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Investing in high-quality clothing is a recurrent theme in the minimalist space: trying to purchase less but better items that last as long as we want to in our wardrobes.
Even if quality is an abstract and subjective concept, when applied to clothes it’s not hard to define: an item that features a flattering silhouette, natural and comfortable fabrics, and detailed craftsmanship. These pieces are often more expensive than their fast-fashion counterparts, as they usually take longer to produce and incorporate all the finishing touches that make them more durable and resistant to wear.
Nevertheless, the usual question is how much more expensive. It’s important to distinguish when the price tag reflects the quality of the garment or also the brand that puts its name on the label. That’s why some designer pieces are extremely expensive without necessarily being better made than some other less expensive pieces.
Assessing quality is not about comparing prices and going for the most expensive piece but about understanding the item and all the things that compose it and choosing the one that has the best craftsmanship behind it.
And one that also aligns with your values. “I make sure the values of the company or artisan I am purchasing from are in line with my own, being aware of where my money is going and who I am supporting,” said Yvonne, Sustainable Development and Production Manager at Ozma, when asked about what she considers when buying clothes for herself. “Companies will usually have some info on how the garments are manufactured on the hang tag or website. If not, a quick email will get me the information I am interested in.”
We also talked with Emily Olivieri, VP of Product Creation & Manufacturing at Nisolo, who believes that a brand’s position regarding responsibility and transparency is linked to the quality of its products. “Ahead of shopping, I research the brands I'm considering, to understand their approach to materials, makers, and the planet,” Olivieri told us. “It’s important that the brands I shop with act responsibly and transparently about their approach across these areas which I believe is strongly tied to the final product quality.”
It usually boils down to these three things: understanding the cut and silhouette, determining the quality of the fabric, and examining the details and features. Asking certain questions regarding these three main topics will help us identify where some brands cut corners on quality, design, and production and be able to shop more sustainably and mindfully.
Checking the silhouette and fit
The first thing to assess when looking for any new piece is the way it fits the body. And not only regarding the size: the silhouette should be well cut and the different parts of the garment should look proportional and tailored to your very specific body.
Make sure the sleeves aren’t too long or too short, that the shoulders don’t sag and don’t restrict any movement and that the stitching lines align with the natural length of the shoulders. The buttons and zippers should also close comfortably, without any wrinkles around the closures. “I also make sure that visually, there are no early signs of wear, such as pilling, that show on the garment,” said Olivieri. If you can’t check all the boxes, simply leave it on the rack.
Choosing the fabrics
"These days, when I shop, I’m much more cautious about quality, so I’m always checking the material as it says a lot about the garment’s longevity. I tend to go for items in 100% organic cotton. With vintage and pre-loved, which I buy a lot of, I’m not as picky. But if it doesn’t spark joy, I’m not buying it. I guess I strive for a wardrobe that makes me happy, an eclectic mix of garments I want to wear again and again and look after in the best possible way." — Olga Wirén, DEDICATED.
Fabric composition is probably the most important thing to check. As a rule of thumb, around 80% of the piece should be made of natural fibers like cotton, linen, silk, wool, or cashmere. They’re soft, breathable, and generally safe and comfortable for everyone to wear.
“While shopping I look for quality pieces first and foremost that feel good on,” explained Yvonne. “I avoid synthetics and invest in natural fibers & yarns that allow my skin to breathe & are easy to layer in all climates.”
Natural fibers also contain fewer chemicals and are more biodegradable than other types of fabrics. Synthetic fibers can make for the rest of the garment, to add elasticity or any detailing to the fabric, but they should be consumed with caution.
They have a huge environmental impact, as they are petroleum derivatives: they shed micro plastics and enter waterways when washed and are hard to recycle if they’re blended with natural fibers. No technology can separate natural threads from plastic threads at a large scale yet. Items like tights, swimwear, or sportswear for example often need a higher portion of synthetic fibers to make them more durable, resistant, and comfortable, and trying to avoid synthetic materials when shopping is almost impossible. However, there are options out there made from materials like recycled nylon or polyester, to avoid at least, producing new synthetic fibers.
Cotton should be the main fiber for most of the items in any closet. Quality cotton fabrics are made of long strands and they can be woven tightly to increase durability. Look for “Supima” or “Pima” cotton on the tag, as they are soft, breathable, and durable at the same time.
Linen is another great fiber, especially for warmer months: it’s light and breathable while being very resistant, lasting, and rigid. Because it creases easily, it’s often blended with synthetic fibers to make any wrinkling less noticeable. It’s often more expensive than cotton, as it’s quite difficult to weave and its manufacturing is laborious and time-consuming.
Silk is one of the most valued fabrics everywhere: it’s soft, gentle on the skin, and drapes beautifully when worn. Silk pieces come in a wide range of prices, but the cheaper versions also include synthetic fibers like polyester to cheapen the blend. 100% silk items will always be of higher quality, softer, and more breathable.
For the winter months, wool and cashmere are the fibers to stock. Lambs and Merino wool are the best kinds of wool, they’re both soft and very fine while having great thermoregulatory properties. Look for wool blends of 60% or more and premium longer fibers if possible, like worsted wool yarn for example.
When looking for cashmere, the best blends are also the ones with longer finer strands and composition of 100% cashmere. Go for those pieces that are soft to the touch but aren’t transparent, as sheer cashmere is too delicate and won’t last long.
As they say, it’s all in the details. Things like hems, buttons, zippers, etc., they all tell how the piece has been made. Start by checking the seams: the stitches should be regular and straight, should be reinforced in some areas and there shouldn’t be any loose threads. When gently pulling them, the stitching shouldn’t separate, just the fabric in those pieces that have some kind of elastic fiber in their composition.
"In my view, the sign of a well-made product is one that gets better with time,” said Olivieri. “Once I have a product in hand, I test the quality and strength through lightly pulling on the garment in key areas, such as the hem, making sure there is appropriate 'stretch and recovery' of the materials.”
As a general rule, avoid clothes that have no hem or just stitched edges. Any high-quality garment should also include fabric facings to cover seams and create a clean look.
Next, check if the item is lined. Not all clothes need lining, but they’re a great touch of extra craftsmanship that sometimes it’s more than welcome: in summer dresses, for example, to avoid any unwanted transparencies. A well-made lining will increase the durability of the piece and make it more comfortable to wear.
Finally, check the small details: the buttons should be made out of metal, wood, or bone to resist wear and should be well-stitched, with thread securing them in place from all sides. Zippers should be covered, always concealed behind a stitched fold, and should be easy to zip up and down.
Buying IRL vs. online
Clothes have an undeniable sensory component that we mustn’t forget. It’s not only about how an item looks but also about how the item feels, both to the touch and on the body.
When buying in a store, it’s crucial to let our senses guide us, even when the piece is still on the hanger: how does this material feel when I touch it? Does it resist stretching when I slightly pull certain areas? If you can, try it on.
Ask yourself: when I put this on, does it feel comfortable and resistant at the same time? Does it drape smoothly without any wrinkles or bunches? If the answer is yes, then check all the above-mentioned things: the fabric, the details, etc.
Determining quality when shopping online is trickier. Even if we’re not able to try on or touch the clothes before buying, it’s important to try to get a clear idea of what the item is made of and how does it look like from the pictures and videos on the website. Make sure you check the composition of the fabric and zoom in on the images to assess the transparency and draping of the garment. When the clothes get home, make sure to patiently try them on and check all the small details that might have gone unnoticed before.
Choosing quality over everything else
Buying higher-quality garments is the first step to ensuring that our clothes last, that they fit and feel better, and that we’re choosing what’s best for the environment. And differentiating them from lower-quality pieces is not that hard, it just requires time to examine the item and asking the right questions. Like everything in life, it just requires practice.