Several years ago, a certain actress who shall remained unnamed, widely renowned for her brilliant sense of style, launched an exclusive line for a very inexpensive retailer (which, sorry, I’m not revealing either). Between the celebrity angle and the insanely low prices, this collection got a lot of buzz for making high fashion affordable. This was, keep in mind, a time before designer collaborations were de rigueur.
Intrigued, excited and hopeful, my college-broke friends and I showed up at one of this undisclosed company’s many locations with big plans to stock up. But the moment our hands touched the clothing, we immediately had second thoughts. Despite the thoughtful, on-trend designs, up close the pieces looked and felt cheap. That’s when I learned that a good cut, silhouette and fit means nothing if you’ve got poor-quality fabric—it ruins everything.
So how, exactly, can you tell if a material’s worth your investment? "The feel!" leading fashion stylist, entrepreneur and designer of LOGO by Lori Goldstein, Lori Goldstein says when I email her for advice. "That’s quality—the process of how a fabric is finished and dyed. I love natural fibers, but this is the 21st century, and there are so many amazing man-made options. It just has to be soft and comfortable, regardless of content."
Next, you need to check the label. While there are plenty of good synthetic options out there, most natural fibers wear better, and last longer. This is something Gerald Jerker, a fabric care expert at Laurastar, insists on. "Of course, most of us wear fabrics that are a mixture of natural and synthetic fibers," he tells me over an online exchange. "But I highly recommend looking for a minimum of 80 percent natural fibers. A 100 percent cashmere coat or a 100 percent silk blouse will last a decade, and keep its original beauty if it’s well cared for."
Another indicator of well-made fabric is a high thread count. An easy way to check this, according to Jerker, is by holding a section of the cloth up to the light. "The less light you can see though, the more qualitative the fabric." You’ll also get an idea by just touching it. Over a long chat on the nuances of wool, silk and more, Jason Carr, co-founder of Softline Home Fashions explains, "The softer the fabric, the higher its thread count—and quality." So really, if you’re unfamiliar with the brand, you probably shouldn’t buy it online.
Possible pilling is another thing to consider. While every expert I spoke with said no textile completely avoids the annoying balled-up effect, some are more resistant to it than other. "The longer the fiber, the more likely it’ll pill," Goldstein revealed. "That’s why knits tend to pill more than wovens." Included in this pill-prone family: angora, viscose, nylon, wool and cotton—especially if it’s poorly constructed. Cheap or high-end, though, you can reduce fiber breakdown with proper care. Jerker recommends turning the garment inside out before washing, using a gentle cycle and regularly brushing it with a lint brush.
But remember, these are all just general guidelines. The rules of fabric are dependent on whatever kind you’re dealing with. To help you shop and care for most any material like a pro, I’ve asked Goldstein, Jerker and Carr to break down the in and outs of nine different types. Click through the slideshow above for their best tips.