Quality pieces generally fit better, feel better, look better and last longer. And although high-quality items are sometimes more expensive, there is by no means a direct correlation between quality and price. So when we are shopping it’s necessary to judge individual items on their merits.
The most important determinant of quality is the fabric, but construction is also very important. Quality garments are about extra construction details and fit reinforcements that are both visible and invisible. These details are time-consuming to implement in production, which is why a quality piece is usually more expensive than a less well made piece.
Here are the things to look for when you are assessing the quality of an item.
No matter how beautifully constructed a piece is, it won’t be a quality item unless the fabric is a cut above the rest. Pay attention to the way the fabric drapes and works with your body. Assess whether the weight and texture of the fabric is suited to the design of the item. Assess whether you like the way it feels against your skin. Quality fabric should never itch or irritate the skin. Move around in the item and assess its comfort level and the way it fits your body. It should retain its shape after stretching.
Natural fibres like cotton, linen, wool, silk, cashmere and leather have a high quality quotient because they are warmer or cooler, and more breathable than synthetics. But natural fibres are not always the better option. Synthetics can improve the fit, comfort and durability of a clothing piece, thereby increasing its quality quotient. Our bodies are curved and like to move, which makes a small percentage of lycra or spandex a blessing. Clothing items made entirely of natural fibres frequently shrink in the laundry and lose their shape. Natural fibres that are blended with synthetics are generally more robust. Synthetic fabrics are also better for activewear because they’re lightweight, fast-drying, stretchy, soft, wick away sweat, and are highly durable.
Check that the seams are straight and neat on the inside and outside of the garment. Seams should not pucker, pull, or come apart when you pull at them. There should be no loose threads. Seams should not slip and create holes in the fabric when you pull at them. Quality garments usually have shorter and more stitches. Topstitching should look very neat. Quality skirts, dresses and trousers usually have longer seam allowances at the hems.
French seams on woven items denote quality because they’re folded over and topstitched, which covers up the zip-zag stitching of the overlocking. This creates a very neat visual effect. Inside seams that are folded open and piped with tape are higher quality because, again, there is no visible zig-zag stitching. Of course, knitted fabrics like jersey and fleece are best overlocked with zig-zag stitching because of their stretchy integrity.
Buttons should be securely fastened with lots of thread. Button holes should be adequately reinforced with thick thread so that they don’t tear. You should not be able to see the raw edges of the fabric through the button hole stitching. A quality garment should come with a spare button or two.
Woven labels denote better quality than printed labels, and should be stitched in a place that does not irritate the wearer.
Unless zippers are deliberately exposed, they should lie flat and be covered with a placket. Zippers should lock at the top and not slide down.
Assess whether the weight of additional trims works with the weight of the fabric and the style of the item. I sometimes see gorgeous trims that are too heavy for the garment, thereby ruining the lines of the piece both on the hanger and on your body.
Darts, princess seams and back seams on non-stretchy pieces create shape so that the garment curves with your body. The more darts and shaping seams a garment has, especially when they are topstitched, the higher the quality of the tailoring and the better it will fit your body. A back shoulder yoke on shirts and blouses creates a better fit around the neck and shoulders, and a better drape at the back.
A good number of facings and interfacings denotes a quality piece. These are the extra pieces of fabric that are sewn into the garment on a button placket, a waistband, sleeve openings, necklines and collars to support the structure of the piece so that it drapes and fits better, and does not stretch out. You cannot always see interfacings, but you can feel for them.
Quality pieces in patterns, like stripes and checks, should match up at the side seams. Patterns should also match up on the flaps of outside pockets, unless it’s a deliberate design feature not to do so.
Not all items need lining, but extremely transparent items, extra delicate fabrics, jackets, coats, and structured dresses and skirts are higher quality when they are lined. Lining increases the quality quotient of a garment because it hides the inside construction, thereby giving it a much neater finish. Lining allows you to slip on and move in the garment more easily (no friction). It adds coverage and extra comfort.
Lining also prevents the garment from being stretched, makes it more durable and generally prolongs its life. Lining with a taped edge that holds together the lining and the material of the jacket creates an extra neat and high quality finish. Lining should feel breathable and have lots of ease so that you don’t feel constricted in the piece.
Pockets are tricky because a quality piece is supposed to have deep pockets with lining that is made of the same fabric as the garment. But these quality attributes on trousers can have a negative effect on its fit. So I believe that quality side entry pockets on trousers are the ones where the lining does not show through to the front. They don’t need to be all that deep and can be made of thinner lining fabric. Pockets should be stitched closed to keep them flat. You then have the option of keeping them that way, or opening them up.
Jackets and coats, on the other hand, should have deep and reinforced pockets made of durable fabric because you use these pockets extensively to keep warm and hold small items like keys and a phone.
People often downplay brand as an indicator of quality, but it is actually quite important when it reflects a reputation for quality and our own past experience with items from the same company. The true measure of a quality item is how it performs over time. Does it launder well? Will it last? Will the fit stay true? Does it look great at the end of the day? You shouldn’t assess quality based on brand alone, but previous experience with the brand should definitely be factored in.
A higher price point is not an adequate measure of quality. As I check for these quality indicators in my own closet, I’m surprised to see chain stores amping up their quality and higher-end designers cutting construction corners. My Ann Taylor, Banana Republic and J.Crew button-down shirts have French seams and topstitched tailoring seams, whereas my Anne Fontaine shirts — at five times the price — have zig-zag overlocked seams. My Boden blazers and J.Crew coats are perfectly tailored and crease-resistant. There is piped tape between the lining and the fabric of the topper, which is quite remarkable for brands that are not considered high end.
On the other hand, I can fly for 28 hours in my fully lined ink blue wool Theory blazer and it looks as pristine as it did when I left home. The creases fall out, it holds its shape and lustre, and is extremely comfortable. In this case, I really got my money’s worth because it’s a true quality piece.