9 Qualities to Look for in Well-Made Clothing

Well-made clothing is not only a personal hallmark of fashion icons like Audrey Hepburn, Jackie O., Pharrell, and Steve McQueen, but also the backbone of frugal wardrobes everywhere. Good quality clothing is always a fashion must.

It used to be easier to separate good clothes from the bad. Certain brands meant quality workmanship. But in the age of designer brand outlet clothing and other sneaky marketing tricks to fool customers into spending more for lesser quality goods, how can you know that a piece of clothing, whether new or second-hand, is a garment that will last? (See also: The High Cost of Cheap Clothes)

1. Study Men's Suits

Because so many clothes these days are poorly made, go on an expedition at the nicest men's store in your area to get a personal understanding of how quality clothes are constructed. Once you have seen what goes into a well-made garment, it will be easier to spot good tailoring in the wilds of your local thrift store or sale rack. By the way, ladies, this advice is for you, too. One of the not-so-hidden extra costs of being a woman is the price of clothing. Men's clothing is typically better made than women's, even though women pay higher price points for the same or lower quality. Boo.

2. Check the Hand

The hand of the fabric is not a minor character in Game of Thrones — it's the fancy term that fashion people use to describe how fabric feels. Is the fabric stiff like a starched bonnet? Does it feel scratchy like a cat's tongue? Is it supple and flowy like a vintage slip? The difference between high-end designer clothes and low priced knock-offs is often the fabric. For example, J. Crew will make a sweater in pure cashmere for its collection line, a similar sweater in cotton and cashmere blend for its main line, and a cotton version for J. Crew Outlet stores. Better quality fabrics hold their shape better and last longer than their cheaper counterparts, so look for good fabric first. You can make a gorgeous garment out of cheap fabric, but it won't hold up to repeated wears.

Pro tip: Rub every garment you intend to buy against your cheek. If the fabric feels scratchy on your face, it will be scratchy on the rest of you.

3. Double-Check Fabric Content

Just because it's advertised as a cashmere sweater doesn't mean it's 100% cashmere. Many companies are now putting tiny amounts — like 7% — of cashmere fiber into clothes just so they can advertise it as a "cashmere blend." Don't be fooled into paying extra for cheap textiles!

Even for basics like jeans, fabric content is important. Lycra is added to a lot of jeans at every price point because it adds stretch to denim and gives the fabric a smoother fit. Most people want a little stretch to their denim for comfort. However, fabric should fit your lifestyle. I am one of those people who rarely washes her jeans, so I can maintain the fade of the denim. Because of this personal quirk, I can only wear jeans that are 98%-100% cotton. I've found that anything more than 2% Lycra content means that the jeans have to be washed between wearings to maintain their shape. Since I rarely wash my jeans, lycra for me means baggy knees and a saggy butt.

Pro tip: Do the scrunch test. Squeeze the fabric in your hand. Once you release your grip, do the wrinkles stay in the fabric? Regardless of how nice the fabric is, consider how much time and money will go into maintaining the look of a garment. If you hate to iron, don't buy linen.

4. A Stitch in Time Saves Money

Once you decide that you like the fabric, closely examine the seams. Very gently pull on the side seams of a dress shirt, and hold it up to the light. If you can see a lot of light between the stitches, that is not a good sign. Similar to thread count in bed sheets, well-made clothes boast more stitches per inch than poorly made pieces. Seams should lie flat and even like little sausage links. There should be no loose threads or looped stitches, as those are a sure sign of poor quality. Also, unless it is decorative top-stitching (which should be perfectly even and flat-laying), the thread of the garment should be the same color as the fabric.

While you are looking at the seams, check the seam allowance, which is the amount of extra fabric on each side of a seam. The more extra fabric, the easier it will be to tailor that item of clothing to your body. The reason why Chanel jackets are so popular with pregnant celebrities is that Chanel has famously wide seam allowances that allow the jackets to be let out by two entire sizes. It's one item of couture that women can fit into their entire pregnancy. If a garment is a little tight, check to see if you can gain wiggle room by adjusting the seams.

Also, check the hem allowance on sleeves, pants, and skirts. Since the hemlines on skirts go up and down, it's sometimes possible to refresh an old skirt and make it look completely on trend just by shortening or lengthening the hemline.

5. Avoid Uneven Seams and Hems

Most off-the-rack clothes are sewn together with a serger, or an overlock machine. While a serged seam is perfect for stretchy knit fabrics like t-shirts, better quality garments made of non-stretchy, woven fabrics will have finished seams and hems. High quality garments will have the raw edge of hems turned under or covered with hem tape. A good hem improves the drape of the garment. An uneven hem is one of the most obvious tells that the garment isn't well made.

6. Look for Patterns

Do you own a striped shirt that looks, just... off? Chances are that you are noticing that the pattern is uneven, without realizing it. One of the reasons good quality clothes cost more is that it takes a lot more fabric to match patterns at seams, across pockets, etc. Look at this jacket. The plaid matches perfectly across the body, even at the shoulder seams that connect the front of the jacket to the sleeves. The pockets are barely visible because the plaid is so carefully matched. This is the gold standard of pattern matching you should be looking for.

Matched patterns are particularly important because bold designs like stripes, plaids, or even florals are a double-edged sword. A large scale print can make the wearer look taller or thinner. But poorly matched patterns can make the wearer look dumpy and awkward.

7. Find Facings

Well-made clothes have facings and/or interfacings. Facings and interfacings are internal support structures for clothing and are sewn to the inside of garments to reinforce areas that get a lot of wear and tear. They help a garment maintain its shape and add to its longevity.

Facing is a kind of mini lining that hides the raw edge of fabric. The grosgrain ribbon sewn to the backside of the button band on cardigan sweaters is example of facing. The ribbon keeps the sweater button band from drooping from the weight of the buttons, and keeps the buttonholes from stretching out over time.

Interfacing is that extra piece of material sandwiched between the fabric of the garment and the fabric of the lining that gives a garment its structure. For example, interfacing is what gives shirt neckbands the stiffness to hold up the collar. Interfacing is commonly used to strengthen cuffs, collars, and waistbands.

8. Inspect the Lining

Linings are often used to hide shoddy tailoring, so the existence of a lining doesn't necessarily mean that a piece of clothing is well-made. Also, not every garment needs a lining. Because linings add an extra layer of fabric, they also add warmth to garments, so they are great for cold weather clothes like wool skirts, but not so great for linen summer suits. However, with heavier pieces like jackets or wool pants, a good lining (like facing), will help a garment keep its shape.

Additionally, linings prolong the life of clothes by working as a slip. They make jackets and form fitting skirts and pants easier to "slip" on and off the body without stretching the exterior fabric of the garment. Linings also protect garment fabric from sweat and body oil.

A properly sewn lining should lay flat against the interior of the garment, but still have enough give to allow you to move around normally without the lining feeling tight against your body. As with seam stitches and top stitching, the stitches of the lining should also be uniform and neat.

A lot of designers are cutting costs by skipping the lining on women's clothing. However, women can get some of the benefits of lined clothing by wearing a slip under their unlined dresses and skirts.

Pro tip: Before buying lined pants or skirts, be sure to do a squat test in the dressing room to make sure the lining was cut large enough that you can sit and bend over without splitting the lining.

9. Details Are Everything

While every season of Project Runway proves that zippers can be cleverly used as a design element, an exposed zipper is often a sign of cost-cutting. Well-made clothes generally have zippers that are hidden by a placket to keep the zipper teeth from snagging on the garment's fabric or other things. Although this can feel like a fussy extra, quality clothing will include an extra closure at the top of a zipper; a snap, a button, or a hook and eye. The extra closure takes the stress off the zipper teeth and helps keep the zipper zipped.

Buttons are like jewelry for your clothes. Unfortunately, cheap, plastic buttons are becoming common, replacing more expensive leather, glass, or leather fasteners, even on designer clothes.

Loose buttons are an easy way to accidentally overspend on clothes. If you lose one fancy button, you'll end up replacing the whole set or living with mismatched closures. My sister regularly saves 10%-50% on clothes by demanding a discount for loose or missing buttons.

Properly installed buttons have a shank. A shank allows a garment to be buttoned smoothly, without puckering or pulling on the fabric by creating a little space between the back of the button and the garment.

Well-made clothes have proper button placement. Everyone has that annoying shirt in his or her closet. You know, the one that makes you look like a religious missionary when buttoned to the top, but like a swashbuckling pirate when just one button is undone? That shirt that shows cleavage… sideways through the gap between the buttons? That shirt is not well-made.

Just like loose seams, uneven or loosely stitched buttonholes are a sign of poor craftsmanship. Although this seems obvious, buttonholes should be cut to fit the buttons and not be so tight that it's a struggle to push the button through, or so loose that the buttons fall out of the buttonholes on their own.

Pro tip: To make cheap garments look more expensive, swap out the buttons. Sewing on a button is a basic skill that almost everyone can do to immediately improve the appearance of clothes. (I have been reusing favorite buttons since childhood.)

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Guest's picture

Good read!