This is a follow-up article to the first post in a series about quality. In this article we dig deeper into how materials, workmanship and origin of garment affect the value for your money.
Comfort, durability and correct fit are determined by the materials and construction methods used. For example, a pair of leather shoes at 200 euro price point might be made of either high quality or almost unusable leather. Similarly, a summer suit can be either cool even on a hot day or unpleasantly sweaty in a cloudy day.
Let’s take shoes as our first example, because the biggest difference in material costs is found on shoe materials. Synthetic “plastic leather”, costs only a couple of cents for a pair and so called mechanically polished leather, also known as “polished binder”, “hurricane hide” and such is very cheap, as well, being priced only a couple of euros for a pair. On the other end, top-quality veal or horse leather hide can cost up to hundreds of euros per pair while providing material only for 1-3 pairs of shoes.
Learning to define quality of shoe leather yourself is very useful skill indeed, because one can not make precise assumptions basing only on price. I have found good leather on <100 euros shoes and worthless materials on 400 euro shoes (beware of fashion brands). You can feel the difference every time you maintain your shoes: first-rate leather is easily polished while mechanically polished leather, usually coated with plastic, on the other end is practically not serviceable at all.
Financial difference between cloths is a bit smaller. Most common mistake is to believe the salesman who praises fine and lightweight cloth: it might look good, but it won’t last. It should be obvious which one lasts longer – a thin, less than 100g / m2 fine fabric dress shirt or 200 g / m2 heavy-oxford-cloth shirt. The fabric should be chosen according to use, fine cloth is fine and luxurious on special occasions, but no one should believe the seller’s assurances to the superiority of finer fabric in everyday use.
While you evaluate fabrics you should trust your own judgment just like you do with shoe leather. You should gather all information available which help you decide whether material is good or not, because brands rarely indicate real properties of the fabric. If you somehow become aware of fabric manufacturer’s name, then you can be relatively sure about the quality of the fabric.
How much fabric is needed, then? T-shirt materials cost between few cents to few euros maximum. Shirt materials cost a bit more; from a couple of euros to up to ten or twenty euros per meter. About three to four meters of cloth is needed for a suit and it will cost the manufacturer between few euros to a couple of hundred euros – exotic fabrics, though, can easily cost more than a thousand euros per meter. When suit is made of patterned cloth, and the patterns are fixed precisely, there will be more scrap, thus the price will be higher. No one shoud save a penny there, because prompt alignment will give piece of mind everytime you see yourself in a mirror.
The price of the fabric, however, while being an indicator of the absolute quality of the fabric, doesn’t necessarily mean that the more expensive fabric is better for the intended use. As with shirt fabrics, the sheer, lustrous fabric with a high “super” number can be really luxurious to wear in special occasions, but would last mere days in everyday use. Thus, pay attention to the purpose. If you are looking for a good suit to be used to work, the worsted wool is your friend, without any additives (do not believe the “polyester makes the suit more durable” -hype). The “super” numbers from 80’s to 140’s are definitely enough, while the weight of the fabric should be on a range of 250-400 g / m².
The outer layer isn’t the only thing that makes the suit comfortable. When people complain about the sweaty feel of their suit, the polyester lining is most often the culprit. The lining fabrics, being closest to the wearer, are the most significant factor of how the suit feels. Polyester should be avoided at all costs, while semi-synthetic fibers, such as viscose (rayon) and cupro (also known as Bemberg) are the most comfortable ones. Silk, while luxurious, should be reserved for special occasions only. Of course, even unlined suits do exist and if one breaks sweat easily, might be the best solution.
The labor costs variy significantly. For example, a T-shirt stitching has only a few steps and sewing it takes less than half a minute, thus labor costs are only a few cents per t-shirt. On the other hand, a tailor made, or bespoke, suit requires a number of fittings, lots of handsewing using needle and thread and will take dozens of hours, hence the final price generally rises up to thousands of euros in Finland and Europe in general.
Since each operation always add costs the manufacturers aim to minimize the steps. For example, the reason why stock trousers rarely fit is because the patterns are optimized in order to minimize sewing and pressing operations i.e. production costs. For the same reason, the manufacturer is optimizing other costs, too. For example, buttons are rarely fixed properly. The stitches are too loose and lacking a proper stem too often, too. Paying attention to proper details is a sure-fire way to see weather item is properly made or not.
To sum up the workmanship issue: Customer should check the materials and any hints about manufacturing process in a factory made garment. The work in a common factory line is designed in a way that even unskilled labor can do it, hence workmanship itself is issue only in tailor made garments. Of course, there are processes that blend the both, using skilled artisans performing the dedicated tasks, that are commonly seen in high-quality ready-to-wear and made-to-measure garments.
The place of manufacture affects the price. Even though the freight costs are reasonable for clothing, duties increase the price for more than one third. Import duty for clothing outside European union is 12% and the 24% VAT (In Finland) is added on top of it, which means 39% increase in total (1,12*1,24 = 1,389).
When comparing two products of the same price, one manufactured outside EU (e.g. Vietnam, China etc.) and other one manufactured inside EU (e.g. Italy, Poland, Romania etc.), you can expect better quality in a European product. Even if there are some differences in margins there should be some extra money spent on materials instead of duties. Of course situation might change if a European garment is a product of a high margin brand, when the overall equation turns into a more complex one…