Thoughts on Why We Don’t Understand Quality

This I Wear | Why We Don't Understand Quality

Your mother may have had a sewing machine; but if she didn’t, her mother definitely did. It wasn’t that long ago that home economics classes still existed in schools and sewing your own formal dress for your high school dance was the norm.

But today, the only peers I know with sewing machines went to fashion school, and even they complain of their poor sewing skills. However, they have one up on the rest of us, because regardless of their ability to sew a suit from scratch, they can tell a quality garment from one of lesser quality. They’ve seen and touched it firsthand.

The majority of us have no idea what quality looks or feels like in clothes. I think I audibly sighed when reading a section in “Overdressed” when a young woman touched a dress from Forever 21 and said the fabric felt nice. This is not a good sign.

To me, this is the equivalent of kids not knowing that oranges grow on trees and potatoes grow in the ground. It is the equivalent of eating Taco Bell and thinking you’ve experienced real Mexican food.

We are totally and utterly separated from where our clothes come from. And many of us are only slightly aware of this ignorance.

And because of this, in just the last few decades as the vast majority of sewing jobs moved overseas and fabric stores shuttered in our local communities as demand plummeted, we don’t know how our clothes are made.

And just to clarify, we don’t know where the fiber comes from (the farm vs. the lab), how the fabric is made, and how (and by whom) the clothes themselves are constructed. Though to give us some credit, the system is so complicated that many in the industry might not be able to tell you either.

This is a problem for many reasons, but namely that (1) we are buying cheap poorly made clothes because we don’t know better and (2) we won’t pay higher prices for quality clothes because we can’t understand the skill and better materials that make them more expensive now but guarantee that they will last and fit us well.

So how do we start to understand quality?

One reason I personally advocate for “Made in the USA” is that perhaps more local production will help us understand our clothes again. Local production means local skill development. Bring back exposure to sewing skills and the materials that go into a garment, and you bring back understanding of what quality is and how much quality costs. And then maybe consumers will start questioning how a pair of jeans could be $10, and just maybe they’ll start telling companies that poorly made fashion isn’t good enough anymore – whether vocally or through their changed shopping habits.

How can we learn the difference between cotton and polyester or how to tell the strength of a seam? In order to change, we need information, and proximity to information is a huge help. Like many of the clothing designers I know, we don’t need to have professional level sewing skills to begin to understand what we buy and wear everyday. But just as urban farms have taught kids that a potato grows in the dirt, bringing back local clothing production to our communities could spark a revival of these skills and a demand for knowledge. And that’s where change can start.

Do you feel like you know where your clothes come from? Share your stories in the comments below or tweet @ThisIWear.

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    • Rebecca

      Hi Kristian,

      Great suggestion! I think a lot of people think “US Made” and immediately assume those workers are being paid fair wages and working in beautiful, healthful conditions. This isn’t the case – just because something is made in the US doesn’t mean it was made in safe or empowered working environments. So what I advocate more, and what I would share in a post with specific brands, would be those smaller brands that give you a chance to know the makers – whether it’s an awesome cooperative of makers (perhaps even a social enterprise!) or a smaller handmade business. One of my favorites right now is Alabama Chanin – truly a model of knowing your maker and taking care of those in your supply chain. But there are diverse examples of this.

      And agreed on the sad death of Home Ec to college readiness courses. This was my experience. But art was offered at my school but limited to visual – this could easily be expanded to include more diverse media such as textiles and fashion. If we rebrand fashion design as art rather than the outdated (but helpful) skills learned in Home Ec, I think sewing and crafting could find a place in schools again.

  1. Kristian

    I actually do know how to sew and how to tell on type of fabric from another and about different seams, but it was because of working in a costume shop for a university’s theatre department. I do think learning how to sew would be great for kids to learn in schools, but I think many don’t because of A) Home-Ec having a rep as either “old-fashioned” or girly ( plus, no one wants to support something that was seen as oppressing women) and B) we have SO much emphasis on college readiness and on testing scores a lot of vocational classes including Home Ec, Shop, Ag, Photography and computer classes are not being attended anymore in favor of trying to squeeze in another AP class or taking a class required for a scholarship. Not that those things aren’t good too but… well, this gets into a whole other can of worms, I know, so I’ll leave it at that.

    Very interesting to hear your arguments. I’m really trying to be better about buying either US made or Fair Trade and also trying to train myself (with limited success) to be okay spending more on basics to invest in that quality that will last.

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