My friend and I were discussing our shopping train of thought. It usually starts with "oh look at that, very nice", followed by a laundry list of why it's a no.

If you sit down and make a list of things that you dislike about clothing, very little would make the cut. This makes not buying stuff a lot easier.

I’m not going to go into fit and styles – those are pretty subjective. Quality is the iffy thing I’m thinking about here. Eileen mentioned on her blog that in her experience it’s largely been one of trial and error, and there isn’t much easy-to-reference guidance out there. I agree.

I learnt a bit from my mum, who took lessons from a seamstress and made our clothes as a child. I learnt a bit as a sales assistant in a couple of boutiques.

The rest I learnt from episodes like watching my cardigans unravel at the sleeve, beginning its rapid detachment from the armhole. I had NO idea that could happen to an item of clothing.

So I decided to try and somehow put it on paper (digitally speaking), and hope this is useful for some. Even better, it could generate more tips from you guys, and we all benefit.

This is going to be a loooooong post, so if the nerdy details of shopping don’t interest you, you can stop here.

My laundry list of crap to look out for include, in no particular order:

Shoddy seams and stitching. Ones that are exposed and not properly finished for starters, ones that don’t have much give. Ones that are not straight. Ones with loose threads. Ones that are so skimpy it doesn’t allow for slight alterations – if you’re shortening your trousers for instance, skimpy seams won’t let you finish the job nicely because there isn’t enough of it to fold flat neatly. Wherever there are seams, pull them apart. The good ones allow a bit of stretch but it holds and they fall back into a straight line when you let go. At Zara, they actually split. Jeez.

If we’re talking about leather bags – look the parts where two pieces are sewn together, or where the handle or strap is sewn to the bag, and give it a good yank. As far as I can tell, a good bag has nothing to worry about. On a related note, the leather shouldn’t stretch too much when you pull at it too – it’s a sign of how well it will keep its shape, or whether it will sag like crazy. My sister has a Fendi Peekaboo made of lambskin - you’d think it’s the most delicate thing ever made. But pulling it, pinching it, picking it roughly, has left it no worse for wear.

As for stitches, they should be small and even. I’m not asking for eye-wateringly small, but the more stitches per inch, the more durable. Assuming the thread used isn’t cheap. Sometimes the threads themselves break after some wear (Zara, you again). This is a sign to not bother with that store again.

Thin, cheap fabric masquerading as “delicate”. The kind that if you pull in two directions with your two hands, you see light coming through, and feels like it's disintegrating in your hands. Maybe it is delicate. But whether it’s precious and refined or simply cheap, it’s not fit for everyday wear if you’re a pleb like me. Besides, I have spent a day shopping for quality silk chiffon (in varying weights, from French to Japanese), and they do not come apart like that.

I especially hate over-thin fabric on trousers. Where you can see the outline of the pockets. Awful.

And for something to be soft doesn’t mean it has to be see-through.

For shirts, a high thread count is softer, but they’re actually less durable according to what I was taught as a sales assistant, because there are more yarns. Durability counts for me so I’m not always looking for the finest fabric. This is probably down to personal preference.

Skimpy waistbands. I illustrate this with two pairs of my jeans, both of which retailed in the same price bracket.


This is a skimpy waistband. It looks wavy around the edges. That’s how they looked when I bought them (in a moment of insanity brought on by a 90% markdown).

A waistband has to be made with two pieces of fabric sewn together to keep their shape and sit well on your body. In this case the two pieces are so crap that it looks and feels like one layer. Quality trousers will have a lining between the pieces (feel for it).

A sturdy waistband looks like this -


If anyone needs proof that brand and price is a poor indicator of quality, this is it.

Hairy button holes. The kind the button keeps snagging on, caught in the frayed threads. I LOATHE this. A lot of shirts (not necessarily the cheapest ones) are like this right off the bat. Jeez.

While we’re talking about buttons, a good one should be thick, like 2-3 mm for a shirt. I had this Zara (again) cardigan where the button was a shaving. I squeezed it too hard on one occasion and it crumbled between my fingers. True story.

Posh materials like horn and mother-of-pearl are nice, but I expect them only from higher-end brands. It’s okay for Massimo Dutti to use plastic buttons on shirts (plastic is perfectly durable); it’s not okay for say, Kiton.

More important for me is how they are sewn on. Buttons are easier to button and stay on longer if they’re sewn like its mounted on the shirt, rather tightly flat down. And the buttons sewn with a cross-stitch with stay on longer– my mother taught me this one.

Puckering. Self explanatory. You see all the time when the stitching is bad. A related problem is wavy edges. You know, at the neckline of a t-shirt, on the ribbed cuff of a cardigan. In the fitting, pull at these edges. If your finger leaves an indent, however faint, don’t buy it. This is why I don’t buy t-shirts with ribbed necklines.

Wonky collars. Even a silk shirt should have neat, firm collars. Collar stays under the collar are a nice detail that only seems to exist on men’s shirts, but I have good shirts that do fine without.

Bad zippers. Ones that get stuck - instant fail. One that aren’t straight, fail. Not mention ones that are badly sewn to the garment (see puckering, shoddy seams, stitching).

Mismatched patterns and stripes. Making sure they're aligned is a sign of attention to detail. Even Massimo Dutti can do this for a GBP49.90 shirt. So I would expect more from expensive labels. I've noticed for very expensive shirts, you can barely see the outline of a pocket from afar.

Cheap linings. Synthetic anything will make me work up a sweat. Actually, so do silk linings.

Digression: I would love to find a good partially-lined blazer. The lack of a lining annoys some people, but for me it's only necessary at the sleeves so that my arms can slide in easily, and around the shoulder so that it looks nice. A full lining is the reason why I rarely wear my jacket in Singapore. If the jacket’s seams are well-finished, the hems nicely weighted, and the material sturdy, I can dispense with a lining.

Shoes are a whole different kettle of fish and given I'm generally attracted to ballet flats and sneakers, I'm probably not going to be able to offer much of use.

As a ballet flats wearer, I can safely say there’s an upper limit to how good they get, since they are by nature flimsy things. So I don’t bother with expensive ones.

Crappy leather. I don't like it when the leather feel too thin or flimsy. I don't like it when it feels very "coated" - to the extent that you can't seem to feel the grain of the leather, and they don't have that nice leather smell. I also like a certain amount of suppleness.

Some shoes are marked 100% leather and yet they feel like plastic. Like the Tory Burch flats I ordered online. Never again.

I insist leather shoes be leather inside and out, to let my feet breathe. No fabric sides or uppers.

I bend the shoes or tiptoe with them one to see how well the soles are attached to the shoes, and whether the leather creases weirdly. Sometimes you get these weird bulges when you bend them. Fail.

Hand-stitched shoes are nice of course but soles attached with glue or welts (I don't know the exact term) aren’t evil. Clarks' shoes are so comfortable and they last for ages - and they didn't need hand-stitching to do that.

For boots, I like it when the soles “protrude” from the bottom of the shoe, like this (no they don't have to be US$460). This protects the actual shoe better at the edges and allows for the replacing and repairing of soles.

Knitwear is one area I’m lost in – I know that technically shorter fibres pill faster etc but I have no idea how to spot that by looking and touching. In any case most of my knits are cotton so pilling isn't such a big issue for me.

Once you apply all these criteria, is there anything left to buy? Of course there are. After all, there are other factors - necessity, design, fit, price.

And this isn't about buying expensive things, or going for certain brands - although it's obvious I've gone off a particular brand. My shirts don't have to be Charvet, they just need to be good, whatever the label or price. I don't need handmade shoes, they just need to be honestly made with quality in mind. I don't need selvedge denim from an obscure mill in Japan.

In the end it comes down to buying the best you can afford within your means, and getting value for money.

P.S: I think this article sums up how to balance how much one wants to spend versus the quality attained quite well.

EDIT: More links recommended by Prêt à Porter P and Jess (thank you guys!) - a guide from GQ on shopping on a budget, and three useful posts on how to buy quality clothing here, here and here.


Emilie said…
nicely summed up, however i do disagree about ballet flats. I this repettos are so worth the money in comparison to, say Topshop. However Lanvins aren't (for me). But then again, maybe you don't consider Repettos expensive ;)
Interesting observations. For me I know I to avoid acrylic--such a crap fabric--and pvc bags both literally disintegrate, acrylic immediately upon wear, and pvc over years. I agree that determining quality is through trial and error--and different qualities suit different lifestyles. That said quality (and crap) can be bought at all levels.

You may like this article too.
Jess said…
I've been trying quite earnestly lately to learn more about quality garment construction, because I really just am so naive about the whole thing. I found this article - - pretty useful (it's part 3 of 3, the others are good too) and it chimes with a lot of things you've mentioned. But without diagrams/images I'm still kind of lost on a lot of points in that secondcherry post. So the other day I ordered a textbook about apparel analysis that's used in university courses about garment construction and identifying good garments (I guess partly because people who want to work as buyers will be doing such courses) and I'm actually quite excited to get the book and hopefully learn a lot.

I have to say I've managed to find an amazing pair of ballet flats that put all other ballet flats I've ever owned to shame. They're not at all flimsy because they're designed to take orthotics and custom inserts, so they're very sturdy and have arch support and are incredibly well made - yet they look just like any other standard ballet flat. They cost me about US$180 and were totally worth it, so that's kind of become my standard for what a ballet flat should be like (not that I need any more now that I've got these and they seem like they'll last for years, which is great).
Maria said…
This is such an educational post; this will come to mind the next time I feel like window shopping.

I find Zara's quality doesn't match the price. I find their fabrics far too thin; in Singapore, the last thing I want to wear is multiple layers of undergarments like slips and camisoles.

For the best plain white tees/singlets (my staples), I go to the men's undergarments section in Metro or Isetan. For the price of one women's tee, you can get two (or more), and in much better quality. It fits me pretty well, though I guess if you're really busty it might not work.

I really love Uniqlo though, I think for the most part the quality of their knits are good, but surprisingly, the cheaper 'machine washable' cotton ones stand up to wear better than the luxurious merino wool one. I really regret forking almost $40 over for the wool one-- after several washes, it's worn in some areas and has become really itchy.
Joy said…
loved this list of pointers. learned so much from you, thank you!
Anonymous said…
There are a lot of gramatical errors in this piece. Tense issues and things that should be plural. It took away from the point. Case in point 'if anyone needs prove that brand and price.' Again one of many errors and I bring it up because you are fairly critical of others. Ella
Maja H said…
Great post, thank you for writing this! Speaking of Zara, I bought a coat from them where the button holes are actually too small for the buttons. I need to really tug at the buttons to get them through, which of course means that the buttons will come loose after only a week or so, which again means endless re-attaching of buttons. Mega fail.
lapindelune said…
Lin, thankyou so much for this! I am notoriously useless when it comes to knowing exactly what to look out for, so I shall bookmark this post for future reference.

Oddly, I have had rather a bit of success so far with zara, but I am comparing them with other high street stores only, such as topshop, etc. The issue of transparency masquerading as 'delicate' was what initially turned me away from the high street as my main source of purchasing once and for all. I did find topshop to be the worst offender of all regarding price verus quality, and even coupled with constant horrendous reviews at the site, people are STILL tossing £50 to £100 into the wind regardless the obvious warnings. I haven't located one item there in the last 3 years which isn't basically see least a simple blouse from zara manages to conceal my underthings, and generally fits a whole lot better too. I am not particularly a fan of zara, but have found them to present perhaps the lesser of so many evils in the high street marketplace. Still, high street fashion depresses me on the whole, and I just wish that I was aware of more (affordable) alternatives: Aubin&Wills, APC and Toast are currently the only brands which I 'trust', and yet even those present occasional issues for me, especially concerning overpricing (apc, I looks at you!)

But I am still learning, slowly, approaching new brands with a mixture of wariness and also introduced me to massimo duti, from where I recently purchased a lovely little cardigan, so thankyou for that also!!

ps.....your writing/content/grammar is impeccable. I have noticed something of an increase in grammar policing (via anons) on popular, well written blogs recently. What a depressing occupation that must be! x
petrichore said…
This is a great break-down of things to look for in quality garments! Thanks Lin!
Ammu said…
Such a useful post - I think you summed up various issues really well. One thing i have noticed is that price and quality do not always correlate. Many brands I used to love, like APC or Steven Alan for example, have seen a big drop in standards. Cotton that pills or jacket lining that falls apart after a year - really unacceptable for such expensive things. The general lack of trust does make it easier not to shop!
lin said…
Emilie: I do find Repettos expensive, haha. I had a pair bought on sale years ago, and the experience didn't leave me wanting more. I have had less expensive pairs from Witchery, Country Road, Massimo Dutti that I like better, so I haven't been tempted to buy Repettos again.

Pret a Porter P: I agree - one of my best pairs of jeans is from H&M, and it was 19.90 euros!

Thanks for the recommendation! I've read it before once and it's definitely worth reading again.

Jess: Thanks for the recommendation, that's such a great read, with a way more logical flow than my post. I agree, it's would be easier to understand if there were visuals. Maybe this calls for a video...

And would love to know where you got those flats from!

Maria: You're exactly right about Singapore being too warm to layer under thin shirts - I always aim to minimise the number of pieces of clothing on my body.

Thanks for the tip on the plain tees, will have to check that out.

I like Uniqlo too, even though I find even the large sizes for women sometimes too tight in the shoulder, especially the shirts. I've never tried their wool items as I find them too warm for me, but I suppose those are harder to get right at a lower price.

Joy: Thanks! You're welcome.

Ella: Thanks for pointing them out, I've corrected the ones I can spot - I've always been the sort of writer that needed an editor.

I don't get it though, why "because (I am) fairly critical of others"?

Maja H: You're welcome! And that is a really unfortunately problem!

lapindelune: You're welcome. Jess actually sent me a great link which I have appended to the bottom of the post, check those out too! The writing is more organised than mine...

Topshop is definitely worse than Zara. I still buy their knickers though - cute and comfy ones can be found there! Zara has turned out to be so disappointing. I have things from there that I love, but the other half has become absolute rubbish, and that's put me off shopping there. I hope you find Massimo Dutti less disappointing! I hope they don't go the way of Zara, seeing as they have the same owner.

I don't mind the grammar police, mistakes are mistakes, and I make a lot of them here because I treat this as casual, conversational space. I'd like to think such comments aren't coming from a mean place though.

petrichore: You're welcome! Check out the links I've added to the post.

Ammu: Thank you. I think the drop in standards from a brand one trusts is the worst - it feels somewhat insulting, like the company decides they can pull wool over your eyes, having duped you with their years of branding. If prices of quality materials have gone up, I'd pay more, and buy less - cheating on quality to keep prices the same isn't something I want to support.
Camille said…
That's a very concise list, Lin, thank you for making it. I'll have to print it out and bring it around whenever I go shopping!

Also, I found that GQ guide very interesting because it actually taught me something about the shirt I'm currently wearing. It's a 30+ years old Abercrombie and Fitch cotton-wool blend shirt that I bought at some thrift shop. I was really surprised by its quality and cut until GQ filled in the blanks as to A&F's history. Apparently my shirt's value's increasing with age?

Also, I have one thing to add concerning how to choose shoes. A physiotherapist once told me that good, supportive shoes should bend at the toes, but not sideways (you shouldn't be able to "wring" them). I don't always follow her advice, but it's always good to know!
Eileen said…
Lin, I am glad I am reading this on a Sunday afternnon spent at home so I can fully enjoy and ponder about some of these things you mentioned- which by the way is comprehensive and takes a trained eye to catch some of these tell-tale signs.

I am really fussy when it comes to symmetry in clothing - uneven lopsided shoulders/sleeves put me off right away. Even when it comes to alterations, I am thankful to have found an experienced seamstress that do not mind my fussiness.

Weak seams and thin material are indicators that I should return the item to the rack, no matter how much I like the design. When it comes to lining, what shouldnt they all be 100% cotton? Sometimes i am not sure why the outershell is cotton and the lining made of polyester..

I rely on ballerinas a lot too. I love the A.P.C x Porselli ones although some people may find the sole thin. But I guess it works for me since I am mostly office bound. But they are lined in cloth though..I used to wear Frenchsoles previously but they are not good for our humid weather because of how the are lined.

I have a pair of unbroken in Converse and I should be wearing it more often. But I love the Muji ones that are so well-padded and comfortable. Cost about $20 and I can do anything in them!

ps. Jess, I am curious what those ballet flats are.. care to share?:)
lin said…
Camille: You are welcome and thanks for the tip on shoes too. I'll have to figure out how to test that discreetly in a shop.

A&F today is such a bizarre establishment - their first flagship opened in Singapore last year and it's filled with seriously bad clothing at laughably high prices. I don't think any of them would be worth anything once they leave the store, unlike your shirt.

Eileen: Thanks for your tips! I've understand the need for a silky smooth material at the sleeves so that your arms can slide in more easily, but yes, cotton or something more breathable elsewhere sounds like a good idea. I still prefer unlined clothing though - with the outer fabric itself solid enough to fall nicely on its own.

The Porsellis look really nice, but I'm not convinced to pay full price for them yet, haha. I found a really comfortable pair at Cole Hann with Nike air soles, may get my sis in the US to buy them for me if I decide I need them - Cole Haan is rather expensive here, compared to their US retail price!
The Waves said…
What a great post! I've been educating myself on this topic to the best of my abilities, but it is always wonderful to read the observations of others. Yours are spot on!
miss sophie said…
completely agree with you on your points about shoes especially. another brilliant, resourceful post!
Oh my god, what a fusspot! (I'm exactly the same)

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