Quality, Part II

In my last post I asked the question, “Were all clothes in the past just made better of superior fabrics using sophisticated techniques?”  The answer was no, even though today we do have the idea that all clothing in the past was superior to what we find today.  As an example I showed a really poor quality shirt from the 1950s.

Today I have another shirt from the 50s, or maybe the early 1960s.  This shirt was also a low cost item.  But there is a big difference in the quality of the two items.

When I was a kid in the 1960s, probably the worst thing you could say about a product was that it was made in Japan.  To my parents, that just signaled that the item was cheap junk.  In the years after WWII, Japan rebuilt its manufacturing economy by producing many cheap goods which were mainly exported.  It was sort of the China of the 1950s and 1960s.  Of course, that was all to change when Japan reemerged as a manufacturing powerhouse, building cars and electronics that caught American makers sleeping.

But back to my shirt…  It was a product of the “cheap” Japan, and I’m guessing it only cost a couple of dollars when new.  And even though it was a cheap product, the quality of this shirt is considerably better than the one I showed yesterday.  Please excuse my dreary photos (dark and rainy here) as I point out the details.

The shirt is a true black, but the photos are light to show the stitching.  This shirt has flat felled seams, and you can see how short the stitches are.  Short stitches cost more because they use more thread, but of course, they wear better.  Also, notice the nice curve and crisp point of the collar.

On a shirt of this price, you would expect to have four buttons, so the three  groups of three buttons are a real extravagance!  Plus, they are a nice design element.

This shirt has shaping darts for the waist, but these are nicely finished.

The short sleeves are machine hemmed, but they are meant to be rolled so that there are no stitches seen except for the underarm seam.

It’s hard to tell from my photo, but the side and underarm seam stitch rows are very close together, about 1/4 inch.  It makes a nice, tidy seam line.  The last thing can’t really be seen, but the fabric is quite smooth and nice.  It appears to be 100% cotton, and the color is very deep and strong.  The bottom line is that even though this shirt was considered to be cheap in its time, by today’s standards, it’s a fairly well-made garment.

Today manufacturers save money on a garment by cutting corners so subtly that many consumers don’t even notice.  Instead of having fourteen stitches to the inch, they will try to stretch it to ten, or nine.  Excess buttons are eliminated.  Cheaper fabrics are substituted for these of quality.  Those thin jersey tee shirts that are marketed as “vintage?”  They are made from paper-thin fabric to save money, not because they look vintage.

I think that the big difference is in what people expect from their clothes.  I know that when I was a child people expected for clothing to last for more than a few washings.  When I was nine or ten a new clothing store opened in our little town.  People were all excited about it because it advertised low, low prices.  Well, what everyone soon found out was that meant low, low quality, and within a year the store had closed.

Contrast that with today, a time when quality is not the first consideration, price is.  We have willingly given up quality so we can have cheaper, and thus more, clothes.

13 Comments

Filed under Viewpoint, Vintage Clothing

13 responses to “Quality, Part II

  1. Ultrawoman

    On a lot of stuff I buy, I’ve noticed larger stitches, even twenty, thirty years ago. Back in the Eighties, I had a blouse where they only went around the buttonholes once.

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  2. Yep. Who cares if it’s going to fall apart after a few washings, when it’s so easy to replace with another cheap, disposable item? Unfortunately, many people don’t seem to realize how cheap (and often, unattractive) these garments *look*, even when new.

    I love blouses and dresses with those triple button clusters! Cute blouse.

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  3. As someone just starting to learn to sew, I really appreciate these entries– it’s seriously helpful to see an experienced sewer point out the finer details of a garment!

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  4. In a few days I’ll do a post showing an expensive shirt from the 1950s, so stay tuned.

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  5. I regularly show a 1950s prom-style dress from my Fashion Study Collection to students. It is strapless and made of fairly cheap nylon. I’m sure it did not cost much for the consumer. Yet, the bodice is boned! So a cheap 1950s dress was made with structural integrity even though it wasn’t an expensive piece.

    Nowadays, designers compensate a lot with stretch and skip boning or petershams. I try to explain to the students that if you skip basic construction rules, the poor lady will be hiking up her strapless dress all night.

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  6. Lizzie, I was looking at your last few paragraphs and thinking about how this cheap “fast fashion” has wrecked the fun shopping/fashion experience. In the 60s and 70s the stores got new clothes twice, fall and spring, and it was so exciting to look at magazines and plan a wardrobe for that season. We put a lot of thought in how things would work together and how they would last. We took good care of things–darning our socks and maintaining our shoes. In between seasons, we would sew or knit to get something new. I went back to sewing two years ago because shopping was just too depressing!

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    • You are so right! I can remember when the stores would bring out the clothes for the new season. It was a big deal! You could window shop for weeks, and then do your buying because you knew the store would still have the pieces you wanted.

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  7. Wire 9 Vintage

    Excellent posts on quality. I have a particular love for the old “cheap” pieces. I love flipping through the racks at a thrift store and in the midst of faded, pilled up, stretched out items, out will step a fifty-year-old top or skirt or dress that looks like it could have just been unpacked to hang in a shop–the first time. They are hardly luxurious garments, but their lasting power is impressive! I usually have to give the darlings a good home and continue their life on more wearing. I’ve yet to have a problem with wearing or washing!

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