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Exercise pants

Our sister organisation across the ditch, Choice, recently put some women's exercise pants through their paces. Choice has kindly let us publish their findings.

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Sportswear may once have been a practical concern, but those days are long gone. Sportswear has entered the realm of fashion and prices have jumped accordingly – even in the face of tough retailing conditions.

Depending on where you look, a pair of gym pants alone may set you back more than $100. Given you can get a pair of tights for under $10 at discount department stores, do you actually get a better product if you're forking out $100? Or are you simply paying a premium for the brand?

Tights to the test

To get to the bottom of the price vs quality question, Choice put some gym pants to the test. They chose gym pants from different brands and aimed for the plainest grey or black gym tights they could find in the range. They also made sure the fabric had a mixture of polyester or nylon and elastane, also known as spandex or Lycra (brand name). The Kmart leggings were more of a fashion tight, included as a comparison.

The tights in the test were:

  • Lululemon Wunder Under Fullux ($NZ125)
  • Lorna Jane All day Corestability LG Excel Classic (Stirling Sports sells the 3/4 version for $NZ99.99)
  • Nike Legend 2.0 tight poly Dri-fit (retail for about $NZ70)
  • Adidas Ultimate Fit tights Climalite (retail for about $NZ60)
  • Cotton On Active Core tight ($NZ34.95)
  • Kmart LDS full-length legging ($NZ7)

The quality of a sportswear garment can be determined by a number of factors, says Paula Rogers, a partner at the Apparel and Textile Industries Group (ATI) and fellow at the Textiles Institute in the UK. The critical factors are fabric, stitching and fit. You'd also expect it to be colourfast so that colours don't run when you wash them, she says.

Fit is an important consideration, but it's also tricky to measure and probably best left for you to test in the change room. But to assess functional quality, we assessed the fabric, colourfastness to washing and stitches per inch. Rogers also gave us her thoughts on the garments' construction.

Fabric quality

Once a brand selects their sportswear fabric, they don't change it for a long time, says Meriel Chamberlin, another partner at the ATI Group.

Stretch and recovery is one of the best tests to assess the quality of stretch fabrics, according to the experts. Five fabric samples are stretched out with 2kg of force applied, each five times. The test is designed to mimic how the fabric will behave over time.

Ideally, the fabric should stretch sufficiently (which makes the tights easy to put on) and then stretch back, or recover, well so you have a firm fit. How well the fabric recovers is indicative of how loose the pants will get over time.

Stretch and recovery

From best to worst, the pants with the best width recovery:

  1. Adidas
  2. Nike
  3. Lululemon
  4. Lorna Jane
  5. Cotton On
  6. Kmart

Kmart's fabric showed the biggest jump downward in quality, twice as bad as Cotton On's score. However, it's important to note Kmart's tights weren't marketed as a sportswear product. For the sportswear products, there wasn't a whole lot in it and all were in the acceptable realm.

Colourfastness to washing

One of the care requirements on Lorna Jane's tights is to wash the pants with a tablespoon of salt before use. On its website it explains this is necessary as some colours aren't colourfast.

Chamberlin, who's also a chartered colourist and associate of the Society of Dyers and Colourists in the UK, says there's sufficient science in the dye industry these days that "no garment that's black should have to have that written on it". It may, however, sometime be warranted on neon colours, she says.

Sometimes cautious care instructions are given if products haven't been tested. But Lorna Jane says extensive testing (including colourfastness) is conducted on every new style.

So does it mean the pants aren't colourfast?

To find out, all the pairs of pants were put under the microscope in the RMIT laboratory for colourfastness to washing. They were assessed for colour change (indicative of how much they'll fade) and for staining (how much they'll stain your other cotton and nylon clothes when washed together).

In terms of colour change all the pants performed well and fared exactly the same. But when it came to staining there were some differences. Funnily enough, the Lorna Jane tights performed well with no staining of either cotton or nylon, even with no salt added. The Lululemon, Nike and Adidas tights also fared well. Cotton On's tights performed satisfactorily but not quite as well when it came to nylon. However, the Kmart leggings only met the minimum requirement of the Australian Garment Mark for staining cotton.

Pilling

Certain fibre combinations are more likely to pill than others. "Nylon and polyester combined with elastane doesn't tend to be a pilling combination," says Rogers. But add a bit of viscose or cotton to the polyester and it'll be more likely to pill.

Moisture-wicking

Most sportswear will advertise a garment's special sweat-wicking properties, but is it just marketing hype? Chamberlin says there's definitely something in moisture-wicking fabrics, but it doesn't mean you have to pay through the nose for it. "A decent sports fabric isn't prohibitively expensive," says Chamberlin.

It's also important to remember that the efficacy of moisture-wicking fabrics does depend on how well the garment fits – if it's not in contact with the body it won't wick away moisture.

One way to test if the garment has moisture-wicking properties is to flick water onto the fabric. The quicker it sinks in, the better it will wick away moisture. If it beads on the surface, it's a bad sign.

Seam strength and stitching

In addition to the fabric quality, the stitching and seam strength is also important. The strength of the seams is dependant on a range of factors, however as a general rule, the more stitches per inch, the greater the seam strength. The industry standard is at least 10–12 stitches per inch, but when it comes to sportswear, it should be more like 12–14, says Rogers.

Stitches per inch:
Adidas 13-16
Nike 13-14
Lululemon 13
Lorna Jane 11
Kmart 10
Cotton On 9

Stitch type

Another consideration is the stitch type used. For a stretch fabric, a flat or overlocked seam is ideal rather than a lock/straight stitch. To test the stitching integrity pull the seam longways and ensure there are no cracking sounds.

A flat seam is likely to be more comfortable for the wearer than a plain overlock stitch as it's less bulky. It may also be slightly stronger, but the difference is probably marginal.

While the Adidas pants had the highest number of stitches per inch and had a flat seam on the back rise, it used an overlock stitch on the inseam of the leg. With the exception of Kmart and Cotton On, the other pants had flat seams.

Rogers says the choice of stitch type can be a cost-saving exercise for the manufacturer. For example, an overlocked seam will use less thread than a flat seam. "It will also be quicker in manufacturing," says Rogers.

Why so expensive?

So where, exactly, are the costs in making sportswear? "The fabric is generally the most expensive part," says Rogers. The cost of manufacturing is low in comparison to the fabric cost, she says, particularly true given all the gym wear looked at was made overseas in south-east Asia.

Dr Sean Sands, research director in the department of marketing at Monash University, says brands would also argue a significant cost is the investment in product development and marketing.

Despite such costs, for big global companies like Nike and Adidas the sheer number of garments sold means they reap the rewards of more cost-effective testing as well as having more leverage over their supply chain to ensure that quality is maintained.

The verdict?

Ultimately there's no definitive formula to find the perfect pair of pants for every individual. No matter the fabric quality, if they don't fit properly or feel good they won't encourage you to get out there and exercise. And great fabric won't make up for shoddy workmanship.

But the test results do suggest that quality doesn't necessarily increase with price.

Of the two tests we conducted in the labs, the Adidas tights with 'Climalite' fabric fared best, followed by the Nike tights with 'Dri-fit' fabric. These two also came up trumps in the stitch per inch count and colourfastness test.

The two most expensive pairs of tights – Lorna Jane and Lululemon – certainly didn't fare badly in the fabric tests, but they didn't come out on top either, suggesting you don't necessarily have to fork out big dollars to get quality sportswear.

Rogers thought the Lorna Jane and Lululemon tights were the best in terms of construction. She also thought both the Adidas and Nike pants were well made, but rated them just after the Lorna Jane and Lululemon tights, mostly because the waistband didn't feel as firm.

Overall, given the trend towards sportswear as fashion, it's likely that the extra dollars you fork out may well be for style or brand rather than quality.

Shopping advice

Here's what you should look for when buying exercise pants.

  • Sportswear should have around 12–14 stitches per inch.
  • A flat or overlocked seam is ideal for stretch fabrics – make sure it's not just straight stitch. Pull the seam longways and make sure there are no cracking sounds.
  • The stitch tension should be just right – does the thread look loose and bubbly or too tight?
  • Make sure there's adequate seam allowance.
  • Stretch some of the fabric out over your fingertips sideways. How well does it go back to its natural state? If it bubbles up it's not a good sign.
  • Find out if it has sweat-wicking properties by discreetly flicking a droplet of water onto the pants. The quicker it soaks in the better. If it beads up, look elsewhere.
  • Try them on. Move around and stretch. Make sure they feel comfortable, that they'll stay up and that the seams won't chafe.
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