What technical details distinguish good clothing from cheaper clothing?
November 21, 2010 6:29 AM   Subscribe

What is different, in terms of the stitching or the weave & so forth, between a $50 Gap shirt and a $400 italian shirt? Between cheap blue jeans and couture jeans? How would a knowledgeable person be able to look at an item of clothing and immediately be able to tell that it is very well-made? I'm aware that some (most?) of the markup in price comes from buying a brand name, or the fact that the design is compelling. I'm not interested in that; what I'm interested in are the differences in construction, differences that are objective rather than subjective. Also, pointers to websites with helpful pictures would be greatly appreciated.
posted by Frobenius Twist to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (15 answers total) 59 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: IMO, finished seams are the quickest, easiest way to assess construction quality.

If you're buying cheap, fashionable clothes intended for a single-season's wear, the seams will be either totally unfinished or will just be "overlocked" with a serger.

If you're buying something well-constructed for the long haul, the unfinished edges of seams will typically be "hidden" by finishing the seams in such a way that all edges are tucked away inside seams, where they're protected from fraying and much stronger and will last much longer.

Different seam finishes are appropriate for different types of fabric, different types of clothing, and different specific seams (straight, curved; takes a lot of stress or little; etc.) so it takes some practice looking at clothing construction and getting an idea of what's done where, but it makes a big difference.

some examples, though maybe someone else has a better link.

(One thing that really irritated me about wedding dress shopping was $600 dresses WITH UNFINISHED SEAMS. It was like, "Hi, thanks for making it clear you're trying to sell me low-quality goods with a ridiculous markup." Even a few "big-name" dress designers with dresses costing thousands would have cheap, unfinished seams, because people buying "off the rack" would apparently not know the difference, but would want the "name" they saw in the bridal magazines. Tacky.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:50 AM on November 21, 2010 [3 favorites]

Best answer: A tip is to look for patterns matching up across seams.
posted by tel3path at 6:54 AM on November 21, 2010 [3 favorites]

This seems to have a lot of information about couture techniques (which I get, you're not looking to do yourself, but useful for recognizing it when you see it).

Threads magazine did an article years ago about deconstructing a Channel Jacket (this is the preview, but as far as I can tell, the whole article isn't online). The article talked about things like the fact that the Chanel jacket has a chain sewed into the hem to weigh it down, and how there was a lot of hand-sewing to finish it.
posted by dogmom at 7:20 AM on November 21, 2010

Try them on. It's the cut and the way the clothes fit. Well tailored clothes that fit and flatter.
posted by fire&wings at 7:26 AM on November 21, 2010

Best answer: There's a web site called Ask Andy About clothes. Site recommends local shops with expereinced sales persons. If you plan on buying, you could put yoursef into their capable hands and ask them to educate you about the finer points. I also follow The Trad and Put This On; both sites have links to additional men's clothing sites. Some of the hoopla surrounding traditional tailored clothing is simply conservatism and snobbery. There are elements which are simmply "better"-- the fibers are longer and thinner, the yarns are spin more tightly and woven more closely. Each designer has their own fit, from boxy to skin tight. Find a brand of clothing that fits you the way you like to feel and look. Again, experienced sales person in a well stocked store.
posted by ohshenandoah at 8:04 AM on November 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

In terms of things to avoid, I look for puckery seams and pieces of fabric that look sort of wavy/lumpy/warped where they're supposed to be smooth.
posted by corey flood at 10:30 AM on November 21, 2010

Repeating what a lot of people said-it comes down to how it's made, and the extras they put into it. If you're getting a piece of clothing that has any part hand-made, remember that you have to also include the salary of the seamstress into your clothes. Or the cost of the chain and the extra time it take to put it in the jacket. [Which is and ingenious idea, by the way.]

Now, as for jeans, I don't really have any specific thoughts on the difference between, say, levi's and high-class-Italian jeans, but I know within the Levi brand they have different specs depending on what color tag it is. The red tag is the normal, run-of-the-mill Levi's. The silver tag has different stitching on the pockets, and is reinforced in places that get the most wear. The weight of the denim is also different.

Keep in mind, when you're buys more expensive things, you're paying for the extra materials, the extra time, and the extra man-power to create the product. And, yes, to some extent you're also paying for a label. But in the same way, you're paying for someone's ideas. Like the Chanel jacket. When you pay for the name "Chanel", you're also paying in to the brilliant idea to weigh down hems with chains.
posted by shesaysgo at 11:34 AM on November 21, 2010

Best answer: Good fabric is made from longer, stronger fibers, cotton with a 2" staple length rather than 1/4", for example. It's spun more tightly and more finely, and woven more densely and more evenly. It's less likely to pill and snag, less likely to abrade on a crease, and less likely to turn to lint when laundered.
posted by KathrynT at 12:33 PM on November 21, 2010

Best answer: As KathrynT so astutely pointed out on the other thread, you can often tell how subject a cheap fabric will be to pilling right there in the store, by rubbing two sections of fabric against each other.

Of course, that doesn't work for cashmere or alpaca, which inherently pill no matter how carefully the yarns are processed--with those fabrics, you look at the number of threads in each stitch of knitting or in each small section of weave (more is better) and at the general plushness and resiliency of the fabric (more is better).
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:07 PM on November 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

My wife told me about a book she read with some interesting incites into the way that Italian designer clothes are made. In the book, they claimed that there are a bunch of independent clothing manufactures that make the clothes the designers sell. When a designer needs say, 1,000 dresses made, all of these independent firms go to fill the order. Whichever firm delivers the whole order first gets paid for the order. All of the other firms are left with not quite 1,000 finished garments that are made to the same standards as the designer garments are as it was simply a matter of timing that allowed one firm to put the designer label on the clothes over another. To recoup some of the cost, these firms sell these dresses as knockoffs even though it is expressly forbidden by the designer.

This only applies to clothes from Italian designers made in Italy but it means that the knock-offs are absolutely identical to the designer branded version. That of course assumes that the making of those clothes still works the same way.
posted by VTX at 1:24 PM on November 21, 2010

Look at buttonholes. Cheap ones have fewer stitches, so you can see the fabric between the threads; and will have thread ends sticking out in places. A well-made buttonhole is smooth and clean.
posted by Srudolph at 5:01 PM on November 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I look at the weight and composition of the fabrics, how flawlessly the seams match (you waste a lot of fabric matching seams exactly), the seam allowance, the seam finishing, and the general cut. On a $400 shirt, I expect to see hand-finished button holes and hand-sewn buttons. On $400 jeans, it better be Japanese denim.

For suits, I like this guide because it has lots of photos, but a lot of that stuff applies to general menswear.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:36 PM on November 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: As to the difference between "cheap jeans" and "couture jeans," I'd say "most likely, not much." I'm not sure if a product called "couture jeans" exists, but higher-end brands like Diesel are generally made of lightweight fabric stitched by modern looms.

For jeans that truly embody quality, you want to invest in the Japanese denim recommended above, which is also identified as "raw denim" (if it's unwashed), or selvage denim. The bulk of these brands are comprised of heavier-weight denim stitched on traditional Japanese shuttle looms. A few years back, I bought a pair of 21-ounce Naked and Famous jeans, and, despite wearing them daily, they're almost new (apart from fading). The selvage stitch is rock-solid, and the fabric is richly thick, almost like canvas.

You can find ample info on selvage jeans on AskMe and other corners of the web. I'm no clothes horse, and I only own a single pair, but it's the first clothing purchase I've made which screams of quality.
posted by Gordion Knott at 3:38 AM on November 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone! These are all fascinating answers. Now I have some Googling to do, to learn about finished seams and pilling and the suchlike. The only unfortunate thing is that the more I read about clothes, the more I want to buy them.

For jeans that truly embody quality, you want to invest in the Japanese denim recommended above, which is also identified as "raw denim" (if it's unwashed), or selvage denim.

I just bought some jeans from G-Star Raw, and they're amazing. They're thick and heavy in a way I haven't experienced before with jeans, but they're also incredibly comfortable. The only problem is that raw denim is really warm! I don't think I'll be wearing it during the summer.
posted by Frobenius Twist at 3:14 PM on November 22, 2010

Good clothes fit people better than cheaply produced ones, in theory. They don't bind around the armpit or shoulder, the jeans fit their shape, and so on.
posted by talldean at 11:34 AM on November 23, 2010

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