In this era of fast fashion it’s rare that clothes are made to last, and we seem to be living in a throwaway society. We aren’t particularly encouraged to care for our clothes, because in the eyes of high (and high street) fashion, what you’re wearing is obsolete as soon as the next season rolls around. When you’re trying to curate a wardrobe that’s going to last though, it’s important that you’re able to identify which clothes are well-made, and which are at risk of disintegrating after one season. This is the (very hefty) first installment of three posts in a series, which will cover:
- Part one – What high quality means and how to identify high quality examples of the five most commonly used fabrics (this post)
- Part two – How to check seams, zips, buttons and all those extras, + the free printable for posts one and two
- Part three – How to find high-quality garments when shopping online + free printable
This whole website is about looking after the clothes that you own, so that they last as long as possible – but having well-made garments in your wardrobe in the first place is a great start!
That being said, not every item in your wardrobe needs to be built to last. Decide what’s important to you, and prioritise that – what do you wear the most? If you find yourself slipping into dungarees every day, think first about investing in a great pair of those, rather than getting over excited, going rogue and getting a merino-cashmere pair of socks out of the blue, when usually, you don’t mind it if socks wear out after a couple of seasons. Do you get my drift?
What does ‘high quality’ mean?
There’s no concrete definition for quality, so feel free to ignore or add whatever you like to make this answer suit you – it’s a very personal thing.
To me, high quality means that something is well made – you want the fabric itself to be durable, so that the garment can handle wear and washing, the seams should be straight and strong, and the buttons sewn on well.
Remember that more expensive does not always mean higher quality, so there’s not always much of a correlation – we seem to have the ingrained belief that paying more for something, especially if you’re buying a brand name, means that you’re going to be purchasing the best there is… which isn’t true a lot of the time. Some garments are simply easier to get right, and some fabrics are more readily available, so manufacturers can find high quality fibres at a low price. That’s why there’s so much variation in quality even within the same store – so it’s always worth checking a garment before you buy it.
Always make the time to try on an item of clothing – especially if it’s an investment piece. The reasons for that will become clear as you read the rest of this post…
If you imagine an item of clothing as a house, the fabric used is like the foundation -hands down, the most important bit. If your foundation isn’t strong, some crumbling is going to be inevitable. You could have the loveliest French seams in the world and beautifully stitched buttonholes, but if the fabric is poor quality, it’s not going to be a practical addition to your wardrobe.
Make sure that you’re buying fabric/ clothing that you know you’re going to be able to care for. Some things are handwash or dry clean only for a reason, but if you have a tendency to ignore those recommendations (please don’t), it’s going to be more sensible to stay away from garments with those requirements in the first place. You need to be able to commit to caring for them properly!
The three most important things to check for in a fabric:
- Is the fabric itself durable enough? Check the list below for things to look out for in specific fabric types.
- Check the care label of the fabric. Are you going to be able to commit to looking after it in the way that is suggested? Think about how long you’re going to want to spend caring for each item in your wardrobe – cottons are pretty easy to care for, but silks are going to need a lot more attention.
- How suitable is the fabric for that particular garment and what you’re going to be wearing it for? If you want an easy-to-care for shirt for work, a delicate silk that can’t get wet isn’t going to be the most practical choice.
Every kind of fabric, whether its man-made or natural, has its pros and cons. I’m not going to tell you that you should always go for natural fabrics over man-made ones, because I don’t think you should. Just figure out what will be practical for you, so that you can build yourself a functional wardrobe that you’ll be able to care for for years to come.
I’ve only been able to go into detail on five different fabrics (or this blog post would’ve been even longer than it already is), but I’m working on my second book at the moment, which is going to cover how to look after as many different fabrics as I can find – including how to identify high-quality examples of those. If you’d like to receive updates on the progress of this book and be the first to know when it’s out for pre-order, sign up to my mailing list HERE.
Okay, here we go. Time to jump into the fabrics.
A lot of people seem to have it in their heads that even the tiniest percentage of a man-made fibre is a bad thing. But really, they can make garments more functional, be added to natural fibres to enhance or add certain properties, and even make them easier to care for. I’m going to say with a whole lot of confidence that it’s low-quality, ‘let’s make as much money as possible’ kinds of shops which have made us feel like synthetic fibres are something to be avoided – they use man made textiles to replace natural fibres, because it’s cheaper that way, rather than doing so to improve the quality, look or feel of their clothes. If you looked at higher quality garments, you’d realise that they might choose a synthetic fibre because of a specific property that it has (like it’s breathability, it’s drape, it’s ability to be packed into a bag and come out magically crease-free), and use it to make the final product as practical and perfect as possible.
- A lot of the time, a synthetic stretch fibre (such as elastane, which will be mentioned in the ‘stretch’ section below) can be added to a natural or synthetic fabric to create stretch, and therefore improve fit and comfort. A lot of jeans have a small elastane content to allow for big meals, and so that you don’t have to spend all morning doing lunges to get into the jeans in the first place. Elastane in garments also helps clothes to keep their shape during and after washing, and as you wear them.
- Activewear – To be honest, any activewear garment made completely of any natural fibre is just not going to be your best purchase. There are hundreds of heattech, cooltech, all kinds of tech fabrics which suit exercise gear because of how lightweight and breathable they are.
- A lot of synthetic fabrics don’t need ironing at all. That’s all I’m going to say there, because I can feel you running out to your car to replace every item in your wardrobe so that you never need to iron again.
- As someone who makes her own clothes, I feel like I need to give an honourable mention to viscose/ rayon (for the purpose of this blog post, viscose and rayon are exactly the same). Viscose is known for feeling a lot like silk – but is 100 times more practical. It’s made either from wood pulp or leftover cotton, so is entirely recyclable and, a lot of the time, biodegradable. It’s a really versatile fabric because it can be knitted and blended with elastane to create a lightweight, drapey jersey, or woven to create a whole host of different fabrics, as it’s often blended with other fibres – both natural and synthetic.
Cotton is a really popular natural fibre, known for being easy to care for, breathable, soft, and affordable Cotton is a versatile fabric as it comes in so many different weights (from cotton lawn to corduroy), which makes it suitable for most garments. Here are a few things to look out for when purchasing cotton-based clothing:
- The quality of cotton is determined by it’s ‘staple length’ – the length of the individual fibres that make up the fabric. The longer the staple length, the higher quality and more durable the fabric is deemed to be, as the longer fibres can be woven closer together, making the finished fabric dense and sturdy. If shorter fibres are used, the cotton can end up being a little bit scratchy, as it is more difficult to wind these staples into a softer yarn, so the little ends stick out at different angles – like when you try to braid hair which has layers cut into it!
- The cotton’s country of origin is able to tell you a lot about its quality. Sea Island Cotton, Egyptian cotton and Pima/ Supima cottons are known for their high quality and long staple length¹, so if there are any mention of these on the label, it’s a good bet!
If you’re not in the mood to Google cotton staple lengths in different countries in the middle of a shop (and I don’t blame you, I just thought you might find that information useful in understanding why some fabric is better than others), here are some easier things that you can do to suss out how good the cotton is:
- Feel it – how soft is the cotton? The softer it is, the longer the staple length is likely to be, and therefore the higher the quality. Even heavyweight cottons should feel soft to the touch -if it doesn’t, you might be stroking those spiky ends of a shorter staple.
- Hold the fabric up to the light – can you see through it? Cotton fabrics should be dense, so even you’re looking at a lightweight lawn, you shouldn’t be able to see through it. Gingham is quite prone to being made in a loose weave, so always test it out to see how opaque it is. Sometimes, a looser weave is part of the garment’s design, but be aware that a loose-weave cotton is more prone to wear and tear.
- Can you see any pilling? Tightly woven cotton (100% cotton, that is – cotton blends are slightly different) has a low chance of pilling. If you see pilling on a cotton garment in a shop, just walk on by!
- Is the weave of the fabric even? The tiny stitches that make up the fabric should all be consistently spaced and smooth, with no loops or snags.
- Cotton is one of the most readily available fabrics, so you should be able to find high quality cotton fabric at a reasonably low price point.
STRETCH FABRICS (KNITTED)
Fair warning, this category is a bit of a whopper.
If I put this as simply as possible, there are two different kinds of knitted fabrics with stretch. Either they have a percentage of elastane in them (elastane is a general name for a synthetic stretchy material²), or they have a mechanical stretch. Spandex is an actual stretchy material while mechanical stretch means the yarn is woven together in a way which gives the fabric the ability to stretch.
- Knit fabrics with elastane: Yarn- such as cotton – is knitted (see diagram on the left) and combined with a percentage of elastane, which is also known as Spandex or Lycra. This man-made stretchy material allows the fabric to stretch further than knits with only mechanical stretch, and are able to recover more effectively than mechanical stretch knits.
- Mechanical stretch: Yarn is knitted (see diagram on the left), but no elastane is introduced, which means the fabric will only stretch as far as the loops in the knit will allow. As the yarn has been looped around, the fabric is able to stretch as small amount, but will not recover as well as knits with an elastane content.
It might sound like I’m about to tell you that mechanical stretch is rubbish because it doesn’t recover as well, but I am most definitely not. Both of these knits have their advantages and suit different garments:
Knits with elastane are good for: Form fitting stretch garments, like tight t-shirts or bodysuits, bodycon dresses, activewear and swimwear.
Knits with mechanical stretch: Looser fitting stretch garments, like cardigans, drapey t-shirts, jogging bottoms and pyjamas.
Here are some ways for you to test out knits and stretch fabrics to make sure that you’ll be bringing home the best!
- Has the right kind of knit been used for the garment? Look at the label to see if the garment has an elastane, Spandex or Lycra content. If there is no elastane but the item of clothing is meant to be form fitting, test its recovery (below).
- Test its recovery: After the fabric has been stretched out, does it bounce back to its original shape without a problem? If it ‘recovers’ well, you won’t be able to tell that the fabric has been stretched out. Fabrics with higher percentages of spandex or lycra will recover very well. Fabrics with mechanical stretch are less likely to recover well, and will eventually start to sag and lose their shape if they are continually stretched to their limit, which is why fabrics without good recovery shouldn’t be used for tighter-fitting garments.
- Is the design or colour on the fabric printed or a part of the fabric? This one is down to personal preference, but is still worth considering. If a colour or design is printed onto the fabric, the fading process might be a accelerated a little, as opposed to if the design is incorporated into the weave. You can tell if a design is woven into the fabric by looking closely at the knitted stitches of the fabric. If the print has been incorporated into the yarn, the tiny stitches will be visible through the print, just in a different colour. It’s a bit difficult to explain, but hopefully this will show you what I mean:
Certain printed designs will go over these knitted stitches so that they cannot be seen, may feel tacky, and can melt if they’re ironed over. That’s not to say that all printed designs are a bad investment – I have faith that you’ll be able to tell the difference when you take a close look yourselves!
- How does it look stretched? When you’re wearing the garment and it stretches over any curves (especially your chest and bum area), how does it look? If you can see through the fabric, it might not be the best purchase.
- Are there any signs of pilling? Knit fabrics seem to love a bit of a pill, so make sure you’re not picking up any garments that are already showing signs. Look at the armpits, around the hem and across the chest.
Okay – there are so many amazing denim experts floating about on the internet, and they all have their own staunch opinions on what constitutes the highest quality (are you bored of me saying that yet? Probably. But neither me nor the thesaurus can think of anything different without sounding very poncy) denim.
- Here are some quickfire facts about denim – Denim is part of the cotton family, so the finished quality of the fabric will depend on the quality of the cotton used to create it, and which kind of twill weave has been used to form the denim. The wash of the denim affects the price (as some washes will take more expertise or product to create) but doesn’t make a notable difference to the quality of the fabric. The stitching is a really, really, important thing to look at when it comes to deciding whether to introduce that garment to your wardrobe, so take extra time with that when it comes to your inspection.
- Feel the weight of the fabric – Well-made denim should feel strong and heavy, and maybe even a little bit moist. No matter the weight of the denim, the fabric should still feel soft to the touch! Heavy, dense denim might feel a little bit stiff (especially if you’re buying raw/unwashed denim) when you first start wearing them, but will soften up over time. If you’re able to find or ask about the weight of the denim, try aim for over 12oz, but the weight is up to you – as long as the fabric doesn’t feel or look flimsy, you go with what you feel. If you are going to spring for a lighter weight denim, just make sure the fabric is densely woven and durable enough to wear day to day.
- Look at the stitching – Denim is a heavy fabric, so seams on jeans will need to be strong enough to support the fabric and deal with repetitive movements (such as walking) without the seams popping or ripping. To check their strength, pull the fabric apart slightly at the seams. If you can see the stitches moving apart, pop that baby right back on the rack. Make sure you try different movements to test the seams’ sturdiness – sit down, walk about, get some lunges in, even! Look at the stitching around the hem, pockets and side seams – if you spot any double stitching (two parallel rows of stitching around 5mm apart) or chain stitching (little connected loops which resemble a chain), it’s a hint that the manufacturer has put time into making the garment strong. Single lines of stitching are okay, as long as you’ve done the seam-pull test and the thread looks relatively thick and reliable – but if the inside of the crotch line is not double stitched, you might want to keep browsing to avoid a potential fashion faux pas. If when you’re wearing the garment you can feel a bump along your inner leg seam, it means that speed and cheap manufacturing have been a priority. Higher quality jeans will have the seams finished and then either pressed open or to one side. ³
- If you’re shopping second hand for denim, make sure to check the inside of the legs (or under the arms if it’s a jacket) for signs of pilling or general wear. Worn thighs/underarms are definite signs of low quality denim. Thank you to the icon Anuschka Rees for that tip!
There are a lot of different factors that can influence the quality of wool fabrics – the type of animal the wool is from (and said animal’s general wellbeing), how the fibres have been processed and turned into yarn, whether the wool has been blended with any other fibres, the diameter and density of the fibre. Wool fibres finer than 25-30 microns are most often used for clothing, and anything thicker is reserved for rugs, blankets and outerwear. Garments made from finer wool are soft and usually more expensive than those made using coarse, thick fibres as they’re more difficult and time-consuming to process and manufacture.4 The softness or coarseness of the wool is completely down to your preference and what kind of garment it is that you’re buying. Just make sure you do give the fabric a bit of a stroke, especially if any of it is going to be touching bare skin, and make sure that you’re happy with how it feels.
As if you needed any more of an excuse to stroke wool clothes, here are some things that you can do to check their quality:
- This one isn’t really a tip, more just a statement. Some wools are known for being ‘superior’ compared to others, so if you see them on the label, you can rest assured that what you’re looking at is probably something pretty special – especially if the wool content is over 60% (check that label!). If what you just so happen to be browsing is made from lambswool, Merino, Cashmere, Angora (goat, not rabbit. A lot of Angora rabbit wool is unethically sourced) or alpaca wool, it’s a great start.5What’s the recovery of the fabric like? If the garment feels like it’s meant to stretch, does it ‘bounce back’ to its original shape as soon as you let go? If it stays stretched out, keep on moving.
- Does the fabric have any irregularities? Does the surface of the fabric look consistent? Unless it’s a design feature, the stitches should all be the same size and densely woven, without any gaps. Are there any snags, loose strands or holes anywhere? If the answer is yes to any of those questions, you’ve probably figured out that that’s a bad sign. A lot of the time though, snags and catches are from where someone else has tried on the garment and managed to catch the fabric on something – rifle through the others and find a snag-free version. If you can see a lot of loose fibres creating what’s known as a ‘halo’ effect (a.k.a. fuzz), it means that the wool fibres are breaking, which is never great, and could show that the wool fibres are of bad quality, which just means that the breakage problem is only going to go downhill. If you’re buying a wool or wool-blend suit especially, go for a fabric which is as fuzz-free as possible.
- Is the fabric pilling? Pilling is impossible to avoid with wool, so the less of it you start with, the better. The wool garments which are the least prone to pilling are the ones with a really densely knitted fabric – the smaller and closer together the stitches look, the less pilling you’re going to have to deal with. It’s likely that there are going to be a few little fuzzballs clinging onto any woolly item of clothing you buy, especially if it’s 100% wool – but there shouldn’t be too many. Check the collar, underarms, thighs and cuffs. If there’s no sign of pilling at all, just take it and run!
- Have the neckline and shoulder seams been stabilised? This step is only necessary if the garment is actually knitted and has some stretch to it, and involves a woven, non-stretchy ribbon being stitched onto the seam to prevent those areas from stretching out and becoming saggy. It should look a little something like this:
¹ Types of Cotton – J Brulee website.
² Fabric for Fashion: The Swatch Book – Clive Hallett and Amanda Johnston
³ Expert Tips for Buying Good Quality Denim – liveabout.com
4 Wool Attributes: Thickness – thenaturalfibre.co.uk
5 Know Your Wool Types – Heddels