What Makes A Garment Good Quality (or Not?)

As I’ve been focusing more on quality over quantity this year, I’ve had some requests for a post about what distinguishes a low-quality garment from a high-quality one.

For example, why are some cashmere sweaters $500 and others are $50? Isn’t all cashmere the same?

That’s a fair question. (And no, it is not.)

On the one hand, there’s some truth to the saying, “you get what you pay for.” But on the other hand, you can find quality pieces that won’t break the bank. You just have to know what to look for, and learn how to shop smart.

But first you have to understand the difference between a high quality garment and the cheaper “fast fashion” version.

Before we delve any further into the topic of quality, I had someone asked me to explain fast fashion, and I suppose that’s a good place to start.

What is Fast Fashion?

Fast Fashion is a term that’s getting thrown around a lot right now, and it basically refers to trendy clothes that are cheaply made and designed to last only for a season, after which they will most likely end up in a landfill.

The problem with fast fashion is, it’s terrible for the environment as well as for the people who produce the clothes.

The good news is, people are becoming informed and starting to seek out higher quality clothing from brands and retailers who are using sustainable and ethical business practices.

I’ve never cared for cheap clothing because I don’t like how it looks and feels, but now that I’m becoming more aware of the ethical implications of fast fashion, I’m even more motivated to shift my focus here on the blog and in real life to prioritizing quality over quantity.

Which leads us to today’s post…

What determines the quality of a garment?

When I talk about a quality garment, I’m thinking about workmanship, durability, fit, and feel.

I will admit, I’m more of a “go with your gut” kind of shopper. I can usually tell the quality of something by looking and touching it — even when browsing pictures online, I have this uncanny knack for falling in love with the most luxe pieces before my eyes land on the price tag!

While price can be an indicator, you can’t necessarily expect a higher price tag to equal a higher quality garment, so let’s talk about what goes into the making of a higher quality garment and how to tell the difference.

#1. Fabric

In general, clothing made of natural fibers (cotton, wool, silk, linen, etc.) tend to be nicer than those made with synthetics (i.e. acrylic, polyester, rayon, etc.) Natural fibers are more breathable and hold up better to general wear and tear.

Synthetic materials are more likely to pill, and they often require special treatment (i.e. dry cleaning.) They’re also treated with harmful toxic chemicals during production, which is bad for your skin (as well as the people making the clothes, and the environment.)

That said, every type of fabric comes in different levels of quality. In other words, not all cashmere is created equal.

One way to tell the quality of a fabric is to look for density. (The more tightly woven the fabric, the better it will wear over time.) Check the density of a garment by holding it up to a light. (Even a fine fabric should not be transparent.) You can also tug on it just a bit to see if it’s tightly woven or not.

Also, softness generally indicates a higher quality product, so I rely heavily on touch and feel when determining the quality of a garment.

#2. Details like zippers, buttons and pockets

First of all, the absence of these details is a sign of a lower quality garment.

Have you noticed how some cheaper brands don’t bother with zippers on blouses and dresses, so you have to put the garments on over your head?

And then they don’t fit as well through the waist, because if they were cut to fit your body properly, you wouldn’t be able to get it on and off over your head without a zipper. That’s a shortcut a lot of cheaper clothing brands use to keep costs down.

If an item does have those details, take a close look at them. Do you see loose threads, sloppy stitching, and other defects?

Metal zippers generally hold up better and zip more smoothly than plastic zippers, and metal or wood buttons are generally going to be higher quality than plastic buttons.

Make sure the zipper zips and unzips smoothly. Check for buttons that are sewn on securely without a lot of threads sticking out. Buttonholes should have tight stitching and a neat slot for the button to go into.

Smaller or absent pockets is another short-cut cheaper designers use to save a few bucks. Good quality pockets will be reinforced at the opening with a few extra stitches.

Very tailored pieces will often come with pockets that are closed by a line of stitches to keep a smooth silhouette — that way, you can decide if you open the stitches or not.

Attention to detail and those finishing touches indicate higher quality.

#3. Seaming

Seaming is often over-looked by discerning shoppers, so low-budget brands will often cut corners by skimping on the extra seam work it takes to create a garment that retains its shape and structure over time.

Look for loose threads along the seams, and check for signs of unraveling, missed stitches, loose stitches, snags, crooked lines, and other imperfections.

You can also grab the fabric on each side of a seam and tug lightly to see how well the garment holds together.

Check whether the patterns line up at the seams — it takes more material to align the seams correctly, and those costs add up.

Also pay attention to how the seams are finished on the inside — unfinished edges are a sign of poor quality, and they won’t hold up as well over time.

#4. Lining

Unlined or partially lined garments are typically a sign of lower quality.

Lining helps clothing lay neatly on the body, and a lined garment will generally hold its shape better than unlined. It also gives your clothes a neater finish on the inside, which looks and feels nicer.

Also, the lining of a garment absorbs some of your skin’s natural oils, which can prolong the life of the piece.

If the garment is lined, check to be sure the lining isn’t sticking out from the hemline, or around your wrists in blazers and coats.

The lining also shouldn’t pull anywhere. There should actually be a slight amount of excess fabric to allow for body movements. If the outer fabric has wrinkles even though it’s not creased, it’s probably a sign that there isn’t enough of the lining fabric.

Things that are more flowy and loose-fitting don’t always need to be lined, but more tailored garments should be. (Look for the words “fully lined” on item descriptions.)

#5. Fit and tailoring

Cheaper brands often cut corners in the tailoring.

They will try to save money by using as little fabric as possible to produce a garment, so sometimes sleeves are a little too short, or there’s not quite enough room through the shoulders, or the clothes don’t drape or fit well.

Look for blouses and dresses with darts so the fabric doesn’t bulge under the bust, coats and blouses with a shoulder yoke for a neater fit around the shoulders and a smoother drape across the front and back, and coats with seams that follow the curve of your back.

Also, more attention to detail usually equals higher quality — jeans with a fabulous wash, sweaters with some contrast stitching, dresses with extra seaming to flatter a woman’s curves, shoes with an interesting heel shape, etc.

Ultimately, though, no matter how well-made, if a garment doesn’t match the outlines and proportions of your body, its a no-go.

Fit is very individual, and often clothing off the rack needs some tailoring for it to fit just right.

Things To Know About Denim

The quality of a pair of jeans depends largely on the quality of the cotton used to create them and how it was woven, but you can find good quality fabrics on lower priced jeans.

What really drives up the cost of a pair of jeans is the wash and the workmanship that goes into the finishing details.

This is less a matter of quality and more about the production costs, but it’s what separates a $50 pair of jeans from a $250 pair. Denim with more complex washes — over dye techniques, rips, tears, and custom finishes — will be more expensive, especially when done by hand.

One of the major factors that sets an expensive pair of jeans apart from a cheaper pair when it comes to finishing details is the whiskering. (Whiskers are the tiny lines on the front of pants near the zipper and inner thighs of jeans.)

Whiskering is done by hand with sandpaper, and it takes years to learn the craft. It’s actually considered something of an art form. Cheap whiskering done by a hastily trained worker ends up looking like straight lines across the fabric. (This is one of my biggest pet peeves with cheaper denim.)

When done by a skilled hand, the whiskers will have dimension, asymmetry, and curves that look natural to what a body would create.

Here are two pairs of popular denim brands… can you tell which one is cheaper pair, just by the whiskering alone?

Seams and grommets are two other areas to look at when discerning the quality of a pair of jeans. High-quality denim will have flat-felled seams with a clean finish, rather than a regular seam with the raw edges finished with merrowing on an overlock machine.

Better quality jeans will also have sturdy grommets with a nice clean finish, whereas cheaper jeans might have fabric stuck in their grommets. Yes, these are minor details. You get to decide if they matter to you or not.

I’ve never noticed the grommets or seams, but I’m super picky about the wash on my jeans.

And finally, like with any other garment, higher quality jeans generally fit and flatter better and feel nicer on.

A lot of this is subjective, so it’s important to consider cost per wear and how much you care about each of these factors.

Things To Know About Cashmere

I’ve shared a lot of cashmere sweaters over the past few months, some as low as $40 and some as high as $400, and I often get asked how they compare.

First of all, you should know that cashmere is the fine hair from the undercoat of cashmere goats — mostly from Mongolia, China, Italy, and Scotland, where the harsh climates force the goats to adapt by developing a double fleece.

Inner Mongolia is generally seen as the best origin for cashmere because their harsher winters produce the longest, thinnest, and softest hair. When you see “100% pure Mongolian cashmere” in the description, you should be getting the finest cashmere available.

The most important factor in the quality of cashmere is the length and fineness of the fibers. Longer fibers can be spun into a finer yarn, and fine yarn can be more tightly bound, which makes the fabric stronger, more durable, and less prone to pilling.

Longer fibers also tend to make a softer yarn, another indicator of quality.

The other big difference between luxury cashmere and sweaters under $100 is the weave, or number of plies. (This goes back to the discussion about density in the Fabric section above.)

When I’m comparing cashmere, I look at how dense the knit is and how it feels to the touch. Some of the lower-priced brands like Halogen feel soft compared to other materials like wool or acrylic, but when you try on a cashmere sweater from Naadam or Vince, you can immediately tell the difference.

Even Nordstrom Signature, Nordstrom’s higher end in-house brand, feels quite different from their Halogen cashmere sweaters. (In fact, I highly recommend shopping the Nordstrom Signature line — you get a lot of bang for your buck because you aren’t paying for a designer label, but you’re getting similar quality.)

This is not to say I never buy Halogen cashmere — I do, but I don’t expect it to last more than a couple seasons, and it doesn’t feel nearly as luxurious as the higher end brands.

Things To Know About Leather Goods

Leather is another area where you’ll find is a large disparity of quality and price point when shopping for apparel, shoes, and handbags. I have so much I could say about shoes alone, but that’s another post.

There are basically three types of leather: genuine leather, top-grain leather, and full-grain leather.

Did you know that when an item says”genuine leather,” that doesn’t just mean that the product is made of real leather? It is, but it also means it’s the lowest quality of real leather.

Mind blown. (I just learned that today!)

Genuine leather is actually several layers of low quality leather bonded together with glue and then painted to look like a better-quality leather. You’ll find this in a lot of lower-priced belts, shoes, and handbags.

Top-grain leather is considered the middle-of-the-road leather quality. Its surface is sanded with a finish coat, which makes it less breathable and gives it more of a plastic feel. It’s fairly durable, but eventually it will break down and look worn. Top-grain leather has better stain resistance and is less expensive than full-grain leather, so you’ll find it used in a lot of mid-priced wallets and handbags.

Full-grain leather is the best quality leather money can buy. It has not been sanded or buffed to remove natural imperfections, and it’s characterized by its luxurious, smooth surface. Rather than wearing out, full-grain leather develops a beautiful patina over time, and it will last you a lifetime if properly cared for. Full-grain leather is typically used in making high-quality footwear and furniture.

One way to discern a quality leather is the smell. (Leather should smell like leather.) I will never forget buying my first pair of Frye boots. They are leather inside and out, and every time I put them on, I could smell the leather — a far cry from the leather boots I typically buy.

Also check the edges. If the edging is blue, the tannery didn’t let the leather tan properly. Often they paint leather edges to hide blemishes.

Finally, look at other areas of the item — good leather quality will usually have quality stitching to match, so check for flaws in stitching, hardware, and lining.

Like all other fabrics, the look and feel will tell you a lot.

The more different price points you look at and try on, the better you will get at discerning the quality of items you’re shopping for. This goes for all categories, not just leather.

In Conclusion…

I share all this not to suggest that you should only buy top quality everything, but so we can all be better informed shoppers.

At the end of the day, buying based on quality is just part of the equation. Budget and preference obviously come into play when making purchasing decisions.

Some people appreciate the finer details and value quality more than others, and some really don’t care, but most of us are somewhere in between.

Quality means different things to different people, and each woman gets to decide where to allocate her clothing budget based on her needs and personal preferences. Isn’t that awesome?

That’s where cost per wear comes into play.

Really consider how often you will wear an item, how long you want it to last, and then use the guidelines in this post to help curate a wardrobe that works for you.

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