Quality clothing — How to tell if clothes are well made

We need new skills as we strive to throwaway less, simplify our lives, and be mindful about how we’re impacting the environment. These skills include things like mending and repairing, growing things and sharing, and, of course, learning to take good care. And because we want the things in our lives to last, when it comes to making purchases, identifying quality becomes important. One area where awareness of quality impacts us all is in our purchases of clothes.

Why shop for quality clothing?

It lasts. Investing in quality clothing encourages a thoughtful curation of items that you really love (rather than a closet full of “nothing to wear.”). And with less turnover and more long-lasting favorites, your wardrobe can be another simplified but enriched area of your life. 

It’s more sustainable. Fast fashion produces mountains of apparel that’s not made to last and that is truly taxing our environment. Choosing a garment that will last for years is a responsible way to shop.

It looks better. A quality item will hang nicely when you wear it, and it’ll bounce back into shape if you stretch it out (by sitting or stooping down, for example — baggy knees, ugh). The colors in a well-made garment are less likely to fade over time, too. 

It’s more enjoyable to wear. Buttons will stay on, zippers will work, and hems won’t unravel. You’ll need to spend less time tugging, pulling, and repairing. Quality clothing will hang nicely when you wear it and feel comfortable when you move.

Are there good quality clothing brands?

Once upon a time, you could depend on a brand label or the store you were shopping in to ensure that you were buying quality clothing. I was willing to pay more for a coat from a good quality clothing brand, for example, because it would last and look good for years.  

Unfortunately, this is often no longer the case. Brands get purchased, corners get cut, and garment standards deteriorate. There are still good brands, of course. But things change, so it’s not something you can count on. Better to know how to spot a quality item yourself.

How to identify quality clothing

Many years ago, I was a resident buyer in the garment district in New York City. I bought high-end women’s clothing for stores across the country who didn’t want to send their purchasers to the Big Apple. One very useful skill I took away from this job was the ability to evaluate clothing to see if it was well made. (If the purchasers found it lacking, back it would come!) It’s not hard to do; mostly you just have to remember to look! Whether you’re shopping for a new item or considering a vintage find, here’s what to pay attention to: 

Seams and stitching

Tug a bit (just a tad) at the seams. They should be tightly sewn and not about to pull apart. Sometimes an item that’s poor quality will be sewn with larger stitches (quicker to sew) that won’t hold nearly as long as smaller ones. The stitches should be small, and there should be no gaps in the seams. 

There are different types of seams, and they’re not all created equal. 

  • Plain seams. If you look inside the garment and the seams have raw edges, those are plain seams. Sometimes they’re pinked (with pinking shears) to produce a zigzag edge, and sometimes the edges are sewn with a straight or zigzag stitch. This is the least expensive type of seam to make.
  • Serged seams. Many mass-produced garments have serged seams. This means the machine sews along the plain seam and at the same time finishes the edge with stitching, cutting off any extra fabric, in one fell swoop. The serged edge is sometimes a little messy looking. 
  • Flat-felled seams. These are tidy and clean. They will hold up much better than a serged seam. The raw edges are enclosed, and the seam is sewn down flat. 
  • French seams. If you’re lucky enough to find a garment with French seams, that usually indicates good quality. With French seams, the edges of the fabric are sewn inside the seam, making them sturdier (and lovely to admire). 
  • Topstitched seams. These have a row of stitching on the right side of the fabric, running parallel to the seam. Topstitching flattens the seams and make them less bulky. They can also be decorative. Seams can be topstitched on one side of the seam or both. If a garment has topstitching, it should be straight and evenly spaced from the seam. Unless intentionally used for contrast, the thread color should match the garment.

To familiarize yourself with different seams, look at the pictures on a sewing blog, such as the Megan Nielsen Patterns blog.

Speaking of seams, avoid glued seams. You never want to see seams (or other areas) that have been glued rather than sewn. Some manufacturers (especially of leather items) glue panels together rather than sew them. This is definitely cutting a corner. 

types of hems can help determine the quality of clothes

Hems

There are different ways to finish a hem. Of course, some styles of jeans today don’t have finished hems at all, they’re simply cut offs. (Oh, remember your cut-off jean shorts?!) But most clothing is hemmed, and the way it’s handled can be telltale.

Good quality clothing has nicely finished hems (skirts, pants, tops, jackets — the bottom of any garment, really). The edge of the hem should be folded more than once, then sewn. In other words, if you look inside the garment at the hem, you should not see the raw edge. It should be folded or rolled (in the case of lightweight or circle skirts, for example) inside the hem. This ensures the hem will stay up longer, without fraying. 

Also check to see that the hem stitches are sturdy. Some machine-stitched hems (on dresses or dress pants, especially) are light and have very long stitches that can easily get snagged and pulled or broken, causing the hem to come down. Beautifully handstitched hems are definitely a sign of well-made clothing. 

Unless the hem length is slight because of the fabric needs (to reduce bulk, for example), dresses, skirts, and pants should have good-size hems on them. Ideally, they will be about 1 11/2 to 2 inches, not skimpy. Skimping on fabric in hems is a sign of cutting corners. (It’s also nice to have extra hem allowance so you can let the hem down at a later date, if necessary — when your child has a growth spurt, for example.)

Fabric

Here’s what to look for when evaluating the fabric in a garment:

Heft. Very sheer fabrics are not as durable as those that you can’t see through. Even delicate fabrics should be translucent or opaque rather than transparent if they’re going to last. Put your hand under the fabric, or hold the fabric up to the light to determine how see-through it is. 

Elasticity. To tell if a fabric is going to hold its shape, give it a little tug and let go. Does it return to its original shape? If the fabric has changed shape, it’s going to do the same thing when you bend or sit.

Fiber content. In general, natural fibers — cotton, wool, cashmere, linen, and silk — wear longer than synthetics. Check the label for fiber content. Yes, there are also some decent synthetics and synthetic blends on the market. In general, though, synthetics — especially polyester and acrylic — tend to be a sign of clothing that isn’t designed for the long haul. 

a row of dress shirt sleeves of various colors

Thread count. A higher thread count (more threads per inch of fabric) means more durability. While soft denim feels good, it often has a lower thread count, which means those comfier jeans might not last as long (a tradeoff you may be willing to make, of course). 

Treatments. Some soft clothing (jeans in particular) is pre-washed (sometimes with chemicals) to break down the fibers, making them soft. If it’s durability you’re after, get stiffer jeans and break them in yourself. 

Matching patterns

This is more obvious on fabrics with large patters, plaids, or stripes, but look at the seams. Do the patterns line up (like you would line up seams of wallpaper) or are they mismatched? Quality clothing will have matched patterns along seams wherever possible — side seams, pockets, etc. It takes more time and more fabric to do this, so matched seams usually mean a commitment to quality.

Facing

Look at the neckline (unless there’s a collar) and armholes of the garment. Are they simply turned and sewn into place, or is there extra material sewn along the seam, turned to the inside and then sewn down? Good quality garments have ample facings, made with the same fabric that was used to make the garment. 

Lining

Some jackets and coats are made to be worn without lining. In general, though, a well-made jacket or coat will have a nice lining in it. Make sure the lining is in good shape if you’re buying a used item — or be prepared to replace it, which may be well worthwhile if it’s a quality item. 

Yokes

It may simply look like a design feature, but a back yoke on a shirt (the panel of material between the back shoulders, most often seen on men’s shirts) makes the shirt stronger. It reinforces the area that stretches when you move your arms and shoulders. A yoke may also make a shirt more comfortable, as it’s cut to stretch as you move. There are split yokes (with a seam down the middle) and solid yokes, and whether one is better than the other is up for debate.

Gussets

Many quality clothing items have gussets (little triangles or rhomboid-shaped pieces of extra fabric) sewn in to reduce stress on clothing. You can find gussets on the side bottoms of men’s shirts, for example, and in underarms, shoulders, and crotches. 

a row of patterned baby clothes with zippers hanging on wooden hangers in a shop

Zippers

Zippers should not only work well (be sure to try them out), they should ideally be unexposed. Sometimes an exposed zipper is part of the design of the garment — a large, brightly colored zipper can be fun. But an exposed zipper can catch on the fabric. And because it’s exposed, it can also get fibers and dirt caught in it. In general, metal zippers are preferred over plastic.

So for quality, look for unexposed zippers — covered by plackets or sewn into the seams. I remember the first time I sewed in an “invisible zipper”—magical! 

Buttons and buttonholes

Ask yourself these questions about the buttons on a garment before you buy:

  • Are the buttons sewn on well or are they dangling? Buttons are easy to sew back on, but it’s not a great sign that they’re loose (unless, of course, the item is vintage, in which case some button dangling is to be expected). 
  • Is there a little bag of extra buttons and/or thread included with the garment? That’s a good sign that it’s a quality item that the maker expects to stick around.
  • Are the buttons plastic, wood, metal, or mother of pearl? Plastic buttons can break. 
  • Do coats and other heavy items have shank buttons? Shank buttons have a little piece with a hole (it might look like a metal loop) that sticks out the back of the button. Rather than sew through the button, the shank button is sewn on the garment through this “hidden” hole. So rather than lie flat against the fabric, the button sticks up a bit, allowing space for the buttoned-up fabric to sit under the button. Shank buttons can be used on any fabric, but they’re especially important on heavy items. Without shanks, coat buttons can easily become stressed, loose, and pop off. 
  • Is the button thick enough? Some thin buttons will too easily slip through the buttonholes. 

Check the buttonholes, too. You want them to be tidy. The stitching shouldn’t be messy or loose, and there shouldn’t be a mess of thread. Make sure the buttons slide through the buttonholes nicely. (Too-small buttonholes are a nuisance.)

Other considerations

What repair/mending needs to be done (if you’re buying second hand)?

Being able to mend gives you a huge advantage when shopping for used clothing. Just make sure you know what you’re getting into. For example, a torn apart seam is much easier to repair than a hole in the middle of a fabric panel. And knit fabrics need stretch stitches (regular stitches will tear rather than stretch when the fabric stretches). 

a person clothes shopping, inspecting a high-quality tan shirt

Is there a warranty?

If you’re investing in a quality piece of clothing, it makes sense to ask about a warranty. Some companies — like Eddie Bauer, Duluth Trading Company, and Lands’ End — offer unconditional guarantees. Don’t hesitate to ask at a store! 

Sounds like a lot to know, but really, once you know what to look for, you can check out a garment pretty quickly. 

How do you decide if a piece of clothing is worth your investment? Are there specific things you check for when it comes to quality?

You might also enjoy:

Tights — How to make them last

Preventing pilling — How to keep sweaters, bedding, and other items from pilling

Swimsuit care — 4 easy steps to keep your bathing suit in top shape

12 tips for washing kids’ sports uniforms

4 thoughts on “Quality clothing — How to tell if clothes are well made”

  1. I tend to buy cheap clothes because when I get tired of them, I don’t feel guilty at the amount of money spent on them. I think the only thing I really pay attention to are my bras. Am I allowed to say that on here? 😉 I want them to last longer than a shirt. BTW, are you amazed as much as I am that the quality has gone down hill on appliances? Nothing lasts as long anymore. My mom still has her harvest gold washer and dryer and they work great! Well I don’t want to go off on a rant. Awesome post.

    Reply
    • Oh, I used to do that some, too, Cindy! But I realized that I like well-made clothes so much better, so I enjoy investing in them now, and I like that it helps me keep my wardrobe limited. I think we’ll do a post on bras sometime soon – that’s a good topic! (My two favorites have lasted years, but now that I need to replace them they’re no longer available. Time to find others of similar quality!) My friend Chris (also a C2K member!) just sent me a photo of her vacuum that she’s had since 1979! Alas, it needs replacing. I think we consumers need to convey to manufacturers that we have higher expectations for appliances than a one-year warranty (which is what I found offered now for refrigerators that cost over a thousand dollars!). Well, you almost got me going on a rant, too! 🙂 I’m glad you enjoyed the post! Thanks so much for visiting! I sure enjoy CountryRoad!

      Reply
  2. I’ve been SLOWLY converting my wardrobe to fewer, higher quality pieces. I love the concept, but find it hard to get past my desire to have a variety of options. I certainly appreciate my well-made apparel and admit to the longevity of those pieces vs some of the more trendy items in my closet, but I also get bored quickly wearing the same clothing. I’m working on it!

    Reply
    • Oh yes, I go back and forth. But I’m usually happiest when I find something of quality, and I’m very much drawn to the idea of a pared-down wardrobe. Right now I’m trying to come up with a very simple, classic wardrobe that I can supplement with different scarves and other accessories. I’m still working on it too!

      Reply

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