The fashion industry is one of the world’s largest industries, generating $2.5 trillion in global annual revenues annually and employing millions. The business of fashion also comes with huge environmental challenges; it is responsible for roughly 8-10% of global carbon emissions, is the second largest consumer of water compared with other industries, and is also guilty of releasing trillions of microplastics into the oceans. Part of the efforts to reduce the negative impacts of the fashion industry is the move towards sustainable fashion, a core principle of which is the use and ownership of clothing for as long as possible.
One way to encourage rewear is for shoppers to buy high quality garments in the first place. Quality clothing is designed to last longer, is stitched in a way to withstand a high level of machine washing, sunlight, and multiple uses. Nobody wants to spend money only to have an item fall apart after a handful of washes.
However identifying what quality clothing is and isn’t can be tricky. For the past six years, I have designed and made my own clothing until this passion grew into a menswear brand that I am most proud of. That being said, here are a few pointers I have collated to help you spot well-made garments and make better fashion choices:
1. Fit for purpose
The first measure of quality is if the clothing in question is fit for the purpose for which you are buying it. This might seem pretty obvious; I mean since you are buying garments you want, there must be some purpose for them right? Not quite because shopping for clothes is rarely as simple as that. We all can relate to the experience of buying clothes simply because they looked good on display. Most of us have also had the experience of buying clothes for a particular event only to realize as the event date draws closer that it might be too dressy or underdressed for the occasion. This is the fastest way for clothes or fashion articles to be thrown away so before you buy, at the very least, you need to be certain that the clothing is fit the purpose for which you are buying them.
One of the most significant ways to identify good quality clothing is the fabric in which it is made and if you’re looking for quality clothing that lasts, should be factored in to your purchasing decision. If the fabric is of low quality, regardless of how good the clothing design is or how fit for purpose the garment might be, it simply will not last very long. So it’s very important to get the right fabric. To do this, you will need to identify what you need the clothes for and decide the fabrics that will be right for them.
A quick online search will help you familiarize yourself with the types of fabrics that are suited for various apparel. For instance if you’re looking for a summer dress, natural fibres such as linen or organic cotton will be better than wool given they are lightweight and are sustainably produced. Armed with this knowledge you can begin searching for the appropriate dress. Now before purchasing, another quick hack here is to take the contents of the label and conduct a quick search on them as well. This will help you make sense of the jargon and descriptors on the label and will help you make the right fabric choice when in doubt.
Generally speaking, natural fabrics are preferable – even if they cost more. Synthetic fabrics such as polyester, acrylic and nylon are often cheaper but in my experience, aren’t as durable. Popular artisan brand Mikoleon, a business known for its ethically-made handcrafted leather footwear, offers some tips: “Choose garments made with traditional fabrics such as cotton, corduroy, denim, linen, Tencel, bamboo. Nine to 11 stitches per inch is a good standard depending on the fabric.”
Another thing to look out for are the fabric ‘blends’. In my corner of the world, some dressmakers will use fabric blends while passing them off as 100% wool or cotton.
For cotton, the first test is how it feels against the skin. Is the fabric soft? Does it feel breathable and comfortable on the skin? To check how tightly woven the fabric, a hack is to hold it up against sunlight or any light. For good quality, organic cotton, you should not be able to make out objects. Cheaper fabrics are thin and may contain flaws.
Linen is also a popular natural and sustainably-grown fibre. While linen is not as soft as cotton, good linen should never feel scratchy. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- Does the fabric feel comfortable on the skin?
- Are there already folds and creases in places on the garment that may annoy you?
- Will the garment still look good when it’s a little wrinkled?
Another great sign of a good and quality fabric are tightly woven fibers. There are no gaps and the weaves are intertwined smoothly horizontally and vertically. This greatly reduces the risk of tears. Similar to the fiber weave is the thread count. This refers to the number of thread strands per inch. A higher thread count means the fabric is tighter and will be more durable.
Now if a sustainable fashion brand uses upcycled fabric in their collections, it can get trickier still to determine if the fabric will last the distance, which is why asking whether a brand has completed stress testing is important. GOOD KRAMA, a Cambodia-based sustainable fashion label that incorporates traditional weaving techniques and recycled fabrics with modern design, do rigorous textile quality testing for the fabrics they upcycle. “If they are going to shrink massively or unravel or shed quickly then we won’t be using them for our garments,” the brand explains via Instagram.
“We do a shrink test on large square swatches to see if it shrinks/distorts in any way. If it moves more than five percent we usually avoid working with it or pre-shrink wash it entirely. We also test the fabric composition as deadstock/offcuts often do not. Swatches get sent to a lab for this. We also do friction tests to see how fabrics shed if at all, especially if there will be pressure points on the garment, like the crotch area of pants for example.”
Buying vintage clothing can be trickier still. If you’re buying genuine vintage clothing it can be more difficult to determine the exact fabric used as there will likely be no tags or labels identifying the material and how to launder it, particularly if it was made before the 1950s as these garments were usually handmade or specifically made for a customer by dressmakers. So make sure to ask the vintage seller as they will have much more experience in determining the age of a garment and pinpointing the fabric. By studying the cut, construction and fabric of a garment you will have a better understanding of how to care for it to ensure it lasts. Some useful resource vintage books include Viva Vintage by Trudie Bamford and Vintage: The Art of Dressing Up by Tracy Tolkien.
This is a no-brainer because the whole purpose of clothing is to be sewn and sewn right. So, if you’re drooling over one that is not, no matter how beautiful the fabric or design is, don’t buy it. What I have come to understand is that when we see clothes that we like with some errors in their sewing, we tend to excuse these mistakes and hope to manage the clothes. At the end of the day though, they will end up stuck in our closets attracting very little use from us.
A particular thing to pay attention to as far as tailoring goes are the seams. The entire shape and structure of clothing depend on the seams. So, if they are not well done, that is an indicator that the garment will not last very long. To check the quality of the seams, begin by conducting a visual inspection of the major seams specifically on the sides and back of the clothing. Were they done smoothly? Are they flat on the clothes? Now, check the type of seam. You can check on the types of seams here and where they fit in every garment. Were these used properly?
Linda Austra, a fashion educator who studied clothing technology, shares her advice, “Before buying I go through all labels and make a general seam inspection too – if there are necessary bartacks, enough seam allowances etc.” So remember to check for seam allowance because if there isn’t enough ‘give’ in the clothing, there is a high possibility of a wardrobe malfunction.
Fashion is an expression of self and style. When it comes to designing fashion, it will involve the right choice of colors, print designs and patterns on certain fabrics. Most fabrics start out their lives as neutral colours; mostly white or a milky color. As part of the design process though, many of the fabrics will subsequently be dyed, offering designers and customers a broader selection to choose from. Many eco-conscious designers and sustainable fashion brands will choose natural, non-toxic dyes sourced from plants rather than synthetic chemical dyes.
Now, depending on the workmanship and efforts that went into the dyeing process, sometimes, the colours will fade. Have you ever had the experience of soaking a bright red garment in water only to stare in horror as the dye turns the water blood red? Or throwing a bundle of clothing in the washing machine and pulling the items out only to see that a bright colour has transferred on to other items in the wash? Colour bleeding and transfer happens so before making a purchase, be sure to read the label and learn what the manufacturer says about color and how to wash the item.
A hack I picked up from dressmakers and sellers is to wet a white handkerchief and rub it against the inner lining of the cloth. If the handkerchief is stained, then the color will definitely fade when washed.
5. Finishing and detailing
Similar to tailoring and sewing, here’s what you’ll need to look out for:
- Pay particular attention to the buttons and buttonholes. This can tell you a lot about a garment. No matter the immaculate design, if you lose a button, chances are that you will never get around to fixing it. So if you want to reduce these sorts of headaches, check to see if the button is well attached with strong threading. Also make sure that the buttonholes are woven tightly to avoid the fabric ripping in that part of the garment.
- Avoid cheap and flimsy zippers. Run the zipper a few times to see how smoothly it moves up and down and if there are any catches. Also observe how the garment rests when zipped up. Doing this exercise means you can avoid issues such as zippers that don’t stay up or a zipper that catches that it ends up breaking. Mikoleon advises that zippers should be well sewn and to ensure that it’s from a good zipper brand; the brand recommends Japanese manufacturer YKK for quality zippers because, as they put simply, “YKK is king”.
- Observe other enclosures such as hook-and-eye, buckles, snaps and other clothing fasteners. Are they aligned? Are they fastened properly with proper stitching?
- The overall finish of your fabric should show no uneven weaves or missing trim. That’s why it’s important to inspect and try items on; check for unusual creases, or stretching, or lack of stretch. Check for loose threads or uneven hems. Check that sequins, lace, embroidery or beading are all intact and and secured properly.
When you buy clothing of the right quality, they will last longer and you won’t feel the need to replace them as often. There may be times when it’s hard to justify spending so much on a piece of quality clothing, and while I wouldn’t encourage splurging or buying above your budget at every chance you get, from my experience when in the fashion industry, there are really no downsides to taking your time when making a decision to buy. In fact, when you invest in better quality clothing, your wallet and your closet are sure to thank you for months and even years to come.
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Cover image credit: Arina Krasnikova.