What to look for in a quality fabric.
A reader asked me yesterday how, exactly, do you recognise a quality garment?
Well, there are several things to look out for. I mentioned in a blog that you should focus on fabric, cut and finish, so let’s look at the first of those three areas – fabric.
Fabric is made from fibres, of which there are two types – natural and man-made.
Man-made fibres include completely synthetic fibres (such as nylon) which are usually petroleum byproducts, and ‘man-made’ fibres (such as viscose) which are reconstructed from natural materials such as wood pulp. The advantage of man-made fibres is that they’re cheap to produce, but their disadvantages are that some do not wear well, and because they aren’t natural, they don’t ‘breathe’, allowing you to sweat. Many are also cold to the touch, which can be either an advantage or a disadvantage. They may also have implications for the environment in that they don’t biodegrade (polyester is an exception to this, as if destroyed at high temperature, it results in carbon and water, making it quite eco-friendly).
All man-made fibres begin life as a kind of ‘soup’ of molecules which are then stuck back together to form filaments. These are then twisted together to make threads. This enables man-made fibres to be produced in vast quantities, but it can also leave them inherently weak. Viscose is one of the worst, and has a tendency to pill and fracture – no viscose garment will be long-lived. On the other hand, microfibre filaments are among the strongest fibres available, creating fabrics that are smoothy, drapy and hard to put a pin through. Synthetic fibres can now also be produced with permanent crinkle finishes that produce an alluring texture – the Japanese manufacturers such as Nuno are the world leaders in these specialised fabrics.
Natural fibres, in contrast, are produced from either plant (cellulose) fibre such as cotton bolls, flax stems or hemp stalks, or created from animal (protein) pelts such as sheep wool, alpaca and cashmere. There is also one very specific animal fibre that is produced in a different way – silk, which is made from the cocoon of the silk moth in a way not dissimilar from untwisting a spider’s web. Sericulture – silk production – is a specialised skill that for centuries was kept secret by its discoverers, the Chinese.
The length of the natural fibre varies – the longest is silk, a single filament of which can be over a mile long, and the shortest is ‘short-staple’ cotton – the lowest-quality cotton, whose tufts may be half an inch long or less. Linen lies somewhere in between, with filaments about three feet long, and wool is shorter, at several inches for the longest ‘staples’.
The simple rule with natural fibres is, the longer the staple, the better quality the resulting fabric will be. Egyptian cotton, for instance, has tufts that are about three inches long, which means that when they’re twisted together to make thread, and later fabric, they lie very smooth and flat. This is why you pay a premium for Egyptian cotton but it is also why the fabric lasts longer. I have bedding and towels nearly 20 years old made from Egyptian cotton, which is still going strong and has seen off many cheaper rivals in the meantime.
In silk, long, unbroken lengths are only produced when the silk cocoon is boiled with the grub still inside, at which point the cocoon can be unwound like a reel of thread. If the grub should hatch out, the threads are broken, but many silk fabrics are produced using exactly this method, which results in slubs and breaks in the fabric that give a very attractive texture – examples include tussah and shantung.
In wools, the longest staple is found on animals like Merino sheep, which produce a wool that is flat, silky and very hard-wearing. Again, you pay a premium for it, but with care, a merino sweater will last virtually a lifetime. However, there are other qualities in wool that we find valuable, such as ‘loft’ – lightness and fluffiness that traps air and keeps you warm, and simple softness. For loft, few wools are better than Shetland, which is amazingly lightweight for the warmth it gives, while for sheer softness, you’re looking at premium-price fibres such as angora, camelhair, alpaca and cashmere.
What to look for
For practical purposes, most of us wear fabrics that are mixtures of natural and synthetic fibres, but when you’re looking for quality in a garment, you should generally look for the highest percentage of natural fibre you can afford (the exception is if you wear garments made from the very modern, high-end synthetics produced by firms such as Miyake, which carry a premium for their rarity and exclusivity).
For daily wear, a pure cotton blouse will wear much better, and feel more comfortable on the skin than a blouse that is 30 per cent polyester, and if it’s Egyptian or Sea Island cotton, it will feel smoother and silkier too. A pure cashmere coat is a serious investment that you would expect to wear for 20 years or more, but it is both warm and beautifully soft.
If your budget won’t stretch to pure fibres, look for at least 80 per cent natural fibre, such as 80 wool/20 acrylic in knitwear or 80 wool/20 polyester in a coat fabric. An addition of a few per cent of elasthane (Lycra) is also often useful, as this gives the fibre enough stretch and ‘give’ to allow it to recover after wear without adversely affecting the other qualities of the fabric. Most quality men’s trousers today contain about 2 per cent lycra, for instance, to prevent them giving at the knee. Cotton t-shirts with 2-5 per cent elasthane will often wear better than pure cotton jersey, which becomes stretched out and baggy, and if you’re fond of viscose t-shirts, you really need them to contain 5 per cent elasthane to last any time at all and even then, they will pill on the inside.
Price and production
Methods of production also affect the price of a fabric. The wider the fabric, for instance, the more money is usually costs (broadcloth) because the wider loom costs more money to set up. The more threads there are to the inch, the more it will cost, because you’re actually getting more fabric for your money – one example would include Tana lawn, which is made from extremely fine cotton threads, but many, many threads to the inch, resulting in a fabric that is very thin, light, smooth and hard-wearing.
The smaller the quantity of fabric produced, the more you will pay, because there are no reductions for volume – this affects suiting wools such as worsted which are not produced in large quantities. The more handwork that’s involved right along the process, the more you have to pay – this is one factor that affects fabrics such as cashmere, because even today cashmere wool has to be hand-combed out of a goat’s belly, rather than being sheared off by electric trimmers. Handwork also affects linen and fabrics such as horsehair, still used for quality furnishings.
Woven fabrics usually cost more than prints, because a loom has to be set up for the purpose, but they are generally considered to be more desireable because the design goes all the way through. Examples include herringbone weaves, tartan and pinstripe suiting, but also more complicated weaves such as jacquard, which require special looms. Even denim, which is a twill weave, should cost more than ordinary plain woven cotton that results in a thinner, less hardy fabric.
In printed fabrics, the number of colours in a print affects price, because you’re paying for each pass of the fabric through the printing rollers. Therefore complex fabrics with over 10 colours can end up costing a fortune. But even a plain colour can affect price – when gentlemen’s hunting jackets are made by hand in Saville Row, there is an extra premium for having them in red, because it is very hard on the tailor’s eyes!
Lastly, price is affected by desireability, and that is a factor that is constantly changing. The minute that a new fabric or fibre appears on the scene, it becomes desireable, as we all saw with pashmina some years ago. If it can then be produced in quantity, its desireability falls (as again we saw with pashmina once cheaper mixes of silk and cashmere were woven with near-identical results).
Desireability is the joker in the pack to watch out for when you’re buying clothes, because really it’s a gimmick. What you need to look for in a fabric is quality – threads per inch, staple length of the fibre (which is why you can expect to pay more for linen than for cotton), and the amount of handwork involved in its production.
How to check fabric quality in a garment
OK, the above is all very theoretical, but when you come to actually buying clothes, how do you tell a quality fabric?
Firstly, look inside. If there is a fabric manufacturer’s label in addition to the garment manufacturer’s label, this is a good sign because it means they’re proud of their product – you will always, for instance, find the Harris tweed label in any garment made from it. Fabrics such as Tana lawn, hand-woven Irish linen and Egyptian cotton will always be mentioned separately on the label because you’re expected to pay more for them.
Next look at the label that tells you the fibre breakdown. Look, in general, for 100 per cent natural fibres (this might be a mixture, such as wool and angora, but they’re both natural). Generally speaking, the higher the quantity of synthetic, the less you should pay for it, as the garment won’t wear as well.
Look at the position of the fibre label. Labels for high-end fibres or fabrics are always placed somewhere prominent, while those for poor-quality fabrics such as cheap synthetics and cottons are usually not sewn in a prominent place, such as the back of the neck, but tend to appear lower down the body of the garment.
A word about wools – when a garment is made from a premium wool such as merino, alpaca or cashmere, it will be labelled as such. If it’s labelled ‘lambswool’, this is the first shearing, which is softer than subsequent shearings – be prepared to pay a bit extra for it. If it’s labelled ‘Pure New Wool’ this is a mixture of wools of varying quality, but all of which are from fresh shearings – the price should not be so high as lambswool. If it’s simply labelled ‘wool’, this is a mixture of wools, some of which are from new shearings but some of which may be reused wools, collected from old fabrics – it will not wear very well, as much of the tensile strength has been lost. Pay only a low price for it or avoid it altogether.
Now take a section of the fabric and hold it up to the light, and tug the threads in opposite directions. Are there lots of threads per inch? How much give is there? How much light can you see? A thin, cheap cotton will have lots of give and let through lots of light, whereas a thickly woven dotted Swiss is a tough fabric that you have to pay a premium for. However, a thin, cheap cotton may be just what you want for a beach holiday – you still need to think about the purposes to which you’re going to put the garment.
Run your hands over the fabric and check it for quality and smoothness. Scratch it with your fingernails – does it pill or come up, has it got a nap that can be combed one way or the other? A nap is a good sign on quality coats, which are almost like an animal’s pelt in their finish, and the deeper the pile on a velvet, the more expensive it should be.
Now take a sleeve or leg of the garment and crush and twist it tightly in your hands and hold it, keeping it warm, for 20 seconds. It’s obviously not a good idea to do this when a sales assistant is watching! Now release the fabric and see how well the creases fall out. My advice is, if the creases are still severe, don’t touch it with a bargepole unless you want to spend all your time ironing it. However, you personally may like a crumpled look, such as with linen.
Quality fibres cost money to produce, so you are unlikely to find them cheap – if you find, for instance, ‘cashmere’ going cheap, be wary. So remember the adage: "When you buy quality, you only wince once."
Some common fibres and their price points:
Egyptian cotton ££££
Merino wool ££££
Hemp £££ (due to low amount of production)
Tana lawn £££
Lambswool £££ – ££
Pure new wool (a blend of different wools) ££
Wool (re-used wool from unspecified sources) £
Cotton (unspecified sources, probably India) £