What are some subtle markers of quality?
April 16, 2013 1:15 PM   Subscribe

What are some subtle markers of quality? I'm interested in the opposite of the sort of shibboleths mentioned here. Though not specifically with regards to people so much as in general. I find these really interesting and also sometimes practically applicable.

Here's are two quick examples to illustrate what I'm looking for:

A lot of middle eastern backgammon/checker/chess sets have all sorts of intricate designs decorating the boards. Unless you're specifically looking for it, though, you're liable to miss the fact that some boards are just painted nicely while others have actual hand-crafted inlays. Though they sell for the same price, the former is often a cheaply made, derivative trinket and the latter a work of art.

Someone once pointed out to me that bespoke suits often have real button holes in the sleeves, while a suit bought at a store will have fake button holes there.

Again, I'm interested not only with respect to objects but also people and their behaviors and other random things (for example, I've found that it's a good sign when a restaurant will only cook, eg, tuna medium rare or rare).
posted by pdq to Society & Culture (33 answers total) 63 users marked this as a favorite
With shoes, glue is cheap, sewing is expensive.

For shoes, for example, one way to attach the sole is Goodyear welting, where the sole is basically sewn to the upper. This lets the shoe be re-soled multiple times, so you can get a lot of wear out of one pair, but is more expensive and requires a guy who really knows what he's doing. Another way is to glue the sole to the upper. This is cemented construction or 'bondwelting'. This is much cheaper and generally a hallmark of a pair of shoes intended to be thrown away after you wear out the soles.

When it comes to leather shoes, big pieces of unblemished leather are more expensive than lots of little pieces of leather sewn together.

There are different 'types' of leather, ranging from full grain (expensive!) to corrected grain (cheap!). There is also the semi trendy shell cordovan, which is made out of horsehide and makes shoes double in price.

This is why cheap 'dress shoes' look like this, and expensive dress shoes look like this.
posted by Comrade_robot at 1:35 PM on April 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

texture, texture, texture. Also any kind of place where one thing attaches to another.

This applies for wood, fabric, even plastic; fresh vs. not fresh food; wall paint; finishes on metal; paper; skin; hair -- people don't always notice it, and it's difficult to describe, but that's why cheap options don't bother with it.
posted by amtho at 1:39 PM on April 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

"Glue is cheap, sewing is expensive" goes for book binding as well.
posted by thetortoise at 1:40 PM on April 16, 2013 [5 favorites]

Weight. For many, many categories of products, quality scales with weight. Steel instead of aluminum, aluminum instead of plastic, two layers instead of one. It speaks to strength and durability. Of course, with certain niches where weight reduction is the goal (bicycles), the opposite is true.

Some examples: watches, shoes, camera lenses, furniture, books, clothing.
posted by markjaquith at 1:50 PM on April 16, 2013

Attention to detail is a basic indicator of quality.

For example, whether it's a homework assignment or a journal paper that I'm refereeing, if it has typos and grammatical errors in the first page, it is going to be a long slog to acceptance (or a decent grade).

Car makers invest a lot of research into the feel of the car door as it closes. It needs to be light enough to get out of the way but still make a reassuring thunk as it latches closed. Compare the door feel on a high end car vs. a cheap one.
posted by RedOrGreen at 1:51 PM on April 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

Clothes that have been manufactured well are made of good, resilient fabric (sometimes/hopefully) and are "finished", meaning seams and hems are completed and properly done. This ensures that a) rips don't occur as quickly and b) that the clothes fit more correctly when worn. Quality jeans often have better silhouettes and pocket placement than cheap ones. I recently upgraded to $100 jeans and the difference they made for my butt and thighs was dramatic compared to the fit my $20 jeans offer.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 2:06 PM on April 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

The signs of a good bespoke suit are not as simple as button holes, but here is more on the basics of what makes a quality suit. You can these days get a very good mass-produced suit, but it will never be what a bespoke fundamentally is: individually tailored to you body.

For women the details are the same, with the addition of generous hem and waistband allowances so that the amazing clothing you've just bought that will last you 20 years if cared for can be easily taken in and out.

For both men and women, matched seams are a key indicator. (Matching seams on complex patterns requires a lot of fabric wastage and is grossly cost inefficient.)

Good tableware is hand painted rather than printed. Good flatware is weighty, whether it is plated or sterling. Good glassware is heavy, clear, has a distinct sound, and never ever has any seams.

Quality furniture is dovetail jointed when possible. Superlative furniture is mitre blind dovetailed.

(All of the above applies to traditional crafting of these items. You can get contemporary glasswear where seams are a feature, or couture clothing that makes a feature of external or mismatched seams or whatever but the general guidelines are sound.)
posted by DarlingBri at 2:07 PM on April 16, 2013 [4 favorites]

the more perfect fitting and even the dovetails look on the inside of a drawer means they were probably done by an electric router. Hand cut dovetails aren't perfect nor symmetrical and if you look close enought you will be able to see little cut marks extending past the marking knife lines that routers just don't leave.
posted by any major dude at 2:10 PM on April 16, 2013

With clothes, or really anything made of textiles, printed-on "embroidery" is cheap, but the real thing is quality.

I see this especially often with ethnic textiles that become trendy in the US. For example, home design companies will call almost anything printed with a geometric design "Ikat", when Ikat is actually a type of weaving. Similarly, I've seen "Suzani" upholstered chairs at Cost Plus World Market, but they're not actually upholstered with traditional uzbek Suzani embroidery, they just use a cheapo imitation print.

It also happened a few years ago when keffiyeh were popular. A lot of companies put out a black-and-white houndstooth cotton scarf and called it a keffiyeh. But a keffiyeh is a specific object, not just any old houndstooth scarf.
posted by Sara C. at 2:15 PM on April 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think craftsmanship and competition are not only on opposite sides of the quality continuum but are inversely proportional to each other. A guild of craftsmen used to learn and compete with each other to see who could come up with the best innovation amongst them and they would mutually work to produce good quality because quality was a mark of professionalism and that you had reached mastery in your trade according to the ancient rules of practicing that trade. So volume wasn't the goal, durability and your good name associated with your work was. And because quality was ubiquitous, it was available almost regardless of class. Now, competition seems to have less to do with professional craftsmanship and durability and quality as it does with volume and mass production. And by nature, competitors seek to reduce the cost of quantity by producing the object as inexpensively as possible, which often means a reduction of quality. Now, quality seems to be more a measure of value to the owner, and what will the owner pay for it? Is it tight stitching of Egyptian cotton thread? Is it the weight of a piece of flatware? The flawless reflection of a wall mirror? I think the best indicator of quality is how does it hold up under use and for how long? Like people, does it begin to fray and buckle under pressure and stress and heat? Do its joints and seams begin to creak and separate? Can it withstand moderate blows and retain its integrity? Does it have not just beauty, but also elegance and gracefulness? Are they intuitively made because they've actually put themselves in the shoes of the consumer? And I guess, finally, did the person who made it care? That final one is not unrelated. The Foxcomm revelations were around the same time the IPhone was having antenna problems. And the problems w/the Camry were just about when Toyota later admitted it had started cutting corners. These are simple tests that I think apply to most claims of quality.
posted by CollectiveMind at 2:17 PM on April 16, 2013 [4 favorites]

Fit, finish and weight. For example, my iPhone feels solid and there are no seams or noticeable imperfections that catch my finger, where different materials and components are joined. My kitchen knife is balanced in my hand and the blade edge stays sharp, so the knife can do its work with less strain on the user. My cordless drill is weighted evenly between drill end and battery, and it delivers torque on demand.

In all, ironically, if I notice the object or tool less when in use, then it is often of a higher quality because I can do work with that object, focusing on the task at hand, as opposed to dealing with problems or encumbrances from using said tool.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:18 PM on April 16, 2013 [3 favorites]

High end firearms will have the slots of the exposed screws "indexed" - all aligned in the same direction. If engraved, the engraving will extend on to the screwhead. This not only adds a professional look, but is also functional. A quick glance will tell you if any of the screws are coming loose and need to be tightened. Likewise, if the gun is disassembled, you know exactly when to stop tightening the screw (overtightening can actually cause the action not to function).
posted by 445supermag at 2:19 PM on April 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

May be worth pointing out that one quality detail doesn't necessarily indicate high quality overall. A suit jacket can have real buttons on the sleeves but a crooked hem. A restaurant can be particular about not overcooking tuna but serve bloated pasta. This is particularly true when customers use certain indicators as shortcuts; companies will learn to pay attention to matching plaids at the seams, for example, without improving other details that customers are less likely to look for.


Something that became apparent relatively quickly, and I find this hugely intriguing, is that a whole range of different quality levels can be found within one garment. Going through my wardrobe later on, I found contradiction after contradiction: a jacket with a poorly chosen lining fabric that was fraying at the seams inside the arms, but with an incredibly well-constructed collar made of fabrics that had been very well-considered in terms of their grain or lack thereof; or a silk shirt with sleeves that were seamed at the armholes in a high quality, time-intensive way (sewn in the round rather than flat), but the stitches further down the sleeves were way too long for such fine silk and the silk was tearing because not enough stitches were holding it evenly in place.
posted by payoto at 2:30 PM on April 16, 2013 [4 favorites]

Women's clothing: French or bias taped seams vs. serging. Printed or natural-fabrication linings--polyester is cheaper than acetate for dress and skirt linings, for instance, and silk linings are hardest to come by. Generous seam allowances so a tailor can let down a hem, as mentioned upthread. Matched pattern seams look so much more polished, and are increasingly hard to find.

For shoes, I also see a correlation between higher quality and leather lining/sole, not just a leather upper. Also, providing complimentary dust bags are a nice attention to detail. My best-quality shoes, a pair of Chie Mihara oxfords, came with extra heel taps to be replaced at the cobbler when the original ones wear out.
posted by serelliya at 2:31 PM on April 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

The comments about leather, stitching, linings, and dust bags also apply to handbags. You also want to look at the quality of the hardware, closures, and frames.
posted by Room 641-A at 2:37 PM on April 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

On my Mont Blanc pen, the cap screws onto the body. To refill the pen, I must screw the body apart; then, the refill itself screws out.
posted by MrMoonPie at 2:40 PM on April 16, 2013

Have you read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance? This book is usually referenced in a more "life lessons" sort of context, but quite a bit of it is the author's philosophical meanderings through the concept of "quality". You may also enjoy Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew Crawford - the NYTimes ran an essay version a while ago.

A lot of people are pointing towards indications that the item is handmade; alas - handmade does not necessarily equal high-quality, and is not always better than machine-made depending on the skill of the person who made it. Otherwise, I think most of the suggestions thus far are pretty spot on.

I will add that I can tell that the 'nicer' brands of clothing tend to fit and drape much better than clothes at say, Target or Wal-Mart. They've invested (or not) in well-drafted patterns. It makes a huge difference! My mom was (is) a seamstress... if you learn just a little about pattern drafting and sewing (how clothes are put together), it will help you recognize clothes that are well cut. I've gotten great things at lower-priced stores because I've learned what to look for and know how things are supposed to fit - I am very picky. One way to see this in action is in Anthropologie reviews - the stuff with five stars has the right cut, the right fabric, flatters almost everyone etc...
posted by jrobin276 at 3:06 PM on April 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

The book Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion talks a bit about how "vintage" shoppers are running out of well-made clothing finds at thrift stores. I am no seamstress, but things like gussets or closing a seam in a way that allows it to be retailored later are hard to find.
posted by spamandkimchi at 3:43 PM on April 16, 2013 [4 favorites]

Yes, weight. I was told a good rule of thumb is to never buy any cookware that you couldn't severely injure someone with if you hit them with it.
posted by The Whelk at 3:57 PM on April 16, 2013 [8 favorites]

simplicity in design; limited items on a menu (do a few things well).
posted by michellenoel at 4:01 PM on April 16, 2013

Here's one an electrician friend pointed out: one easy way to check the quality of common household wiring is look at the orientation of the cover plate (and it's fastening screws!) relative to the switch or outlet it is covering. The cover should be perfectly perpendicular, and the component it's covering should be evenly spaced within the plate. The slots of the screws that affix the cover plate to the switch or outlet wall should be vertical. If these items are all neatly aligned, you can make a somewhat safe assumption that the person doing the work was similarly detail oriented with the work that's buried in the wall and out of view. However, if the plate is misaligned (or worse, loose and sloppy), and/or the screw heads aren't all neat and tidy, go ahead and assume the worst.

I'd assume a similar standard can be used for plumbing and other components where only a small portion of the entire system is visible to the naked eye.
posted by mosk at 4:35 PM on April 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

My grandma taught us to look for clothes that had generous hems since they could be let out, implying that the clothes had been designed with a consumer in mind who might be interested in custom-tailored things. Also, look for dresses with pockets. Pockets are nontrivial to design into dresses and most lower-end brands just don't bother or do a crummy job.
posted by town of cats at 5:27 PM on April 16, 2013

Always look at the fiber content on a piece of clothing before you buy. It's surprising how many items, even at higher end stores, are made of cheap, artificial fibers that will pill up, fall apart or look worn out after a few wearings. Avoid sweaters with acrylic fibers and any kind of nice dress clothing made out of polyester. Fibers like cotton, wool, silk, cashmere or linen are indications of better quality in non-athletic clothes.

If you don't know what something is made of try taking a fiber and burning it. The good stuff will turn to ash and the bad stuff will melt.
posted by Alison at 5:41 PM on April 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've always had regular old department store suit jackets. Functional, don't look that bad, and no one looks down at you.

One day I came across a Brooks Brothers suit in my size at a thrift shop. Once I put it on I knew exactly why people will spend the money for them. Seams are perfect. The fabric is a much higher grade and while not heavy, feels substantial. The suit made me feel like I really looked sharp; it's one thing to look in a mirror and see that you look good, it's another to feel it like that.
posted by azpenguin at 6:43 PM on April 16, 2013

Silence. Higher end appliances, fans, cars, and other equipment produce less sound than cheaper alternatives.

Consistency. All threads, grain, etc aligned the same; all wood well matched in color and grain; all button holes aligned; wallpaper placed and packages wrapped so that patterns match up.

Also, Knob Feel.
posted by alms at 7:14 PM on April 16, 2013 [3 favorites]

Echoing some of the examples above: when materials and labor are invested in the inside/backside, not just the "part that shows." Often related, when something is designed for strength and, if appropriate, repairability.

My good wine glasses don't have visible seams. The shelves of my desk drawer are joined, not nailed. The back side of my favorite necklace pendant is not only finished as cleanly as the front, but also has a little "secret" decorative detail that's not even visible when being worn. Scissors that can be sharpened and whose handles are shaped and smoothed as to not hurt your hand.
posted by desuetude at 8:14 PM on April 16, 2013

For Cars: The Hofmeister Kink
posted by Freen at 8:16 PM on April 16, 2013

In larger electronics, it's good if the controls are connected to the circuit board by wires instead of directly soldered on. If the case bends, it won't break the solder joints.
posted by scose at 8:33 PM on April 16, 2013

For watches, the movements (the components that make your watch tick) in high-end watches are designed and built in-house and not made by a 3rd party manufacturer.
posted by ianK at 8:42 PM on April 16, 2013

It's important to distinguish between things that cause good quality and things that result from good quality and things that merely signal good quality. For example, on a steel-frame bicycle,

- triple-butted chromoly tubes cause good quality, because they allow the frame to achieve sufficient strength and stiffness at light weight
- smooth, reliable, quiet shifting results from good quality, because it takes a good derailleur and good shifters and correct installation to make that happen
- lining up the tire label opposite the valve merely signals good quality, because mechanics have settled on this as a representative of overall attention to detail.
posted by d. z. wang at 9:02 PM on April 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

In a chest of drawers, it's how the drawers feel when slid in and out -- they should be substantial enough to move smoothly and solidly even when the drawer is empty, and the closed state should be solid and centered.
posted by acm at 8:42 AM on April 17, 2013

Pointed out by Stewart Brand in How Buildings Learn: Traditionally the attic of a house was "framed," built by a carpenter, just like the other stories. Modern mass-produced houses have things that look pointy on top like attics but are assembled out of large triangle-shaped wooden units. You stick up as many of those triangles as you need to cover the length of the house, one after another, and then nail the roof across the top; as a result, there really isn't an inhabitable "room" up there. You can spot true attics on houses by looking for a good-sized window visible on the gable end!
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 2:18 AM on April 20, 2013 [4 favorites]

Many older electronics like radios and guitar amps have a basic wiring diagram printed inside the access panel or otherwise visible inside the case, facilitating troubleshooting and repair.
posted by a halcyon day at 7:41 PM on April 21, 2013

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