How to check the quality of cotton clothing

SANVT Journal

One of the most important prerequisites for creating a long-lasting and sustainable wardrobe is buying high quality clothing. However, in order to be able to put together such a wardrobe, one must be able to evaluate the quality of the fabric. There are vast differences between well-made clothing that will last a long time and fast-fashion products that loose their shape quickly, do not last more than one season, or even cause unpleasant skin irritations. So it’s important to know what distinguishes high-quality clothing from inferior garments and how to recognise these characteristics before buying.

To help you with future purchases, here is an introduction on how to identify high quality cotton clothing. In this article, our focus is on cotton, the main fabric used to create basics and essentials.


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Characteristics of high quality clothing?

Before we go into the details of how to find high quality fabrics, it’s also worth describing what quality means and what distinguishes a premium garment from an inferior one. There are several key factors that define quality:

  • Longevity: A garment should last longer than just a few months. You should not have to worry that your clothes will tear apart when putting them on or taking them off.
  • Resistance: All garments should keep their shape. Even after many washes, clothing should not wear out, shrink or twist
  • Dye: Colours should not fade. Instead, colours should look deep and fresh even after years of wear and washing cycles.
  • Drape: Everyone prefers fabrics with a natural drape that are used to design flattering clothing.
  • Comfort: The fabric must feel good on the skin. Nobody wants a scratchy T-Shirt.
  • Style: Of course, we want clothes that are not only objectively high quality but also subjectively show that quality.

Fulfilling some or all of these requirements costs time but above all money (and ultimately margin for manufacturers). Therefore, it is difficult to discover really good quality at extremely low prices. Of course, it is tempting for most of us to buy an initially great looking piece at a discount price but more often than not differences will appear after the item has been worn and washed.

But there is also another factor: sustainability. Even if quality and sustainable production methods are not always directly related, most sustainable fashion brands also have an ethos that pays extra attention to quality. This is in part because owning a high-quality piece that lasts a long time or even a lifetime is of course more sustainable than constantly buying new clothes and throwing them away (if you want to know more about sustainability, take a look at this other post on how to buy clothing sustainably in our journal).

Premium raw materials have significantly higher prices than standard cotton.

That’s the various factors that make up quality but how do you check the quality of a fabric before buying?

First impressions

Most of us judge a garment by its first impression. Only a few take the time to take a detailed look at the quality. First of all, it is important to see the garment as a whole: a great finish for example is of little use if the fabric is of poor quality and vice versa.

Durability, Softness, Breathability

Even with 100% cotton fabrics there are huge differences in quality. Cotton is very popular because it is versatile, relatively inexpensive and, when it’s good quality, also durable. Some of the quality characteristics we have listed above are a matter of taste, such as ‘look’ and ‘drape’, but the following features can be used to objectively judge the quality of cotton fabrics.

  • Durability: Fabrics made from long staple fibres are normally higher quality because they are spun into a finer yarn. This makes the resulting fabric stronger and more durable.
  • Softness: The length of the fibres is also important for the softness of the material. This is because with short fibres their ends cannot finish cleanly, whereas long fibres are woven more evenly into the fabric.
  • Breathability: One reason why some fabrics are less breathable than others are the tiny air pockets between the individual threads, which provide thermal insulation. Finely combed cotton can be woven very tightly to avoid air pockets and the unpleasant sweaty feeling.

Note the most fundamental quality characteristic of cotton is the length (or staple) of the individual fibres and how finely they are combed – this affects the points above directly. You can read more about cotton quality and fibre lengths in this post on the different types of cotton used in t-shirts and clothing.

Premium yarns are the foundation of high quality fabrics.

Haptics: The tactility test

You can easily tell the quality of cotton by its touch: cotton fabrics made from 100% ELS (extra-long staple), or finely combed cotton feel smooth and nearly silky. Cheaper varieties often lack this softness (unless they are made from inferior polyester blends: so don’t forget to check the care label to make sure you’re buying a 100% cotton T-Shirt). Obviously, touching the fabric is not an option when shopping online: but you can be sure that brands using high quality cotton varieties, like ELS, will mention this on their website and product description.

Soft touch of a quality French Terry knit

Optics: The light test

If you are able to physically touch the garment before buying, another trick is to hold it against light. Even very thin fabrics should not appear fully transparent. If the fabric lets a lot of light through, it is a sign that it is not knitted or woven very densely and is therefore likely to lose shape and wear out easily.

Finishing: The uniformity test

Since cotton is spun to create a yarn, it is easy to inspect the individual threads. These should be even and not show any gaps. Up close, all you should see is a regular pattern of smooth rows.

Clean knitting pattern of a jersey: a sign of high quality cotton (pictured close up of the navy T-Shirt).

When buying clothing online

When buying online, you need to rely on the product description. As a rule of thumb one can assume that the more information you find about a fabric, its composition and characteristics, the higher the quality of the actual fabric and ultimately garment. So, if a brand does not outline the specs of their materials in detail one can assume from the absence of information that the cotton fabric is of inferior quality. At SANVT, we work exclusively with high-quality or finely combed cotton. If you are interested to find out more, you will find details in the product description of each of our products.