It’s worth paying a little extra for quality finishes on garments – here’s what to look for.
There are three things you should look for in a quality garment – fabric, cut and a high standard of finish. In the last article in this series of three, I’ll look at finish.
Finish is where cheaper manufacturers really start to cut corners because every element of finish costs money – seam allowances, proper interfacing that enables collars, belts etc to keep their shape, seam finishes that enclose raw edges, correct pressing, and applied techniques such as beading or pickstitching.
There are two types of finish – those that are connected with the construction of the garment, and those which are purely decorative. Construction finishes prolong the longevity of a garment – with poor finish here, your garment will simply fall apart. Decorative finishes are the little touches that are worth paying extra for – pretty buttons, beading etc. They aren’t necessary to the solidity of the garment but they are often the little details that make it worth buying.
The most important aspect of finish in any garment is the stitching. If this is poorly executed, in the wrong thread etc, nothing will be able to rescue the piece. Some stitching, such as top stitching, is meant to be visible and may even be executed in a contrast thread, but the majority of stitching in a garment is simply what holds it together. Whenever you’re considering buying an item, turn it inside out and look at the stitching. Are there loose and hanging threads? Is anything ravelling? Does the thread colour change partway down a seam? These are all very bad signs. Stitching should be clean and neat and except for when it’s deliberately meant to be in contrast, should sink almost invisibly into the fabric. Usually the thread should be the same shade, or one shade darker, than the cloth.
Seams on a good garment should lie absolutely flat, with no puckering and rucking where the fabric pieces join together. One area to watch out for is bias-cut garments at low-end prices. Bias creates inherent stretch in the fabric, and you need to let the pieces hang for 24 hours or more in order to ‘relax’ before stitching, which many manufacturers neglect to do. If the fabric isn’t fully relaxed, or isn’t sewn with enough inherent stretch in the seam (usually accomplished with a slight zigzag stitch), a bias skirt will ruckle right along the seamlines, usually at either side of your thighs, right where you need it least.
Certain seams are more complicated to sew and therefore only appear on quality garments. One is the French seam, where the seam is sewn inside out, then outside in, enclosing all raw edges. This obviously takes at least twice as long to sew as a simple seam, doubling the construction time. It’s usually seen on women’s dresses and skirts.
Another complex seam is the flat fell seam, which most of us are familiar with from our jeans. From the outside, it looks like a double row of stitching, and the raw edges are contained inside it. This results in a seam that is a little bulky but very strong (the reason it’s standard on the outer leg of your jeans, while the inner leg is usually simply serged). On a good shirt, such as those made by Hilditch and Key and other Jermyn Street makers, the majority of the seams on the garment are flat-felled, including the armscye (armhole), side body and under sleeve. On cheaper shirts, the seams are usually just simple seams with serging on the inside. Shirts get a lot of wear, so look out for ones with flat-felled seams. This doesn’t apply to blouses, which are more lightweight than shirts in construction.
Quality garments tend to have larger seam allowances inside the garment (turn them inside out to have a look). You can particularly see this in vintage garments, where seam allowances are routinely as much as three-quarters of an inch whereas nowadays, on a chainstore garment, you’re lucky to get even a quarter of an inch. Tight seam allowances of this nature considerably increase the strain on the garment, and if one of them ‘goes’, there’s not enough fabric left for you effect a repair easily.
Vintage garments also often have the seam allowance bound with bias binding or satin tape, to prevent fraying. Today, this is only seen in high-end assembly such as clothes by Ralph Lauren. The same applies to seam allowances that are ‘pinked’ with pinking shears, or oversewn by hand – all this handwork costs money.
Cheap garments usually have ‘serged’ edges inside, which has been sewn by a serger – a kind of sewing machine that cuts, sews the seam and binds the seam all in one step. The advent of the serger revolutionised clothing production, but it does result in a rough finish inside your clothes which many of us now think is normal – 50 years ago it would have been seen as shockingly shoddy. In order to cut steps, this type of seam is also rarely pressed open where it should be, such as on the long side seam of dresses and blouses, but to one side, resulting in bumps and rucks under the fabric. Again, this is something many of us are used to and don’t realise is a sign of poor quality.
Quality garments are more often lined than equivalent garments at lower price points, and more of the garment will be lined (a full lining for a jacket, for instance, rather than a half-lining that only covers the shoulders). Linings are important because they help a garment to keep its shape and reduce strain on all seams, as well as protecting the outer shell from sweat and skin oils, and providing some slip when one garment goes on over another. Linings are particularly crucial in tailored garments such as jackets and coats – here, look for full linings, and slippery linings to sleeves, in particular. Burberry’s coats, for instance, have a cotton lining to the body but a very silky sleeve lining that enables you to get the coat on and off very easily over a wool jacket.
Trousers that are lined to at least the knee will not bag and sag at the knee like unlined trousers, while quality dresses from companies such as Jaegar are usually lined throughout to keep their shape, though this does also introduce a greater formality that you may not be comfortable with. Skirts that are lined, at least at the back, will not ‘seat’ with wear as easily as unlined skirts, nor will they cling and grip onto your tights. Look for lined skirts for work if you’re office-based, especially if the skirt fabric has any wool content.
If you can’t afford garments with full linings, consider wearing a full slip underneath instead – this produces many of the same effects of slip and hang.
Linings should be as good a quality as possible, made from thick, sturdy, antistatic fabrics with a lot of slip, and at the hem on coats, they should be attached with bar tacks – long threads of stitching, spaced at intervals, allowing the lining to move independently of the outer garment without pulling on the hem. Jacket linings should either be loose at the bottom or sewn in but with a little slack – this is usually pressed into place with a little horizontal pleat.
Also look out for garments with an extra, zip-out or button-out lining. This is most often seen in coats and jackets and extends a garment from one or two seasons to three or four – my Burberry polocoat can be worn pretty much all year round because of its zip-out wool lining.
Relining a quality coat is expensive, but can give it an extra 10 years of life, so if you see a good quality designer coat on sale with a torn lining, this is an option worth considering, if you have access to a good tailor or dry-cleaner.
Stay tapes are are put into stretch garments in order to stop them stretching where it’s not desirable, for instance at the shoulder of a cardigan. Quality knitwear is where you’re most likely to see some sort of stay tape – good quality cashmere and merino cardigans, for instance, usually have grosgrain ribbon tape behind both the buttons and the buttonholes to prevent distortion, plus cotton tape at the shoulders to prevent the shoulder line from distorting. You can also find stay tape at lower price points, though, including good quality t-shirts, which often have non-stretch tape sewn in along the shoulder seam between the neck and the sleeve – this is a good sign that the tee won’t gape and bag after a few washes.
These days, you don’t normally see stay tape anywhere else, but couture dresses have stay tapes at the waist in order to take the weight of the skirt, which seriously increases the comfort of the garment. You climb into the skirt and do up the stay tapes, then pull on the bodice section and fasten it separately – the skirt then effectively hangs from your waist and not from your shoulders, making it less tiring to wear.
Hems on quality garments are deeper than on cheaper ones, and they may be bound with bias binding or another finish in order to keep their shape. They should also be finished invisibly, with no stitching visible on the outside. This is accomplished in modern clothing manufacture by using ‘blind hem stitch’, which catches the hem to the garment only at intervals. This is an area where you can really see the difference between low- and high-end manufacture. In the former, the hem is often just turned up and sewn in place, with a row of stitching fully visible (as is standard on jeans – one reason that shortening your jeans can make them look slightly odd) but often no account is taken of how the fabric will stretch or if the hem turnup is longer than the skirt piece it’s being attached to – this particularly occurs in circle skirts and results in puckering and folding all the way along the hemline. One way to improve the look of any cheap skirt or trousers is to invisibly resew the hems by hand.
A facing is a piece of fabric used to finish the raw edges of a garment at open areas, such as the neckline, armhole, and front and back plackets or opening. On a quality garment, facings are usually deep and sometimes finished by hand: they may also be attached to a lining or half-lining. On a cheap garment there are fewer facings and at areas such as the neck or armhole, the fabric may simply be turned over and stitched down instead. Facings are important because they provide structural support to the garment as well as a clean finish, so they are worth looking out for. In 1950s and 1960s cotton dresses, the neckline facing often extends right down under the arms of the garment – a really sturdy and comfortable finish.
Interfacing is an extra layer of fabric that lies between the outer garment and the facing. It’s often not visible because it’s completely enclosed – this will certainly be the case in something like a lined jacket or coat. Sometimes you can see it, for example if you turn back the front facings of a button-down dress or a blouse. Enclosed between the two layers of fabric will be another layer – that’s the interfacing.
On vintage garments and high-end garments, interfacing is usually a woven fabric that is sewn in – it might be a thin layer of cotton batiste, or silk organza, for instance, and it provides a gentle level of support for the garment where it’s needed most. One area where you might notice this is in vintage tailoring, which is remarkably soft and pliable compared with modern tailoring – even the shoulder pads are built up layer by layer from woven fabrics and scrim.
On high-street garments today, however, almost all interfacing is ‘fused’, that is, it’s a thin synthetic fabric, usually either white or grey, looking a bit like garden fleece, that is sticky on one side, and is ironed onto one of the pattern pieces before assembly. Just like sewn-in interfacing, it provides a little more body and stability to garment edges. The problem with fused interfacing is that the glue may wash off after a while, at which point the interfacing may begin to disintegrate. Sometimes you can even turn the garment inside out and pull the interfacing out in long strips. If it hasn’t been applied properly in the first place, the fabric fused to it may be puckered and wrinkled. There is no fix for this, so if you find an article with this kind of problem, put it back.
Another common problem with interfacing is when the wrong weight has been used – either too stiff or not stiff enough. This is usually what makes some jackets or coats uncomfortably stiff to wear and you can’t fix it without entirely taking the garment apart. My advice, if you find a coat or jacket too stiff in the fronts or the shoulderpads, is not to buy it – don’t expect to ‘wear it in’.
Buttons may be crucial to the construction of a garment, and they may also be decorative. Always look for good quality buttons – mother of pearl rather than plastic on blouses and light jackets, horn rather than plastic on jackets and coats (you can test if it’s horn by gripping it between your teeth – horn has less slip and feels a bit warmer, but it’s something you have to have some experience with).
Check that buttons are sewn on properly by giving them a good tug and twist, especially on coats and jackets. The middle button on a jacket takes the most strain.
Coat buttons should either have a shank (a metal loop at the back of the button – standard on metal buttons such as traditional blazer buttons) or should be sewn on in a way that creates a thread shank, where the thread is wrapped around itself to make a little stalk. The button should also be backed with a little button inside the coat or jacket so that when the button gets pulled, it doesn’t rip right out through the fabric (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve done this while leaning over a supermarket trolley…).
Duffle coats and other coats based on them have toggles instead of buttons, so that you can do them up with cold fingers. Look out for real horn and proper leather loops and strengthenings, which will last longer than vinyl ones.
Changing the buttons is a simple, quick way to update or improve the look of any garment.
On cheap garments, buttonholes are usually straight slits, edged with thread, and many people today are only familiar with this type. On quality tailoring, however, buttonholes are often ‘bound’ – that is, no stitching is visible at all and the hole looks like a little tight-lipped mouth. Where they’re not bound, they’re often ‘keyhole’ shaped, with a larger section at one end for the button to slot into, and entirely sewn with very strong button thread.
Look out for good buttonholes on jackets and coats, where they get the most wear – it’s not so crucial on lighter weight garments, though it does result in a very pretty finish.
Zips on quality skirts and dresses are usually invisible, and the slit in the garment where the zip is inserted is not outlined by stitching. In lower-end clothing, however, the slit is usually outlined by stitching on either side, as this is an easier zip to sew. In sturdier clothing, and where the zip is part of a fly, the stitching is more visible. In some types of clothing the zip itself may even be a design feature, as on a biker jacket.
Check that all zips function on any garment you’re buying and that the slider slides easily and the teeth lock together properly. Be wary of very lightweight plastic zips, especially the type that have no teeth at all – these usually go wrong very quickly and you can end up paying more to repair the garment than the garment is worth.
Zippers on outwear should have a hole in the toggle big enough to get your finger through and/or a fabric pull, to enable you to zip up in a hurry with cold fingers.
Turn the garment inside out and feel around the base of the zipper slider – it should be properly secured to the garment. If it is hanging loose, stitch it down, and also consider snipping off the reinforced plastic glued section, which can be very irritating to the skin.
All pockets on a garment should be fit for their purpose and if they’re visible, they should add to the design of the garment. Quality coats and outerwear jackets should have pockets deep enough to put your hands in for warmth. Fur coats usually have velvet pocket bags, while quality wool coats have moleskin – very warm and soft. Pockets come in for a lot of wear and tear and their fabric needs to be tough – don’t buy garments where the pockets are flimsy.
Many low-end garments lack pockets altogether because they add extra steps to the manufacture, and where they do appear, they tend to be in-seam (in line with the seams) or patch pockets, added on afterwards, with or without a flap. There is nothing wrong with either design, but it is only on quality clothes that you will you see designs such as welt pockets, where the edge of the pocket is bound in a similar way to a bound buttonhole.
Always look out for interesting pockets, which add a pretty construction twist to an otherwise plain garment.
Applied techniques such as sequinning, tambour-work or beading are purely decorative rather than inherent to the construction of a garment, and they still generally have to be done by hand. Either you pay a high price for this, or at the low-end, you are almost certainly exploiting child labour somewhere in the developing world, as has been seen with companies such as Primark.
Applied stitching is a kind of halfway house because it is decorative but may also have the purpose of strengthening the garment, as you might see in collars and cuffs that are top-stitched, or the edge of a jacket which is pickstitched (it looks like a row of running stitches).
Look out for details such as this, especially any work that has obviously been done by hand.
When buying an item with applied sequins or beading, give them a good tug to make sure nothing is loose.
In brief – finishing details to look out for
Hems – flat, invisibly stitched, bound on the inside edge with tape.
Stitching – even, invisible, no runs or loose threads.
Seams – French seams, flat fell seams, no rough edges inside, flat.
Seam allowances – generous, permitting you to let the garment out at a future date.
Facings – deep as possible, not skimpy. In dress bodices, look for facings that cover the whole bodice.
Buttons – quality button. On coats, sturdy buttons that have been sewn on by hand and are backed by another, smaller button.
Buttonholes – bound buttonholes or keyhole buttonholes rather than straight buttonholes.
Pockets – pockets that are part of the overall design, welt pockets, bound pocket, velvet or moleskin pockets
Applied details – fine embroidery, quality beading, sewn-in sequins.
Stay tape – on shoulder seams of stretch garments and the front edges of cardigans to prevent distortion.
Linings – the more the merrier. In trousers, linings to the knee, in skirts linings at least to the back. In coats and jackets, full linings including silky sleeve linings. Extra linings for coats and jackets to extend the season of the garment.