Fabric 101: Our Expert Guide To Buying And Caring For Your Clothes

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From cotton to polyester to wool, we've got the best expert tips for buying and caring for fabric. Click through for everything you need to know about natural and man-made materials.


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Cotton

Worth The Splurge: According to Jerker, there's really nothing quite like a 100 percent cotton tee. "It looks great, feels so comfortable on the skin and lasts almost a lifetime." If that's not an option, a blend can work just as well. Still, because it's so breathable, it's important to have at least some natural material in your undershirt.

Quality Check: Always go for the softest possible style. That means there's a higher thread count, and that it will last longer (and be more comfortable, of course!). You'll find some great options in Goldstein's QVC line, LOGO.

Care Secrets: So long as the item's been pre-shrunk, you should be fine with any wash setting. And don't stress if it starts to stretch out a bit! "I love stretched-out, worn-in tee shirts," Goldstein told me. "I think we have to stop thinking of clothes being so precious!"  

The Downside: It absorbs moisture very quickly, including all your sweat. You need to wash cotton constantly during the summer!


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Lace

Worth The Splurge: Underwear, since it sits so close to your skin. Also, Jerker recommends that every lady own a lace dress. "It makes you feel so special!"

Quality Check: Lace, Carr explained to me, is actually a knit. That means the most important factor to consider is its gauge, or number of loops per inch. "The higher the gauge, the better the quality."

Care Secrets: Jerker says to treat stains and wash by hand with a mild detergent. Also: "Avoid vigorous scrubbing, as it will distort the fibers."

The Downside: It's much too delicate to throw in the laundry.

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Silk

Worth The Splurge: A versatile blouse, always.

Quality Check: Mulberry silk is the very best silk out there, says Jerker. "It is made from silkworms that are raised in captivity under specific conditions—but it is also the most expensive type of silk."

Care Secrets: If dry cleaning isn't an option (or you simply don't have time), hand wash it in very cold water with mild detergent. Rather than wringing it dry, press the moisure out with a towel and let it hang for a while. Later, use a high-quality iron (Jerker recommends Laurastar's) to smooth out the wrinkles.

The Downside: Anything made from 100 percent silk costs a lot, and is tricky to care for.

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Cashmere

Worth The Splurge: A snuggly sweater. "It's an investment," admits Jerker. "But you can expect to wear it for a decade or more if it's well taken care of."

Quality Check: Do the stretch test: well-made knits won't let much light through. Gerald: "Even though high-quality cashmere is made from the finest hair, it has a density to it."

Care Secrets: Hand wash it with lukewarm water and gentle detergent, let it dry flat, and never, ever wring or twist it! That will completely destroy the original shape.

The Downside: It's pricey. For a more affordable option Lori suggests trying a cashmere/cotton blend. It's also especially nice for warmer weather when you want that all softness without overheating.


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Wool

Worth The Splurge: A winter coat or sweater—it'll be much warmer than any synthetic fiber.

Quality Check: "The length of any individual hair is a key indicator for high-quality wool," Jerker told me. "Hair which is long is also much softer."

Care Secrets: Although you can wash wool in a machine, you should do it infrequently, and on the delicate cycle. But instead of using the dryer, just lay it out flat.

The Downside: Wool can be itchy, and tends to absorb odors.


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Leather

Worth The Splurge: One perfect biker jacket you'll have forever.

Quality Check: According to Carr, the very best leather has a high luster and an "almost squeaky" feel to it. Over time, wear and tear should give it a cool, beat-up patina rather than ruin it.

Care Secrets: As opposed to immersing the entire product in water, Goldstein suggests spot treating stains or—if it's truly dirty—consulting pro cleaners. It also helps to take preemptive measures at home with protective sprays and polishes.

The Downside: Great leather doesn't come cheap. It you can't afford a full piece, look for items with small kidskin accents instead.

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Polyester

Worth The Splurge: You really should never spend a lot on man-made fabrics. Because they're so affordable to make, there are tons of inexpensive options out there.

Quality Check: Despite its bum rap, the experts agree that polyester isn't all bad. "Polyester today is very different from 150 years ago," said Carr. "Because the tech of drying and spinning have a come a long way, they can get a better texture." Even still, rather than going with a completely synthetic style, you should always opt for a poly-blend.

Care Secrets: The beauty of this kind of cloth is that it's incredibly easy to clean. Washing and drying it at home will not mess it up.

The Downside: It's not nearly as breathable as natural fibers, so don't wear it on extremely hot days (or under a bunch of heavy layers during the winter).

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Linen

Worth The Splurge: Lightweight trousers for the summer—they'll keep you feeling cool in a way regular pants can't.

Quality Check: Preminum linen is soft and creases easily. When there's lots of movement, you know it's the good stuff.

Care Secrets: According to Jerker, most linen can be washed on a gentle cycle, but you should still double-check the tag. Hang dry them after that, "and avoid folding them as they crease easily."

The Downside: You'll need to iron it out after every wash.


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Denim

Worth The Splurge: Great jeans, obviously!

Quality Check: Heavy denim holds its shape better and lasts longer.

Care Secrets: Don't wash your jeans too often. If you must, though, Jerker says to turn them inside out and use a bleach-free detergent.

The Downside: None, so long as you find a quality pair that fits. You're going to wear them constantly, so don't be afraid to invest!


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Associate Digital Editor

Several years ago, a certain actress who shall remained unnamed, widely renowned for her brilliant sense of style, launched an exclusive line for a very inexpensive retailer (which, sorry, I'm not revealing either). Between the celebrity angle and the insanely low prices, this collection got a lot of buzz for making high fashion affordable. This was, keep in mind, a time before designer collaborations were de rigueur.

Intrigued, excited and hopeful, my college-broke friends and I showed up at one of this undisclosed company's many locations with big plans to stock up. But the moment our hands touched the clothing, we immediately had second thoughts. Despite the thoughtful, on-trend designs, up close the pieces looked and felt cheap. That's when I learned that a good cut, silhouette and fit means nothing if you've got poor-quality fabric—it ruins everything.

So how, exactly, can you tell if a material's worth your investment? "The feel!" leading fashion stylist, entrepreneur and designer of LOGO by Lori Goldstein, Lori Goldstein says when I email her for advice. "That’s quality—the process of how a fabric is finished and dyed. I love natural fibers, but this is the 21st century, and there are so many amazing man-made options. It just has to be soft and comfortable, regardless of content."

Next, you need to check the label. While there are plenty of good synthetic options out there, most natural fibers wear better, and last longer. This is something Gerald Jerker, a fabric care expert at Laurastar, insists on. "Of course, most of us wear fabrics that are a mixture of natural and synthetic fibers," he tells me over an online exchange. "But I highly recommend looking for a minimum of 80 percent natural fibers. A 100 percent cashmere coat or a 100 percent silk blouse will last a decade, and keep its original beauty if it's well cared for."

Another indicator of well-made fabric is a high thread count. An easy way to check this, according to Jerker, is by holding a section of the cloth up to the light. "The less light you can see though, the more qualitative the fabric." You'll also get an idea by just touching it. Over a long chat on the nuances of wool, silk and more, Jason Carr, co-founder of Softline Home Fashions explains, "The softer the fabric, the higher its thread count—and quality." So really, if you're unfamiliar with the brand, you probably shouldn't buy it online.

Possible pilling is another thing to consider. While every expert I spoke with said no textile completely avoids the annoying balled-up effect, some are more resistant to it than other. "The longer the fiber, the more likely it'll pill," Goldstein revealed. "That's why knits tend to pill more than wovens." Included in this pill-prone family: angora, viscose, nylon, wool and cotton—especially if it's poorly constructed. Cheap or high-end, though, you can reduce fiber breakdown with proper care. Jerker recommends turning the garment inside out before washing, using a gentle cycle and regularly brushing it with a lint brush.

But remember, these are all just general guidelines. The rules of fabric are dependent on whatever kind you're dealing with. To help you shop and care for most any material like a pro, I've asked Goldstein, Jerker and Carr to break down the in and outs of nine different types. Click through the slideshow above for their best tips.

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