Are your clothes made to fall apart?

In an era of "fast fashion" some modern clothing isn't lasting nearly as long as garments did in our grandparents' day. Photo / Getty
In an era of "fast fashion" some modern clothing isn't lasting nearly as long as garments did in our grandparents' day. Photo / Getty

We've all experienced the irritation of a much-loved dress or top shrinking in the wash, coming apart at the seams or fraying at the hem.

Many clothes don't seem to last for more than a few wears these days, no matter how carefully we look after them.

Yet in our throwaway society, we often accept this lack of longevity as one of those things. After all, we can just go to a chain store - or online - and buy a new item for the cost of a cinema ticket.

Yet when you splash hundreds on a coat or suit and it meets the same fate, it makes you wonder what's going on.

The soaring popularity of vintage clothing proves that many garments from the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties have lasted decades.

Today, men's shirts are designed to last just 30 washes, according to trade association the International Fabricare Institute. Some brands even use impermanence as a selling point - Nike charges £90 (about NZD$160) for its Mayfly trainers, which were originally designed to fall apart after just 100km of wear.

So what's changed? One obvious explanation is 'planned obsolescence' - a sneaky trick to design garments to wear out, lose shape or fall to pieces easily to force consumers to keep buying replacements.

"Our grandmothers would buy a coat expecting it to last at least four winters, but because clothing is so much cheaper today, our expectations are lower," says brand consultant Tony Glenville, who is also a creative director at the London College of Fashion.

"That means manufacturers can get away with producing clothing that isn't well-constructed or finished, meaning its lifespan is often just one season - and sometimes just a single wash."

Consumers are also to blame. Since the late Nineties, High Street chains have been competing to turn around a far greater number of collections at a much higher speed, feeding our appetite for so-called "fast fashion".

Stores have new stock arriving every week and items go out of fashion in the blink of an eye.

It's little wonder women now have four times as many clothes in their wardrobes than in 1980.

Fashion experts recommend buying garments made from natural fabrics such as wool and linen, as these will last longer. Photo / Getty
Fashion experts recommend buying garments made from natural fabrics such as wool and linen, as these will last longer. Photo / Getty

A recent survey found most fashion purchases are now worn just seven times, with 33 per cent of women considering clothes 'old' after a couple of wears.

All this has come at a cost. 'We're so used to buying new clothes that we often don't check the quality - we don't look at seams or the fabric it's made from," says Tony.

And the fabrics we wear today are far less hard-wearing than in the past. Until synthetic materials such as polyester and nylon became popular, virtually all clothes were made of natural materials: wool, cotton, silk and linen.

These are more durable than synthetic and blended fabrics - which is why so many 'vintage' pieces have survived.

And it isn't just the fabric - it's also the construction. Clothes 50 years ago were simply better made, says Daniel Milford-Cottam, a fashion cataloguer at London's V&A Museum.

"I'm always interested in how the allegedly "badly made" clothing from the Sixties and Seventies is actually very well-made, compared to modern clothing," he says.

"People spent more on their clothes in those days, and they were put together properly, with sturdy linings and strong seams."

Much of the problem stems from the conditions in which modern clothing is made. Most of our purchases are made abroad in factories where workers are paid as little as £1.50 (about NZD$2.70) a day.

Driven by the pressure to meet demand, they churn out items, which is reflected in the quality of the construction. This is exacerbated by the fact that in many factories workers toil for 13 or 14 hours a day. No wonder seams are often not finished properly.

When buying clothing, it pays to check that the seams are neat, flat and tightly stitched. Photo / Getty
When buying clothing, it pays to check that the seams are neat, flat and tightly stitched. Photo / Getty

Then there are the deliberate tricks to ensure clothing won't last. "There are ways to ensure inbuilt impermanence," says Daniel.

These include using inappropriate fabric, or coarse stitching on delicate material, which accelerates the wearing of holes in a garment during washing.

Firms take for granted that modern washing machines are hard on clothes, that most of us use too much detergent and that we seldom check clothing labels carefully.

Many garments are made from a blend of two fabrics, such as cotton and polyester, which shrink differently in the wash, destroying the shape of the clothing.

"Fastenings are another one," says Daniel. "You almost never see a button that's properly sewn on - they're put on by machine, and the stitching isn't finished off, so they're guaranteed to fall off.

"A lot of people are too lazy to sew a button on, so when they lose one, they buy a new shirt."

Button-holes are often haphazardly made, which leads to fraying and loose threads. Zips, too, can cause problems, as they are often sewn in crookedly.

"Overstitching, which is stitching along the edge of fabric to prevent it from fraying, is also rarely finished off in modern clothing - it's just a running seam that is whipped off the machine at the end," says Daniel.

"After a few wears, a thread works loose, you give it a tug, and the whole seam is gone."

All this has consequences for the environment, too.

British consumers send 30kg of clothing per head to landfill each year, and because most of our clothing is made from synthetic, petroleum-based fibres, garments we've worn a handful of times will take decades to decompose.

Studies also suggest that microfibres - tiny threads shed from synthetic fabric - could be poisoning our waterways and food chain.

So what should we look for when buying clothing? Tony recommends buying fewer items and focusing on natural fabrics such as cotton, wool or linen.

"Invest in wool and silk and you'll have an item that can be worn for years," he says. "Natural fabric is built to last."

It's also worth taking the time to properly examine an item before buying. "Turn it inside out and check to see if the seams are straight, neat, flat and strong, with no threads coming loose," he says.

"In a poorly made garment, if you gently pull a seam you'll see a lot of daylight between the stitches. Better quality garments have tighter seams."

Price is no guarantee of longevity, but some items are worth splashing out on. "For something you really want to last, such as a winter coat or a suit for work, it's worth investing in the highest wool content your budget allows," he says.

Avoiding fussy details will also ensure clothes last longer, Tony says. "Extra details, such as a part of a garment which is made from different fabric to the rest, or unnecessary zips, will ensure that after a few washes it will start to look scruffy and old or misshapen. Items with clean, classic lines are always the best bet."

- Daily Mail

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