You might have often wondered why that awesome dress you snagged from Forever 21 for $29 smackeroos looks just as cute and expensive as a fabulous piece from Gucci…..right? Sure, fresh from the store, first time wear, and perfect for a selfie with three Instagram filters. But truth be told, once you’ve washed it, or been stuck in a sweltering heat, you’ll soon discover the trappings of cheap polyester. The seams start to pucker and twist from side seam to the front of your body or, the little threads start to pop and hang down. After a few wears, the thing just falls apart (or tears at the seam!), but you’re cool to surrender it to Goodwill or the trash bin, because it only cost you, like, $30 anyway.
You wouldn’t compare a meal at Taco Bell to dinner at Jean Georges, right?
Don’t get me wrong- I have often succumbed to the thrill of fast fashion, and wanting to wear a hot trend while on a shoestring budget. But it’s important to know the difference of a well-made piece of clothing that will last, vs. something fast and cheap. After all, you wouldn’t compare a meal at Taco Bell to dinner at Jean Georges, right? Both satisfy the hunger and sate the appetite, but by what what means? There’s a couple of ways you can think about a garment in a way to make you a more knowledgeable consumer/designer/sewer:
1.) Find out about Fabric, Friend. Typically, fabrics that cost more just feel better- think cashmere, silk, Egyptian cotton- essentially, butter against your skin. But it isn’t just elegant, organic evening fabrics that feel great- think about your last trip to Nike, LuluLemon, Adidas- clothing for these active brands are synthetic, but SMART. What do I mean? Scientists and designers have collaborated to create fibers that work to function in action so that it’s most comfortable for you- fabrics that breathe and expel moisture, fabrics that maintain moisture for cold conditions, fabrics that specifically don’t chafe, others that are woven tightly to increase blood flow and circulation…its really amazing how far science has gotten us! And lastly, both fancy fabrics and activewear fabrics are so well-made, that they will last much, much longer than their polyester and rayon counterparts. Another way to think about it is “cost-per-wear”- a science explained best via my friends at The Coveteur. Perhaps that Zara jacket is costing you more than you think.
Did you know that the Teflon from your frying pan is also used in ski jackets?
*Do The Touch Test: Take a trip to a store and spend an afternoon reading labels. Understanding content can teach you a lot. For example, why does 90% cotton / 10% spandex feels stretchier and silkier than say, 100% cotton? Feel the fabric, check the content, and see/feel what might surprise you. “Activewear” stores like Columbia or REI have huge paper labels that explain the technological aspects of the fibers they employ- you’ll be surprised at what you can learn. For example, did you know that the Teflon from your frying pan is also used in ski jackets? Pretty sweet.
Also, “shop:” your closet and look at the labels. For example, you might have a well-worn Target tee that you bought a few shirt months ago for $9 and has more pills than Karen from Will And Grace. Compare this to a more expensive tee from The Row, and you can clearly see The Touch Test difference. If this topic on fabrics interests you further, I do more in-depth private tutoring on fibers and choosing the right ones for your sewing projects and design needs here.
2.) It’s in the seams, man! Most garments today are sewn together using some form of a merrow machine, which is a process that is much quicker than using a straight-stitch sewing machine (think the one that maybe your grandma or mom had). Let me explain the difference- with a regular straight-stitch machine (like you might have at home), you need to sew the garment together, press the seams open, and manually cut away the excess. This step-by-step method assures you that all the seams and straight, perfectly on-grain (read more about that here), and your garment has a higher quality of construction.
Merrow machines cut as they sew, using anywhere from 3-5 threads at a time to secure and lock the edge of the seam so it won’t unravel- eliminating up to three steps it takes with a straight stitch machine. The seam can also have the ability to stretch or give a little bit. Sound great? It is- and really has revolutionized the way work, as we can now produce twice as much, twice as fast. But in my opinion, faster isn’t always better- the work gets sloppier, we look to make as many garments as possible without care or regard for straight seams, adequate pressing/ironing, among other details. With this and other “fast” developments in the clothing/textile business, we’ve seen the practical death of our local American-made industry. By farming out our work to the Far East, we’ve eliminated jobs for Americans. This big changeover took place really post- Industrial revolution, and by the 1980’s, led to 100,000’s of unemployed workers. The movie “Schmatta” really speaks more to that point, and I think it’s an important HBO doc to see if you want to understand the makings of the American Garment Industry and it’s “unseamly” history.
Meantime, luddites like me have tried to bring it back, baby. My hands-down favorite designer, Natalie Chanin, brought back local industry in her hometown of Alabama by employing local sewers to hand-craft garments. She even hosts workshops and garment construction classes in her studio for sewing geeks like me. I find her tremendously inspiring, and try to bring local flavor like that to my own classes, by teaching how to sew by hand and with a machine. If you are curious to give it a try, you can find out more here on private classes, or sign up for my mailing list here to learn when the next class comes along.
*Do it- The next time you’re at Macy’s /Nordstrom’s/ Target, flip the garment inside out. Take a look at the seams and the construction. Is there a merrow stitch? Then visit a higher-end designer store. Take a look at those seams. I’ll just say this- once you have seen the inside of an Armani jacket, you have seen God.
Once you have seen the inside of an Armani jacket, you have seen God.
3.) The Process, Princess. At the end of the day, yes, designer labels are marked way-the-H-up. There is no argument here. But coming from my experience, where I have worked for the mega designers like Alexander McQueen, to the mega-retailers like Target, I can tell you that there is a reason why. The process in creating a garment, in addition to sewing quality, fabric quality, and labor is much greater. Designers generally take time to produce less collections per year. They could do anywhere from 2-4 collections a year, and produce a line of high-quality garments that have been crafted carefully and with precise quality control. Two large collections might equal out to about 30-40 styles. The 2 smaller collections might be that or less.
Whereas, mass retailers shovel out a new collection Every. Freaking Month. (Trust me, I have the punched time card of 60 hr+ plus weeks to prove it!). And each collection comprises anywhere from 100-200 pieces. It’s insane. With that many styles, it’s near impossible to make sure each garment has the proper fit, design and execution that a designer garment would have….and mass retailers want it cheap- forget about using a silk, it’s all-poly, baby!
*Do it- visit a mass market retailer like Target online, and then visit Style.com and browse a designer under the “Fashion Shows” tab. Compare how the “collections” are similar and different. As far as what is viewable online, your mass market retailer might only have 30-50 styles at a time. But new styles will pop up the next day, week, or month. Compare the volume of one to the quality of another, and judge for yourself with some simple research.
If you can’t buy it, then make it!
Here’s my plea to you, sugar. I have no beef with cheap clothing. But I do have a thing for people that tout bargain-basement goodies as the only way. If you can’t buy it, then make it! All sorts of sewing instructors are popping up all over the nation now as we start to get back to learning to sew, and make things anew. Pinterest has been fabulous with all the DIY’s and helping someone who doesn’t have the time or resources to take a class- it brings the class to you! You can take classes with The Stitch N’ Style Studio here in Miami, but perhaps find someone cool like Lauren McCraken in Brooklyn or even take FREE classes in NY or LA with Mood Fabrics.