The quality of clothing has decreased with the dawn of fast fashion. To keep costs low, brands and manufacturers have been opting for cheaper fabrics and scrimping on finishings. Many assume, therefore, that the more expensive the garment, the more durable we can expect it to be. However, recent research conducted by the University of Leeds, supported by Primark and UK charity Hubub, shows that price isn’t always an accurate indication of durability. Researchers tested the durability of hoodies, jeans and t-shirts, comparing items ranging from under £10 to up to £150 ($12 – $188) and found that many items on the lower end of the price scale far out-performed the higher-end options.
Durability is essential in our fight for a fashion industry that can be better for people and the planet, as longevity means consumers purchase fewer replacement garments, keep garments in their wardrobes for longer instead of going to landfill, and gives the opportunity for garments to get a second life. It’s prime time to learn how to spot a durable garment when trawling through the online and offline secondhand marketplaces, seeing as price and longevity don’t always add up.
The impact of false perceptions
Polling conducted by environmental charity Hubub in March 2023 found that the UK public expects garments at higher price points to last significantly longer than those at lower price points. The polling results find that “on average, people expect 26 washes from a £10 ($12) t-shirt before it starts to break down/not look good, compared to 42 washes from a £100 ($125) t-shirt. They expected 30 washes from a £20 ($25) pair of jeans compared to 44 washes from a £100 ($125) pair of jeans.”
[T]he average American woman now owning 103 garments.
Why is perception important? According to the study conducted by the University of Leeds, if the public perceives an item to be less durable, then they may treat this item as such, and not take appropriate care of it. Or, this perception may impact purchasing habits, encouraging consumers to buy more than is required on the assumption that the garment won’t last.
Testing for durability
Using a series of different tests, the University of Leeds developed a ranking system to determine the relationship between garment price and durability. Each test was used to determine different measures of durability to establish the maximum performance – or lifetime durability – of three different types of garments in men’s and women’s clothing across six price points. Looking at the testing on jeans as an example, the most expensive product (women’s jeans priced between £121 – £150 ($150 – $188) and men’s between £71-£90 ($90 – $113)) performed best and therefore were ranked as most durable. However, a pair of women’s jeans costing £91 – £120 ($114 – $149) performed poorly, and was found to break down more quickly in comparison to other jeans tested. While the lower cost women’s jeans priced £21-£30 ($26 – $37) and £11-£20 ($14 – $25) performed very well and were ranked second and third, respectively. Strikingly, there was little difference in durability performance between the most expensive women’s denim jeans and the two lower priced products, even though the price difference is significant. The marginal difference in performance comes at a cost difference of over £100 ($125) between the garments ranked first and third.
“On average, people expect 26 washes from a $12 t-shirt before it starts to break down…compared to 42 washes from a $125 t-shirt…30 washes from a $25 pair of jeans…[and] 44 washes from a $125 pair of jeans.”
For t-shirts, the picture is much the same. Two out of the top three performing t-shirts for womenswear and menswear were lower priced products – costing under £5, or £6-£10 ($6, or $7-$12). The researchers concluded: “across the 33 t-shirts tested, the results showed that price cannot be used as a predictor for a t-shirt’s durability. Spending twice as much on a t-shirt does not guarantee that the garment will be twice as durable,” putting the often-held assumption that more expensive means more durable and therefore more sustainable, on its head.
How to spot quality
Despite the decline in quality since the birth of fast fashion in the 1990s, quality clothes still exist, but how to spot them? Here’s five quick tips:
1. Inspect the insides
One of the best ways is to look inside the item and inspect the hem – if it’s sewn down thoroughly, it’s a good sign. If it’s loose, it’s at risk of snagging with a fingernail or big toe.
The size of stitching is also a good indicator – small stitches require more time and care and are more durable compared with long stitching which could be a sign of cutting corners. Also check for any flaws such as threads coming undone.
Of course not every garment needs lining – you wouldn’t want it in a pair of summer trousers which are supposed to keep you cool. A good winter coat, though, will likely have lining, and if it’s higher quality, the lining will also feel nice on the skin – not the kind which makes you feel sticky.
2. Does it feel like something you would enjoy wearing?
How the fabric feels on your skin is also a good indicator – pull the fabric through your finger and thumb and judge whether this is something that feels comfortable and satisfying, if so, it’s probably a good sign.
3. Consider the material
Different types of materials have different durability. For example, it’s probably not a good idea to buy a delicate material such as silk for an item which you’re going to wear regularly. Opt for something harder wearing instead, such as cotton. Linen, when looked after correctly, is one of the most hard wearing fabrics due to its strong natural fibres and it actually gets softer with use. Another trade secret: hold the piece of clothing up to the light. If a lot of light shines through, it’s likely poorly woven and will lose shape quickly.
Check out the buttons and zippers – do they look plasticky in a cheap way? Give them a wiggle – do they feel like they’ve been sewn on securely?
5. The seams
Unless dictated by a specific style, there shouldn’t be any raw edges on show. Raw edges should be cleaned up by techniques such as overlocking – this stitch goes right to the edge of the cloth and runs in tight, zigzag lines from the edge to about half a centimetre in. This is done to prevent fraying, create a clean aesthetic, prevent tangling and snagging, and ultimately make the fabric more secure and durable. Better yet, look for bound seams so that the raw edge of the fabric is covered. A slightly more technical assessment is to judge whether the fabric is off grain, meaning the lengthwise and crosswise grains are not completely perpendicular – they should form right angles to one another. If done correctly, the garment will sit well and look higher quality, and chances are, you’ll love that garment a bit more than others. In a patterned garment, it’s easy to tell if it’s off-grain – the pattern on the opposite sides of the seam won’t match up properly.
Where to buy quality
So now you know some tricks, where can you buy good quality clothing? Vintage shops can be a goldmine for carefully crafted and hard wearing garments. Before fast fashion, people had fewer garments and those garments were built to last longer. In the 1960s, an average French wardrobe consisted of around 25 outfits, and 40 pieces in total. In comparison, more recent studies point to a seriously bloated wardrobe, with the average American woman now owning 103 garments.
To combat this, organizations like Remake have pledged to take the 90-day NoNewClothes challenge, promising to refrain from buying new clothes in an attempt to prioritize re-use and secondhand and reduce our carbon footprint. Similarly, Oxfam’s “Secondhand September” aims to “reduce waste, take a stance against climate change, and help create a fairer world.” With the secondhand market expected to grow to 40% of the total clothes, shoes and accessories market, it’s becoming ever more accessible, and trendy, to buy secondhand. If scrambling through vintage shops isn’t your thing, you can participate by buying on the online pre-loved market. Vestiaire Collective hosts an impressive collection of high-end vintage while Depop, ThredUp and Etsy are a treasure trove of mid-range garments.
Browse the men’s section
A 2016 study by the Business of Fashion found that the “pink tax” is also apparent in the fashion industry. Examining several luxury brands’ catalogs at the time, such as Gucci, Alexander Wang, Saint Laurent, among others, women were found to be paying up to $1,000 more for the same products. For example, the iconic “Le Smoking” suit jacket by Yves Saint Laurent, is $1,000 more expensive in the women’s section than the men’s, but this doesn’t mean it is any more durable. In fact, women’s clothing, when compared with men’s, sometimes feels flimsier and thin and has poorer design features. Take pockets as an example – as women, we know the joy when we find a nice skirt or dress with pockets, and this is because women’s pockets are usually non-existent, fake, or pretty useless, whereas men’s jackets and blazers are often filled with them, a telling sign that more care and attention is put into men’s clothing. If men’s sizing can work for you, we say go for it.
In the European Union alone, people throw away about 5.8 million tonnes of textiles every year
How long your clothes stay in rotation also depends on how you care for them. Simple steps such as letting your clothes air dry, following the instructions on the garment’s care label, and learning how to do basic mending helps to stretch out the life of a garment. Or, pick up some black dye to bring a faded pair of black jeans back to life. Washing your clothes less also increases longevity – yes, it pays to do less! Over-washing can cause shrinkage, fading and damage to clothing. Jeans, for example, can be worn up to 10 times before washing, depending on how active you are when wearing them.
New pressure on brands to make clothes that last
The fight for responsible and fair fashion can only go so far with individual actions by consumers, and it’s unlikely that consumer behavioral change will impact the behavior of brands and businesses fast enough to make the positive difference we need in the industry. We therefore welcome the EU’s strategy for sustainable and circular textiles with open arms. The strategy sets out to create a textile market in the EU in which all textile products are durable, repairable and recyclable by setting design requirements for textiles to make them last longer, and easier to repair and recycle. In line with this, the European Commission has proposed rules to make producers responsible for the full lifecycle of textile products. Developed under the “polluter pays” principle, the Extended Producer Responsibility schemes for textiles in all EU Member States requires producers to cover the costs of management of textile waste, incentivising waste reduction and circularity of textile products, effectively designing better products from the start. In the European Union alone, people throw away about 5.8 million tonnes of textiles every year, nearly 11 kilos or 24 pounds per person.
Saving pennies, people and planet
While the research was conducted by an independent and world-class research institute, we must keep in our minds that Primark, fast-fashion giant in Europe, was involved in the research. Like any piece of evidence, this is just one piece, and the more research conducted into the subject the better informed we can be as consumers. But the message is clear – the question of durability is much more nuanced than most believe, but by knowing where and how to look for hard-wearing clothes, we’re not only saving our pennies, but people and planet too.