Thursday, 10 March 2011

In search of quality - part 2

In Part 1 of this discussion, I talked about how to evaluate fabric quality and choose the perfect fabric. The next aspect of quality is all about how it's made - whether it's cut well, put together with care and precision, and finished correctly inside and out.

Construction - putting it all together

A well-sewn garment is one of the best indications of quality there is. A plain cotton fabric sewn well by someone skilled will make a far lovelier dress than the best silk cut and sewn haphazardly or badly. What are indications of good construction?

Pattern and cut: 
A good pattern and well-cut garment can be difficult to determine at first, but look at the shape and fit of the item. Compare, for example, a brand blouse to a similar blouse from Forever 21 or Glassons – does it sit nicely on the body, with the shoulder seams at the right point, the sleeves the right length and the bust dart or shaping giving the correct volume to the bodice? Does it strain at the buttons even though it’s meant to fit according to the measurements? Does it have the right shape, or are there odd puckers, twisted seams, strained areas or gaping bits where the fabric is haphazardly cut and shaped? A well-cut garment ought to sit smoothly and easily on the body, with shaping at the right points, no seams in odd positions, and no areas such as armholes being too high or too low. Seams on each side ought to be even and symmetrical unless deliberately designed asymmetrically, as should the hem, cuffs and collar.

Interior finishing and lining: 
I am a huge fan of lining on everything except blouses. Linings make garments much more pleasant to wear, since all raw seams and sewing details are hidden inside the two layers. A lined dress will sit better on the body, as the lining acts as its own slip and gives the garment extra structure and shape, while if the fabric is light or slightly see-through, a lining will mean you might not have to wear an additional slip underneath (and can make things a bit warmer in winter). A skirt lining will also help a skirt sit nicely over a petticoat (especially if you’re wearing quite a light skirt over a very full petticoat which could create odd bumps and make people wonder if you have weird tumours), helps prevent wind-related embarrassment (a big consideration here in Wellington, where skirts have occasionally blown above my head – thanks, wind), and just feels nicer to wear.

Most commercial garments are lined with a slippery polyester lining; I often prefer to use poplin cotton on dresses and skirts, since it’s more breathable, but poly is useful on tighter pencil skirts since it slides over the body more easily, and the same is true for jackets and coats for the same reason. For outerwear, a patterned lining can be a really nice detail especially if it coordinates or contrasts with the outer fabric; for example, I’ve used a narrow red/white striped satin on a red velveteen jacket, which was much more interesting than a plain lining would have been.

Where items aren’t lined, seams should always be finished appropriately to prevent ravelling. For the majority of commercial clothing, this is done through overlocking (serging), and this is perfectly acceptable, but French or flat-fell seams can be a higher-quality method of finishing without an overlocker. I’ve been sewing for years and years and tend to finish most of my clothes with French seams or overcasting (similar to overlocking but done with a sewing machine zig-zag stitch) as I’ve never owned an overlocker – at this point I think it's really just sheer boneheaded stubbornness (plus a teeny room with no space for an overlocker, oh yeah. My flatmate just suggested I could hang it from the ceiling). French seams are especially good for fine or delicate fabrics like chiffon or lace, as they enclose the raw edge completely inside another seam.

One of the final indications I use for interior finishing quality is the size of the stitches and seams. If stitches are too large, seams can pucker open and look unsightly; it’s also not as strong as smaller stitches. In general if sewing at home I’ll use a stitch length of around 2.5. High-street clothing often uses very small seam allowance, which is a cost-cutting method – reducing your seams down to 0.25” might not seem to save much fabric on one garment, but once thousands are cut out, they might be saving a considerable amount. In some cases this is fine, but smaller seams are less sturdy and if under pressure, could break open more easily. Additionally, a larger seam allowance means that if you need to slightly alter something to give a better fit, you have the leeway to do so.

Outer finishing: 
Outer finishing is one of the easier ways to evaluate quality. Is any visible top-stitching straight and even? Are buttons or trim sewn on correctly and sturdily, and do buttons line up with buttonholes? Are there threads left untrimmed, or embroidery/beading etc left loose? Even if something is well-constructed, sloppy finishing can make it look a lot lower quality and will reduce the integrity of the garment. Plus, nobody wants to wear something with crooked seams, it's just sad.

In the final part of this discussion, I'll cover trim, detailing, and manufacturing origin, and look at summing up whether brand = quality is as true as we think.

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