Buying a Winter coat

You need a new winter coat and want to get the most value for the money you spend. Here are a few tips:

* The best time to buy is August and September during pre-season sales. Summer shopping means an undepleted stock. The next-best times are after Christmas and at the end of the winter season.

* The most versatile coats are full-length, single-breasted, and unbelted. Avoid those that have frog and wrap closings and models that are open at the neck. Included in this category are coats with fur collars that do not close tightly. All such garments are never warm!

* Monochromatic garments coordinate with everything from basic black to houndstooth checks. Colors that show the least amount of dirt are black, navy, dark brown, forest green, and charcoal. If you dislike dark colors, gray, tan, teal, rust, and cocoa brown are practical alternatives that show less lint than their darker counterparts.

* The warmest, softest, and most lightweight coat fabric is new or virgin wool. If you can't afford pure wool, a blend is a workable alternative. But make sure you check fiber content. You will find this on either the garment's tags or the inside facing. The higher the percentage of wool, the warmer the coat will be. Avoid any garment that contains fibers of undetermined origin or reprocessed wool; the two often go hand in hand. The unknown quantity of these combinations makes them unpopular with dry cleaners. In addition, reprocessed fabric is often stiff and uncomfortable to wear. Other materials that are low on durability but high in maintenance costs are real and synthetic fur, suede, leather, and fabrics with sponge backing.

* Examine the lining closely. It should never show below the coat; this is an indication of off-grain fabrics or shoddy construction techniques. Look for linings that carry a tag saying ''This garment is designed to give warmth without weight.'' This means your coat won't have the added bulk of an inner lining. In addition, these improved lining fabrics are much more durable than acetate taffeta, which is inclined to fray. Avoid coats with blue lining; these fade to pale purple.

* Next, check overall fit. The coat should cover your longest skirt with a hem that is deep enough to allow for lengthening. It should feel comfortable when tried over normal indoor clothing. Be sure there is no binding across the bust. Now turn slowly before the mirror. Are the coat's front and back approximately the same distance from the floor? A large discrepancy indicates the garment is made of fabric that is either off grain or was pressed out of shape during construction. Choose another coat.

* Sleeves should cover the wrist bone and fit over regular clothing without binding. Because they have more room than set-in sleeves, raglan or kimono models are good choices for outerwear. Avoid any sleeve with a pleated cap. There is no way to know how long this currently popular look will stay in style.

* Buttons are the final area of consideration. Large ones cheapen a garment's overall appearance; metal ones cut threads. Shun these if you dislike sewing. Other types to avoid are leather, wooden, and very ornate models. Losing one often means purchasing a complete new set. Since buttons can cost as much as $1 apiece, it's easier on the wallet to select a coat with plain plastic ones.

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