avoided, as they will visually expire far faster than their cotton and cashmere cousins.
Natural fibers also wear better with machine or hand washing, requiring fewer expensive trips to the dry cleaners. (Just try to line-dry whenever possible — dryers really do put your clothes through the wringer!) However, remember that certain synthetics, particularly when mixed with natural fibers, can help items to retain shape (think anything with a little added lycra for stretch).
The other key point to remember about material is how it will feel next to your skin — sometimes called the “hand” of the fabric. If something feels itchy or less than luxurious when you try it on, you’re less likely to grab for it in your closet, making its price per wear go up significantly. So gravitate toward items you won’t want to take off.
Cashmere is one of the most misunderstood and confusing fibers. When something is labeled as “100 percent cashmere,” that’s not really the full story. More expensive cashmeres come from the longer, thinner hairs of the underfleece of goats from extremely cold regions (like Mongolia). Less expensive cashmere tends to be shorter, coarser hairs taken from the rear or belly of the animal — and is sometimes combined with other animal hair (even when unadvertised). Much of today’s cheap cashmere is manufactured in China of loosely knit short hairs. On the higher end, Brunello Cucinelli is hard to beat in just about every way, while Pure Collection and Uniqlo are great affordable alternatives.
Product Test: Test the resilience of the cashmere by stretching it a bit and opt for denser weaves that are less transparent.
Once you’ve given your item the feel test, look at how it’s actually assembled. Any obvious imperfections — missed or loose stitches, loose threads and crooked lines and seams — are a warning signal. Items with more stitches per inch are generally sturdier, as are pieces with additional top-stitching. Buttons and decorative pieces should also be securely in place. If they’re loose before you even purchase it, it will only get worse. Fabric patterns should match up at the seams. This is particularly crucial with plaids and stripes — if they’re “off,” the entire visual is thrown off.
Fabric reinforcements, like facing and lining, is another indicator of quality. Facing is the extra piece of fabric at the seams, as opposed to an entire lining. You’ll often find them around necklines, zippers, and buttons. “Self-facing” is often the best, meaning it uses the same fabric for the facing as the garment. These details affect the way an item feels against your body, as well as its drape. If you’ve ever worn an unlined jacket, you’ve experienced the difference in the ease of putting it on and layering. Lining also minimizes transparency and adds some extra weight, whereas unlined pieces can look cheap and less substantial.
Product Test: Give your seams the tug test. Grab the fabric on each side of the seams and pull lightly. Can you see daylight? Does the thread seem weak? If so, move on.
Sometimes the proof is in the details. Examine the zippers and buttons. Are they high quality? Metal zippers hold up longer than plastic and are less likely to go off track; they should also be covered (unless an exposed zipper is intentional). Operational button holes are always top preference, and when in doubt, look for thick buttons. When extra notions are included — spare buttons or some additional thread or yarn — that’s a clear indicator that the manufacturer insists on it sticking around in your closet for longer than a season.
Cheap manufacturers will cut costs by using less fabric. Pattern pieces should be placed and cut along the grain, which positively affects the drape, but requires the use of more yards of fabric — and increases costs. Cutting corners on fabric can also mean there’s less fabric available for size alterations.
Certain subtle details can also signal quality. A placket covering the buttons, double darts, and french cuffs all use extra material and demonstrate a greater investment in the item. Sometimes the details are more playful: a contrast color under the collar, a patterned lining, some colorful stitching — all signs of extra care and thoughtful design, and they add a little flavor and character to even the most classic pieces.
Product Test: Some quality details are easiest to notice when the garment is on. Head to the dressing room, slip on the item and examine it on your body, in motion. Does it pull or gap? Does it have enough weight to flatteringly flow? Is it clingy and transparent? Items must work on your body — not just the hanger.
Being a slave to name brands just for their social cache isn’t smart, and you certainly shouldn’t pay more just for a designer label. But many brands — both big and small — have earned their high-end status not only for their striking designs, but also their commitment to quality.
Handcrafted items found on sites like Etsy go to great lengths to describe the care and labor they invest in their items. Quality is an obsession for many of these designers, and since they produce limited quantities and rely heavily on consumer reviews (rather than sleek marketing campaigns), it’s easier to know and trust what you’re getting. But beyond the small, handmade options, it can be overwhelming and exhausting to try to keep up with the due diligence required to vet every brand.
Some e-commerce sites are easing this burden by upping their standards and curating accordingly. Sites like Zady cater to “conscious consumers” by being mindful not only of quality manufacturing practices, but also the items’ sustainability, and StyleSaint offers wholesale prices on direct-to-consumer items that are designed to be worn year-round, year after year.
Product Test: Brands that care about quality often want to let you know. Look at their website and read garment hang tags for clues that they are going the extra mile with the items they design and manufacture.
Anna Akbari, Ph.D. is a sociologist, entrepreneur, and the "thinking person's stylist." She is the founder of Sociology of Style, which takes an intelligent look at image and culture-related issues and offers holistic image consulting and life coaching services. Find out more and follow her on Twitter.