We’ve all experienced wardrobe malfunctions — shirts that never looked the same after that first cleaning, buttons that popped off blazers, and pant seams that ripped open. It can be tough to tell which clothes will look and fit great from one cleaning to the next and which ones will fall apart. And paying more doesn’t guarantee that you’ll get better-quality clothes, according to our latest tests. We bought similar blazers, pants and blouses from five popular clothing chains — Ann Taylor, Banana Republic, H&M, J. Crew, and Talbots — and had our textile expert inspect every inch of them.
To assess the clothing’s tailoring and materials, which can affect not only the way a garment wears but also how nicely it drapes and how well it fits, we tore out seams (don’t try this in the store), peeked under the lining, tugged on and inspected stitching, and ran clothes through multiple cycles of dry cleaning or washing and drying, depending on label instructions, to check for pilling, fading and loose buttons.
No one store was best in every category, but there were a few surprises. H&M, though not a winner, did pretty well, making the store’s inexpensive clothes seem like an even better value. We found high-end details like functioning buttonholes on jacket sleeves. (Many jacket sleeves have buttons simply sewn onto the fabric.) Talbots, on the other hand, was a little disappointing. Construction details like piped lining, which every other store offered, were missing on the jacket we bought from that higher-priced brand.
Here are the rest of the results and the winners. Plus we’ll tell you easy ways to spot well-made clothes on your next shopping trip and how to take care of them so that they look great every time you wear them.
What to look for in shirts:
- Straight, smooth stitching at the hems: If there’s a diagonal wrinkle, the shirt may have been pushed through the sewing machine too quickly or at the wrong angle.
- Two layers of fabric across the shoulders: This is called a double-lined yoke and it makes the shirt sturdier and gives it a more structured look.
- A separate button placket: This is an extra layer of fabric around the buttonholes. Also make sure that the buttons are neatly sewn. If there are loose threads the whole thing could unravel.
- French seams: These are a nice detail, and since all the edges are encased, the seams are smoother and stronger.
- Thick fabric: Shirts made with sturdy materials will last longer and drape better. They’re also not as see-through.
- Frayed or unfinished inside seams
- A collar that doesn’t fold down smoothly: It’s a sign the fabric wasn’t cut properly. Also look under the collar; the stitching there should be smooth and without wrinkles or puckers along the seam.
How to protect shirts from getting wrecked in the wash:
- Wash white shirts in cool or warm water: Wash them only with other whites. To prevent underarm stains, try adhesive strips like Garment Guard, $11 for five pairs at www.amazon.com.
- Undo all buttons: It’ll keep themfrom falling off in the wash.
- Don’t completely dry shirts: Pull them out of the dryer while they’re still a little damp and iron them right away. The moisture makes de-wrinkling easier.
- Watch out for shrinkage: Don’t be surprised if your size 6 blouse looks more like a 4 after you wash it. When we washed the J. Crew and Ann Taylor blouses, they shrank nearly an inch in width, and machine-washable pants from Ann Taylor shrank more than three-quarters of an inch at the hips. Testing standards allow some leeway, and that can mean a whole size difference. A little spandex (1 to 5 percent) can compensate for small amounts of shrinkage.
- Try a smooth move: No-iron finishes cost a bit extra, but they’ll save you a ton of money on dry cleaning. Just one bummer — they may reduce the life of the garment by as much as 25 percent.
What our testers found for a plain white blouse:
Ann Taylor, $58Pros: This shirt had thick fabric, like the winning blouse at right. And it can go into the dryer. There’s no label saying it must be line dried, as the other shirt’s label says. Cons: No separate button placket.
Banana Republic, $58Why it’s a winner: This blouse got our highest marks overall for its excellent construction. It has French seams, a double-lined yoke, and was made from a thick fabric.
H&M, $19.90Pros: Although this shirt was the least expensive of the bunch, it had a separate button placket, a nice extra. Cons: It has just a single layer in the back yoke, a shortcut manufacturers use to keep costs down.
J. Crew, $59.50
Pros: Detailed piping on the inside of the collar will keep it from stretching. Cons: This one had the second-highest price but didn’t offer high-quality extras for the money.
Talbots, $68Pros: This shirt has princess seams, which are better than darts because they create a more tailored fit. They’re also more costly to make. Cons: The shirt was made of lighter fabric than others we tested.
What to look for in pants:
- Straight seams: When you pick up the pants by the waistband, the side seams should be perpendicular to the floor. In a poorly made pair, you’ll notice the seam curves, which can lead to fit problems.
- A smooth-running zipper: Whether the zipper is metal or plastic, it should work properly. Run it up and down a few times in the store to make sure there are no broken teeth or loose threads to catch on.
- Tight stitching: This means seams, like those in the seat and legs, are less likely to open up or rip. It’s easy to check: See how many stitches there are per inch in the seam — more than nine is good; fewer than six or seven is bad.
- Neat finishing: There should be no threads or thread nests hanging from the seams. That shows that care and attention to detail went into the construction.
- Slim waistband: It’s a sign that a lighter fabric was used inside the garment to minimize bulk. Feel the waistband to check for bulkiness.
- Sturdy fabric: It gives pants a nicer fit and feel.
- Deep blind-stitched hems: Unlike the visible hem that’s rolled and straight stitched, these are easier to lengthen or shorten on dressier pants. (Visible hems are fine for jeans and casual pants.)
- Pleats that don’t lie flat when the pants are on a hanger: It might mean shoddy quality. If the pleats are flat on the hanger but open up when you put the pants on, you may need the next size.
- A too-low zipper pull. A zipper that’s tough to grab and pull isn’t just annoying, it’s also poorly sewn on.
How to make them last longer and look great:
Hang up your pants the right way: Don’t just fold them in half at the waist and slide them on a hanger. Hold the pants upside down and line up the cuffs. (If your pants have a front crease, use that as your guide instead of the sides.) Don’t use wire hangers because they’ll make a bend in the pant leg that you’ll have to steam or iron out. Use stronger plastic or wood hangers.
Check labels before laundering: If the label says it’s OK to put the pants into the washing machine, just be sure to turn them inside out first; it will help keep the color from fading.
Empty your pockets before throwing your pants in the hamper: Little slips of paper and receipts that make it into the washer and dryer can leave what look like pills all over your pants.
Remove a tag without the snag: A seam ripper (about $2) makes it easy to cut one thread at a time so you won’t catch the fabric and create a hole. It’s good for opening stitched-down pockets too.
What our testers found for plain black pants:
Ann Taylor, $68
Pros: Nice thick fabric. Cons: Rolled hems, where the stitching is on the outside (the way it is on jeans) don’t necessarily mean poor quality, but if you have your pants lengthened, you’ll be able to see the tiny holes.
Banana Republic, $78Why they’re a winner: These had lots of smart construction details, including tight stitching, neat finishing and deep blind-stitched hems. The lighter fabric in the waistband makes the pants feel better since it minimizes bulk.
Pros: Four nice-size pockets. All the other models had some small or half pockets. Cons: We found sloppy stitching, with hanging threads and thread nests. We even lost a button in the wash because it was sewn on so loosely.
J. Crew, $75Pros: These had nice extra details, including fancy pocket bags made with a different fabric.Cons: There were dusty white marks where the dye faded away after just one or two washes. That shouldn’t happen so fast.
Talbots, $68Pros: Highlights included nice stitching and finishing work like straight hems and smooth seams. Also, the pants are made of fabric that looks good straight out of the dryer. Cons: The rolled, visible hems were hard to adjust.
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