How to Shop
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Interviews by Rebecca Little
HOW TO RECOGNIZE QUALITY GOODS: Local experts tell us what to look for when paying top dollar—or hunting for a bargain.
HATS >> Good hat felt should look and feel smooth, with no linty appearance or gritty texture; the source material for the highest-quality felt is beaver fur. Hold the hat out at eye level to ensure that the brim is level all the way around, and that the overall shape is even and proportional. Flick a finger against the top of the hat: high-quality materials will dampen the noise. The hat should hold a sharp crease and retain its shape, but not be so stiff that it can't be rolled up; a well-made hat will spring back instead of crush. Details such as ribbons and bows should be affixed with hidden stitching, not glue. The interior stitching should be covered with a satin lining and the hat's sweatband should be made of leather, which absorbs moisture and cushions the head. If all else fails, trust your eye—cheaply made hats usually look like just that.
STATIONERY >> The best stationery starts with high cotton content in the paper (most stationery packaging will tell you the percentage). One hundred percent cotton paper is the best-quality writing surface because it is durable, smooth, and easy to write on. Colored paper will appear more deeply saturated if its cotton content is high; dyed cardstock looks flat by comparison. Chandra Greer of Greer, a stationery boutique in Old Town, says assessing quality by feel really comes down to smoothness. "When I feel a really good paper, it's almost like running my hand across a flower because it hasn't been milled to death and retains its original quality," she says. A "deckled" edge will look natural and feathered if done by hand, whereas machine deckling can look choppy and overly uniform.
HANDBAGS >> On a top-quality bag, the pattern in the fabric—whether jacquard, for example, or a print—should line up perfectly where the pieces come together, giving the illusion of seamlessness. Leather bags, both pebbled and flat, should be supple and scratch-free. Stitching along both the inside and outside of the purse should be even and free of pulls, with a snugly attached interior lining that is sewn down and not slipping. Handles, zippers, and decorative flaps should also be stitched to the body of the bag, not glued. Hardware should be metal, not plastic or plated metal, which will chip. Depending on the slouchiness of the style, a well-made bag should stand up on its own without collapsing.
SOFAS >> Sofas are long-term purchases, so a lifetime guarantee is a good first indication of quality. Look for a solid, kiln-dried hardwood frame, which is the gold standard because it will resist moisture and warping. (Lower-quality sofas use laminate or particle board.) Although sofa cushions vary between high-density foam core, feathers, and a combination of the two, sitting comfortably depends largely on hand-tied springs, a component that helps distribute weight evenly through the cushion; upholstered cushions should not feel lumpy. Leather sofas should be made with top-grain leather all the way around (look out for vinyl on the sides and back). A sofa bed should have a real mattress, preferably from a brand name. And, finally, ask whether the sofa's joints use screws (which are better than nails), and if the legs are part of the frame (preferable to removable legs).
CHINA >> Despite their reputation for fragility, porcelain and bone china are actually the strongest and most durable ceramics. First, look for a light, thin edge to the china and a finish free of pits or bumps. An all-white pattern may seem simple to produce, but it can be the most difficult because flaws stand out against monochromatic uniformity. In patterned china, look for subtle gradations of color in the design and crisp finishes, both of which indicate hand craftsmanship. No matter how beautiful the pattern, test the cups to make sure they feel comfortable and balanced in the hand.
MEN'S DRESS SHIRTS >> The tag of a dress shirt can tell you a lot. Egyptian cotton is the best fabric for dress shirts because it boasts a high thread count and a tight weave. "Made in Italy" is also good to see on a tag, since Italian mills typically use the highest-quality thread. "Single needle stitching" indicates lockstitching, a process by which the upper and lower threads meet for the same stitch, preferred because it won't pucker or unravel over time. The shirt's side seam should be barely apparent (in cheaper shirts, the side seam is thick and folded over since it's labor-intensive to hide). The yoke, the wide strip of fabric on the back that runs from shoulder to shoulder, will be two pieces that meet in the center and are cut on the bias (the weave will look diagonal relative to the rest of the shirt) for stretch along the shoulder and durability against daily wear.
HOSIERY >> U.S. companies knit pantyhose on a cylindrical rod, while European companies use a leg form, which eliminates the sagging that comes from poor fit in the ankles and at the knees. So check to see if your hosiery is made in France or Italy, two prominent countries of origin. Regardless of the hosiery's main fiber—wool, cashmere, silk, or cotton—it will feel lighter if it's woven with more nylon than Lycra. Look for breathable cotton in the crotch and a slim waistband that won't bunch or roll. Always hand wash.
SHOES >> Before buying, bend the shoe at the arch to make sure it has flexibility, and check for cushioning near the ball of the foot. Don't overestimate the "breaking in" factor—if in the store a shoe doesn't feel comfortable, it likely never will. Leather soles are ideal and should be attached with fine stitching or welting, usually visible on a men's dress shoe. If a men's dress shoe has a rubber sole it should be stitched to the bottom of the shoe rather than molded and glued on; a glued sole will eventually detach. The best leathers—as well as artisan-level craftsmanship in a unionized industry—come from Italy, so shoes from that country are typically excellent.
MEN'S SUITS >> First, make sure the jacket sleeve hangs straight from the shoulder without puckering and that the fabric lies flat across the shoulder blades without wrinkling. The jacket sleeve should reveal one-quarter to one-half inch of the shirt cuff. As a general rule, the bottom of the jacket should line up with the top of the thumb when the arm hangs relaxed; the back of the jacket should cover the seat of the pants. Buttons should be made from animal horn (buffalo at the high end), not plastic, and it's nice to see thread wrapped between the button and the fabric so the button is raised. High-end suit jackets usually are not lined, because it takes more handwork in a garment to finish the interior. If a suit has a lining, make sure the seams are flawless. Check suit pants for a curtain, which is a short cotton lining at the top near the waistband. An extra coin pocket on the right-hand side is a luxury detail. Flat-front pants are trendy these days, but if the pants are pleated, a good suit will have a crisp single pleat on each side that lines up with the middle of the leg.
Thanks to our experts: Graham Thompson of Optimo Hats (hats); Chandra Greer of Greer (stationery); Allyson Holleb of Bess & Loie (handbags); Maureen Smithe of Walter E. Smithe (sofas); Laura Walasinski of Tabula Tua (china); Adam Beltzman of Haberdash and Brad Habansky of Guise (men’s dress shirts); Jennifer Edwards of Fogal (hosiery); Jennifer Thomas of Piggy Toes, Al Levin of Shoecrafters, Sherrie Oppenheim of Shirise, and Tiffany Bullock of House of Sole (shoes); and Sonny Balani of Balani Custom Clothiers and Colby McWilliams of Neiman Marcus (men’s suits).