Quality is what everyone wants in their clothing. If only it was easy to define what quality clothing is these days. Quality might appear to boil down to construction and cloth. But which cloth? Does it matter where a garment is made, or by whom? And are these really factors worth paying more for?
A quality assessment now goes beyond the garment itself to include where, how and the conditions in which your new purchase was made too. What does it say of a new suit, for example, that it was made in China, and not a specific post code in London?
At a time when society is producing more clothes that at any point in human history, you have to assume that much of the surplus is sub-par, or at least made from cheaper fabrics in parts of the world where labour costs less. And not every brand is going to be forthcoming on matters of supply chains or mark-ups. True quality assessment, in other words, makes more demands of you to do your own investigations.
Thankfully, the information you need to make educated purchases is increasingly accessible – and, if you can’t find it, demand it from a maker before you buy their products. It pays to be skeptical. In the meantime, here’s your primer for buying quality clothes in 2019.
Understand Fabric Choice
The standard line has it that natural fibres are always superior to synthetics. And certainly they have admirable qualities – cotton is naturally breathable; it’s warm in the winter and cool in summer; depending on how it’s woven, it can be hard-wearing. Wool is highly insulating relative to its weight. And so on.
This is one reason why natural fibres are typically associated with quality. But this is also something of a cliche, along with the idea that man-made synthetics are always itchy, sweaty and cheap. As a rule of thumb, natural fibres are more agreeable to wear and care for, but note that with textile technology as advanced as it is, many of the latest man-made fibres outperform natural ones in terms of protection and comfort.
Turnbull & Asser
“Quality becomes in part a matter of what you need the garment to do and how it best can do it,” says Becky French, creative director of Turnbull & Asser, which is using Tencel in its esteemed shirts for the first time this season.
“It’s become a very complex issue – non-natural fibres, for example, are harder to recycle. And yet natural fibres aren’t necessarily the most sustainable either,” as, for example, the intensity of water and pesticide use involved in cotton production suggests.
Quality cloth, in other words, should feel good, wash and wear well, and provide good service. But also be aware that for certain fabrics, that will be the same depending on whether it’s a ‘cheap’ version or a ‘luxury’ one. Your designer sweatshirt, for example, could be made from the same kind of loopback jersey as one that costs a tenth of the price.
Does Where It’s Made Matter?
Some nations have historic reputations for making high quality clothing, and/or for clothing design. It’s why the country of origin labels ‘Made in the UK’ or ‘Made in Italy’, for example, act as brands in their own right, and are closely associated with quality.
And certainly some countries’ long expertise still counts with regards to certain specialisms: England for traditional shoes, Scotland for knitting cashmere, Italy for its ready-to-wear tailoring, Japan for its raw denim, and so on.
Turnbull & Asser’s Gloucester factory
Of course, from a sustainability stand-point of air miles travelled, it helps if you happen to live in the same country. But, again, while some companies benefit from their country of origin label – Italy was among those who overturned an EU proposal to have all labelling state ‘Made in the EU’, while countries less well associated with quality clothing were all in favour of the change – this is not to say that other nations are incapable of making quality products, as the number of ‘designer’ garments now made in Turkey, for example, arguably testifies to.
“You can find fantastic quality clothing now made in China,” notes tailor Tony Lutwyche. “They’ve long had the technology to make whatever standard of garment is requested of them. The difference is that certain country of origin labels provide confidence as to how workers in that supply chain have been treated.”
Wool tends to be more expensive than synthetic fibres
Lutwyche also says that the laws governing country of origin labelling are far from stringently applied: something almost wholly made in one country can claim to be have been made in another if the finishing is done there – and finishing may amount to little more than sewing on a few buttons.
Don’t Get Caught Up In Brand Names
Of course, some brands have a long tradition of making a specialist kind of garment, and their expertise in doing so adds value to their product: Barbour is well-known for its waxed cotton jackets; Sunspel for its underwear; Red Wing for its boots, and so on. But while some brands are built over many years, others become so typically through advertising spend – and that’s money not then invested in, for example, product development.
The minimal check lining of a Burberry jacket
“Wearing certain brands can make you feel better about yourself but they’re not automatic pointers to quality,” warns Lutwyche. “The value of any brand changes with each generation – and even really big brands experience long phases of low quality.”
It’s often because big brands are failing to provide a quality version of a type of garment that a gap opens in the market. Given the access to our wallets provided by the internet now, these gaps are often filled by un-established names you’ve probably never heard of, yet what they make can be of the highest standard, especially if they focus on something specific.
“Every brand tends to claim it does what it does to the highest quality,” notes French. “It’s down to the consumer to consider what a brand stands for and, importantly, whether it can really back those claims up. But it’s down to brands to earn our trust.”
Looking For The Details
“We live in a world in which some consumers are happy to spend £3 on a latte but are reluctant to spend more than £2 on a T-shirt,” says Lutwyche. “But you can’t do that without really considering the economics. And at that price, the manufacturing process is clearly going to be having a negative impact on someone in some part of the world. For that reason alone it pays to invest in quality.”
Sure, it does mean forgoing the thrill of the regular purchase and it’s easier said than done for those on a budget – but buying better, less often, is a wise policy if you want your clothing to be both ethical, and of a high technical standard. Assessing whether it’s the latter is a question of forensic analysis of the kind most of us are reluctant to do in the buzz of the moment.
Selvedge denim jeans complete with a chainstitched hem
Is the stitching regular, straight and neat? Are seams overlocked or taped – the kind of detail one expects in a more expensive product? Have button holes been neatly finished or are there loose threads everywhere? Does the fabric feel good in the hand – substantial or lightweight or smooth or textured as you so wish? It’s personal, of course, but has the garment been cut to fit well? And, something you’ll discover only later, does it wash well, without shrinkage, distortion or fading? Your experience wearing it might well determine whether you return to that brand again.
“Naturally, the more you spend, the more you should have high expectations of construction and cloth, and quite rightly,” says Lutwyche. “Shopping for quality is actually really hard. You have to think about it and not fall for the hype. You have to put some work in. But it’s worth it.”