Tuesday, 8 March 2011

In search of quality - part 1

Both in and out of lolita, quality of garments is something that matters a lot to me, so in starting a new blog about lolita/non-lolita fashion, it makes sense to me to begin with a discussion about quality. As a seamstress I’ve heard people say that my sewing is ‘better than brand’ but on the other hand, the lolita community seems fairly obsessed with Japanese brand being somehow magical quality (protip: it's not actually sewn by virgin nuns in the vampire romance moonlight OR imbued with the sparkling powers of unicorn dust and Rococo fairies, sorry to say. It'd be a lot more badass if it was). Part of this is to do with image; lolita fashion is incredibly details-focused, and if you’re going to dress in lace-festooned dresses, you want it to be the most delicately pretty lace money can buy. With the price of brand-name lolita being quite a bit higher than the average high-street retailer, you’d also expect it to be of much higher quality. But is all lolita worth the price? How does it measure up against non-lolita designer garb or home-sewn work? And how can you tell the difference, anyway?

Fabric - the base of fashion

This is one of the most important aspects of quality, since no matter how pretty a design is, if it's made in crappy polyester satin it'll look ugly as sin. Learning to evaluate fabric quality is one of the great side-effects of learning to sew, but you can pick it up without hunching over a sewing machine too. There’s a lot to consider with fabric – is it cotton, lace, wool or synthetic? Does it have a nice hand, a good weave, and is the thickness appropriate for the garment? In all honesty, evaluating fabrics is a lot easier when you’re shopping in-store rather than over the internet; you can study how the fabric drapes, hangs and crumples, how it feels against the skin and check its thickness. But even if you’re browsing online, all is not lost – there are still some ways to tell whether what you’re buying is worth the price.

Natural fibres versus synthetics: 
One of the easiest ways to evaluate fabric quality is to check the composition. This is usually listed on the label sewn into one of the seams, and most online stores also list composition. In general, I’m a big fan of natural fibres. Is silk chiffon always nicer than polyester? I’d love to say YES, but the truth is “not always” – good poly chiffon is easier to care for as you can hand-wash it rather than dry-cleaning and it’s a bit sturdier too. That said, if I’m shopping for a chiffon blouse I’d far prefer silk to polyester – synthetics are best used in garments like layered or gathered skirts or dresses, where the fullness and drape is more important than the simple fairy-gossamer beauty of the fabric.

For items like jumpers (sweaters), cardigans, jackets and coats, wool is best; merino knit wool is excellent for winter as it’s warm but breathable, and stays warm even if you get wet (am now imagining a sopping wet lolita looking as furious as a cat in a bathtub) while angora or cashmere in a jumper or cardigan promises super-softness. One of my favourite cardigans is a wool/silk blend, and is warm, soft and wonderfully breathable. Cotton knits are also excellent, and a bit of lycra blended into cotton can be excellent for shaping and fit, as otherwise pure cotton can stretch over time and go a bit baggy and nobody likes baggy knitwear, it's just a bit droopy and sad.

Cotton weaves are probably the most basic and versatile of fabrics, and can be found in a huge variety of lovely prints or solids. In summer, I love linen, but it doesn’t always work with the Lolita aesthetic – that said, a pretty cream or eggshell-blue linen skirt could work very nicely in a country/mori-esque coordinate along with an embroidered lace blouse and straw hat.

Can synthetics be used well? Of course. For some people, using synthetic fabric rather than wool and silk is an ethical way of avoiding animal products, while for others the cost of buying all-natural is simply prohibitive. I’d love to wear a petticoat made entirely of layers of silk chiffon, but not being Marie Antoinette, it’s hardly likely to happen (imagine how AMAZING it would be, like wearing a gossamer cloud). And while I have my own views on fur (I own a couple of vintage furs, but since going vegetarian I’m very unlikely to buy more and am utterly against fur farming), faux fur is often very good quality, far less expensive and used as a trim can look lovely. Silk satin is beautiful but super-expensive, so unless you’re making a wedding dress, nice polyester satin (not godawful costume satin, but thick, semi-matte satin) will do perfectly well. With new technology, both synthetics and natural fibres are being made into some super-amazing fabric – tencel, hemp and bamboo springing to mind (although imagining a hemp lolita coordinate is kind of breaking my brain).

Weave, texture and thickness: 
A while back, I bought some houndstooth polyester, since it was soft, cheap and I wanted a houndstooth circle skirt. Unfortunately, what I didn’t consider was the weave – being cheap, the threads were so loosely woven that when hung as a garment, the weight warped the fabric along the bias so the hem became hugely assymetrical (all was not lost as my flatmate loved it). In general, fabric ought to have a tight, even weave with no imperfections or looseness of threads. Some fabrics, like raw silk, are an exception to this rule – the imperfections in the weave are part of what makes the fabric so lovely. Fabric also ought to have a pleasant texture or “hand”; if it feels sandpapery and rough against your fingers, imagine how it’ll feel on your skin. For outerwear this is less important since a coat will usually be lined and layered over other clothes, but still consider the feel of the fabric if you can. Finally, look at the thickness of the fabric. Unless it’s meant to be thin or sheer, it shouldn’t be see-through. While it can be mitigated with lining, a fabric that’s too light won’t wear well and can’t be expected to last as long as something thicker.

Is the print crisp, properly aligned and well laid out on the garment? We’ve all heard horror stories about prints bleeding, and it happened to me with the BtSSB Parfait print – this is ridiculous to me given the cost and apparent quality of Lolita items. If fabric is dyed it should be even and not faded (unless it’s deliberately patterned), while prints ought ideally to match at the seams or at least be sewn to avoid clear mismatching.

Lolita brands usually use some form of cotton broadcloth, with occasional forays into velveteen, satin or chiffon (nearly always polyester). I’d love a silk chiffon lolita blouse, but I doubt it’s going to happen – in the meantime, you can find silk blouses from other non-lolita brands. Moitie uses a lot of poly chiffon, and classic brands such as Mary Magdalene often use cotton sateen, which is lovely – a thick cotton fabric made in a satin weave for a subtle shine. 

Lolita knits are usually cotton or cotton/polyester with the occasional wool-blend item, while coats tend to be either polyester or wool (I used to own a BtSSB Little Princess coat, which was thick, warm wool and was lovely but did make me feel a bit like I was wearing a seven-year-old's dressing gown). I love some of the textured cottons used, like the slightly dobby cotton used for Yumemiru Macaron, but in general I think lolita brands are a bit unimaginative with their fabrics and rely on prints for interest instead – this has gotten worse over the years, with some hugely sought-after prints like Sugary Carnival being super-thin broadcloth which really isn’t the greatest quality. 

If you're after quality fabric in lolita, try finding prints done on a textured fabric (Alice and the Pirates often use a textured cotton which is really lovely, as do Innocent World and occasionally Angelic Pretty) or a non-print item in wool or velveteen for winter, or chiffon or karami (a type of lightweight textured cotton) in summer. Otherwise try making your own with quality fabric - you could wind up with something really interesting and lovely.

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