Learning to judge quality

Above is a graph from a relatively old paper that investigated the relationship between quality and price in an example garment – in this case, the research looked at women’s blazers. One hundred and nineteen blazers were assessed in terms of quality by two experts: one a university faculty member who taught textile science and the other a university class instructor who was previously a buyer for a department store and who taught clothing construction. Quality is on the x-axis and price is on the y-axis, with each dot-point representing a particular blazer. What you can see is nothing terribly surprising – there’s some sort of vague positive relationship between quality and price, so quality kind of goes up as price goes up, but it’s not a neat relationship. It’s quite noisy, really. And keep in mind this graph is from 1989, so clothing quality might have changed quite a bit relative to price over the past 23 years, with advancements in manufacturing techniques, the advent of fast fashion, developments in textile production, changes in brands and markets and profit expectations; all those sorts of things.

Whatever changes have occurred since that graph was published, it’s likely still safe to say that we’re probably on the money (or not, literally speaking) when we think that price is not necessarily an accurate indicator of quality.

But what do we use as indicators of quality? In fact, what are we even looking for when we search for quality?

We kind of all have a vague notion of what we mean when we say that we want to buy good quality garments – it means we want the garments to stay in good condition for a decently long period of time, to not have issues or wear out or fall apart to any significant extent. That’s all well and good, but that’s the sort of quality that you can only measure once you’ve already purchased and worn the garment. It’s easy to judge an item’s quality in retrospect (“Well, it was good quality, because it lasted really well!”) but it’s much much harder to judge an item’s quality in advance and get a good idea of how it will hold up in the future (“Oh this garment is good quality, so it will definitely last well!”). That is, it’s harder for people with little or no experience or training in garment construction and manufacture.

There are all sorts of information cues we can use to evaluate the quality of a garment, from intrinsic cues (e.g. fabric fibre content, seam type) and extrinsic cues (e.g. brand name, price) to aesthetic cues (e.g. colour, fit) and performance cues (r.g. durability, care instructions). The interesting thing to consider is: which cues are important to a person who has limited knowledge of garment construction and manufacture, and which cues become or remain important after that person has extensively learnt about garment construction and manufacture? What are naïve people getting right (if anything), and what things would be more important to them if they had a more extensive understanding of what genuinely makes a good quality item of clothing?

Some research has looked into exactly that. The study looked at the effect of knowledge on the types of information cues used to evaluate the quality of clothing. Sixty-five students were surveyed regarding which cues they considered most important in judging the quality of a garment. These 65 students had something in common: they were all enrolled in and about to start a 15-week course at university about the analysis of ready-to-wear clothing. Prior to starting their course, they were asked which cues were important, and then at the end of the course, they were asked the same again.

How did knowledge of clothing manufacture and construction change people’s ideas about which cues were important when judging the quality of clothes?

Cues that became quite a bit more important to more people after improved knowledge of garment construction and manufacture:

  • Fibre content of fabric
  • Interfacings
  • Length of stitch
  • Patterns (e.g. stripes, plaid) matched
  • Seam width
  • No mismatched thread
  • Type of fabric
  • Type of seam
  • Width of hem

Cues that became quite a bit less important to more people after improved knowledge of garment construction and manufacture:

  • Brand
  • Closures
  • Colour
  • How fashionable the garment is
  • Fit
  • How the fabric feels
  • Price
  • The store selling the garment
  • Whether the style suits one’s figure

You have to be careful with the interpretation of these results, since it’s just about the relative change in ranking of the different cues – for example, “fit” may have dropped in the rankings of importance after the course compared to before, but it might still be towards the top of the rankings. Maybe it dropped from being the 2nd most important cue to being the 7th most important cue out of the 24 cues investigated, so while it did become less important, it’s still considered pretty important overall. All the same, this study shows how much your perspective can change when given adequate information, and at the very least, it certainly makes me aware of all the cues that might matter if only I knew.

This did make me figure something out, though: the sort of information you need to be able to evaluate quality can’t be accessed so easily, possibly because there’s so much of it. There aren’t many web guides to quality garment construction because there would be just so much information to cover. But if the internet doesn’t have the information, how about we go back in time and use something a bit more old-fashioned: textbooks. That would certainly be a convenient option for accessing this sort of information. Well, it would be a more convenient option if textbooks weren’t always so expensive, particularly since the one I’ve found that seems most relevant isn’t in any convenient library catalogues and isn’t priced any better than retail on eBay. But maybe spending a bit of money on an undoubtedly useful and highly informative textbook would be quite a wise investment.

11 Thoughts on “Learning to judge quality

  1. Thoroughly enjoying reading you well researched and well thought out posts. Was actually suggested to visit your blog by a reader of mine. What I find is even once you draw up the scale of assessment you actually have to find the pieces that match it in quality and availability and that for me has been the hardest part. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us. It’s a pleasure to read them!

    • Ah yes, I’m kind of dreading finding out what makes a good quality garment and then simply not being able to find a good quality garment! But I’d be interested to learn anyway, even if having that knowledge ends up being frustrating and depressing when I find out just how much poorly made stuff there is out there.

  2. Very interesting post, as always. I’m fascinated by the 1989 study, and would love to see something similar with newer data, although I doubt if much has changed.

    Re: the information cues – I wonder if we no longer recognize quality at least in part because fewer people sew their own clothes, or fewer people saw their parents sew their clothes. I feel like a lot of what-used-to-be-considered basic information (recognizing different fabrics, stitches, seams) is disappearing. Same goes for basic skills like knitting or mending, even knowing how to do laundry or iron properly. We no longer know how clothing is made, or what types of solutions make clothes last. Of course I am generalizing here – there are still plenty of people who are very knowledgeable. I guess I mean that knowing clothes is no longer a necessity, but more like a hobby.

    • Yeah I would be keen to know if any studies have been done more recently comparing price to quality. Shall have to look into that. I can’t imagine the results would be particularly encouraging for people on the lookout for quality.

      There’s a paper I looked over briefly yesterday about the changing ways in which women managed their wardrobes between 1880 and 1930, so it includes the transition period when ready-made clothing became popular and home-sewn items lost their prestige. Presumably during the transition period, the women buying ready-made clothes were often ones who were familiar with home-made garments, so they would still know how to look for a well-made item. But then as you move further and further on from that, you get to the point where the majority of people aren’t familiar with making garments, and you get the changing financial market in which profits become more and more important, so clothes manufacturers start to cut corners where they can because the average consumer doesn’t know much better. Seam allowances are smaller because it uses less fabric and saves more money, stitches are longer because that means fewer stitches and faster production and fewer paid hours for workers… and consumers just accept that because they’re kind of clueless about how things could be any different.

      Unfortunately I can’t see that changing to any huge extent, since the time and effort involved in home-sewing garments is pretty intensive. But for people who have a bit of spare time and can make some effort, it’s probably worthwhile learning how to be a more discerning judge of quality, even if they’re probably never going to get around to making their own clothes. Although as Tania mentioned above, even if you can judge quality more accurately, you still have the problem of trying to locate any good quality garments in a market clearly dominated by mass-manufactured garments that were made without longevity in mind.

  3. I have my fingers crossed that you will share what you learn with your readers…as I am a naive shopper myself. However, I have learned a thing or two by visiting sewing blogs.

  4. The funny thing is that I find quality and fit equally important — and I think that a good manufacturer excels in both. You seldom find one without the other although most designers are likely to be inclined to providing a good fit – it’s much cheaper. It used to be when people had their clothes custom made, you sort of knew what you were getting. Your tailor would pick out a good piece of cloth and he could tell you off the bat everything that made it good or bad – made in Italy, woven on wooden looms, from the 1902 crop of goats or something to that effect. I guess that’s why Jermyn Street still has such an incredible reputation.

    This reminds me of a small excerpt from Lucy Siegle’s book where she talks about an Indian tailor who loved sewing but was eventually forced to just sew buttons all day at a fast-fashion factory because people stopped buying tailored clothing. It was a pretty depressing moment for me. Our unthoughtful, greedy consumption has led to actual artisans being pushed out of existence such that all who remain now are either only semi-qualified or hover on the top tier of luxury,

  5. I’ve just stumbled upon your blog and am really enjoying it.

    I think this is a great post that really sums up how bewildering shopping for clothing can be.

    I’ve also been thinking a lot, lately, about how what we know about clothing care also affects the life and appearance of our clothes. I’ve been taking better care of my shoes, and wow, what a difference.

    On the other hand, I have really hard water where I live now, and I’m beginning to notice its deleterious affects on my clothes – they are looking dingy, wearing out, etc. I live in an apartment with shared laundry and am not about to install a water softener. So then I ask myself, is it worth buying nice and potentially more costly clothing if washing it is going to rapidly ruin it?

  6. Rose on April 2, 2012 at 5:06 pm said:

    The difference between the first set of cues and the second one is that the first set adresses technical aspects while the second one adresses mostly aesthetical/emotional aspects. A good quality garment is a garment that has been well-made, not automatically beautiful, trendy or flattering to one’s figure. (I regard fit as mostly a personal issue – what fit me may not fit my neighbour, and vice versa. A thoroughly bodged fit IS a technical problem : somewhere, a pattern didn’t take into account what a living human being looks like).

    Quality is just one aspect of the thing. At the same price, I may buy a not-top-notch garment that makes me look like Audrey Hepburn, and may pass a good-quality garment that is totally frumpy. The thing is that I make this choice knowingly.

    So it’s not all white and black : a sea of beautiful flattering well-made garments vs shoddy, ugly pieces of crap.
    But one has to be able to KNOW what one buys and if it’s worth its cost by taking everything into account.

    And, btw, the surest way to learn about garment quality is to somehow learn to sew, hands down. Once you roughly know how fabric and thread work together, you’d pick your own cues pretty quickly.

    • Jess on April 2, 2012 at 5:21 pm said:

      I agree, it’s not a black and white matter, but my point is that when you know about aesthetic aspects and technical aspects, you can make a more informed choice than if you only know about aesthetic aspects. The vast majority of people don’t know about how to assess the technical quality of a garment, and maybe that’s why we’ve ended up with a market so full of garments of objectively low quality – we buy it because we don’t know better, and so manufacturers make more of it.

      As much as I would love to learn how to sew, I don’t really have time and resources for it at the moment as I am in the last months of a PhD in cognitive neuroscience. This blog is just a way of dipping my toes in the issues by writing about something that isn’t cognitive neuroscience for an hour or two every week and trying to understand these issues a bit better. Maybe in the future I’ll have the time and money to learn more practical skills, but at the moment I only really have time to read about them, regardless of how seriously I’d like to learn about them properly.

  7. Clara on April 9, 2012 at 10:38 pm said:

    learning how to sew : that is exactly what I was going to suggest !!

    but for someone with less time, I would suggest looking/touching as many vintage clothing items as possible. The overall quality is incredibly high, to a point that is hard to believe. The materials from before the 70s were very thick and lasted for decades. They set very hard standards for today… After a while you can spot poor quality at a glance.

    Today, we can only roughly approximate this quality by looking for brands who 1) don’t advertise much (from my experience, an efficient marketing strategy is pretty much ALWAYS in order to justify poor/lower quality -see Claudie Pierlot, Petit Bateau, Maje…) 2) have a generally (middle-)aged customer range (sigh…) and 3) stick to a defined set of items. For example, a shop were you can buy the same style over 10 years shows that they are confident with people liking it, and coming back to buy the same pair again. It shows a bond of trust between customers and suppliers.

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