Yesterday, Mathilde came to the office with a gorgeous sweaterdress. “What’s this material?” I immediately asked her. She shrugged in response, thrown off by my question. I gaped at her. “You never look at the tags?” “Nope. I cut them off because they itch me, and anyway I have no idea what they’re saying.” I launched into a mini remedial course for Mathilde, but then I thought to myself that maybe some of you might find it interesting too. So here’s what I can say on the subject, though I have to say I’m no expert. I’m just an obsessee of beautiful materials, religiously retaining my classes from my dear Professor of Fabrics at the IFM [transl: Institut Francais de la Mode].
On a garment label, there’s three types of information that are most likely to interest he wearer: composition, clothing care, and country of fabrication (the famous “made in,” of which mention is useful but not necessary).
Let’s start with the country of fabrication. You’ve probably read plenty about the Made in, you know that this information is to be taken with caution. It basically indicates the place of assembly. That said, sometimes you can still pick out useful info from this. For example, India is well known for its embroidery, China for its silks, Egypt for cotton, Turkey for denim, Eastern Europe for sleeved items (coats and jackets/blazers). It’s just as important to master the bases of the Zara system. The Spanish company basically relies on long distribution circuits (mainly from Southeast Asia) for the products that it’s planned out farthest in advance [trans.: i.e. the products most likely to be intended for mass diffusion]. Personally, I find these to be the pieces that are least interesting of the line. On the other hand, if the tag says “made in Morocco,” or better yet, “made in Spain,” I know that I have in my hands a piece that’s more complex, and from a smaller run (hence rarer), whose fabrication was decided in a short time in consideration of recent trends. It’ll probably be more expensive than something made in China, but also closer to, ahem, a unique design.
The composition lists the main materials in decreasing order—the first listed is the most important. These materials can be of two types: natural or synthetic. The natural fibers are divided into the categories of plant-derived (cotton, linen) and animal-derived (wool, silk). Synthetic fibers can be “artificials” (natural fibers which have been transformed, like viscose, acetate, or lyocell, which are made of wood fiber), or synthetics (made from the synthesis of petroleum: polyamide, acrylic, elasthane) [trans.: artificials/synthetics distinction may not exist in English]. All these primary materials have characteristics so different that they will seriously influence your experience with your article of clothing. Cotton is cool and sturdy, but has a tendency to shrink. Wool is warm, soft, solid, but pricey and difficult to take care of. (On that note—pilling doesn’t show you anything about quality, it’s only a indicator that the fibers are short. This is particularly the case with cashmere, but I’ll go into that more when I tell you soon about my meeting with a stylist from Eric Bompard [trans.: the famous French cashmere company].) “Virgin wool” comes from the shearing of sheep, as opposed to wool from delainage (the skin of sheep killed for meat production) or recycled/”shoddy” wool [trans.: again unclear that distinction exists in English—it’s just virgin v. recycled/shoddy; the former is wool that’s never been spun before, latter is reclaimed wool]. Cashmere and mohair come from goats; angora from rabbits. Silk is fluid and durable, but expensive and equally difficult to maintain. Viscose is silk-like, cheap, durable, and easy to take care of. Polyamide doesn’t wrinkle, dries quickly, and lasts a long time, but attracts dust and doesn’t absorb sweat. Polyester is strong and easy to take care of (and doesn’t need ironing), but it has a tendency to pill and it gets static-y.
Finally, garment care is indicated on the tag by symbols. Check out the table below, which seems to me to be the most helpful (from Elégance Paris). It’s pointless to memorize the meaning of the circles; they’re for the professional cleaners:
Edit: by a happy chance, Isabelle Thomas deals with the same subject on her blog Mode Personnel, with a shoutout to this. Read it here!
Thanks again, Géraldine!
* TRANSLATION NOTE. Quick and dirty, sorry for any errors (especially on the chart, ugghh)…took my liberties where it seemed appropriate. :) Not a pro, just spreading the gospel of garment tags!
Feel free to drop me a line with corrections or to let me know what you think (“ASK,” above)!