Expert tips on how to shop for clothes that last

Everybody knows the sinking feeling of ripping your pants, snagging your tights, or spotting a hole in a favourite t-shirt.

There’s no magic bullet for all life’s clothing woes, but choosing high quality clothing can make these moments fewer and further between.

What can you look for to make sure your clothes are made to last, easy on your wallet, and kind to the planet?

What should you look out for when shopping for clothes?

It may sound simplistic, but the best item of clothing is the one you’ll actually wear.

Chief executive of Mindful Fashion NZ Jacinta FitzGerald said that regardless of budget, investing in clothing that you see yourself putting on time and time again is important.

That means paying attention to whether something fits you well, and makes you feel comfortable.

Bernadette Casey of textile re-use programme UsedFULLY agreed.

“Even the most sustainable garment is unsustainable if it is only worn for a short time then discarded.”

While the initial cost of a good quality piece you love might be higher, if the garment lasts for years to come the cost per wear can end up lower than a cheaper, lower quality piece.

If you can’t afford high quality clothing at retail prices, you don’t have to turn straight to fast fashion.

Textile conservator Tracey Wedge said second hand shopping is a great alternative.

Nearly everyone has an op shop nearby that they can poke through, but there is an increasing number of online resale and consignment platforms that make shopping for pre-loved clothing easy, no matter where you live.

Clothing available secondhand usually has already stood up to some wear already which can be a good indicator of future lasting-power.

Looking through second-hand clothes.

Quality construction

Whether purchasing new or used, look out for quality construction.

FitzGerald recommended avoiding garments with details like “frayed or uneven seams and raw unfinished edges”.

These can wear more quickly than finished seams, and reduce the number of wears you’ll get out of a garment.

You can look out for these when shopping online by zooming in on pictures, but the easiest way to spot good construction is to visit to the shop in person.

That way you can examine the clothes close up, have a feel, and spot things that might be hidden in pictures.

Fabric matters

It’s not just the way a garment is made that matters. The fabric it’s made from plays a big part in the way that it will wear as well – and that’s something that is easy to check.

Products sold in New Zealand must have a care label, as a requirement of the Fair Trading Act, and this label will not only show you the appropriate way to look after your garment, but also its fibre content.

There are a few exceptions to this rule, such as second-hand goods, or garments made from fabric selected by the customer.

Amanda Butterworth.

FitzGerald said to “look for good quality, certified low-impact materials”.

Different fabrics are suitable for different applications, and their properties determine the way that a garment will wear over time.

Amanda Butterworth of Fashion Revolution New Zealand encouraged choosing natural fabrics – that included cotton, linen, wool, and silk – and materials made of a single kind of fibre if possible.

Instead of a cotton and polyester blend, that would mean choosing a garment made of 100% cotton.

She said that natural fibres not only tend to breathe and wear better, but that “a single fibre fabric has a better chance at a second life, whether it’s able to be composted or recycled”.

The plain t-shirt

Let’s take the humble t-shirt as an example of the role fibre can play in longevity.

Plain white t-shirt.

Most t-shirts are made from cotton. In order to make the fabric, fibres are harvested from the cotton plant, and then spun into a yarn.

The yarn is then knitted into the fabric that makes up your t-shirt.

Because cotton fibres are natural, their length can vary. The length of each individual fibre is called the staple.

A longer staple means fewer individual fibre ends will be exposed, which makes it wear better over time.

When a shorter staple cotton experiences abrasion – like the buttons on your jeans, a seat belt, or your granite bench top – it can wear more quickly than the longer staple.

While it’s difficult to tell the difference between longer and shorter staples there’s a few tricks you can try.

Wedge suggested comparing multiple shirts to feel the difference between them. You’re looking for a softer, smoother feel.

Looking at the care label will tell you whether a garment is 100% cotton but it may not tell you what kind of cotton, so knowing the terms to look for helps.

Pima cotton is commonly used when it comes to t-shirts.

This is made up of extra long staple cotton fibres, and can also be known as Supima cotton if it’s grown in the United States.

Egyptian cotton is also made up of those extra-long staple cotton fibres, but is much more likely to be used in sheets or towels than your everyday t-shirt.

The quality of cotton itself is important, but Wedge echoes Butterworth’s concern about blended fibres.

Elastane – also known as spandex or Lycra – is a particularly elastic synthetic fibre commonly used in shapewear, activewear, and tightly-fitted clothing.

It can also be added to the fabric of t-shirts to give them more stretch, and enhance a form-fitting cut.

Wedge cautioned against buying garments where the fabric is blended with elastane unless you need to for a specific purpose like exercise, as it can break down quickly.

If you want maximum lifespan from the basics in your closet, paying attention to the fabrics listed on the care label can make a big difference.

Jacinta FitzGerald.

Shop local

FitzGerald said shop local if possible.

“We have some incredible local businesses with best-practice processes, and an industry with provenance at its heart, and you are supporting local jobs and the local economy.”

Wedge points to woollen mills producing yarn in New Zealand as a good option for locally-sourced knitwear.

If you are shopping from global chains, there are a few things to take into account.

Butterworth said the number one thing she looked out for “is how much clothing a brand is producing”.

Even if you need to continue shopping at fast fashion brands, she recommended avoiding the most prolific producers like Shein.

It manufactures significantly greater volumes of clothing, even topping brands like Zara and H&M.

Consider what will happen to your clothing when it wears out, or no longer has a useful place in your wardrobe, Butterworth said

“Think about how you will dispose or responsibly rehome the garment when you are finished with it.”

Some brands offer recycling or re-sale programs.

Standard Issue, Kowtow, Cactus Outdoor and Ruby are some New Zealand brands that have these programs available.

Mending a hole in a t-shirt.

Mending and repair

No matter which clothes you buy, mending them can extend their lifespan and keep textile waste out of landfill.

Wedge suggested learning to repair minor damage yourself, or even upcycling significantly damaged clothing into something else entirely.

She pointed to visible mending, where damage is fixed in a way that draws attention to it as a stylistic feature rather than hides it, as an increasingly popular option that will extend the life of a garment.

These visible signs of repair are a way of “emphasising that you’re looking after your clothing”.

Making these choices can be tiring and hard for the consumer.

FitzGerald chalks it up to the complexity of the industry.

“Clothing and fashion, in general, have such complex supply chains that it can be difficult to understand whether a brand or product is in fact sustainable.”

And Casey said making the sustainable choice is not just up to you, the consumer, because ultimately companies at all stages of the clothing supply chain are responsible for the impact of their production practices.

“As a consumer the best you can do is only buy what you love, look after it and get the best value out of it by wearing it.”

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