Before I went zero waste, I would buy fast fashion clothing, and I wouldn't be that surprised when a cheap t-shirt developed a hole or its color faded after a few washes. But for the past few years, I’ve been investing in higher quality clothing made of natural materials, and I’ve been taking better care of my clothing. I've come to appreciate each piece in my wardrobe and have embraced the routine maintenance that comes with nicer things. Here are a few things you can do to make sure your favorite pieces last for years to come. And some tips for how to find good quality clothing in the first place!
It starts with quality
How a piece of clothing wears over time depends on what it’s made of and how it was constructed. When I’m shopping the secondhand stores, I look for brands that are known for quality and timelessness. I recently found a Pendleton original from around the ’70’s and it was still in perfect condition. Even if the brand isn’t one you are familiar with, there are ways to read a garment’s quality when you’re looking at it in the store. Between my conservationist grandmother and my friend who is a stylist, I’ve picked up a few tips over the years.
Genevieve and her vintage windbreaker where she found it, at the Fruit & Antiques market in Thorpe, WA
My top tips to find quality clothing pieces:
- When you’re looking at an item, look for even, straight stitching, reinforced seams, and heavier duty thread. The tighter the stitches (meaning the more stitches per inch) the better, so pull gently at the seams to make sure there are no gaps between threads.
- The thread on the seams should match the fabric - unless it’s a contrasting design element.
- Seams should lay flat with no puckers or irregularities, and if you turn them inside out, the edges should be finished (meaning the unsewn edge of the fabric should be tucked in rather than exposed).
- Thicker fabric is another sign of quality; clothing shouldn’t be see-through when held up to light, especially materials like silk or cotton.
- To test how the fabric will wrinkle, hold it bunched up in your hands for a few seconds and make sure it doesn’t stay wrinkled. And when you gently stretch or pull the fabric and then let go, it should resume its shape.
- Buttons should be tightly sewn on. Spare buttons sewn onto the tag shows that the piece was designed to last long enough to see a few minor repairs, which is a good sign.
- Metal zippers last longer than plastic. For the most part, on better quality clothing, zippers will be concealed by an extra strip of fabric rather than exposed.
- For patterned clothing, check to make sure the pattern is matched on the pockets and runs continuous from the body to the arms. If the pattern doesn't match up, the item may be of lower quality.
- And lastly, natural materials like linen, cotton, denim, wool or silk tend to last longer than synthetics. They are often more forgiving and will wear better over time.
Wash on cold with natural detergent
Washing your clothing on the cold setting will help your clothes to last a little longer. Over time, high heat can fade and shrink many fabrics, so try to avoid the warm/hot settings unless you’re washing whites or stained clothing. I like to wear each piece multiple times between washes to help extend its life, as the washing machine can be a little harsh on the fibers as time goes on. Using a natural laundry detergent is gentler on clothes and your skin.
Line dry or use dryer balls to shorten dry time
The same rule applies to drying your clothes: heat can shrink, fade, and wear down clothing fibers over the years. Line drying saves energy and helps each garment last. If you do need to use the dryer, wool dryer balls can shorten the time it takes for your clothes to dry, meaning less wear and tear. Dryer balls work by creating air pockets as the clothing turns in the dryer, allowing the heat to circulate more evenly as they bounce around. They lift your clothing apart for better airflow, which allows the clothes to dry faster. Added benefits: they reduce static, and you can scent them with essential oils!
Set of 3 dryer balls, $17 at Eco Collective
Use a guppy bag to wash athletic gear
When you wash athletic gear or other synthetic clothing, there are washing bags called Guppy Bags designed to collect plastic microfibers from getting into the water table. These bags also help protect your clothing from surrounding materials, allowing you to wash everything in one load without worrying that your denim or zippered items will rub against spandex or other materials that are prone to pulling. My mother always taught me to protect silks or intimates with a mesh laundry bag to keep them from catching or rubbing against rougher clothing. The Guppy bag protects your clothing while also keeping microplastics out of the water system.
Try boiling your whites instead of bleaching
Bleach can wear down natural fibers, and I’m always hesitant to bleach my linen and cotton items. In fact, I haven’t bought bleach in at least 3 years. However, I have a certain pair of white shoes and a white down jacket that are in desperate need of a good clean. In researching alternatives, I read recently about boiling your whites to brighten them and remove stains. Some articles say to use a large pot, bring it to a boil, add a little detergent or baking soda or lemon and let it boil for about an hour, keeping a careful eye on it. Some say it works even better than the washing machine. I haven’t tried this yet, so I can’t vouch for it, but what a simple cleaning hack!
Store your clothes carefully
In Seattle, even with our mild winters, there’s such a difference between our winter layers and our lighter summer clothing, and many of us put fall and winter clothing into storage when spring and summer comes around. I live on a sailboat, so this careful organization is even more important. (And yes, even with my minimalist lifestyle I have a storage unit - it looks very similar to an outdoors store with our tents, skis and climbing equipment.)
I take care to fold and store my clothing in clear storage bins, but occasionally I’ll dig something out and by the time the changing seasons come around, it’s a little worse for wear. I learned my lesson last fall when I pulled out a favorite cashmere sweater and found a couple large holes in one elbow. I was reminded of the cedar my grandmother used to keep in her closets to ward off moths and bugs and keep her clothing in top condition. It’s such an important part of storing clothing, especially wool, and it's such a lovely and familiar smell to me. I’m going to put a few cedar clothing discs in with my fall/winter box this year.
Mend, stitch, darn, sew: keep up with minor repairs
A big part of having clothes that last a lifetime is keeping up with minor repairs. It’s easy enough to sew on a button, but when it comes to mending a hole or a tear, sometimes repairs can be a little more complex. My favorite resource at the moment is the book The Mender's Companion by the Farwoods.
If you don’t have a sewing machine, you might be able to find a friend or family member who does. The golden rule “borrow before you buy” is a good one here, because sewing machines can take up a lot of space when you may only need them once or twice a year. Our Eco Collective members have access to the sewing machine in our store, which they can borrow anytime for repairs or projects! We also host clothing repair workshops every so often and teach people how to mend, sew and generally fix the holes and tears in their garments.
Make friends with your tailor
Whether you need a pair of pants hemmed or you need a large tear patched, it’s so nice to have some one you can trust to handle the tougher repairs. Plus, when I'm familiar with a quality tailor in my neighborhood that has good rates, I'm much more likely to take my things in for repair and keep up on the maintenance. (A good cobbler is another must-have. To read tips on how to care for leather shoes, we look to Fashion Revolution’s blog which is part of their Loved Clothes Last series.)
Photo taken by Anya Nnenna for Eco Collective
When we buy things built to last, we’re investing in a less wasteful world and saving money in the long run. From choosing good quality clothing to how you wash, dry and store your garments, we hope these tips help you take better care of your clothes. As Fashion Revolution always says, loved clothes last.