We often talk about the need to look for high-quality garments in the conscious fashion space, but how can you even tell if a piece was made with good quality? Margu founder Emily DeLong. Margu founder Emily DeLong breaks down what to look for to ensure quality in the clothes we buy below:
Clothing is nothing like the way it used to be.
Fifty years ago, a mid-priced dress from a department store would be made of substantial, natural fibers; be fully lined with appropriate material; and include a number of thoughtful, detailed design elements and finishes. That same dress likely still exists today, in good condition, like a vintage piece in a modern woman’s wardrobe.
Now consider a mid-priced dress from a department store today. It’s likely made of a synthetic fiber or blend; if it is fully lined, it’s probably with cheap polyester or acetate; and many of its design elements and finishes are either absent or hastily implemented. In fifty years, it’s unlikely to be in good enough condition to be a vintage piece in any woman’s wardrobe.
It’s easy to lament the eroding quality standards of today’s mass-market fashion industry, but quality clothing does still exist, if you know where to look and what to look for. In addition to shopping vintage, you can still find quality clothing from a number of independent designers and slow fashion brands that have prioritized quality in their production.
Yes, high-quality clothing is usually going to cost more. It is very unlikely you’re ever going to find a new dress of good quality for less than $100. Spending more on a high-quality garment will usually pay off in the long-run, however — just compare the cost-per-wear of a $65 dress worn 5 times ($13) to a $350 dress worn 40 times ($8.75).
One thing to remember is that just because something costs more doesn’t necessarily mean it’s of higher quality. A lot of high-end fashion labels manufacture their clothing in the same factories that low- to mid-end labels do, so you shouldn’t blindly assume a $500 dress is worth it.
I’ve come up with 10 things to look for when shopping for high-quality clothing, guidelines that I use both when I am shopping and also when I am sewing and designing. These guidelines are of course not foolproof — there are some things you can only discover about a garment once you wear and wash it, unfortunately — but armed with the knowledge of what to look for when you’re shopping, there’s a good chance what you buy will end up lasting a long time.
1. Look for natural fibers over synthetics or fiber blends.
Natural fibers include cotton, linen, hemp, silk, and wool and are generally more durable and washfast than synthetics such as polyester and nylon — not to mention that they come from renewable resources and decompose a lot faster.
Oftentimes you will see fabric manufacturers blend a natural fiber with a synthetic (such as a 50/50 poly/cotton blend) to retain qualities of both fibers at the expense of quality and durability. For the most part, it’s a good idea to avoid synthetic blends, with the exception of some blends that involve a small amount of a synthetic (1-5%) that helps to retain a material’s shape without sacrificing its quality.
2. Look for fabric that feels substantial, not just soft.
The main thing that separates high-quality fabric from the rest is density. This doesn’t mean that thicker fabric equals better fabric, but more so that the more fiber in each inch of fabric signifies a more durable fabric. If you can, feel the fabric with your hands: if it feels substantial, as if there’s a lot of fiber packed into it, regardless of how thick it is, it’s probably a high-quality fabric.
Softness is, of course, an important factor as well, but a lot of the best natural fibers (such as linen and hemp) get softer and softer as you wear and wash them and may not be extremely soft off the rack. Be wary of fabrics that are suspiciously soft right off the rack; it could be a sign that the fabric has been thoroughly pre-treated and washed and is halfway on its way to falling apart.
3. Look for straight, neatly finished seams.
The best way to see if a garment is worth its snuff is to turn it inside out and take a close look at the inside. Seams should be sewn straight and should not pucker. A lower-end garment will have neatly serged seams (stay away from uneven serged seams with threads hanging off), and a higher-end garment will have bound or French seams.
4. Look for short stitch lengths on the inside and clean topstitching on the outside.
The shorter the stitch length, the sturdier the seam. Take a look at the seams on the inside; if the stitches are uneven or really long, that’s a good sign that shortcuts were taken and your seam isn’t going to stand up to repeated wear.
Stitches visible from the outside, such as topstitching, will not be as short as interior stitches, but they should be of an even stitch length and not be sloppy. If the garment in question has zero topstitching, especially on something like a button-up shirt or a pair of pants, that’s a warning sign that the quality isn’t too great.
5. Look for sturdy buttons and buttonholes.
Buttons should feel securely attached to the fabric, and buttonholes should feel sturdy and substantial. Buttonholes should either be tightly surrounded by thread or bound with fabric; steer clear of loose, sloppy buttonholes with threads hanging off them.
6. Look for garments cut straight on, or intentionally off, the grain.
Checking to see if the grain is straight is a lot easier on a garment made out of a striped or plaid garment. If the stripes or plaid are slightly off, that’s a sign that the garment was hastily cut and that it will probably start drooping and warping after a few wears. You can also check the grain of non-patterned fabrics, but you’ll have to look a lot more closely to see where the warp and weft threads line up.
If you see a fabric that is at a clean 45-degree angle, that means it was cut on the bias, which is a sign of quality. Cutting on the bias is more costly to clothing manufacturers but allows fabrics to stretch and drape in interesting way, not to mention the interesting design details it creates with stripes and plaids.
7. Look for full linings made of quality fabrics.
Not every garment needs to be lined, but many of them, including the majority of jackets, skirts, and dresses, should be. Linings not only provide opacity and structure to a garment, but they also increase a garment’s longevity by adding an extra layer between your skin and the main fabric.
You should look for a garment that is fully lined rather than partially lined (if the lining is only on the skirt part of the dress and not for a good reason, that’s a warning sign), and the lining should be made out of a material that is of a lighter weight than but complementary to the main fabric. Avoid super-thin, plastic-y feeling linings made out of synthetic fibers, as those are not going to breathe well and are prone to distorting and ripping.
8. Look for facings and interfacings.
Facings and interfacings are pieces of fabric not visible from the outside that give a garment structure; the difference between the two is that facings are visible from the inside and interfacings are not. Certain garments lacking facings and interfacings will droop, warp, and distort over time, which is why they are an important part of a quality garment.
Look for facings around necklines and interfacing on collars, cuffs, and button plackets. You won’t be able to see interfacing from the inside or outside of the garment, but you should be able to feel that the areas where it should be, such as on collars, are bit stiffer than the main part of the garment.
9. Look for reinforcements in high-stress areas.
Areas of a garment that have to endure a lot of movement, such as the seat seams of pants, the bottoms of zippers, and waistbands, should be reinforced with extra stitching. You may not always be able to detect the extra stitching, but you can examine these high-stress areas to see if they are stiff and sturdy. If any of these areas seem exceptionally flimsy, that’s not a good sign.
10. Look for garments that look just as polished on the inside as on the outside.
If you turn a garment inside out and it looks so clean and neat that you almost wouldn’t mind wearing it that way, that’s a pretty good sign it is well-made. If you don’t have time to meticulously inspect a garment before you get it, this one a pretty good catch-all guideline for determining quality.
Investing in a wardrobe full of quality pieces will ultimately create less waste and save you money in the long run. Not to mention you won’t have to worry about anything you own falling apart after three wears!
On the search for quality clothing that’ll last you a lifetime? Check out Margu’s full collection here.