Clothes Are Not Commodities

Posted: Feb 09 2014

A common misconception today is that clothes are just commodities. That is, if you find two similarly styled shirts – blue, striped, and spread collared – then they’re substitutable and differ only in price. This is an understandable attitude when you consider how few men today understand how clothes are made, or are able to meet the men and women who produce what they wear. Contrast this to the early 20th century, when men had clothes custom made for them by their tailors, and had to be conversant in a certain language.

Of course, clothes are not just commodities. Take trousers, for example. High quality trousers are built from fabrics woven on narrow looms in Great Britain, Italy, or Japan. The narrowness of the looms ensures that the yarns needn’t be made excessively taut, which is necessary whenever a weaver is using large, high-speed, modern machines. Those allow weavers to produce more fabric, but at the cost of putting microscopic breakages in the yarn, which of course results in weaker fabrics. Weaving in these three countries also combines traditional production techniques with centuries of institutional knowledge and skill, thus resulting a type of fabric that yields a more comfortable fit and a longer lasting pair of trousers.

Additionally, there’s the stitching. Well made trousers will have their panels sewn together using a high “stitches-per-inch” count. This takes more time to do (as there are more stitches per inch), but results in a stronger seam and more flattering, elegant line (one that won’t look rough hewn). Exceptionally well made trousers will also often feature pick stitching – a detail that doesn’t necessarily yield any “functional” effect, but does add an element of artisanal quality that shows a bit more handwork and time has been invested in the trousers’ making.

There are other qualities that can be even less noticeable to the untrained eye, but are no less important. For example, a high-quality canvas ban roll – which is what forms the “guts” of the waistband – and hand sewn waist curtain will provide the wearer with a more comfortable and flexible fit. Bar tacks – which are a type of dense stitching – will be used to reinforce areas of high stress, such as the pocket openings, belt loops, and zippered areas. These add to the production time, but help ensure against ripping. Finally, and perhaps most underappreciated, there are on-seam pockets, where the edge of the pocket aligns with the side seam of the trousers. These give a pair of trousers a cleaner, more elegant leg line than the forward slanting pockets you see on most pants.

Once you know how to look for the details, you’ll see that clothes are rarely commodities – things that we can substitute one for another, so long as the styles are the same. However, that doesn’t mean that every expensive item is worth their asking price either. Some cost what they do simply because the company heavily invested in branding and marketing. Others cost what they do because the company spent more money on the time, skill, and materials necessary to make their products. The key is in learning how to see.

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