Understanding & Buying Quality Clothing

I first want to start off by saying that this is not going to be an easy topic to write about. Quality means different things to different people, but I want to write about what quality means to me specifically and how it guides the way I shop and add pieces to my wardrobe. I love clothing and how it makes me feel when I get dressed every morning but I am also not a conspicuous or frivolous shopper. I buy items that spark joy and bring items into my closet with the purpose of rewearing over and over again and that will stand the test of time.  Buying quality, for me, is one way of shopping eco-consciously to minimize my carbon footprint on the plant. This is why investing in well made pieces is very important to me.

I will break up what quality means into three sections. First section will explain fabrics and how they impact the environment. The second section will focus on different sustainable and ethical practices involved in consciously crafted products and how that affects my purchases and lastly, a summary of what to look for when shopping to help identify quality clothing through materials and construction.

UNDERSTANDING FABRICS

Fabrics are divided into three categories; natural fibers, new natural fibers and synthetic fibers.

Natural Fibers

COTTON: Cotton comes from the cotton plant and it is breathable and comfortable fabric. While cotton is biodegradable at the end of its life it is one of the most demanding crops on the environment. Cotton requires a lot of water to cultivate and uses high levels of pesticides and chemicals that seeps into earth and water supplies. The difference between cotton and organic cotton is how the cotton is treated during the growth stage.

SILK: Silk derives from silk worms and is an extremely luxurious, lightweight, flowy and breathable. Extracting raw silk starts by cultivating the silkworms in order for individual long fibers to be extracted, a delicate string like substance, that is fed into a spinning reel. This is an expensive process and silk worms are rare and hard to find.

LINEN: Linen come from from flax plant and is a strong, absorbent and breathable fabric. Linen is wonderful to wear in really hot weather. Its negatives is that it wrinkles easily and and requires delicate washing. Linen is expensive because it can be hard to weave as its fiber is inelastic and easy to break in the production process.

WOOL: Wool comes from sheep hair and is very warm, although can sometimes be itchy. Mohair is a variation of wool and come from Angora goats. Wool has several sustainable attributes such as it is rapidly renewable, biodegradable, recyclable, and can be produced organically.

New Natural Fibers

MODAL COTTON:  Both Modal and MicroModal are exceptionally soft fabrics, and some might say better than cotton. Both are similarly derived from the cellulose of beech trees and is generally considered a more eco-friendly alternative to cotton because beech trees don’t require much water to grow and therefore the production process uses about 10-20 times less water. Modal cotton is a man-made fabric, a type of rayon fabric, that is spun out of wood pulp from beech tree chips. This natural composition makes it a breathable fabric that does not trap perspiration and therefore leaves the skin freer to breathe.

VISCOSE:  Viscose is another man-made fabric that is made from wood and is a great option if you’re looking for a lightweight material with a nice drape, a lustrous finish, and a soft feel. It is breathable, absorbent, removing water vapors (and heat) from the skin, leaving you feeling cool, dry and comfortable. It is a relatively inexpensive fabric and can convey luxury for a much lower price point.

TENCEL: Lyocell, better known as Tencel, is a fiber made from the wood pulp of trees (or from bamboo) that are grown and replaced on specialized tree farms. Unlike most cellulosic fabrics, Tencel is produced using recyclable, earth-friendly solvents and when blended with cotton, Tencel becomes a wrinkle-resistance fabric, very lustrous, almost like the feel of silk.

Synthetic Fibers

ACETATE: Acetate fabric is made with spun filaments of cellulose taken from wood pulp. Classified as a chemical fiber textile or semi-synthetic, it is sometimes mixed with silk, wool or cotton to make it stronger. Acetate is made from wood fibers called cellulose and undergo extensive chemical processing to produce the finished product. It is not a breathable fabric but is often used in lining of coats and jackets as it has better moisture absorption properties, as compared to other synthetic fibers.

RAYON: Rayon is recycled wood pulp that must be treated with chemicals like caustic soda, ammonia, acetone and sulphuric acid to survive regular washing and wearing. Rayon is a man-made fabric blended from cotton, wood pulp, and other natural or synthetic fibers. Rayon is often a substitute for silk, is comfortable and cooling to wear, and is an especially good fabric for sportswear and summer dresses. While rayon is great fabric for hot weather, it can shrink when washed in warm water.

ACRYLIC: Acrylic fibers are synthetic fibers made from polymer (or polycrylonitriles) and is often used as a substitute for wool. Acrylic fabric manufacturing involves highly toxic substances which are extremely dangerous to the health of factory workers who make the fabric and is not easily recycled nor is it readily biodegradable. Acrylic is a strong and warm fabric often used for sweaters and tracksuits and as linings for boots and gloves.

NYLON: Nylon is a man-made and there are quite a few different types of nylon, but most of them are derived from polyamide monomers that are extracted from crude oil, which is also known as petroleum. Nylon also tends to be more durable and weather-resistant, which is why it is more often used in outdoor apparel. Nylon is not biodegradable but recycled textiles allow designers to access the functionality of nylon, and can contribute to a good environmental outcome (the recycling process is still energy intensive, releases greenhouse gases and uses more harmful chemical dyes). Nylon production is more expensive, which results in a higher price for the consumer. 

SUSTAINABLE & ETHICAL PRACTICES

The fashion industry is one of many paradoxes. You may buy an item that is made from natural, biodegradable materials (good for the environment) but its final product could be stitched together by communities who are underpaid and abused ( but bad for workers). Is it possible to be a company that is both sustainable and ethical? The only way to determine that is cost of goods and it’s not a clear and straight path to navigate.

Please note that he following was pulled from Net-a-Porter’s Net Sustain ‘platform that outlines its initiative to help consumers identify their products that have been consciously crafted’. Net-a-Porter has eight principles a company can fall under and are great tools for consumers to better equip themselves with when making their purchasing decisions. Again, its not perfect, but it is a start in the sustainable/ethical conversation. Lets look at them here:

LOCALLY MADE: An item is considered locally made when at least 50% of the product has been within their community or country. This is considered to be investing in their local economy and helping the environment by minimizing the carbon footprint.

CRAFT & COMMUNITY: Craftsmanship lies at the heart of luxury and its attributes celebrate products that showcase artisanal skills and techniques. Brands can also adhere to fair trade principles (such as responsible supply chains), and meet the standards and certifications of groups that include Fair-trade, Fair for Life, The World Fair Trade Organization, and Fair Trade Certified. Click the links to learn more of these organizations.

CONSIDERED MATERIALS: This is ultimately the materials used in the things we buy. This could mean anywhere from how the materials are made to the welfare of people, animals and environment (see understanding fabrics section above) when cultivating crops for materials. Brands can also adhere to the standards and certifications considered under the Global Organic Textiles Standard, Organic Content Standard, Cotton Made in Africa, and Better Cotton Initiative. Click the links to learn more of these organizations.

CONSIDERED PROCESSES: This ultimately recognizes environmentally conscious processes used to manufacturer goods sold. It also attributes to supporting the health and environment in the worker who produces products. The standards and certifications considered under this attribute include Bluesign, Oeko Tex, Nordic Swan or Nordic Ecolabel, EU Ecolabel, Leather Working Group to name some. Click on the links to learn more of these organizations.

CONSIDERED INGREDIENTS: These are companies which have created a supply chain that uses ingredients grown and produced with a significantly reduced amount of water, waste, carbon and pollution.

REDUCING WASTE: Fashion/luxury shouldn’t be wasteful and this attributes involves upcycled and or biodegradable materials and packaging. The standards and certifications include the Recycled Claim Standard and Cradle to Cradle. Click on the link to learn more of these organizations.

ANIMAL WELFARE: This attribute involves brands with supply chains promoting good animal husbandry and creating cruelty-free products.

VEGAN: This is for brands that are 100% committed to avoiding the use of any animal products or using ingredients that are derived from animals. This is another fashion paradox. Although vegan leather does not make its product through animal livestock, it is incredibly harmful for the environment with its use of crude oil to manufacture vegan materials.

QUESTIONS TO ASK AND WHAT TO LOOK FOR BEFORE YOU BUY

Shopping can be a very emotional, personal experience and we purchase the things we do with how they makes us feel and how we want the world to see us, but we currently are at a point in history where we have to actively take action about the future of this planet.

WHAT IS FAST FASHION AND WHAT AM I BUYING?

Companies that sell fast fashion turn out clothing and accessory trends quickly and cheaply. This becomes a big issue with the construction and quality of the garments produced to sell to you, the consumer. Fast fashion brands maximize the amount of pattern pieces cut on a fabric roll regardless if it is cut correctly against the grain of the material (so that the garment can be made well and fit correctly as well as wash well and age well in time). This is why cheap clothes don’t last well or ruin immediately after a couple of washes. Fast fashion companies also use inexpensive materials that fade immediately after just a few washes.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR WHEN SHOPPING FOR ITEMS

Nobody likes to spend money and feel cheated after a big purchase and spending more does not necessarily mean you are buying high quality, so below I’ve listed tips to help you better understand construction and what to look for when shopping.

  • FABRIC: Most quality clothes will be made out of natural fabrics such as cotton, wool or linen (see the understanding fabrics section above). Natural fabrics tend to wear a lot better than synthetics and are often more comfortable. Inexpensive materials will fade immediately after washes and remember, not all fabrics are made the same which brings me to the next point.
  • FABRIC COMPOSITIONS: Not all fabrics are created equal. Just because an item says 100% cotton does not mean it is the same quality fabric as other item that says 100% cotton. You can spend $10 on a cotton tee or $100 on a cotton tee, so what is the difference and how do I know my purchase is worth the price? Well, understand that there are different grades of a fabric and some fabrics are made with longer fibers and a tighter weave, thus making them a better quality and more costly. Also watch out for fabric ‘blends’. Don’t let retailers trick you into believing an item is 100% of something but is in fact mixed with a cheaper synthetic fabric.
  • STITCHES: Look at the stitching on a garment and count how many stitches per inch. A well made garment will have more stitches (12 stitches per inch) which is better as it is less likely to break.
  • FINISHING TECHNIQUES: Turn an item inside out and look at how the garment was stitched together. What do the seams look like? How were the raw edges finished? Most inexpensive items will have a surged finish, but a quality item will have a more complicated finish such as a flat fell seam (much more durable) or French seam (used on delicate fabrics).
  • DRY CLEAN & INEXPENSIVE ITEMS: If an inexpensive clothing item requires dry cleaning it is most likely because the fabric has been tested and discovered that dyed fabric will bleed together and ruin so for a company to protect themselves will require dry cleaning. Ask yourself if this item is worth the added expense.
  • PATTERN MATCHING: When buying something made with a patterned fabric check that the pattern matches at the seams. A quality made garment will match at the seams.
  • ZIPPERS: A metal zipper should last longer and be harder wearing than a plastic zip. Also, unless it’s part of the design, avoid exposed zippers and look for flat zippers covered with a placket.
  • WHERE AN ITEM IS MADE: Good manufacturing can happen in any country, so don’t think that something made in China will be a low quality item. However, ask yourself if you are willing to pay more for something that was produced in a cost effective country and not somewhere more ‘regarded’ such as Italy, France or Spain.

I wanted to write this because sometimes I feel like when people say the only reason they like to spend more on clothing is because they believe it equates to a higher quality garment and that sometimes they don’t know exactly what that really means. I hope this page explains quality better and that quality is only part of the equation and that we should also consider the processes in which our garments are made. Quality is subjective, and means different things to different people, but we really need to start shopping more eco-consiously to secure the betterment of our planet and future generations.