Yiran : “Why is it that every time we want to write a post, it becomes a research project ?”
Me : ” Because its not helpful other wise. “Invest in good quality” is the most useless piece of advice to our generation. We know the intention behind the words but we lack the know-hows to act on it. ”
I wont apologize for the length of this post. This is expected when a computer scientist writes a style blog.
Buying JUST because its second hand or cheap has never been a good strategy in-terms of investing my money, time or closet space. When I got started with vintage hunting, I didn’t know how to reject stuff that was too good to be that cheap. The result : unworn clothes at the back of the closet, fav clothing falling apart and massive decluttering missions. “Quality over quantity”, I seem to chant. But what exactly is quality ? Second hand market is filled with gently used not so pristine items. How far can I deviate from the perfect garment to consider it worth taking home ? I am trying to learn a few technical details that will help me quantify the term quality and to not attribute it to clothes just because they are expensive. I want to be able to answer “how” and “why” before I make a purchase.
What is quality ?
These words get used to quantify the term. ISO 9001:2000 describes it as aptitude of a set of characteristic to satisfy requirements. But whose requirements ? What characteristics ? What aptitude ? In summary, good at what ? MY requirements.
- Not made in a sweatshop. I cant talk about threads and fabric while ignoring the quality of life of people involved. For second hand garments, every brand is fair game.
- The right fabric for the kind of garment. Natural fabrics > Ones made from petrochemicals.
- Good design and construction technique.
- Small details that makes wearing the clothes over and over again a pleasure.
“People like H&M and Zara are pushing us very hard. People start to think those prices are normal, that you should be able to buy a man’s shirt for £20. But you can’t even buy the fabric for one of our shirts for £20, let alone make the shirt or live off the profits”
– Dries Van Noten.
“… French women are very particular about what they buy, and they always choose quality over quantity for sure. They prefer very, very good fabrics in everyday staples. That’s why they always look so chic – it looks like just a skirt and a top, but the fabric and the colour elevate it.”
Fabric is the highest on my list of requirements. Seams can be mended. Alterations can be made. Holes can be patched up. But fabric is the foundation without which everything else falls limp. Its the first barrier for entry into my closet.
There is no absolute good and bad fabric. There is good fabric for the kind of garment and what’s right for the climate I live in.
Check the fabric content. I prefer 100% natural fabrics but I secretly admire 2% polyester/acrylic/nylon blends for the increased durability. A little bit of elastic helps the garments retain the shape better. Especially near the elbows and knees which are prone to gather bumps over time. The downside being that these blends are hard to recycle.
Its become extremely hard to find natural fabrics in American thrift stores. Even the vintage shops that carry curated selections have too much polyester clothing which was all the rage back in the day. I have had better luck in Europe and Asia. I have had some luck in American flea markets. Berkley has a lot of clothes from the hippie days made with hemp, linen and cotton.
I try to avoid buying garments with fabric composition tags cut off ( a ploy employed by some second hand stores, or so I was told ). If I don’t know how to wash it, there is a high probability that I will ruin it when I launder it or be disappointed with its temperature regulating properties.
Polyester was a terrible fabric for desert weather in Arizona. I had always had roommates who wore it complain of being sweaty and needed air conditioning on blast at all times. I am not a fan of microfiber from polyester going into our water sources or high electric bills. But its everywhere ! Second hand shops are full of fast fashion discards made with polyester. I try to avoid it as much as I can.
Thread count can be recognized based on the weight, opaqueness and scrunch of the fabric. For a layman like me, light weight/mid weight and heavy weight classification will do. I have enough experience shopping for cotton from my life in India that I can recognize thread count to some extent. No, I dont need a microscope. The fingers know. Sartorial wisdom accumulates with experience maybe ?
I stay away from the thin super soft fabrics because durability is a big priority. Unfortunately, the market seems to love these kind of garments and they have been encouraging us to layer to make up for the deficiency. No !
Scrunch test – reasonable indicator of the wrinkle factor. Will iron fix these ? Am I likely to iron it before wear ? How will the fabric look by mid day ? With linen, heavy-weight fabric wrinkle in the wash but can be ironed out. Those light weight linens are airy but look like this in a few hours and you will look like you just rolled out of bed at 10am to work.
When you go to a thfrit shop, you will see piles of stretched out garments. Hems that are uneven. You will see necklines skewed. Or sleeves that dont sit straight. Its usually made in jersey. I avoid cotton knits at all cost. Its super soft to start off with but none of my clothes made with that fabric have worn well. They snag, stretch and deform easy. I could poke it with my finger and the bump in the fabric lives. The shoulder sags, the way it drapes on every little fat lump on the human body, the pilling, …. is not for me. They look sloppy to me after a few wears. One small pull and large area surrounding it gets affected. I prefer woven fabrics to knitted fabrics for a similar reason. On the other hand, woven materials doesn’t have the stretch of a knit which sacrifices comfort. I size up my shirts and dresses for that reason.
Yoga pants and underwear are comfort clothes and knitted fabrics are my choice.
Woven fabrics provide the garment with a little bit of structure. Clothes drape instead of cling and look better in the overall sense. I can make my shirts look formal with some starch and iron. I can make them look casual by wearing them without ironing.
Cotton is my favorite fabric. I look for sturdy kinds like french moleskin, twill and gaberdine from second-hand/vintage work wear. I can always find denim dresses and chambray shirting in flea markets. They rank high on my scare of desirables because of durability. There is this mid-wash denim that is the most common hue available. I absolutely don’t like that hue. I dye it with indigo to make it darker – something closer to a navy blue.
I like washed silk. Its not shiny but has the drape of silk. I can wear it everyday without looking preppy.
The petrochemicals used for dry cleaning decreases the life span of silk. It also imparts a certain sheen and hue that I dislike. But there is no avoiding them. Finding a cheap silk blouse is a tiny victory.
I avoid light color silk blouses. They are more prone to retaining sweat stains and discolorations. But I have dyed silk to blue in the past as a solution to stains. Vintage silk blouses have interesting buttons and details like puffy sleeves which I like. I have taken apart blouses to re-use in the past.
India is a great place to look for silk with pattern. We don’t have a easy-to-navigate second hand market but I can always find relatives who are eager to give away their old clothes that they no longer wear. I once took a saree to my tailor and got a tank top stitched from it for us 3 sisters. My wedding saree rots in a suitcase. I want to cut it into a scarf. ( My mother wont let me. It just sits there and slowly biodegrades with age. )
Silk is a rather delicate fabric. I expect worn in clothing if its second hand. A veto is based on how bad the wear is and how many wears I think I can get out of it. A silk evening dress, for instance, would be worn very little. I don’t mind a few stains and tear. A navy blue silk shirt is one of my most worn garments – I wont compromise on it. I don’t want to replace it yearly and will get one in the best quality I can afford. Look for Jenni Kayne, Cuyana, The Row, .. on the second hand market.
Quality of silk : hold it up to strong light and examine the entire fabric. Fabric that looks pristine looks very different in strong light. You can see the thinning/pilling of the cloth in areas of wear and tear. You can see some of the seams letting in more light than the others. Its like reading an xray instead of diagnosing a person by staring at him. My shirts take a beating at the shoulders from my wearing a backpack and stretching my arms when I bike. My silk shirts look pristine in my blog images but its a very different reality when held up to the light.
With wool, rub the fabric together. If it balls up, bad sign. Same applies to cashmere.
Wool fabric should be elastic. It should bounce back immediately when you pull it and not stay stretched out.
Merino is a fine fiber and easy to dye. Its soft and easy to maintain. My choice for layering tshirts in the winter.
I try to avoid mohair ( when knit, not woven) and similar fuzzy fabrics. With time they get more ‘matted’ and my grandma insists that you are supposed to comb it everyday to keep it fluffy. I will do no such thing and wont buy such high maintenance clothing.
I dont think I need 100% cashmere sweaters. They are delicate in comparison to 100% wool of same weight and weave. A 70% wool 30% cashmere is soft, but is much more durable and has a much lesser environmental footprint. Its my preferred composition. ( Stella McCarney does her coats this way for a good reason. )
Jeans – I look for 98% cotton 2% stretch in fabric. I don’t want to spend money on getting my jeans tailored unless they are penny stock. If it fits loosely, I reject it straight away. The previous wearer would have already stretched it to fit their body. I doubt if I can re-stretch it to fit me well. I have had some luck sizing down. They are tight at first but a few days of wear will do the trick in the composition. I like my black jeans to have some weight about them since I wear them a lot during the colder months.
In the past, I have rubbed my black denim with some beeswax. It made them look like leather pants and provided extra insulation during winter. But then, I don’t run in circles where leather pants are a norm and I quickly became the elephant in the room. Thankfully, wax washes off.
I wear my light wash blue jeans only during transition months and summers like the fashion crowd wears their white jeans. I got them in a light weight denim. There is no stead fast rule on how denim should be but the right fabric for the right climate.
Inside of a silk shirt by The Row
Its unfair to compare clothes from Zara with The Row. But for educational purpose, here they are. The inside of the garment looks just like the outside. To Zara’s credit, the fabric is nice.
They say : turn the garment inside out and it should be as beautiful as the outside.
Unfortunately, I know nothing of construction to know to write about. Someday, I will partner with a tailor/designer/couturier and get some reliable information to publish.
Waist band and the zippers on pants seem to be the ones that disappoint me the most when I buy cheap. I would start my research with that. A few things I do know :
The back of the shirt should not be one large pattern. It needs to have a top half and a pleat in the middle. Aides movement.
Seams should look even and the stitches small.
Waxed cotton, polyester and nylon tread is my preference.
Gently tug on the parts of the garment sewn together. If you can see a lot/uneven amount of sunlight passing through at the holes made by the stitches, its a sign of poor quality or lot of wear on the fabric. Tighter seams and more stitches per inch is a good indicator to start with.
Felled seams help out garments that take a lot of wear like pants/jackets. You can usually find them on jeans. Turn your pair inside out and study it.
French seam is apparently good for delicate fabrics. ( Shallow knowledge is dangerous. I have no idea as to why that is. )
Seam allowance – an indicator that they didn’t cut corners to cut cost. Its so damn rare to find it these days. My vintage garments have it. Very few second-hand garments I own have it. Its helpful if alterations need to be done in the future. I would have liked the option of making my dresses longer and expand the waist. My clothes don’t approve of my putting on weight and its very rude of them to be this judgmental.
Check the places where the fabric is sewn together. Are the patterns aligned ? Did they include extra thread and buttons ? is the zipper covered by a placket ? Is there a hook or a clasp on top of the zipper ? Is it moving smoothly ? (When I lived in India, we used to rub candle wax on the zippers to make the cheap ones tolerable.)
A big pet peeve of mine is when a zipper fly does not cover it adequately or keeps folding over exposing the zipper.
Placket to cover them up would be nice. If not, look for clothes with nicer buttons. White shiny plastic is not my first choice. I always try to replace them. I have bought cheap vintage blouses to salvage the wooden buttons.
Outward ones should be of the same fabric as the garment. Inward pockets should be made of sturdier material than the garment without making it bulky ( good luck find this in a mall brand. My vintage garments are wonderful for so many reasons. ) Usage of lining material leads to pockets the ride up or gather holes fast.
Wool garments need one ! It can be itchy otherwise and scratchy when you put the garments on. Winter garments like coat or trousers aboslutely need one. Doubly lined wool is my second choice interms of comfort/weight but there are no ripped linings that need to be mended every few years. Linings should not skimp on fabric and have enough to sit/squat without pulling.
Double darts : Gives a 3 dimensionality to the garment. You can see them near the bust of vintage dresses.
Fused lining :
I like fusible lining for thick wool fabrics that need structure. The downside being – and once fused it can’t be removed. If a fusable has been used with a thin garment, I was told that it will erode the fabric with time and is hence not recommended. If the garment is not well constructed, they can contribute to bumps in the clothing that cant be ironed out. My wool dress has one but its perfect after years of hand wash and wear.
Fabric grain :
Clothing should be cut along the grain of the fabric (with a few exceptions). You can tell the grain by looking closely for the longest line of the thread. You have to buy enough fabric to ensure that all of the pattern pieces are placed following the grain of the fabric before cutting. The extra fabric increases the cost of clothes and but they look nicer.
Pants with linings :
I have had terrible luck with in this category. Thin linings that doesnt hold the weight of the wool on top is my biggest complaint.
I think there needs to be a hall of shame for designers who makes clothes with fake pockets. WHY on earth would you do that ? I know you want to sell us overpriced bags to hold our stuff, but this is just cruel. My conclusion after a decade of buying my own clothes : most designers don’t seem to like the everyday women very much. The male designers seem to like making costumes for boyish figures. Women designers more often than not seem to make clothes that I can wear on a weekday afternoon. The ones who put pockets in dresses are the true feminists. We deserve pockets too !
When I see thrift shops, i see clothes that are a remnant of bad taste from yesteryears. Eye catchy prints that the user would have tired of and let go are usually the ones that are left behind. The solids sell fast from what the floor sales girls tell me. Unfortunately, that is what I look for too. Atleast I know that when I dump them on to a charity shop in the future, they have a higher shot at getting pick up again.
Silk shirts :
Hold them up to the sunlight. If its been worn in, you can see it. Uneven fabric thickness will eventually lead to snags or pilling. The gap between the seams are a sign of how the fabrics deals with tension exerted on to it. Most women wear shirts that are too fitted and the fabric on the second hand garments retains the evidence of the sin.
Silk pants/dresses :
Would be a gem of a find on the second hand market. They need a lining – polyester, cotton, ramie, … else, when the wind blows, the garment clings making me look naked. If unlined, the silk should be 22mm atleast or they are easy to destroy with everyday wear.
Linen shirts :
Look for thick linen. The properties of the fabric will take care of temperature regulation without the need for delicate/thin fabric.
Linen pants :
Avoid. After I sit at a desk for a few hours, I seem to gather wrinkles on the backside and near the knees. The pants that looked ironed in the morning look like beach side pajamas after a few hours.
Cotton dresses/shirts :
I look for chambray and denim clothing in every store I go to – they are the most durable. Check for stitching and holes made by attached parts on the seams. Vintage garments seem to have pockets – a weakness of mine.
I look for >90% natural fibers in the garment. Knits are very prone to stretching and snags. I try to avoid details like embellishments and embroidery on top. One pull and it all starts to come apart. If I feel like dressing up a sweater, I will wear a necklace on top instead of buying a sweater with plastic stones sewn into it. Cable knits are supposed to last decades, I havent found one yet. Thick ribbed sweaters with some stretch are my next preference. Other wise, I go for an oversized knit. Durability is my biggest concern.
Leather Jackets :
Dried out leather can be nourished back to life by a leather expert and I would take a chance if its cheap enough. Avoid cracked leather – there is no fixing that and smearing polish on it is only a temporary solution.
I don’t know much about quality of jeans and trousers. I have never owned a blazer or a wool jacket of any sort. I dont know enough to write about the construction of coats. I usually buy them from a brand I trust. A post on leather shoes to follow eventually. I don’t want to lump it in here.
I seem to be size 4 in American teen brands, XS in Jcrew, XXS in Loft and size M in Saint Laurent, size L in Balenciaga and Size 2 in Stella McCartney. I own a vintage dress from the 60s in which I am size 8. Brand sizing numbers apparently mean nothing ! Each designer seems to have a different fit model in mind. Then, there is the vanity sizing in America. There are the boyfriend and girlfriend fits that skew the numbers again. I shop in the boys and men’s section too for sweaters and shirts. Sizing as a number dont mean much unless its a brand I am very familiar with. If I like something online from an unfamiliar brand, I go to the mall and try garments made by the brand. Or look for fit on fashion bloggers because you can always find someone wearing the clothes from every brand.
I have a tailor who is good at alterations. Notes to self : Don’t shy from clothes that aren’t perfect but very cheap. Seams can be taken in or even redone.
Fit is a personal preference. I wont go into how clothes should fit in this post.
But say you are experienced enough to know your preferences, I have an exercise that I recommend : The tape measure technique.
Get a tape. Get out the garments in your closet that fit you the best. Measure them at various points. Write down the numbers in as much detail as possible. Have them on your phone or on the cloud someplace. Refer to them when you shop.
Shirts : widest measure at the chest, distance between the chest measurement and the seam at the shoulder, the smallest measure at the waist, distance between smallest measure at the waist from the shoulder, length of the shirt, width at the bottom of the shirt.
Pants : waist band, length at the crotch, distance between the waist band and back pocket, size of the pockets, width of the leg at various point to record the taper, length of the pants, opening at the bottom of the pants.
Dresses : Same as shirting but with a few measurements on the idea A-line for the skirt in my case. Widest hip measurement to that the skirt on the dress doesnt pull.
Shoes : length of the insole and outsole. The widest point near the toes. The narrowest point in the middle of the foot. Idea height of a flat on the back.
Jackets/Coats : I only buy A-line oversized coats. Shoulder width, bust and length seems to be the deciding factor in my case.
This really helps when looking through clothes at thrift shops and flea markets. The trial rooms are flimsy and I wont use them. But I can measure the clothes and take a chance. I could always ask the online sellers to send me more measurement. Most second hand websites have a few numbers for bust, waist, shoulder, etc. Even if we don’t find garments with exact numbers, we can assess how much of deviation we are willing to tolerate.
When in doubt, size up for tops and size down for stretchy denim. A tailor can work with shortening, nipping the waist, tapering the leg, making the skirt less flowey, etc. They cant seem to alter the shoulders or arm holes without significant expense.
Places to go to learn about quality :
Fabric stores. Touch and feel the fabrics.
Take a garment that you are on fence about, to a tailor. Ask them if they think its worth the money. Ask them if they approve the details of construction.
Barney’s. It carries pieces that look exceptional and I always have an ‘ahan, this is what quality looks like’ moment in that store.
Bespoke tailoring is a notch up but I have no experience. I am an easy body type to dress and I never have problems with fit. So I don’t think I need custom made clothes. From what I hear, hiring a local seamstress to make you exactly what you need is the best bang for buck. I have seen stores in India where you can order from the catalog and they present you with 4 different price points for the same garment. You get what you pay for and they tell you what they are skimping on in each category. Interesting right ?
Anatomy of my regrets :
The Everlane chinos I purchased during summer and never want to take off ? The poplin fabric has already deformed at the knees. Such light weight fabric for pants is a bad idea perhaps? Chinos are traditionally made with twill fabric for a good reason. I knew this was going to happen when I opened my package but I couldn’t control my impulses. ( I affiliate linked these pants. I see that few of you purchased them, that is my fault too. I have to learn more about quality if I am to continue with this blog. ) I should have waited and found something better on the second hand market for the same amount of money. Its more convenient to buy new clothes but I don’t think I am getting the right return for my money.
Food for thought :
Are we trained to make rational clothing purchases ? Do you walk away from clothes that are not well made but are cheap and look really cute on ? I have a dress on my wish list but it doesn’t have any seam allowance. Should I walk away or regard seam allowance as a bonus that I don’t need ? Will we actually find affordable clothes to wear if we follow such quality assessment standards ? The manufacturers get away with selling us the clothing that they do, because we don’t know better. Apparently, clothing in GAP/J Crew used to have all these wonderful details and that is the reason why (wiser) people complain about a decline in quality over the years. Maybe if we bring back the knowledge, the market will try to meet our standards ? A lot of high end designer clothes still employ expert seamstresses with decades of tailoring experience under their belt to make the garments. I don’t understand why brands don’t brag a lot more, about the technical details behind the garments they want to promote. Most clothing reviews are opinions on how much the blogger likes the garment. More often than not, I see shitty looking garments being described as investment clothing because they are pricey or out of brand loyalty. Should we even bother at all with demanding higher standards? My second hand garments from luxury fashion houses is the best quality I ever experienced. Am I raising my standards or complaining about the decline in quality ? Or is it all too un-important because they are “just clothes”?
A plea for crowdsourced knowledge
A decade ago, I was wearing traditional Indian clothes. Until 5 years ago, I was buying strange clothes from fast fashion stores – I wanted to experiment with style. Maanasa and I would talk about how Americans have their teenage years to experiment and how we were pulling off these sartorial stunts as grown woman. Quality is a relatively new concern for me. Its is still an unknown technical concept but I want to learn. I want to be able to tell you why my Celine coat is supposedly high quality by pointing at the details. If the label was taken off and if it were a blind test, I should still be able to judge it. Someday, I will get there.
I want to find an expert tailor/designer who can teach us some basics. Until then, this post will have to do. Please feel free to correct my errors or call me out on my shallow knowledge. If you have any pointers, please share.