It’s been over ten years since men’s style was obsessed with all things Americana and heritage, but the movement has left some important legacies. This past weekend, I talked with Jason Jules, a brand consultant who works in the fashion industry. “The heritage movement has somewhat receded,” he admits. “But it’s given people a kind of new language, which they use for everything from food to clothes. It’s no longer weird to talk about the weight of your denim. Even sales associates at Levi’s want to tell you how their jeans were made.”
A big part of what we talk about here at Put This On is how to make better purchases — clothes that will last, look better with age, and won’t just wind up in a landfill after a year. The truth is, however, that it’s hard for everyday consumers to judge quality on their own. The things that are often touted as telltale signs of quality — Super 100 wools, handsewn seams, and working buttonholes — are often better thought of as characteristics than quality, like the difference between red and green apples. Neither are better or worse; they’re just preferences.
Other things, such as country-of-origin tags, are too simplistic. In a world where clothing production is so fragmented and globally distributed, country of origin tags mean less and less. Wool can be sourced from Australia, sent to Scotland to be spun into yarn, Ireland to be woven into fabric, and Italy to be “finished.” And that’s just for the fabric. The trimmings, such as felts and interlinings, can have their own global production chains, and all these “ingredients” can then be sent to one country (say, China) for most of the assembly, and then another (say, Italy) for the rest. In 1965, Robert Schooler found that, when people are aware of where something is made, they often imagine differences in quality that aren’t actually there. In other words, their perception of quality is colored by their prejudices about a country — Italy’s la dolce vita or China’s lack thereof.
The things that actually determine quality are often hidden beneath the surface, deep in the garment’s fibers and internal construction. And even if you were to see them, you’d need some technical background to understand what’s going on. Quality is more than examining whether the seams are neatly sewn. It’s a complex issue that intertwines the designer’s intention and production process, as well as the consumer’s preferences.
A few years ago, I interviewed Jeffery Diduch, the Vice President of Technical Design and Quality for Hickey Freeman, one of the largest suit manufacturers in North America. Jeffery has a ton of experience in factory production and is a no-nonsense kind of guy (his blog, Tutto Fatto a Mano, is a must read if you’re interested in the technical aspects of tailoring). He put the issue succinctly.
For Jeffery, making clothes is a lot like making food. If you’re running a restaurant, you can hire the best chefs and buy the most expensive ingredients. But if you want to sell your dish, you may need to think about what needs to be sacrificed in order to meet a certain price point. Perhaps you hire skilled, but less renowned chefs. Maybe you use slightly lower-grade olive oil, but decide the truffle oil must be kept if the dish is to have its signature flavor. This is very much like what designers do. There are hundreds of steps that go into making a garment, and each designer has to decide which steps are most important to him or her. These calls are going to be very subjective.
Which is to say that quality isn’t linear and a jacket isn’t like a piece of technical equipment. There’s no 1 GHz processor vs. 1.2 GHz processor comparison here. Instead, like you do with food, you can judge quality on a much more straightforward level. You don’t need to know the intricacies of how a dish was made in order to judge whether it’s tasty. Similarly, the only real benchmark for clothing quality is whether something makes you look and feel great — and continues to do so for a long time. Instead of obsessing over quality, consumers are often just better off training their eye for style. And buying from brands that they’ve had good experiences with in the past.
That said, quality is important, and I’m sometimes discouraged by what I see recommended online. The idea that cheap cashmere is worth buying, or that $50 shoes are comparable to $200 ones if they vaguely look alike. For guys who are just starting to build a wardrobe, it can be useful to know some of the more basic dimensions of quality — how to tell if something is worth your money. Here’s a quick run through on how to judge quality in clothes.
Suits and Sport Coats
Suit jackets and sport coats aren’t like most clothes. While a casual jacket can consist of just a shell and its lining, tailored clothing will often have a lot of structure inside — complex layers of canvas, haircloth, fusing, padding, and wadding, along with all the stitching that holds them together. This structure is what gives the garment its shape (or more commonly thought of as its silhouette). Just see the shaping through the shoulders and chest on American designer Oleg Cassini above.
On the top end here, you’ll find fully canvassed jackets. Canvas is a slightly stiff fabric made from a mix of animal hairs — wool, camel hair, and horsehair — as well as sometimes a bit of cotton. On a fully canvassed jacket, this will be stretched from the shoulders to the hem, which gives the jacket it shape. Fully canvassed suits, however, are laborious and expensive to make, which is why they typically cost in the four-figures once you find them in stores.
On the other end of the spectrum, you have fully fused jackets. A fusible is the limp black fabric you see on the far right of the photo above. As you can see, it doesn’t have as much springiness to it, but it’s basically glued to the back of the fabric in order to give the garment some stability (otherwise your jacket would hang like a shirt). In extreme cases — say, if the garment hasn’t been made well or if it’s been treated poorly — the fusing can bubble, but technology has gotten better in the last thirty years where those cases are rare.
Between these two worlds is the half-canvas construction, which means canvas is used where it’ll make the most impact: at the chest. And below the chest, the rest of the jacket is fused in order to save cost, which allows you to buy a more affordable garment. You can see these constructions below (diagram is taken from Black Lapel).
Generally speaking, you want garments that are either half or fully canvassed, if for no other reason than they often look better. To see if a jacket is fully canvassed, you can conduct the “pinch test.” Pinch both sides of the jacket right below the buttoning point (which is usually located at the waist) and see if you can feel an independent layer floating in the middle. If you can, that’s the canvas.
Unfortunately, you can’t tell the difference between a fully fused and half canvassed garment. Why? Because for both techniques, the bottom half of the jacket will always be fused (remember how a half-canvassed jacket is made). The top half, however, will often have what’s known as a chest piece — that’s the stiff, wiry, horsehair fabric you see on the left side of the photo above the diagram). That material is used to give the chest shape, and you’ll find it across a range of construction techniques. When pinching the top half of the jacket, you’ll never know whether the floating layer inside is the canvas or haircloth, so in some cases, you’re best off asking a knowledgable sales associate how the jacket was made — fully canvassed, half canvassed, or fully fused.
Note, there are some important exceptions. Some makers design their jackets to be lighter, airier, and more comfortable for warm weather conditions. So the bottom half of the jacket may be totally unconstructed — no canvas, no fusible, and maybe even no lining. Even top-end bespoke tailoring houses will sometimes do this. In such cases, this isn’t really a cutback on quality so much as it is about design intention. Which gets back to the original point in this article. While there are general principals for quality, there aren’t any hard and fast rules.
PRO TIP: When shopping for a suit, be realistic. The price for a good suit is going to start around $500 at full retail. Quality materials and trims will cost the maker about $150. Add to that the cost of labor, shipping, and doing business. Then factor in profit margins. That means you won’t find anything worthwhile below $500 or so. Most good suits, in fact, will retail for about $1,000 and above.
Shoe nerds love nothing more than to debate the issue of quality online. That’s because, for such a simple object, there’s a surprising amount of nuance that goes into making leather footwear — the different construction techniques, as well as the materials used for parts of the shoes you may not even see, such as stiffeners and cushioning. For regular folks, however, shoe quality is pretty simple and straightforward. And you can avoid objectively bad shoes by following two basic rules.
First, avoid all shoes made from corrected grain leathers. That’s when an animal hide has been sanded down to remove any scars and imperfections, then coated over when some chemical in order to restore the surface. Sometimes you’ll see this marketed as corrected grain leather, other times bookbinder leather, other times polished leather. It goes by many different names, but the material is always the same — cheap, plastic-y leather that vaguely looks like vinyl.
The reason why you want to avoid corrected grain leather is because it looks OK on day one, and only gets worse from there. The chemical coating is prone to cracking, peeling, and wrinkling in bad ways. It’s used, however, because it’s cheap. Remember, a manufacturer was able to save on waste because they sanded down an undesirable hide, then resurfaced it so the final good won’t look marred. But that resurfacing only looks good in the store when new, not a year from now.
What you actually want is full-grain leather. Full grain leather will get better with age; corrected grain worse. Full grain leather shoes are things you can keep for years; corrected grain things you’ll want to replace after a year (and then bin after three).
Stop by a shop that sells brands such as Alden, Allen Edmonds, and Crockett & Jones (Nordstrom and Barney’s both carry these lines). Pick up their shoes and notice the leather. The material will actually look like leather and not enamel. You’ll be able to see the leather’s natural grain. The color will often have a bit of depth. It can take a little first-hand experience to be able to tell the difference between corrected and full grain leather, but once you do, the difference is unmistakable.
Note, the one exception to this is shell cordovan, which is a thick leather taken from a horse’s rump. Whereas other types of leathers wrinkle, shell cordovan develops thick rolls. It also has a distinctive look, but to the untrained eye, it can look like corrected grain leather at first since it doesn’t have a visible grain. A sales associate, however, will be able to tell you whether you’re looking at shell cordovan shoes (places that sell shell cordovan shoes typically have better informed staff).
The second thing to note is how the soles were attached to the uppers. Most leather shoes are made with what’s known as a cemented construction, which means the soles are simply glued on. Online, you’ll sometimes see people say cemented shoes can’t be resoled, but that’s not really true — they can be. They just can’t be resoled as many times as other types of shoes. And, often, they’re a cheap construction method used for shoes that are nasty in other ways. Some shoes, such as crepe soled footwear, will always been cemented, but you generally want to look for footwear that’s been Goodyear welted, Blake stitched, Blake/ Rapid stitched, or handwelted.
Blake stitched, Blake/ Rapid stitched, and Goodyear welted constructions are the three most common methods for making high-end footwear. They’re essentially different ways of attaching the shoe’s sole. Blake and Blake/ Rapid are done as you see above – the stitching goes through the sole, insole, and upper in order to attach all three parts together. That’s why when you look inside a Blake sewn shoe, you can usually see the stitching go around the perimeter of the insole (the part of the shoe your feet actually comes in contact with).
Goodyear differs in that there’s no interior stitching. Instead, there’s one line of stitching that goes through the insole, upper, and a welt strip, and then another that attaches the welt strip to the outsole. There’s also a canvas rib just under the insole, which creates a sort of “void” that is taken up by a cork filling. Some people say this canvas rib is prone to breakdowns, but this matter is so controversial among footwear enthusiasts that it’s probably best left alone for now (although, if you really want to learn about it, you can read this forum thread at Ask Andy About Clothes). You can see the inside of a Goodywear welted shoe here.
Handwelting is the best construction possible because it doesn’t involve a canvas rib — which, again, can break down. But with few exceptions, it’s hard to get handwelted shoes for less than $1,000. Which makes the argument about value kind of moot.
Let’s be clear: buying good shoes isn’t about value, it’s about aesthetics. You can get cheap dress shoes nowadays for as little as $100. Some of them can even be resoled (although that’ll cost you more than just buying another pair new). The reason why you want to look for full-grain leather shoes with sewn-on soles is because they look better with age. When the uppers get a bit worn, and the soles are a bit thin, you can have the shoes recrafted and resoled for a couple of hundred bucks. That’ll be more than the cost of a pair of cheap shoes, but they’ll look and feel better than anything new. See these photos of Chris Craft’s shoes. Or these Edward Greens. Or these Aldens. Or my pair of Crockett & Jones.
PRO TIP: Good shoes start around $200 at full retail (we like Meermin). You’ll find that some of the more popular brands, however, run closer to $500 (e.g. Alden, Crockett & Jones, Carmina, and the like). If you can’t afford these, and aren’t willing to go second hand, you can save yourself the trouble of dealing with corrected grain leather by shopping for suede footwear. The surface will still be sanded down, and you won’t be able to polish them, but they won’t have that cheap, plastic-y coating that makes them look worse with wear. The soles may not be sewn on, but at the right price, they can still be a terrific value.
Sweaters and Other Knitwear
Here’s where things get tricky. You can’t really tell in-store whether a sweater is well made. Skip the stuff about softness (softness is superficial) or whether the garment was made in Italy (lots of Italian-made clothes were actually manufactured in China). And nevermind if something was made from cashmere, as there’s a ton of garbage cashmere in the world. When it comes to knitwear, quality reveals itself through wear. And how a sweater wears largely boils down to two things.
Much like how you can’t make a good dish without good ingredients, good knitwear begins with good fibers. Those fibers are twisted together to form yarns, and those yarns are then knitted into sweaters.
The problem is, you can’t tell in-store whether the yarns are good. The quality of the yarn is made up of many factors, one of which is the length of the individual fibers. The longer the fibers, the stronger the yarns, as there are fewer points for breakage. And when those fibers break, they fly up and twist into each other, creating the fuzzy little balls knowing as pilling. You can take care of pilling with a sweater shaver, but cheaply made knits — like cheaply made shoes — look bad quickly, which means you just end up replacing them. And unfortunately, you won’t know whether a sweater will pill quickly until you’ve worn it for a while.
The other dimension is how the yarns were knitted into the sweater. Again, there are many dimensions for quality here, but one of the most common ways companies cut costs is by knitting with a lot of slack — that is, loosely. This is often done with cashmere. Knitting with a lot of slack will save on yarn, which in turn saves on costs. By doing so, however, the garment is more likely to lose it’s shape over time, stretching out in the body and sleeves, then maybe developing an ugly stretched out collar. As a consumer, it can be hard to judge in-store whether the knitting was done tightly enough, which is why quality here again reveals itself over time — after you’ve worn the garment.
Unfortunately, there’s no real substitute here for direct experience. Buy from stores you trust; stick with brands that have given you good experiences. If a store has sold you quality items in the past, it’s likely their knits are pretty good. And if your sweaters from a certain brand have been good, it’s likely your next knitwear purchase from them will be too.
PRO TIP: “Affordable” cashmere is the biggest con in the knitwear game. You can get cashmere sweaters nowadays at almost any price point, but things priced under ~$400 at full retail are often just not worth the money — they pill quickly, they stretch out easily. If you can’t afford $400 for a cashmere sweater, and you’re not willing to buy second-hand, stick with more affordable fibers. Lambswool, Shetland, and more common merino sweaters can all be great under the $150-200 mark. They’re made honestly, without the snake oil pitch of being able to get a luxury garment at an affordable price.
FURTHER READING: Five Suggestions for Buying Better Knitwear, Where to Get a Good Sweater Shaver, How to Wash a Sweater, The Best Knitwear Detergent, How to Fix a Hole in a Sweater, and The Value of Vintage Cashmere
Everything Else (and the Only Real Test That Matters)
If it’s hard to determine the quality of knitwear in a store, it’s downright impossible to come up with generalizable rules for everything else — shirts, trousers, outerwear, etc.
The truth is, a lot of what determines quality is wrapped up with the designer’s intentions and your preferences. Quality is often very contextual and dependent. For example, fine dress shirts are often considered “better” when the pattern seamlessly flows across the different panels, showing that the maker took the time and attention to create a better looking garment (rather than something that winds up looking like a jigsaw puzzle on your body). Single-needle stitching for the side seams is also often considered “better” than double-needle stitching because it creates for a cleaner looking line. You can read our post about dress shirt quality here, as well as our interview with the head of the Albini Group about what goes into making good shirt fabrics.
At the same time, casual shirts can have mismatched patterns for creative effect. And workwear shirts are sometimes triple-needle sewn — the messiest of all — for the sake of durability, style, and authenticity to the past. Quality here is very much wrapped up with what the designer is trying to create and what you prefer.
Which again gets us back to the original point in this post. In the end, the only true test for a garment is whether or not it makes you look and feel good. And the best way to do this is to sample as much as possible – including the stuff at high-end stores. Even if you can’t afford expensive suits or fine leather shoes, putting on a dozen or so can help give you a better sense of what details are important to you. You should also pay attention to men who look good in their clothes. Notice what aspects of their fit and silhouette appeal to you, and try to look for those things when you’re out shopping. You may not be able to judge the quality of a garment based on all these “benchmarks” people have written about, but if you train your eye, you can tell what looks good on you. And in the end, that’s the only test that matters anyway.