In this series, I’ll be featuring a new topic every few weeks on how to make better choices when shopping and how to take care of your favorite items once they find a home in your closet.
How do we shop? Each of us has different priorities, but I imagine that for the average shopper, it goes something like this: (1) a fabric or style catches your eye, (2) you look over the whole garment for cut, (3) you check the price tag, and if it has passed the test so far, (4) you try it on. For those of us without extensive garment construction knowledge, we just want it to feel good and fit our budget. But there are actually a few things you can look for in a garment to make sure you are heading home with something that will last, whether it is from the Gap or Bergdorf’s.
I’ve recruited our resident sewing guru, Lisa, to teach us how to look under the hood of a garment before we commit. So find your garment’s care label and follow Lisa’s tips:
1. The Fabric
Look for breathable long-lasting natural fabrics, such as cotton, wool, linen, and silk. Synthetic fabrics—polyester, nylon, acrylic, Spandex, and more—are less breathable. Often these fabrics simulate a natural fabric counterpart, but the quality and enjoyment of wearing is rarely the same. While Spandex is the necessary evil to getting my skinny jeans on, it can change the fabric’s overall quality and wear. Designer labels do slip in synthetic fabrics in some form in their collections, though I could argue that these synthetics are better quality that what you would find at a mass-market store. You as the consumer can tell by touch: the hand (meaning how it feels when you touch the fabric) is usually of higher quality. If you are still unsure, think about when you will be wearing the item. If you’re headed to an outdoor summer event, opt for cotton or linen rather than polyester to keep you cool. When purchasing a winter coat, an investment in 100% wool over acrylic is wise—wool is naturally water (and snow) resistant, great at regulating heat, and very durable.
2. The Details
What we don’t see is often more important than what we do see. The stitch length, thread quality, hem type, and seam finishing all come together to create a better garment. The better the details, the longer the manufacturer spent on that garment, raising its quality.
- Stitches should be tight and close together for maximum durability; larger stitches are reserved for topstitching (the stitching you see on the outside of the garment). Thread should not be too thin or too shiny. Too shiny indicates 100% polyester or nylon thread, which can melt when ironed, particularly when the garment’s main content requires a higher iron heat than the synthetic thread.
- Hem style depends on the type of garment. Casual pants usually have topstitched hems, but nicer pants and skirts should have invisible hems, which means you should not be able to see the stitching on the outside of the garment.
- Look for shirts that have flat-felled or French seams. These seam finishes not only take longer to create, but they are also sewn 2 to 3 times, so that the seam is more highly reinforced. Check out A Fashionable Stitch for additional styles.
- Finishing details are one of the simplest indicators. “X”-shaped tacks that keep slits in place show care for the garment. Same with stitches that hold pockets together. The manufacturer took the time to add these temporary stitches, so that pockets don’t stretch and slits don’t rip before they get to the consumer. Just make sure to remove these stitches when you get home! Using scissors to remove just the first stitch should make it easy to pull the remainder of the thread out by hand.
3. The Fit
Fit is vital to how we look and feel in our clothes. Many people go through life with ill-fitting clothing, not realizing that small alterations or trying a different brand that fits their body shape better could make a big difference in comfort and style. While sizing seems universal, every brand has its own exact size measurements, and this can vary by style. A woman’s size 6 in one store could be a size 4 or 8 in another. Use sizes as a starting point, but don’t rely on them to determine fit. Instead, look for key construction aspects to indicate fit:
- Women should pay special attention to where darts (fabric tucks to shape the garment to the body’s curves) hit on their bodies: a bust dart should end close to, but not at, the apex of the bust.
- Shoulder seams should hit at your shoulder, not below or above. (Note: I do confine that to traditional button front shirts and T-shirts, as different fashions of shirts may alter the shoulder seam placement.)
Utilizing the services of a tailor can also help with fit. If you find something you love but the fit is off, consider having it altered. I will say, having performed my fair share of surgery on garments, tailors are not miracle workers. There are things they cannot resolve, and good ones will tell you that before they accept your money. Better to return the item than to have a garment you can’t wear and have paid for twice. Quick tip—Tailoring doesn’t have to be expensive: the Japanese brand Uniqlo hems all pants bought in store for free, even for a cheap pair of jeans. Nordstrom offers free alterations on select full-priced merchandise. Make sure to ask about tailoring services when you’re shopping, especially if it is an investment piece.
Tweet your sewing questions to Lisa directly @lisammagee #themonthlymend. Photos by Lisa Magee.