Part 4: Is this garment made well? 

Hi Folks, I'm putting the weaving missive later in the series, because this one is a little more practical:

Whatever price range you are looking for, you need to know how to judge if a garment is made well. In general, one would hope that more expensive clothing is made better than cheaper clothing, but this is not always so. Knowing what to look for will save you annoyance down the road.

Let us say that you have walked into "Clothes R Us" and you are looking at a shirt. The first thing to notice is: Can you picture yourself wearing this shirt? If it doesn't really seem like your kind of thing, why even consider buying it, despite the best efforts of your sweetie, friends, or parents?

For work purposes, the next thing to look at is the fabric itself. You will want a fabric that is not partially transparent, so that your underwear or your giant "Rush Limbaugh" tattoo won't show through at inopportune times. This is more a concern with the lighter-colored shirts than with dark ones. The quickest test of this is to put your fingers on the other side of one layer of the shirt: can you see the edges of your fingers? Not the bumps they make, but the color of your hand through the fabric? Bring up the other side of the garment so that your hand is sandwiched between two layers of the fabric. Can you see the color of your hand now? If you're not sure, try the test with something of a different color, such as your wallet, a corner of the shirt you're wearing, whatever. If you can't see much of a color change, you're OK on the fabric thickness.

The next step is to look at the pattern matching, if the shirt has any sort of design, weave, or print. Lines (plaid, stripes, printed designs, etc) should meet at the front buttons -- you shouldn't get a stair-step effect as the line crosses from one side of the shirt to the other. If there is a front pocket, the lines should match there, too. Sometimes pockets will be cut on the bias so that you get X shaped plaid or 45' slanted stripes when the rest of the shirt is horizontal or vertical. This is a style point rather than sloppy manufacture.

The stripes should also line up at the seam across the top of the shoulders, and at a point halfway down the front and back openings for the sleeves. The long seam along the length of the sleeve should match, as should the seams under the arm to the bottom of the shirt. If the shirt has a yoke, stripes should match there as well. A yoke (as in yoke of oxen, not egg yolk) is that seam that goes across your back at shoulderblade level. "Western" shirts also have them in the front. Often there is an extra pleat in the fabric below the back yoke, and one of those little loops of fabric. These are called "locker loops;" the theory being that if you hang the shirt by the loop on a hook, the wrinkles won't look as odd when you put it back on. (Which is a lie, but that's the alleged purpose.) There may also be two pleats at the yoke, either in the center back, or at the shoulders, to add movement room.

If the stripes on the shirt are not all the same thickness, they won't match up, so this test is somewhat useless for that type of fabric. If you are buying slacks (or any other garment) with stripes, the stripes should also line up on all the visible seams.

Speaking of seams, you might want to check and see that they look relatively sturdy. Most of the shirts I've seen in stores have good seams, so it's not as much of a concern as it might be. Make sure that they have left extra fabric (around 1/2 an inch) free inside the garment from the seam. This provides extra stregth so that the seam won't rip out under stress.  Many seams will be a little narrower than 1/2", but will be sewn with several types of stitching, for strength.

Knit garments often have rolled inside seams with extra reinforcing; the 1/2" rule doesn't apply to them. A good knit shirt will have reinforcing fabric along the inside of the shoulder seam to prevent it from stretching and sagging over time. Seams or topstitching should have all threads trimmed neatly.

Buttons. Check to see that the buttons (if any) are sewn on strongly. Most manufactuers use machines to sew buttons on, and some are better at it than others. If buttons are sewn on poorly, threads will come loose. A tug on such a thread and it will all come off. Better quality shirts will come with replacement buttons, usually sewn into the shirt at the bottom of the front panel or on a side seam.

Buttons are usually made of plastic, but imitate wood, horn, mother-of-pearl, or other more natural materials. They can be dyed to match the shirt, or be of other colors, or metallic.   A button that looks like metal may not be; most of them these days are plastic at the core.  Buttons of natural material usually cannot stand the high heat in a dryer, but it is unlikely that you'll find natural-material buttons on a work shirt. Replacing the buttons on a shirt with fancier ones for a night on the town is a great way of making it look really cool without having to do much work.

Collar reinforcing: Collar points are often reinforced so that they will lie neatly. Sometimes this is done with fabric stiffening throughout the collar, and sometimes it is done with inserts of hard plastic shaped like pointed popsicle sticks. The pointed plastic version will likely eventually tear holes in the the point of the collar, unless the channel is carefully made to not go all the way to the point of the collar.  The plastic is approximately the stiffness of a drinking straw. You'll be able to tell if it's there by feeling the collar, or by holding it up to the light.  Some are removable for washing, and these shirts will generally not have the fraying problem.

When you get your shirt home, take out all pins, pricetags, and any temporary tags at the neck. (The temporary ones are usually white with printed lettering and will tear out as easily as those "not to be removed except by the consumer" tags from pillows.)

Wash the shirt to get out the "sizing," which is a starchlike stuff that manufacturers use to keep garments relatively crisp on the rack. It also smells a little odd. If the other neck tags look like they will be scratchy, cut them off. If you have bought a colored shirt, it is a good idea to wash it with similar colored clothing for the first few iterations, or you'll end up with pastel socks inadvertently. Cheaper fabrics, or fabrics from more rural areas of production are more likely to "bleed" in the wash than more expensive fabrics. Likewise, the darker color a fabric is, the more likely it will bleed. If you're not sure if the garment is still leaving dye in the wash water, throw in a sacrificial white cotton sock on the next go-round and see if it turns colors.

Technical term for the day: Placket.
A placket is the folded fabric on the buttonhole side of the front of a shirt. It provides stiffness so that it is easier to put buttons through the buttonholes. More formal shirts will have plackets with extra folds of fabric so that you can't see the buttons when it is closed up. There are also plackets on sleeves, but they are somewhat less important.

As a final note, men and women's shirts differ in which side has the buttons and which side has the buttonholes. There are all kinds of theories on the source of this, but no-one has a definitive answer.  I think I've heard them all, from 'a holdover from the days when women had maids to help them dress' to 'made it more difficult for men to look inside the shirt when standing on one side.'  Unless you see a lot of evidence, don't believe any of this.  I buy men's shirts often; it doesn't seem to make any functional difference.
All material (c) 1999 Cynthia Virtue Email Author with comments
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