In generations past, members of a household would have made a family's clothing. Even in wealthier homes, lace-making and embroidery were common hobbies; even if clothes weren't sewn at home, seamstresses and tailors were close by. It wasn't so long ago that this was still the case. I was raised by my grandmother, who made about half my clothes until I was a young teenager.
Besides creating clothing that fit the wearer perfectly, home sewers also knew fabrics well and could tell by eye and feel if a given cloth would last or fray after a few wears. They also could tell if something was sewn well using proper techniques, or if it was thrown together cheaply.
Because my grandmother taught me to sew and what to look for in a well-made garment, I can tell whether something is good quality or not. But very few of my friends can do the same. The sad part is that poor quality plagues all levels of the fashion marketplace. It's not just cheap, fast fashion that tends to fall apart after a few wears. But even pricier brands, which used to boast quality materials and workmanship, have a wider variability in quality than you'd expect.
That fast fashion, by the way, refers to clothes that quickly go from the catwalk to the retail stores to capitalize on fashion trends. It is often sewn by people — sometimes children — who are paid poorly, abused and overworked. But consumers want those low prices, and many don't think about what paying bottom dollar means for the people who make the clothes or what it means for the planet's landfills, which are already full of discarded clothing.
Environmental fallout of fast fashion
These clothes aren't just affecting landfills, they also play a role in greenhouse gas emissions. According to a 2018 report by an environmental consultant group, the global apparel and footwear industry produces 8 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions. The average world citizen consumes 25 pounds of clothing a year, which produces the same amount of emissions as driving a car 1,500 miles.
It isn't just cheap fashion that is bad for the environment. The material is also a factor. Synthetic fabrics like polyester and nylon don't biodegrade and are made from petrochemicals. Cotton may seem like the better choice, but many pesticides are used to grow large quantities, and chemicals and dyes are used to color cotton.
Here's what to look for so you can invest your money in good-quality pieces for yourself of loved ones — and know they will last and have less of a negative impact on the environment.
Before you consider plunking down your hard-earned cash for a new piece of clothing, make sure it's something you will love to wear for years to come. That means considering both style and fit. "First and foremost it's important to choose pieces that flatter your body and suit your style, and are not 'trendy,'" advises Sass Brown, interim dean at the Fashion Institute of Technology's School of Art and Design. That goes for gifts as well — if you're not sure about size and fit, get a gift receipt so the person you're gifting gets something that will last.
Use your hands
Sometimes it can help to close your eyes when you touch fabric. It should feel substantial and heavy unless it's meant to be a lightweight material. It shouldn't feel rough or flimsy — even a lightweight material should have a tightly packed weave to it, and it should be dense even if it's thin. "The more fiber there is, the more likely it’s going to last longer," Timo Rissanen, co-author of "Zero Waste Fashion Design" and an assistant professor of fashion design and sustainability at Parsons School of Design in New York told Quartz.
Like food, clothing labels can tell you a lot of about what a garment is made from and where it was made. (Though where the fabric was made may be different than where the item was sewn together.)
Look for natural materials and avoid blends of natural and man-made fibers. Technical gear made from advanced polyesters (that could eventually be recycled, as Patagonia does) are better bets than combo natural/synthetics which can never be made into new materials and will never biodegrade, as natural fibers will. Mixed fabrics also tend to wear poorly over time, as some of the fabric shrinks or fades while other fibers don't, which can result in odd shapes and colors. Mixes of natural materials can be wonderful though, like cotton-silk blends or combos of wool, cashmere and alpaca. Small amounts of spandex in jeans for stretch can be useful.
Look for items made in the USA, Europe, the United Kingdom and Australia, which all have labor laws that prevent the worst abuses in the fashion industry.
Examine the stitching
No, you don't have to obsessively look at every seam; looking at just a couple of them will give you a good idea of the garment's quality. They should be straight, and places where seams meet should be neat. If you see a jumble of threads where, say, a sleeve meets the body of a shirt, that's a sign that care wasn't taken, and it's likely you'll have a hole there sooner than you'd want.
If a textile has a print (or a knit has a pattern), a really well-made piece of clothing will have those patterns meet neatly at the seam. So a striped shirt will have stripes going all the way around, not off-center at the seam. This is harder to do with more complex patterns, but some attempt should be made to bring together a seam in a way that reflects the sewer was paying attention to the pattern. Look for French seams, blind hems and larger seam allowances (so adjustments can be made). If you aren't familiar with those, see this video for details.
Factor in finishing
"Look at the finishing. Usually well-made clothes look as good on the inside as they do on the outside. Look for modest seams and clean finishes," says fashion designer Tabitha St. Bernard, co-founder of Tabii Just, a zero-waste clothing line made in NYC. Better clothes also come with extra buttons and matching thread or yarn for repairs. And heavier clothing (and skirts) should have a lining to protect the fabric from body oils and moisture.
Skip buying new
Want to find something completely unique and original for yourself or as a gift when you are on a serious budget? "One of my favorite ways to choose more quality clothing that has stood the test of time is to shop at Goodwill or consignment shops. I am always in awe at all the luxurious handmade sweaters, vintage denim and dresses from more couture labels that are still so pristine. No loose threads on necklines and hems, no disintegrating fast fashion fabrics and less synthetic fibers that we have so much more of than ever before," says Amy DuFault, Communications Director of the Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator.
If you haven't done a lot of second-hand shopping, here's how to get started.
Editor's note: This article has been updated since it was originally published in December 2016.