How Much Does Quality Cost?
In one form or another, this question turns up every couple of days on the forum: “I’m looking for a quality suit/shirt/shoe/pair of underwear. How much should I spend?” Before answering this question, it’s best to specify what “quality” is. Quality is not fit; nor is it style. Assuming you have a department store full of identical suits, all cut in the same shape and designed with the same details, how do you identify and measure quality? There are two aspects to consider: what the garment is made of, and how it’s put together. In other words, material and method. Let’s start with material.
Not all fabrics are created equal. Cheap wool uses short, brittle fibers, woven just tightly enough to hold everything together. The resulting fabric will have the body of tissue paper, wrinkle like wax paper, and pill uncontrollably. On the other hand, some companies approach weaving like a science. All sheep produce wool, but some sheep produce better wool. Most wool is bulky and scratchy, but Merino sheep’s wool, for example, contain fibers with some of the smallest diameters – 24 microns and below – which not only makes it soft, but allows it to bend and stretch without breaking and pilling like thicker fibers.
Short fibers are cheap to make, but they fray and separate easily. Longer fibers are prized for greater strength and resiliency, but cost more to manufacture. Some weavers twist two or more fibers together, which gives the fabric greater spring, drape, and wrinkle resistance. Others comb short woolen fibers to create flannel, a fabric of unparalleled softness and warmth. All of these qualities require additional steps and processes that can be useful, desirable, or both. Regardless of whether or not you are willing to pay the price for them, they undeniably add to the excellence of a particular material.
Whereas the measurement of quality material is objectively unequivocal – no one wants to wear a flimsy, scratchy, pilly suit – quality of method is not so distinct, at least not anymore. Time was, if you wanted a suit to last, it was made by hand, since the clumsy, brutish contraptions of yore couldn’t compete with the finer, more dexterous needlework of a skilled tailor. Nowadays, some parts of the suit not only can be machine-made, they are all they better for it, pieced together with elaborate stitches that are stronger and more uniform that any human hand, and in a fraction of the time.
What about the method can be quantified? For one, the way a jacket is canvassed, or lined. Jackets are canvassed because one of the downsides of having a quality fabric that springs back to shape and lays flat is that it often won’t drape smoothly over your shoulders, chest and torso without help. To put it another way, it’s difficult to mold a two-dimensional fabric into a three-dimensional form. Lining the jacket (between the outer fabric you see and the interior of the jacket) with a more malleable material gives it structure, and allows the jacket to be shaped to follow more corporeal contours, and to eventually take on your own body’s silhouette. Whether you have the frame of Albert Beckles or Albert Jackson, a properly-cut canvassed jacket fits and flatters the wearer in comfortable, masculine elegance.
There are several methods of canvassing, the best of which is known as full-canvassing. This involves sewing the interlining (traditionally horsehair blended with other natural fibers, but can also be different fabrics), starting at the top of the shoulder and extending down the front to the bottom of the jacket. This provides all the benefits mentioned above, but as it is time-consuming (and often done by hand) it adds substantially to the price tag.
Left to right: haircloth, wrapped hair cloth, wool canvas, and fusible interlining
A more economical method is fusing, or gluing, an interlining to the shell of the jacket. This greatly decreases production time, but at a cost – the resulting stiffness of the glue and interlining can leave a jacket looking like a lifeless mannequin, and in some cases the glue can actually deteriorate (due to cleaning and pressing) and the interlining will detach from the suit in spots, causing the fabric to ripple and bubble.
Half-canvassed suits offer a compromise of cost and quality: interlining is sewn to the jacket in the top half, and fused in the rest. This helps reduce overall costs while providing an acceptable measure of shape. If you’d like to read more details about the differences between these processes, Styleforum member and
tailoring guru Jeffery Diduch wrote a fantastic article about the various methods of canvassing here.