How to get from acrylic to cashmere?
October 2, 2010 6:57 AM   Subscribe

"When shopping for clothes, buy the best quality material you can afford". I want to do this, but I don't know much about fabric. Can you rank different fabrics for me, ranging from lowest to highest quality?

I have a very basic idea e.g. for sweaters, acrylic is at the bottom, cashmere is at the top - but how to rank what falls in between? I also need to know this for pants and tops. I live in a cool climate, so heavier fabrics are the focus. Thanks!
posted by yawper to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (14 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
In my opinion, and generally speaking, wool is better than cotton and cotton is better than synthetics. But in some cases I prefer a cotton sweater or a synthetic shirt. I think generally the 'buy the best quality material' rule applies within the different types of fabric. Each fabric has its own uses. Silk, for example, is very nice but you probably wouldn't want your entire wardrobe to be silk. A cashmere or merino sweater might be preferable to a scratchy wool when you want a wool sweater; a thick, sturdy cotton might be preferable to a thin cotton fabric in some cases; and a waterproof, breathable synthetic might be preferable to polyester for outdoor gear. Fabric care is also important to consider. For everyday clothing I'll usually choose a wash and wear garment over one that requires dry cleaning.

Here are some links to different types of fabrics and weaves that might be useful.
posted by Balonious Assault at 7:40 AM on October 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Also consider the care of the animals in the mix. Cashmere from China has a reputation as coming from not very well cared for creatures.
posted by Heretical at 8:18 AM on October 2, 2010

Rather than rate fabrics on an absolute scale, if I'm going to buy something expensive I pay a lot of attention to it. Good fabrics tend to have weight. I go for fabric that is heavy and natural over light and synthetic.

But mostly I pay attention to the little things. For jackets, pants, dresses--is it lined? Are the seams crisp or are there stray threads sticking out? Are the zippers and buttons fastened securely? And so on.
posted by phunniemee at 8:19 AM on October 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

I agree with the above - different fabrics are suited to different purposes, and any ranking would be arbitrary. It's more useful to look at individual fabrics for quality - there's high-quality cotton and low-quality cotton, for instance. I think the best test is to touch the fabric and see how it feels on your hand. This can tell you quite a bit:

- Scrunch a section of the fabric - if the wrinkles are still there when you release, you'll be doing a lot of ironing. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but keep it in mind.

- Hold your hand behind the material - can you see through it? Yes means it's very lightweight. This is fine if the garment is supposed to be a little sheer, but not so good for something like a button-down shirt.

- Run your palm over the material - if it's scratchy or synthetic-feeling, it will feel that way against your skin when you're wearing it. This generally means a lower-quality fabric with a higher synthetic content. Certain kinds of wool can be scratchy too, if they're not blended with anything.
posted by ella wren at 8:30 AM on October 2, 2010 [3 favorites]

Ella wren's wrinkle, translucence and texture tests are important. Apart from the ironing issue, a jacket, pants or skirt that wrinkles is going to wrinkle up where your body bends, while you wear it, and will look terrible. Not suitable for dressy or professional clothes.

Also, remember also that new fabrics have sizing in them, a stiffener that makes them look better than they will after washing and makes them easier to work with in the factory. It's one reason why really cheap stuff looks like crap after you wash it and rumples rather than hanging well after washing.
posted by Listener at 8:44 AM on October 2, 2010

Here is a useful website.

Sometimes it's easier, because of the sizing on new fabrics, to judge the quality of the construction on a garment rather than the fabric itself. A well-constructed garment probably is made with better fabric.
posted by annsunny at 9:18 AM on October 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Don't totally rule out synthetics though. Especially for my work clothes, I like there to be at least a little something not natural in the mix - makes for easy cleaning and less wrinkling. I agree with annsunny that you really need to pay attention to the construction and workmanship (usually sewing) of a garment.

And if you're buying more expensive items, tend towards the most classic cuts and styles as they won't look dated as quickly.
posted by cestmoi15 at 9:31 AM on October 2, 2010

The answer to your question really depends on what sort of clothing you mean.

For durability on the cheap, denim ranks as nothing short of a miracle fabric. It protects you, holds heat well while efficiently wicking away sweat, doesn't tear easily and small holes tend to fray in a self-limiting way, wears out rather slowly, doesn't wrinkle... You couldn't ask for much more than that. And when it does finally give out, it makes great workshop rags. D

Despite (or, in a somewhat paranoid speculation, because of) this, you can only get away with wearing it in fairly casual situations.
posted by pla at 11:16 AM on October 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Here's a nice wool guide.

Wee explanation of "pima," "mercerized," etc

An hour blown in a Value Village would be time well spent. Go through the sweaters -- you can see what happens to various types of knits. In the pants racks you can see what stuff looks good twenty washes later, and what stuff is wearing thin, puckered, or pilled.

I agree with the preference for natural fibres; I also agree that sometimes synthetics have their place. A little hit of nylon in a wool sweater can extend its life by an order of magnitude, a little hit of cashmere makes it softer. "Wool blend" is not a bad thing. But beware of "other fibres" -- when looking at blends, look for something that suggests thought and effort rather than "factory floor sweepings." Occasionally you will find coats made partially from wool and partially from "other" "unknown fibres" -- avoid these; also avoid anything whose purpose is simply to cut costs (most notably, acrylic).

Rayon and to a lesser extent cotton comes in such a variety of qualities -- there's no way to say "all good" or "all bad." I am of the belief that all modal and all bamboo rayon is bad; take a look at well-washed modal/bamboo in the thrift store to see why. Pilled, out of shape, thin and tacky. Viscose tends to last for decades, though.

Be fussy about the country of manufacture. Be very wary of stuff from China, less so for North American and European garments.

Cheap silk still feels nice, but if silk isn't sewn well it tends to fray, and seams come apart.

Do pay attention to linings -- thickness is a big key here. A heavy lining in a quality viscose, silk, or blend = good garment.

A lot of this, I notice, boils down to "look for clues that somebody cared." Cheap buttons are a red flag. "Something-or-other wool" beats "wool." "Made in Canada of Italian fabric" suggests somebody cared about what they were sewing with and where it was sewn. Look for a little pride in the manufacture!

Also a little pride in the retailing -- I stopped buying stuff at the Gap after getting a pair of khakis that puckered into useless junk on the first wash, and a sweater that dumped loads of black fuzz on everything it looked at. Did they take them back? No. "You can only return something if it's defective," re. the defective khakis, and "That's what that fabric is supposed to do" (?!) re. the sweater. Horrid! Try to steer clear of little mall shops with shoddy return policies; the return policies are poor for a reason.

And finally (and I apologise for going on at such length; former home ec nerd, current occasional eBayer of vintage here): check out the garments' friends, so to speak. A manufacturer selling crap socks is unlikely to be fussy about having the suiting fabric be Just So. If you see a little bit of junk sold under the brand, stop holding out and hoping that some of it will be better; it usually isn't.
posted by kmennie at 11:20 AM on October 2, 2010 [6 favorites]

Yeah, it's just not right to say that cotton is "better than" synthetics. Nylon, for example, will seriously outperform cotton in outerwear applications, straps, buckles, sports gear, etc.

Likewise with socks. I wore 100% cotton and cotton blend socks for years, until recently discovering acrylic socks, which keep my feet cool and dry and significantly outlast the cotton ones.

For what it's worth, I've found that often more expensive and more fashionable clothing is made from less durable material. You'll develop a sense of quality over time. One way to cultivate it is to see and feel how military, fire, and emergency clothing are constructed, and compare that to, say, H&M look-alikes. The differences will be immediately apparent.
posted by fake at 11:20 AM on October 2, 2010

"When shopping for clothes, buy the best quality material you can afford"

I think this is sort of misguided.

Cashmere is "better" than acrylic, yes. But you really want the right fabric for the job. You'd never want to wear a cashmere sweater to do yard work, no matter how "high quality" it was.

Different fabrics are also good for different seasons and different kinds of weather. Cashmere is warmer than cotton, for instance. Merino is great for outdoor activities because it keeps you warm even if it gets damp. Acrylic is hard to ruin and cheap to replace.
posted by Sara C. at 11:28 AM on October 2, 2010

The question of "better" also relates to how you care for your clothing. Can you afford regular dry cleaning? If not, be careful with something like wool crepe, even good quality crepe; it's fragile, will full (the term for "felting" a woven fabric) easily with improper care, and can get shiny on seats and knees. Do you like to iron and own quality equipment, or are you willing to bring your shirts to the laundry every week? If not, you definitely want shirts with some synthetic in the mix, because pure cotton, linen, and silk need careful work at home.

As well as paying attention to fiber content (and its source & quality), it might be useful to learn about weave structures for woven fabrics. The reason satin is both lustrous and easily damaged is because of the way it's woven, whether it's made of polyester or silk; the reason jeans last so much longer than other cotton trousers is because of the twill weave. (Sorry. Weaving geek here.)

fake, have you tried wool socks yet? Cool in summer, warm in winter. Magical.
posted by catlet at 1:56 PM on October 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

I just want to add that you need to think about how your lifestyle will affect the clothing you will wear. I'm from Buffalo, NY and moved to Washington, DC. In Buffalo, people wear the big warm coats in the winter that will keep you cozy when it's -40 degrees outside (seriously). And I grew up believing wool sweaters were best (until of course, I was introduced to cashmere). So when Old Navy started selling affordable cashmere sweaters, I got super excited.

The problem? I feel way too warm in cashmere or wool in Washington. Maybe if I was wearing a cashmere sweater without a coat but that's silly. I can't work in my office in a cashmere or wool sweater, I just get sweaty and feel uncomfortable. I'm slowly replacing my wool blend sweaters with cotton because they're easier to care for and I don't feel too warm in them.
posted by kat518 at 3:11 PM on October 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

I really agree with the points about clothing construction being more telling. In the old Land's End catalogs they used to include drawings showing how many more stitches in a seam or buttons on a sleeve placket their shirts had versus competitors. (I have heard they have trended toward more cost-cutting under Sears.) I have many Land's End items bought as much as 20 years ago that are still passable, so I tend to believe this has an important role.

The clothing business overall went topsy-turvy in the last generation, with almost all textile production in the US moving offshore, and dominant retailers like Wal-Mart insisting on corner-cutting production techniques like getting rid of that extra stitch or button if it will save a penny an item. A result has been a lot shoddier clothing everywhere than I remember. It's disposable now, the way people buy cardboard furniture.

I'll also agree with the points about fabric differences being more about different purposes, although in keeping with my last comment above, the discounters tend to have (say) cotton underwear of an obviously lighter weight, even if the brand on the package is the same.
posted by dhartung at 5:00 PM on October 2, 2010

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