Quality over quantity

Quality over quantity

Remember that one time when I emptied out my closet and was methodically deciding what was allowed back in? And then remember how my husband and I decided to purge nearly everything we owned, in an insanely short timespan, and move across the country? My methodicalness went out the window, clothes went out the door in a blind frenzy, and what little was left went into a suitcase and a box. (That includes shoes and coats.) I put those into the moving container and packed another small suitcase for the drive from CA to TN, thinking those clothes would be all I had for two weeks, until we were reunited with the container. But the container went into storage, and the two weeks turned out to be two months living out of that one little suitcase. By the time we unloaded the container, it was still ninetysomething outside, and while I really didn’t know what I owned anymore, I knew I had never owned anything for that kind of weather. So there was no hurry to unpack

I did finally empty it all into my tiny closet in the 1963 house we’re renting, and hey!, it mostly fits. But boy is it a weird hodgepodge of stuff — not at all the streamlined set of wardrobe building blocks I imagined. So I’m back to figuring out how to grow a more deliberate wardrobe … from this. In a perfect world — a world where I have more than three hours a week of creative time — I would knit the majority of my own sweaters and sew my own tops. (You’ll never hear me suggest sewing my own jeans. I bow down to those of you that do.) But in reality, I don’t have the time (or the sewing skills) to make more than a fraction of my clothes. I’m committed to making that fraction — choosing things with longevity and making them as well as I’m capable of — but what about the rest? If I don’t want to buy mass-market clothes made in unknown factory conditions for unrealistically low prices, where does that leave me? Especially if my pockets are not deep.

I got into an email exchange with my friend Whitney Bickers, who owns the clothing boutique Myrtle, after she posted the photos above on Instagram. Whitney’s shop is 100% independent female clothing designers, which I think is just so awesome and admirable. There’s a raft of small-scale designer-makers I’ve fallen in love with in the past few years, and the only thing as satisfying, in my mind, as making my own clothes would be supporting them and getting to wear their creations — especially if I can support indie shop owners like Whitney in the process. (Same goes for my friend Courtney Webb of Hey Rooster General Store, here in Nashville, who just added a well-edited collection of small-batch clothing to her tiny second floor.) That killer sweater and tights in Whitney’s pics happen to be from Micaela Greg, the San Francisco sisters who I’ve had my eye on ever since first blogging about them back in early 2012. Whitney has a beautiful new lookbook out featuring that sweater and several other pieces I would be thrilled to own. Also on my list are Minneapolis’ Martha McQuade, who does a combination of sewn and knitted garments, and Nashville’s Elizabeth Suzann, who has also been known to collaborate with local weaver Allison Volek Shelton. I’ve met both Elizabeth and Allison, been to their wildly inspiring studios, and dream of collecting their pieces. And then there’s Elizabeth Yong of Primoeza, obviously. Saving up for a single garment by these lovely people could take me even longer than knitting a sweater, but that’s what I’m vowing to do. Like I said before, I only want to put things into my closet that I love enough to take care of and wear for years, and that make me feel as good about where they came from as I do about how I look in them. Quality over quantity.

Old habits are hard to break — can I learn to buy one thing every few months instead of a few things a month? — but I love this line from a blog post Whitney pointed me to: “women on a budget can’t afford to buy cheap clothes.” A beautifully succinct version of something I’ve been telling Bob (re his Target purchases) for years. Now if only I can remember it the next time J.Crew sends me one of those 40%-off-the-sale-price emails. Maybe I’ll tack photos of Martha, the M-G sisters and the Elizabeths over my desk, and look at their very human, very creative faces the next time mass-market temptation strikes.


PREVIOUSLY: My personal wardrobe crisis / The great closet clean-out, step 1: Emptying the closet / Make, Knit, Mend


Photos © Whitney Bickers, used with permission

28 thoughts on “Quality over quantity

  1. I’m mulling over the purchase of some new leather boots right now- my last two pairs were worn for over ten years! When I’m tempted to buy poor quality cheap ones- I remind myself that I’m too poor for cheap shoes!

  2. Quality over quantity only works if you are not into fashion trends and don’t crave new things. Otherwise you are stuck with the same stuff until it wears out, because you can’t justify getting rid of expensive things you have invested in. Personally I love wearing my old things. In the past I deliberately purchased with this mindset because the high quality items just looked and felt so much better in terms of materials, workmanship and details. I get compliments especially on coats and shoes all the time, and some of them are over a decade old!

  3. One of my issues is wildly changing body shape. I am not the same woman I was 3 children ago. It’s like building my wardrobe from scratch, which can be fun… But also expensive!

  4. Your building blocks should be quality. Keep in mind that even the basics change shape with the times although at a much slower pace. My favorite GAP jeans used to be a little low in the rise for me but the rise has increased over the years and they are perfect now. Short term, “in the moment” fashion can certainly come from Target because the price is right and it will be out of style about the time it wears out.

  5. The constant reminders to myself about only bringing things into my home if they’re made with quality craftsmanship has left me feeling much happier and way more picky. I can go through my day and not even bother to think about buying neat new things because I know there is nearly no chance that that rad looking $20 sweater was made under ethical conditions at any point in production.

    It’s left me placing more value on the things I already own because those things need to be kept in working condition for a long time. I’m putting a lot more emphasis on using up what I have in the yarn/fabric stash first and only really considering buying new stash items if they’re made locally (we have two great spinning mills in my province, so I’m lucky that way). For the handful of times a year when I do buy a new pre-made clothing item, I get to mull over so many wonderful craftspeople making small batches of sustainable items – and only buying a few things a year means that my wardrobe budget isn’t astronomical but I get some super nice things out of the deal. This blog has lead me to some great designers who’s work I’m really excited about (thank you!!).

    Long story condensed – taking more care with how I bring things into my life feels nice.

  6. Yes! I have been cleaning out lately and just dropped a couple bags at the consignment shop. Now slowly adding a couple pieces for this season. Wish I had the time to sew, but alas..

    What about yarn stash? Did you clean that out too? I am keeping skeins that I don’t love, but feels harsh to donate them.

  7. I do sew, mend, and crochet (and other types of things). Most of my clothes anymore are handmade by me or thrift store. The Junior Leaque or equivalent thrift stores have wonderful quality.

    Sewing is about practice and patience. Something as a knitter you have an abundance of. Start with something simple like the A-line dress from 100 Acts of Sewing: http://100actsofsewing.com/shop. Start with the sleeveless version and run with it. Find someone to ask questions of (email me if you need) and build your skills. Just like knitting. I have made a similar dress out of Italian wool, and yes the wool was expensive, but I love it. It will last for years as long as I am kind to it.

    I do all my sewing on a treadle sewing machine but it just take a needle and thread or a working machine. You can do it.

    I would have to agree with your assessment on most mass produced clothes. Not even just the Targets of the world but you could include most stores.

    Being picky can be both a blessing and a curse.

  8. Thank you for your kind words about the shop, Karen! I am so happy to see this topic on your blog as it was a major motivator for opening my shop when I was coveting handmade designers like Wiksten (Jenny Gordon) and Ilana Kohn and wishing I could see the quality in person. It’s still a struggle to support everyone I want (& afford the closet I would like!) but I think it comes one piece/purchase at a time. I also think it’s great to shop vintage or resale rather than chain stores to help fill out between the investment pieces as many others have suggested.

    And last but not least, I would encourage you to also check out Josi Faye, another wonderful designer interested in classic pieces near you! Xo.

  9. The original quote is from Chanel, who said her mother told that often and bought good quality for her and her sister: “nous ne sommes pas assez riches pour nous habiller bon marché”, which literally means “we are not wealthy enough to buy cheap clothes”. Whether it is true or a legend does not really matter, but this quote endures for a good reason.
    The price tag should not be the only criteria though: if the fabric feels right, and the cut is right for you, do not discard it simply because it is “commercial”. I got pleasant surprises with “cheap” items that ended up fitting me better and enduring longer than more pricey items. But that was a while ago, and unfortunately now cheap usually means poor quality.

  10. I totally agree with you on this one! For me it has become about “clothes that make me feel good”. After having a good look many of them make me feel a bit bleeerggh. I’m on the path to being more thoughtful. Good luck x

  11. This post comes at just the right time. I’m in the same boat as you are! We could only bring four suitcases between the two of us on the big move (it came to about 2oolbs of stuff), including clothes, yarn, books, literally everything. I didn’t notice in the summer because I have enough t-shirts and sundresses to get by, but now that it’s fall I’m really feeling the pinch. Thank goodness our apartment came furnished.
    I could kick myself when I think of the all the money and resources I spent on crappy clothes over the years. Now that I’m starting to shop more carefully, I’m getting to the stage where I have a couple of favorite pieces that have lasted for a long time. The rewards of putting on those favorites is enough to keep me committed to shopping for quality.
    I actually bought a skirt from Myrtle this summer! It’s so fabulous and well-made, it’s something I’m excited to keep integrating into my style for years to come.

  12. I am currently in the proces of creating my own wardrobe, and it does not take as much time as one might fear. Based on your current knitting skills I would think that you could knit your own wool-wardrobe without any problem. And the sewing part is way easier and quicker. So my advice is just go ahead and try, it actually saves a lot of time :)

  13. Karen, still have this post in my head today! It’s my niece’s birthday today and I made her a dress–in this case it cost a LOT more to make than buy because I wanted it to be just perfect for her. In this case my ‘investment’ was financial and also emotional–sometimes the extra money doesn’t matter at all because it’s what you really really want. I think it’s important to remember that buying both ready-made items and materials; sometimes I balk at nice yarn prices, but if you’re going to have the attachment to a garment, the splurge can be worth it! Xo

    • It’s funny, I know full well that a sweater I knit will cost me more (sometimes far more) than I am ever willing to pay in store prices, but I never question buying the yarn. Yes, there are yarns I would never consider using for a sweater because there’s just no way. But I have my choice yarns and know what they cost, and have never once thought to myself “maybe I should knit this with a cheaper yarn.” But I have always been a bargain hunter with store-bought clothes. I know the sale cycles, will stalk the things I want, etc.

  14. Although I applaud everyone who actually manages to buy with consideration for the origin of products for myself I find it more than hard to do it.
    I’m living in Germany and here fairly produced clothes are either clothes not fit for office and not suiting my personal style or aren’t available in my size (and I’m not that slim, rather normal). But as the “Eco”-people are obvioulsy thought to be all at least in their mid-40’s and above, sizes and style are simply not mine.
    Also I can’t find quality clothes in a mid-range price scale (in the time I’m willing to invest for my wardrobe – I have a life to live and actually other interests than searching for clothes!) that are simply basics – either they are much too expensive for me (or at least they cost a lot more than I’m willing to pay for a true basic that is washed twice a week) or these basics are sold by – H&M etc.
    So in my closet there’s mostly store-bought clothes for actually much too cheap prices and I’m sad about it but haven’t found any way around it yet.

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