When it comes to choosing a quality garment that will last, look first at the fabric.
When you want a choose a quality garment, there are three areas to focus on: fabric, cut and finish, so let's look at the first of those three areas - fabric.
Firstly, try not to confuse fabrics with fibres. Fabrics are made from fibres: satin is a fabric, silk is a fibre; worsted is a fabric, wool is a fibre.
There are two main types of fibres - natural and man-made.
Man-made fibres as a category comprise both completely synthetic fibres (such as nylon) which are usually derived from petroleum, 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 and the quality doesn't vary from year to year or season to season, but they also have disadvantages: some, lke viscose, do not wear well, and others, such as nylon, may not 'breathe' or allow you to sweat. The latest generation of microfibres, however, such as Cool Climate, have overcome this problem by making the weave looser. Many synthetics are also cold to the touch, but that can be either an advantage or a disadvantage.
Synthetic fibres 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). However, synthetic fibres can be very strong and smooth.
All man-made fibres begin life as a kind of 'soup' of molecules which are then stuck back together to form filaments which 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, made from wood pulp 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 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's wool, alpaca and cashmere. However, silk is produced in a different way - pulled from the cocoon of the silk moth in a way not dissimilar from untwisting a spider's web.
The length of different kinds of 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. Long-staple cotton, in contrast, has a tuft of three inches or more, making it a very smooth, flat fibre. Linen lies somewhere in between, with filaments about three feet long, and wool is shorter, at several inches for the longest 'staples'. Fabrics such as hemp and ramie - a kind of nettle - have filaments about as long as those of linen.
The simple rule with natural fibres is, the longer the staple, the better quality the resulting fabric will be. Egyptian and Pima cotton, for instance, produce a high-class, long-lasting fabric. 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, and one shirt of 'Sea Island' cotton that is over 50 years old and in beautiful condition.
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, while examples of full-filament silk include chiffon, charmeuse and georgette.
In wools, the longest staple is found on animals such as the Merino sheep, which produces 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, above all else, cashmere.
One fibre that is becoming more popular in both clothing and bedding is bamboo, a smooth, pleasant fabric whose hollow structure permits wicking. However, the means by which bamboo rayon is produced should more truthfully put it in the man-made section rather than the natural, as a solvent has to be used to break down the fibre of the stalk.
What to look for
For practical purposes, most of us wear fabrics that are mixtures of natural and synthetic fibres - natural for feel and a bit of added nylon or polyester for strength. When you're looking for quality in a garment, however, look for a high percentage of natural fibre - at least 70 per cent is a good guideline, but higher is generally better. Many garments also benefit from an added 2 per cent Lycra, which enables them to bounce back after wear and washing without altering the feel of the cloth. Most quality men's trousers today contain about 2 per cent lycra, while cotton t-shirts with 2-5 per cent elasthane will often wear better than pure cotton jersey, which becomes stretched out and baggy. If you're fond of viscose t-shirts, they should really contain 5 per cent elasthane if you want them to last any time at all and even then, they will pill on the inside.
Production affects price
Methods of production also affect the price of a fabric. The wider the fabric, for instance, the more money is usually costs because the wider loom costs more money to set up. The more threads there are to the inch, the more a fabric 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 has a high thread count, resulting in a fabric that is very thin, light, smooth and hard-wearing.
The smaller the quantity of fabric produced, the more you will also pay, because there are no reductions for production 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, again, the more you have to pay - cashmere, for instance, has to be hand-combed out of a goat's belly, rather than being sheared off by electric trimmers, and Pima cotton is often hand-picked to protect the cotton boll.
Woven fabrics usually cost more than prints, because a loom has to be specially set up for the purpose, but they are also generally considered to be more desireable because the design goes all the way through and shows on the reverse, often giving an attractive effect. Examples include herringbone weaves, tartan and pinstripe suiting, but also more complicated weaves such as jacquard, which require special looms.
In printed fabrics, the number of colours affects the price, because you're paying for each pass of the fabric through the printing rollers, and each colour of ink. But even a plain colour can affect price if the dye is expensive or difficult to fix. Fabric printed with metallic inks costs more again - metallic inks are usually powder-in-liquid formulations that are difficult for the printer to handle.
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 and the price along with it.
How to check fabric quality in a garment
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 usually also be mentioned separately on the label, or in the product description if you're buying online.
Next look at the label that tells you the fabric 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 proportion of synthetic, the less you should pay for the garment, unless the synthetic is a proprietary brand name - something you're most likely to see in specialist clothing such as that designed for sports or extreme weather conditions.
Look at the position of the fibre label. Labels for high-end fibres or fabrics are always placed somewhere prominent such as the back of the neck or the front facing of a coat, while those for poor-quality fabrics such as cheap synthetics and cottons tend to be hidden in a side seam.
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 in a sheep's life, 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 these garments.
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 sarong or a casual scarf - 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 better quality it is.
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.
Quality fibres cost money to produce, so you are unlikely to find them cheap - if you find, for instance, 'cashmere' going cheap, be wary - the move to place cashmere in every high street shop has resulted in a huge drop in quality but the good stuff still costs an arm and a leg. 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) £