Clothes shopping filter: How do I separate the wheat from the chaff?
February 23, 2014 1:30 PM   Subscribe

I'll admit it, I buy a lot of clothes off the sale rack or at outlet stores. Too often, though, I bring home what I think is a great value only to discover, after wearing and/or washing said item, quality problems I didn't see in the store. Things like knits that are twisted and don't lie flat, shirt hems that are hopelessly contorted once they've been laundered, or buttonholes that quickly ravel beyond repair. I know these sorts of problems are inevitable given the state of clothing manufacture, but that doesn't mean I have to buy these "troubled" items. So, savvy shoppers of MeFi, what should I be looking for? What tells you to steer clear of a garment no matter how much you like it? Is there a secret code on the hang tag that everyone but me knows about? C'mon, please share your secrets.
posted by DrGail to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (16 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
I had a friend who worked as a seamstress, and would make identical items that then either got a tag to be sold and K-mart, or at an upscale retailer—for much more money.

Her advice was: always look at the seams. Are they straight, or do they drift close to the edges of the fabric, creating a weak point? This helps you identify unsound garments, of course, but is also an easy-to-see indicator of the quality of the work.
posted by BrashTech at 1:46 PM on February 23, 2014 [6 favorites]

Fabric that's cut slightly on the bias so that the seams, on a t-shirt for example, don't run parallel to fabric threads are what causes twisting when a garmet is laundered. Fabric can shrink slightly after being washed and if you've cut the pattern correctly, it'll shrink evenly and hopefully unnoticeably. So check seams and anything that looks sloppy will get worse when you wash it.
posted by hydrobatidae at 1:58 PM on February 23, 2014

Also, outlets usually sell previous seasons style (a good buy), manufacturing defects (hit or miss) and cheaper items made to sell at an outlet (a bad choice). To tell the difference you can ask the store manager or look at the tags (higher end brands usually slash, mark or code defects). Google will tell you what to look for if you search for each brand.

If that doesn't work, check the quality of the item. Does it have a nice weight to it? Are the seams well finished with no snags or gaps where both pieces are not evenly joined together?
posted by saradarlin at 2:01 PM on February 23, 2014 [3 favorites]

I don't run all my clothes through the dryer. I don't know how much it helps, but I have a drying rack and I use it for the clothes I want to keep in good shape.
posted by girlhacker at 2:13 PM on February 23, 2014 [7 favorites]

Yeah, I'd say that most of my shirts don't get run through the dryer.
posted by ancient star at 2:20 PM on February 23, 2014

Best answer: If the clothing isn't cut on or near the grain, it'll twist out of shape or shrink in odd directions once it's washed. To check the grain on a woven item, fix your eyeball on a single thread that's near the front edge, at the top of the shirt. Follow the thread down to the hem. If it deviates from the line of the front edge by more than about half an inch, the shirt is going to twist out of shape.

Similarly, for a t-shirt - follow a line of stitches from the centre of the neck opening down to the hem - if it deviates by more than an inch, the shirt is going to be misshapen.

Lots of shops steam items into shape on the hanger before racking them up so that they look good.This can disguise a poor cut on a t-shirt, which will show up as soon as you wash the item. To check, hold a t-shirt up by the hem with your fingers on the side-seams, and watch how it hangs. if it seems to swing, twist, or droop to one side, it's going to go out of shape pretty fast.

For both knits and wovens, the lighter the fabric is, the more likely it is to be off-grain.

Most fabric isn't pre-shrunk before it's sewn up into clothing. Natural fabrics tend to shrink more, so buy them with plenty of length in them (you can always get a too-long garment shortened but you can't get a too-short one lengthened).

Look for loose threads on the buttonholes and buttons.

Look for puckering around the seam that joins the sleeve to the body - puckering means the cap of the sleeve isn't properly fitted into the armsice and will likely twist once the item is washed.
posted by girlgenius at 2:46 PM on February 23, 2014 [5 favorites]

One other thing: knits will distort more in the horizontal direct than the vertical. You can help stop this by rolling them into a vertical sausage when damp, and gently pulling each end of the sausage to lengthen. Don't tumble-dry - hang it up to dry, by the hem, (one clothes peg on each side-seam) and leave some slack between the clothes pegs.
posted by girlgenius at 2:50 PM on February 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Not quite the answer you're looking for, but I find it preferable to buy clothes at a thrift shop. I know that the piece I'm buying/trying on has probably already been washed many times, and won't change much after I get it home. Prices are similar to cheap un-used clothing.
posted by hydra77 at 3:00 PM on February 23, 2014 [6 favorites]

I'd suggest you switch to buying used clothes at thrift stores. Then you can actually see how the clothes have held up through a few wearings and washes. And there is nice stuff at thrift stores -- people die, gain/lose weight, etc. and thus get rid of their clothes before they wear them out.
posted by Jacqueline at 3:27 PM on February 23, 2014 [4 favorites]

nthing thrift shop, not just to gauge how clothes have gone through the wash, but because it teaches you to look at clothes before you buy them, and charges a relatively low tuition fee. Is this something the owner grew out of, or just decided they didn't like, or is there a snag or tear or stain that I haven't spotted? Have the seams given out? Have the sleeves or the entire garment shrunk?

It becomes a lot easier to tell decent stuff from shoddy when such a wide variety in quality gets dumped on the same rack, as opposed to the relative homogeneity of a retail outlet. It will make you a better retail shopper.
posted by holgate at 3:39 PM on February 23, 2014 [4 favorites]

There were some great answers in this thread about the reasons behind the varying prices and levels of quality of clothing items.
posted by aka burlap at 4:04 PM on February 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: In addition to the good advice above, remember washing and drying puts a lot of stress on your clothes, especially knit fabrics or items that need to drape in a specific way to look right. Wash/rinse in cold (warm if you have to), dry on cool if necessary but preferably hang to dry. Gently reshape everything before you hang or lay to dry.

Warping in hems and collars is sometimes due to the fabric and thread shrinking differently when exposed to high temp water/air. Gentle shaping and hanging to dry can really help. For things like skirts and shirts, I pull them out of the washing machine, gently reshape plackets, collars, and hems by pulling the fabric taut between my hands; it does take a few minutes to go through a load this way, but they dry nicely and it can shorten or eliminate the need to iron.
posted by variella at 5:49 PM on February 23, 2014

Another recommendation for used. If you don't have time to paw through thrifts, Etsy is a good place for vintage.

The quality is just...yeah, you know. Things were quite a bit different not even that many years ago.

My favourite pieces now all went through the same acquisition process: found the X I wanted in good condition at a thrift, took it to my genius seamstress to have it cut down to size/up-to-date fit. It's a good way to get really nice clothing at the same price of mall junk.

I want to say to avoid cruddy synthetics but there's so much junk cotton (and worse) out there now that that doesn't cover as much ground as it used to. But sticking to good fabrics (natural fibres, allowing for the odd bit of elastane in your cotton or nylon in your wool, right weight for the garment, and, trust how it feels in your hand) is a little bit of insurance...

And definitely go out of your way to patronise places with standout return policies. I like to think LL Bean is less likely to sell me a disposable sweater or tee than The Gap is because Bean knows they'll get it back if they mess up. Gap, OTOH, once refused to take back an appalling pair of khakis whose seams went to hell on the first wash, because, well, "they've been worn." (I ended up mailing them to their corporate offices; I got my refund eventually.)

I barely buy anything that is not from the cheapest sort of thrift store or a pricy-ish retailer whose return policies aren't going to disappoint me. Thrift store shopping really helps with learning who the really bad companies are, too -- there are brands I won't consider anything from because every time I see their stuff in a thrift it's obviously been trashed with minimal wear, and also happy accidents with finding very small and obscure brands in thrifts whose quality is amazing. It takes a lot of looking to find the latter, sadly, and they are never cheap, but very very good stuff that is not at $500+ prices does exist.
posted by kmennie at 7:27 PM on February 23, 2014 [5 favorites]

It seems like most "outlet" stores don't actually sell the regular store's items on markdown, they sell a lesser-quality item with the same brand name plus "outlet."

If I find a label that consistently makes good quality items that fit me well, I just keep buying that label and look for it specifically to go on sale, rather than going to a store and hunting through racks for whatever is on sale. For instance, I like Theory trousers for work because the fabric is consistently good quality and the cuts don't change much and I always wear the same size. But they're raaather pricey, so I use Shopstyle to search for sales and buy online from whatever department store (Nordstrom, Bloomingdale's, Saks, etc.. so many stores stock this label) has the best price. I also check the sort-of discount stores connected to big department stores that actually do sell the same label from last season at a discount - Nordstrom Rack, Saks Off Fifth, etc. I hate to say this but I don't even bother looking for work clothes at a number of the popular stores at the mall like Gap, Banana Republic, Ann Taylor etc. because the quality of the fabric and cut is just so poor that they end up wearing out or looking wrinkled and sloppy really fast - I would rather pay $150 for trousers on sale from a pricier label and be able to wear them for like 10 years.

When shopping at a store I go by the feel of the fabric more than anything. After a while you can get a sense of what kind of fabric is nice quality, and I always look at the content label and care instructions if it isn't obvious. For tops and sweaters - is it hand washable or washable on delicate? Perfect. Is it made of rayon/viscose or a silk/poly blend that is dry clean only? Probably not worth it - because I don't want to pay for frequent dry cleaning and in my experience it doesn't get tops all that clean after a while. Finally, I wash things in cold water on delicate whenever possible (including sweaters) and use a drying rack. Washing stuff on hot and throwing it in the dryer will wreck your clothes.
posted by citron at 8:56 PM on February 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: One thing I always do is check the quality of the fabric by rubbing it for a few seconds between my thumb and first finger. Then I examine the spot closely: does it look fuzzier than the rest of the fabric? Less shiny/smooth? Then drop it like a hot potato, that thing is going to pill like hell.
posted by lollymccatburglar at 5:36 AM on February 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

I rely on brands that have a reputation for quality. Jones New York, Ralph Lauren, Talbots, Macy's store brands like Charter Club, Inc and Alfani.

Over time, you find what works for you, cut and figure-wise, as well as in wear.

Here are some things that I do before buying an item.

1. Pull on a button. A lot of times, they're sewn on, but not anchored. If the button is loose or comes right off, that's a sign it's cheaply made. If you otherwise like the piece, it's just that one thing, then be sure to re-sew the buttons before you wear it.

2. When trying it on, move around, reach up, bend over, row. Make sure that the fit is good. No gaping in front, no VPL in back, you should be able to plié in it.

3. Jeans with a touch of give in them are good, jeans that are completely elastic are bad. Very, very bad.

4. Crunch up the fabric for a few seconds, then release. If it wrinkles all to hell, leave it, you'll be miserable wearing it.

Launder everything in cold water to prevent shrinking, and dry on hangers or a rack if you're concerned. Keeps colors nice too.

If you think the colors will run, wash separately with salt (to help preserve the color).

Sometimes you just get a dud. Throw it away and start over.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:57 AM on February 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

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