The difference between crap and quality

I’ve been working on the difference between crap and quality for weeks; this particular follow up to the the previous post, for the last five days. My draft is 11 pages long in 10 pt. font with skinny margins -all in an attempt to get to my closing argument. Defeated, I think I will start with that and hope for the best.

It is annoying to hear trash talk about “cheap” clothes and from every quarter. I include people who sew for pleasure, to custom clothiers to manufacturers of all sizes. Where ever it lies, there’s an identifiable pattern. The smaller or newer the operation, the more they talk trash. Here are my reasons why you should stop -other than that it identifies you as a wannabe– because is is unbecoming, unkind and gratuitously insults other people. Some of whom you hope will do business with you.

  1. On one hand we pat ourselves on the back that we can make stuff ourselves so we aren’t stuck with having to buy cheap crappy stuff. Yay for us, we score one point.
  2. People who don’t buy our stuff but buy stuff we think is cheap and crappy should subtract one point.
  3. We also pat ourselves on the back that we can sew stuff so we aren’t stuck with having to pay higher prices for the good stuff because we can just copy it. More yay and another point for us.
  4. People who aren’t as good as we are because they can’t or don’t sew, score another minus point.

Now, heard are constant complaints that consumers don’t want to pay the price of our stuff, some of it custom made (that some of us make, score another point if you do) yet at the same time, producers get upset when consumers buy other stuff that costs the same or more than our stuff. So which is it? People are too cheap if they don’t buy your stuff so if they have the money to buy someone else’s more expensive stuff, they’re stupid? Stupid or cheap are the only options? It seems more likely that the customer doesn’t agree the product represents the same value (so you should do something about that) but saying consumers are stupid or cheap isn’t going to win them over. Chances are excellent that the customer in question isn’t even your market so why would you worry about it?

But I digress. Trash talk is a mechanism people use to reinforce group identity. It’s also a way to justify one’s choices. I’m hip to that, maintaining the cultural identity of the group is a good thing but it should not come at the expense of others if for no other reason than that it is self-serving. Here’s the result:

  1. Other people should not buy cheap crap. They get minus points if they do.
  2. But if we buy something inexpensive, we pat ourselves on the back for being thrifty.
  3. Other people should pay full value for our stuff. If they won’t, they get more minus points.
  4. But if we don’t buy a name brand, it’s because we’re smart enough to know it’s just smoke and mirrors (unless of course, we become a big brand and then it is okay).
  5. If other producers (brands etc) expect other people to pay full value, we think they have a lot of nerve.
  6. However, if we have the expectation of getting full value for what we make, it is okay. It is only foul and nefarious for somebody else to value and price their products accordingly.

People are missing the point of value. As in, you don’t decide what value is for another person. If you think we could determine value for everyone and follow that argument to its logical consequence, we’d all wear the same things. How boring. And we’d miss out on all manner of potential humor and most of us would go broke (but that’s further along).

Some people don’t have the money to buy what you think is best or even care to allocate their spending that way if they could. Maybe they’re doing well enough to put food on the table or sending all their money to support orphans in Haiti but the above amounts to a double standard. If we buy something at the thrift store (that we have the skills to modify or care for to extend its life), we pat ourselves on the back for being thrifty and having skills. However, if someone else who is poor or chooses to limit their consumption or doesn’t have the skills (or time and money to acquire them) and buys something new but low cost, they are bad people for only caring about buying the cheapest stuff possible, regardless of “quality” and we subtract points from them. Let’s assume you’re right, they are bad people and bad customers. What does this solve? Do you want this customer? Think about that.

Whether anyone likes it or not, no single individual determines value for anyone else. To do otherwise is uncharitable and unkind. You would be upset if a single struggling mom on welfare were spending her time making handmade silk outfits (or cashing in her food stamps to buy your stuff) instead of looking for a job or training for one. On the opposite end, someone who can pay $1,500 for her daughter’s prom gown might see the money spent as a very good value. For all you know, that gown maker has hired that struggling single mother who now doesn’t need welfare. And sure, you could say that single mom could do better for herself but we return to two points (in part a repeat from comments in the $300 jeans post). One, the gown producer has found a way to find customers who will pay. And two, how do you expect that mom to find customers willing to pay that kind of money when people like you, with a lot more skills and resources to find customers, cannot? To suppose otherwise is very unkind because it means you expect someone who has less than you to work with, should be able to do something you can’t in order to be considered equal to you.

The value of taste
Taste is another facet of value -remember, value can only be determined by the individual- so fashion-fascists or as I call them, fashcists, are very annoying. Besides, everyone is convinced they have great taste so if everyone has great taste already, how come we aren’t all dressed the same? It’s a good thing we don’t, it would be terrible for business. If everyone dressed the same, we wouldn’t need the product diversity you see in stores and a lot of people would go out of business, like manufacturers, fabric suppliers, retail stores, sewing factories, clothing designers, store clerks etc. It would be awful for the economy. On the other hand, some people don’t care about clothes, whether it’s buying, selling or making. They don’t have the money, time or whatever.  They still need to wear clothes -and “quality” pronouncements are often subjective because the proper context should be value. Doing otherwise amounts to elitism -I don’t know anyone who mucks out a barn in custom made, perfectly fitted outfits with french seams and seed pearls. Someone needs to fill that purpose so why criticize it just because it’s not what you like, make or buy? There’s a price continuum; you can’t have the high prices you’d like to get (but not pay) if there aren’t low prices on the other end. And, you can’t have “good” stuff without “bad” stuff.

Value of time:
Another thing that is often erroneously equated with quality is time. This isn’t wine and even if it were, there are people who are happy with screw-top or born-by-date beer and they keep plenty of people employed. What is a disservice is to imply that quality, craftsmanship and technique are mutually exclusive in a more rapidly produced product.

Fast doesn’t have to mean low quality or even low value if having defined procedures  saves time and lowers costs. For example, I’m sure you have a great recipe that you can throw together very consistently; you have practice, defined procedures and ingredients that never fail. Now someone else could get lucky and have their dish come out just like yours once but it would take them longer and they’d have more failures without defined processes and key ingredients that result in the quality outcome. Is theirs better quality because it took them longer? I think not.

The opposite is also true, slow doesn’t necessarily mean higher quality either (as in the case of hand sewn work arounds). Besides, as I’ve said before, we already have slow fashion in that it takes 12 to 16 months to deliver a pair of jeans that only takes 18 minutes to sew. If slow fashion were optimal, we’d all be industry titans by now. On the other hand, the value of time is defined by whoever is doing it. It may take GAP et al 12 to 16 months to deliver styles but they are bringing their own competencies for which consumers reward them with purchasing. It could be their competency standards are color fastness, adhering to specification, dependable replenishment or whatever. It’s a matter of value which is subject to opinion.

The point is, producing fashion quickly doesn’t necessarily mean crappy quality; if anything it can mean the opposite. Because it’s done so quickly, it holds that it must be done well on some level or it wouldn’t be able to be done so fast. The issue most people have with fast fashion is value. It likewise doesn’t necessarily mean that fast fashion is disposable although that is its value for some people. Do I think disposable clothes are good? It doesn’t matter what I think, nobody cares.

Brands are a cognitive shortcut
Personally, I don’t care about wearing clothes; my driver is making them. My wardrobe planning is defined by not embarrassing who ever I happen to be with. I hate to break it to you but there’s a whole lot of people like me. In fact, I dare suggest that more people are like me than not. People dress to fit in with their crowd, including most women who dress for other women, not men. The issue here is social value and fitting in; if your friends are embarrassed to be seen with you, they’re not going to invite you places where they can be seen with you. By the same token, people think brands are over rated but brands are useful to identify your tribe. Be wary that it is self serving for you to think that having a successful brand is okay vs someone in another niche that seems dumb to you is not okay. For example, many people in my tribe judge certain brands to be conformist or conspicuous consumption but the tribe does value other brands that signal in their own way (Prius etc).

What to say instead: “Not my market
If the subjective topic of value (crap vs quality) or style of another brand comes up, the appropriate value neutral response is “not my market” or “not my customer”. Not only is it kinder and less likely to alienate anyone (colleagues, customers, retailers etc), it’s better because it is true. Saying “not my market” implies you’re not qualified to comment because their customer is not your customer and you don’t know the market. And trust me, unless you’ve shared space on the same rack, you don’t know the market.

Most discussions about quality are really about value. Since value is a matter of opinion, live and let live. Our businesses depend on it.

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  1. theresa in tucson says:

    Thank you for an enlightening post. I made one of those customer value judgements today when I walked into what I thought was a running shoe store for slip in orthotic inserts and was fitted with a $250 orthotic. I declined, since to pay $250 for pain relief at the beginning of my quest would not make sense if I could achieve the same with a $40 insert. I may still end up with the $250 inserts but I’m not there yet. If I do, and they work, then they will be worth the $250, but not before I’ve had a chance to examine what the market has to offer.

  2. Seth Meyerink-Griffin says:

    Am I still allowed to bash Levi Strauss & Co. for not having consistent sizing across the same style of jeans for all contractors producing products for them…? Am I still allowed to hate Forever 21 for ripping off designs?


  3. alethiea taylor says:

    You go, Kathleen! I love your passion for the right thing. You are so spot on. So much so that this even applies to myself — I’ll stop calling myself cheap because I don’t want to pay for ready-made clothes. I’ll now say, “I’m not in that market.” :-D

  4. Kirsten says:

    Wow, Kathleen, this stuff is brilliant. You really understand economics and the pscyhology of why we buy. Your blog is a goldmine of information –thank-you.

  5. Jen Rocket says:

    This is a tough subject. There are many variables, most of which have been touched on here. I have this debate in my mind just about any time I am thrifting or thinking about investing in something expensive but worthwhile. I can create garments and that makes clothes shopping so much harder! Now I don’t feel so alone when I think about this stuff!

  6. Value is key. Whether it be time saving- rtw vs Custom, or its opposite, the specialized attention of custom vs rtw. Shopping for stuff to wear in the sweltering summer that you can toss at the end of it. Or searching out, and investing in something in a good cotton or linen so it’ll last longer, and you can enjoy it longer. I may designate “crap” based on a “machine washable” emerging from first wash all blotchy and never buy that label again, & it won’t matter to someone else, they’ll toss it and be done with it. It’s all value and value is in the eye of the beholder. Walking around NYC’s wholesale district there certainly seems to be a market for about anything!!! It makes the world go round.

  7. Ed T says:

    I understand and agree with Kathleen on most of this..but the flip side anecdotal story here – I literally made ALL my toddler cousin’s clothing. One of her pre-K friend’s mom introduced me to a boutique which was open-minded enough to place an order(which I filled promptly despite being sick as a dog) and sold out of these reversible winter jackets in a week. My uncle declared that only “bimbo dumb blondes”-considering he’s a blond too, would pay the price for my work(300 retail) for these jackets…which he would never do because he “knows” that clothing is made with HUGE profit margins. Fine, yes there are customers in different situations…BUT point is MOST fast fashion IS of inferior quality. Ever try washing a H & M /forever 21/Old Navy garment in a regular washer? TOTALLY doesn’t hold up after 1 wash. and being entry-level fashion industry person I realize WE have trained customers to believe that clothing SHOULDN’T be an investment, but rather a throw-away everyday item. I too am part of this – when I buy cheaper fast fashion-I treat it as such – crap clothing that isn’t really treated with care (thrown about, used as work clothes, later as cleaning rags) – with my better stuff I save for, I give the royal treatment because it’s better(special occasion, interviews).

  8. Felicia says:

    How timely… I was at an upscale craft show this weekend and witnessed another shopper scoff at the price of the most beautiful hand-woven, hand-sewn jacket. She was entirely contemptuous of what she perceived as ridiculous over-pricing. I made a remark in defense of the price; I could appreciate what went into the product. She, clearly, saw a simple, albeit lovely jacket, and compared it, in her mind, to any other simple jacket in any other retail space. From her reaction it was pretty clear that she regarded a shopper to be foolish to pay the asking price. And once upon a time, I have to confess, I might have been her! Here I am now, knowing the hours to produce this kind of thing, and I find myself in an entirely opposite frame of reference. Who is the wiser? Neither! We had different but equally valid reference points. Furthermore, I shouldn’t suppose that she did not appreciate the quality of the garment just as much as I did; she didn’t see the value at that pricepoint. Frankly, if truth be told, I suppose I didn’t either, though not because I didn’t think it was intrinsically worth every penny; I couldn’t afford it and it wouldn’t work with my present lifestyle. Given that the designer had a viable business in that market space however, no doubt the value of that jacket to her target market was very much appreciated and don’t I wish I could be in that number!

  9. Maureen Salazar says:

    I design mass market soft toys for babies. The soft toys are great example of very high quality, very low cost items with very fast production. Mass toy brands often choose to test their toys above and beyond the mandatory safety requirements, so the quality & craftsmanship is fantastic compared to boutique brands that are not able to control their production or don’t know how. Thank you for celebrating that quality doesn’t have to be expensive. It is systematic. And we’re really proud of it!

  10. Kathleen says:

    BUT point is MOST fast fashion IS of inferior quality. Ever try washing a H & M /forever 21/Old Navy garment in a regular washer? TOTALLY doesn’t hold up after 1 wash.

    I fear my points haven’t been made.

    First, follow those links I left and additionally, read my lean manufacturing entries. I do not know how you can say “most fast fashion” is inferior “quality” and then include Old Navy as one of your examples. Do you know how many enterprises produce sewn products quickly and efficiently? Have you compared the output of lean (fast) manufacturers with their respective standards and value (in accordance to your subjective values) to arrive at this decision? Two examples do not a rule make -and whether they are “fast” remains open to debate. Again I say, if it only takes 16 minutes to make a pair of jeans in a well organized operation, where is the value in getting the product to you in 12 months? If slow were optimal, we’d all be industry titans by now. Again, please follow the links I left. I intentionally only left a few in hopes they would be read altho I could have left many more to bolster my points.

    Quality means adherence to a standard -which is determined by its maker. Consumers have the choice of deciding whether or not that standard meets their determination of value but the latter does not preclude the former. That the result doesn’t meet with your value requirements is another thing entirely. Likewise, I don’t think it is possible for H&M, F21 or Old Navy to stay in business if their garments -as a rule- could not withstand one wash (perhaps some of these should be dry cleaned? Consult the care label).

    I also don’t think it is appropriate for one consumer to determine value for another (elitism) when our respective needs and expectations vary so greatly. The appropriate value neutral response is to say “not my market” or “not my value proposition”. What if we could “solve” this by passing laws dictating product standards for items like this. Who is the arbiter? Someone who wouldn’t be caught dead in anything less than 100% cashmere and hand dyed silks? Someone who thinks fusible is horrid stuff and should be banned, meaning everything must be pad stitched? Who is in charge of making these determinations? For my part, I don’t want someone who is convinced that hand sewn work arounds amount to superior “quality” when they don’t have the benefit of more sophisticated insight. Let the market determine value. Those who don’t provide it will go out of business soon enough. It happens every day.

    Moreover, I stubbornly insist that being able to produce rapidly necessarily requires good organization and standards in order to do it quickly. If one has shoddy processes, it takes longer and is more expensive (relative to the gain) than if it did not.

  11. theresa in tucson says:

    Good points, Kathleen. As a home sewer I aspire to RTW standards. I admit to hand sewing work-arounds but that is because a; I don’t have the experience or knowledge, b; I don’t have the equipment, or c; I’m being lazy. I also admit to a lot of the bad behavior cited in your post and thank you so much for the neutral response. At one time society did tried to legislate who could wear what. Didn’t work since it is human nature to think our position in life is higher than where others position us. As they say in Lake Woebegone, “..and all the children are above average.”

  12. Kai Jones says:

    I have an Old Navy blouse from their plus-size collection, which is only sold online. It’s printed cotton, a loose weave. It has a self-fabric shaped facing for the hemline! Not just turned twice, not just a bias strip, but an actual shaped facing, on a blouse for which I paid $10. And I wore it once a week and washed it (in the machine, and machine-dried) all winter long, probably more than 6 months’ worth, and it still looks as good as the day I got it–no fading, no twisting of goods (so they’re on grain), the elastic gathering the back peplum is still good, etc. That’s both good quality and good value.

  13. Donna says:

    I’ve sewn since I was three and still have my original garment with a “hand-worked” button hole. In the 60’s I sewed for others and my customers loved their garments and never quibbled about price. In the 90’s I decided to sew for others again and everyone argued about the cost of custom clothes. I ended up sewing mainly for the morbidly obese and these woman were thrilled to have garments that looked like clothes instead of tents. Now I only sew for people I know and like and who don’t argue about the cost of custom work. I do a lot of trading of services which suits all of us. I am tired of explaining that I can’t compete with the Chinese and a custom one of a kind dress costs more than the one in Walmart. Sewing for myself means I get better fitting garments in the colors, fabric and style I like. I’m not stuck with V necks if that is what is in that year and I look better in round necks. That is the value of sewing for myself. Plus I enjoy the process and I like clothes.

  14. ThomasM says:

    Kathleen I think you once again made your point very clear with deep thought and facts to back up your views. Several years ago my company was struggling to stay afloat due to the flood of work being sent overseas. I couldn’t understand why manufacturers would turn their back on the talent in the US. I fought the movement and spoke poorly of the cheap designs and tasteless apparel decorations. I have come to realize quality comes in different packages to meet different markets tied to consumer expectations. A Honda may seem like a cheap car compared to a Mercedes while a Mercedes may seem cheap to a Rolls. Personally I am tickled with my Honda, it has exceeded my expectations. What I find most interesting is how human nature can cause one to talk trash about those in their own industry and then turn around and commit the same offense in their own purchasing habits of other industries. Sometimes we grab coffee at McDonald’s and not Starbucks. Sometimes we grab a burger out when we know we could make it better and cheaper at home. Sometimes we purchase because we have a coupon, not because we think its the best product or the one we prefer. We’re human and seeing that in ourselves strips away the feeling we have the right to look down on others for purchasing clothes of the rack. Realizing I was loosing business because we were only looked at as top of the line (smallest purchasing group) I adapted my company to offer several levels of services. In this way I can tailor (LOL) what materials and time are put into a project to meet the customer’s needs. Our goal is to meet or exceed the customer’s expectations, while being profitable. In this way they will gladly come back. We cannot expect to create everything a person wears. I write this while wearing a blank Gildan tank top. It’s neither designer or decorated. I didn’t create it, while I could have. It’s perfect for what I am doing right now.

  15. nat.laurel says:

    I have a question for Kai Jones or whoever is wiling to spend a couple of minutes to give me the answer. What exactly means: “no twisting of goods (so, they’re on grain)”. Not only I am a newbie, I am also a non-native speaker, so I will really appreciate the explanation. I suppose you are talking about the tiny fabric balls that start covering the surface of the so-called ‘cheap’ garments after a couple of laundries. Am I right? Is this called “twisting of goods”? thank you.

  16. Kathleen says:

    The tiny fabric balls are “pills”. The process is called “pilling”. This happens when the fibers making up each thread become untwisted.

    Twisting of goods refers to the grain of the fabric, the grid of woven threads on the horizontal and vertical. Goods are said to be torqued or skewed if the grain can be manipulated off x and y.

  17. Grace says:

    Thanks, Kathleen, for another excellent post about value, values and quality.

    This has been on my mind, both in my day job in software, and my other job, which includes getting my middle-school daughter’s back to school wardrobe together. I am more short of time than money so it would be easier to just throw my credit card around in the mall. But I feel a responsibility to show her how to dress well while being economically, socially and environmentally conscious. This will also put her on more solid financial footing when mommy and daddy stop paying her bills.

    So I put in a little extra time. But it’s doable.

    I mean to post about that later this month. When I do, I will definitely link back to this discussion.

  18. Katherine says:

    Sort of a little bit related…

    Fast fashion and high quality can go hand in hand because of the evolution of technology and the learning from other peoples’ hard work and experience.

    About 10 years ago, I went to France and visited the Bayeux Tapestry, which is over 70 m long and about half a metre wide. I’m not sure, but I think it was made sometime around the 10th and 11th centuries. There were only a couple of types of stitches used (my guide book indicates stem stitch and laid-and-couched work, which looked like colouring-in stitches to me). These were probably the only stitches that they knew then. Today, people can learn dozens of stitches in a very short space of time. I found it fascinating to think that it would have taken hundreds of years for these stitches to evolve. Somebody, somewhere would have invented a new stitch, and shown their friends (or be copied by competitive villagers?). Today, a technically more complex tapestry could be completed in a mere fraction of the time that it took for the stitches to be invented.

    And anybody who looks at my knitting can see that crap quality can come out of painstakingly slow work.

  19. ThomasM says:

    OMG! I wasn’t expecting to see the term stem stitch here. I bet your trip to Bayeux made a huge impression on you. That is very exciting. Several years ago I was lecturing on embroidery at the Jonkoping’s convention center in Sweden. I was asked if while there I would like to visit the neighboring town of Huskvarna where Huskvarna is headquartered. I of course took them up on the offer, but was taken back when I realized they made chainsaws and weed whackers as well. I learned so much from this trip that I will never forget. Most of all I learned how fortunate we are in America for such open and inexpensive educational opportunities. This site is a perfect example of such.

  20. Seth Meyeirnk-Griffin says:

    Re: Twisting of goods

    This may have been covered elsewhere, but how does one avoid this issue when purchasing jersey? I’ve noted that nearly all of my t-shirts are twisted after many wash cycles (not only twisted, but they tend to get wider and shorter); I assume that this is a function of the jersey itself. I know that I should order sample yardage and wash-test prior to use, which works quite well if you are doing multiple units, and not so wonderfully if you are doing custom or one-off work.

    I guess the real question buried here is, what is the root cause in knits?

  21. nina cadzow says:

    Totally agree Kathleen- I have this discussion a lot with my students who believe ‘slow’ is synonymous with quality-when in fact what it can mean is ineptitude( I certainly want my makers to be putting in the fly zip in 3 minutes as opposed to 1 hour); not having the right machinery for the job;lack of understanding of processes and importantly no systems in place- I have pointed out to them that at the end of the day,when you are footing the bill for CMT, when you are getting your collections together out there in the big wide world- who are you going for- the CMT outfit with the best speed and skills for the best rates- and there is plenty of that in china!

  22. Elaine says:

    Rereading this post again this cold rainy afternoon. I’m sitting here in some Old Navy sweatpants that I’ve had for about 2 years. They are still long enough, there’s no torque in the legs, the seams are still sturdy, the drawstring still tightly woven and the color is still black, even along the seamlines. In fact, they are in better shape than the pair I made from 100% cotton fleece made in Canada; that fabric cost me more than the finished ON pants plus the postage I paid to get them here.

    I’m humbled by this post every time I read it. Thanks for your clear explanations, Kathleen.

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