As I mentioned in Part 2, labels and brands can be a generally reliable guide to quality in men’s suits and sportcoats. But as I also said, labels aren’t the last word in quality. There are more makers of quality clothing out there than I had room to list, and even some of the ones on the list let quality slip from time to time. The best way to determine whether or not a suit is well made is to learn to “read” what quality looks like in the clothes themselves.
The best way to do this is simply to pay attention over time and handle a lot of suits. When you’ve touched thousands upon thousands of suits in thrift stores, as I have, you develop a sense of what quality looks and feels like that’s almost instinctual. Many times, I’ve been working my way down a rack, and something about the way the fabric of one suit looks will jump out at me. Or I’ll put my hand on it, and I’ll say, “Hey! This feels substantial. Better take a closer look.”
But until you’ve been at it long enough to develop that discerning eye and hand, there are some little indicators you can look for that will help you recognize when the suit you’re holding is of better-than-average quality. Little signs that say the maker put more care and effort in to that suit than the mass-produced pieces of tissue-paper junk that will fall apart on you in weeks.
It’s important to keep in mind that the absence of any or all of these doesn’t mean a suit is poorly made. There are some perfectly fine examples that have few of these. But when you find them, it’s usually a good sign.
The greatest standard of quality construction in clothing is hand sewing. Machines have revolutionized the clothing industry, but a needle and thread in the hands of a skilled tailor still produce a garment far nicer than any machine can make. Even when hand-sewing a detail doesn’t actually make it any better functionally, like with a buttonhole, handwork still tells you that the maker cared about the details and took time with this garment.
Since I mentioned buttonholes, here are two examples. The first is machine-made. See how regular and even the stitching is? Compare that to the second, which was stitched by hand. The stitching is much more irregular and varied. This is the back of the buttonholes, by the way – the part that faces in towards the body.
Next, look at these examples of stitching along lapel and pocket edges, which is called pick-stitching. The first is done by machine. Not only are the stitches all even, with the same length and spacing, they’re obvious and easy to see. By contrast, the handsewn pick-stitching on the edge of the lapel in the second picture is so fine and gracefully done it’s hard to even see it. You can just make out a few stitches near the top of the picture.
Every suit jacket has some kind of stiffening material inside the front of it, behind the fabric that you can see. This stuff – usually canvas, horsehair, and/or manmade materials – gives the front of the jacket its shape and body. On better jackets, it’s a free-floating layer that’s sewn in and has substantial heft and body. In really high-end jackets, it’s sewn in and the lapels are pad-stitched to it all by hand – 5000 stitches or more in some cases. In cheaper jackets, it’s a layer of manmade material that is fused – glued – to the front fabric, and that doesn’t hold its shape as well over time.
See all the little puckers on the back of this lapel? Those are the marks of the hand stitching that painstakingly sewed in this coat’s canvas and horsehair chest piece. You only see those puckers on lighter-weight fabric, but if you see them it’s a good sign.
If you don’t see that puckering behind the lapel, pinch the front fabric just above the bottom buttonhole. Roll it between your fingers; pull the front and back fabric layers apart. Do you feel a separate, third layer in the middle? That’s the floating canvas, and it’s a sign of good quality. If you don’t feel a separate layer, and if the front fabric feels a little thicker than the fabric on the back side, the jacket is probably partially or completely fused.
OK. A few final marks of quality that don’t necessarily have anything to do with hand sewing, though sometimes these are done by hand.
See the way this jacket is only partially lined? It’s not a cost-cutting measure, as you might think. It’s a sign of quality, because all those seams inside the jacket had to be cleaned up and finished beautifully, whereas in a fully lined jacket they’d just be left messy and nobody would know.
Look at the lining of this first pair of trousers. See how the waist lining continues down and is all one piece with the pockets? That’s called a curtain lining. It’s more difficult and time consuming to do, and hence a mark of quality. It’s also more comfortable. Compare it to the second pair (quite a nice pair of pants in their own right), where the waistband lining is a separate piece all the way around and the pockets are distinct pieces. Nice enough, but not as nice as the first pair.
Last but not least, look at the back of this lapel. Not only is it a working, handmade buttonhole that’s large enough to accomodate a real flower, see that little loop below it? That’s where you would tuck the stem of your lapel flower. It’s a completely superfluous detail in the 21st century, because who wears lapel flowers? But the fact that it’s there says the maker cared very much about the traditions of fine tailoring and spared no time or effort to make this suit the very best.
This has been a long post, but hopefully a helpful one. In Part 4, I think I may do a bit about shoes. If you have questions about thrifting or other topics you think I should cover, leave a comment and let me know.