Why men’s shirts today fall apart after 30 washes | Mail Online. Story from Mail Online, an English magazine, written by Guy Walter
Why Men’s Shirts Today Fall Apart After 3o Washes
Last Saturday marked the annual spring cleaning of the Walters household. This is a process accompanied by much childish wailing and gnashing of teeth, some of which comes from the children, but mostly from me.
I am a compulsive hoarder. Redundant pieces of electronic equipment, old magazines, handleless mugs — all are kept on the grounds that ‘they might be useful one day’.
But what infuriates Mrs Walters most is my insistence on keeping all of my clothes, no matter how dreadfully unfashionable or old. On Saturday, much to my annoyance, she proceeded to fillet my collection of sartorial disasters. Out went a pair of lurid tartan trousers. Straight to the bin went about nine odd socks.
And then she started on the shirts, of which I have sackfuls.
‘How about this one?’ she asked, holding up a navy-blue number from a gentleman’s outfitters in Essex. ‘But I only bought that last year,’ I bleated.
‘You can’t have done,’ she replied. ‘Just look at it.’
I took the shirt and studied it. She had a point. It was knackered. There were holes at the elbows, the collar was frayed, the stitching around the pocket was working loose.
It looked as though it was ten years old, but I could have sworn it was bought last summer.
Reluctantly, I tossed it onto the growing pile that was destined for destruction. By now, Mrs Walters was shortlisting yet another of my favourite shirts.
This was a purple-and-white striped affair from Thomas Pink, that I distinctly remembered buying at Heathrow Airport in the autumn.
‘Now there’s nothing wrong with that,’ I protested.
Again, an inspection revealed otherwise. The panel that held all the buttons had come away from the front, and the stitching around the cuffs was loose.
Over the next 20 minutes, we went through my entire collection, and earmarked no fewer than eight shirts for disposal. When I looked at the pile, it became apparent that most of them were relatively new — less than two years old.
This perplexed me because I, like many men, am under the impression that a shirt should last more than a few years, and certainly more than a few months.
At first, I suspected that it was because they were cheap, and this was partly true. Some had cost no more than £30 each, and they looked decidedly shabby.
The labels showed that some of them had been made in the Far East. Was that the explanation?
That all these cheap clothes were made by overworked children in vast sweatshops where every corner had been cut on stocks?
But the more expensive shirts weren’t much better off. The ones I own from Thomas Pink and other upmarket brands looked just as distressed as those that had cost a third of the price.
I was beginning to see a trend — new shirts, no matter how posh, don’t seem to last as long as the ones I used to buy. Once, buttons were sewn on more securely, shirt panels were held together with tighter stitches, and the fabric was thicker. I can remember some of my grandfather’s shirts — they were built like the Queen Mary.
Today, according to an organisation called the ‘International Fabricare Institute’, shirts are designed to last no longer than two years, or some 30 to 40 washes. That doesn’t seem very long to me.
James Sherwood, author of Savile Row: The Master Tailors of British Bespoke, says our desire for cheap fashion is responsible for the decline in quality.
Many shirts are manufactured in the Far East. File picture
‘The men who bemoan the declining quality and longevity of their shirts only have themselves to blame,’ he says. ‘Can they seriously expect to buy three to five discounted shirts from T. M. Lewin for £100 and think these mass-produced, Chinese ready-mades will last a lifetime?’
Men like my grandfather, with his stiffly, starched shirts, knew how to keep their wardrobes smart for years. ‘Our elders and betters, who had less money and choice but more savvy, would buy shirts with detachable collars and cuffs — always the first to fray and stain. These can be laundered more regularly and discarded when too far gone,’ says Sherwood.
Only the most old-fashioned retailer’s sell separate collars and cuffs these days.
Sherwood believes that there are still good-quality, affordable shirts to be had on the High Street at M&S and John Lewis, but has reservations about the cheaper end of the market. Uniqlo, H&M and Zara are, he says, terrific for T-shirts and jeans, but these pile-’em-high retailers can’t do justice to a shirt.
Shirts are yet another victim of our disposable society, in which obsolescence is built-in, and the idea of make-do-and-mend is considered quaint.
Professor Tim Cooper of Nottingham Trent University, whose field of research is ‘sustainable consumption’, observes that ‘relentless novelty is the order of the day’. As a result, he says: ‘Today’s fashion is tomorrow’s junk.’
Tailor Gresham Blake, who has been making bespoke suits and shirts for 15 years, would agree. ‘It’s very sad — we’ve become so used to the cheap price of the High Street that everyone expects everything to get cheaper and cheaper. But it’s not sustainable.’
Even the smart shops in London’s Mayfair have sacrificed quality to keep their prices low, says Blake. ‘They cut costs, buying material from China or India, use cheaper thread and use single stitching instead of double stitching.
‘For the smaller, bespoke producers cost-cutting like that doesn’t makes sense because you only save a small amount per shirt. But for the large producers the overall savings can be thousands.’
All I want are some decent ordinary shirts that will last me around five years, and won’t fall apart after a few spins in the washing-machine. I do, of course, know that tumble-dryers are the enemy of clothes, but sometimes they’re unavoidable.
Is my only option to get shirts made from the finest fabrics at vast expense by diligent old men with half-moon spectacles in Jermyn Street? There must be a retailer out there who can make shirts to last, with firmly sewn buttons, stiff collars and sturdy cuffs.
There is something profoundly depressing about the pile of shirts, so many of them made in Far Eastern factories, about be to banished from my wardrobe after only a year or two of wear. A sad sign of our throwaway society.