I’ve been writing a bit on Spring-Summer menswear, but since the weather is still a bit cold, I thought I’d say some basic things about how to choose a sweater. These tips are more for someone who is just starting to build their wardrobe.
My Top Twelve Tips for Buying Good Sweaters
1. Stock up on shallow v-necks: I find that v-necks with small openings are the most versatile. You can wear them with just a v-neck undershirt, button down collared shirt (just make sure the points are tucked in), and with or without a tie. Paired with a sportcoat, they can be more interesting, as they create a layered look that can also help frame your face. Club Monaco has a v-neck sweater called “Luke,” which features a shallower v-neck opening. They’re priced around ~$50 right now. John Smedley has the Marshall and Bower line, which also feature shallower v-necks. Those are priced around ~$150-175.
2. On the low-end, aim for lambswool: If you can’t afford more than $175 or so for a sweater, try aiming for lambswool. Some lambswools can pill more than merinos, but I find that they often have a more depth in their texture and color than cheap merinos. Low-end merino wools often come off as very flat to my eye. However, some people claim that they’ve found lambswool to be itchy. I personally haven’t found this to be a problem.
3. For the mid-tier, aim for merino: If you can afford more than $175, there are a ton of good options. Merinos in this tier will have just as much depth as lambswool and be even softer than low-end cashmere. Ralph Lauren’s Black Label and Purple Label lines are good starting places, as is some of the Polo collection, though Polo tends to have a lot more variation in quality. John Smedley is also dependable. More recently, I’ve become quite fond of Inis Meain. Note, however, that Inis Meain sweaters don’t fit slim, and they rarely even stock small sizes unless you’re going through Nitty Gritty (which is one of my favorite online stores, incidentally).
5. On the high-end, aim for cashmere: The advantage of cashmere is that it’s the warmest, softest, and most lightweight of wools. However, good cashmere is expensive and cheap cashmere is a false bargain. Low end cashmere will shed and fall apart fairly quickly. It’s also not as soft as the high-end stuff. I’m convinced that it’s mostly a scam to trick people who don’t know much about materials into thinking they’re getting some high quality garment, as everyone equates “cashmere” with “fancy.” There are two ways to tell if you’re getting good cashmere. The first way is to rub the the material with your hands and then check for a greasy residue. Bad cashmere is coated with an emulsion that makes the material feel softer than it actually is. Check for this emulsion. The second way is to just look at the price tag and maker. Loro Piana, for example, has staked their reputation on using only the best cashmere. In the end, you’re getting what you pay for, and there is very little way around that. If you can afford higher end cashmeres, check out Loro Piana, Cucinelli, Avon Celli, Ballantyne, Pringle, Borrelli, and Malo. Those are all very dependable makers.
6. Don’t buy wools blended with synthetic materials: Avoid sweaters that are blended with synthetic fibers such as nylon or acrylic. These are typically added to recycled wools, which have shorter fiber lengths and are consequently more prone to “breaking.” Synthetic materials are added in order to make these wools more durable, but they still tend to shed and pill more than knits made of pure wool.
7. Don’t buy cotton: Cotton sweaters are the worst. They don’t provide much warmth, at least compared to similar wool sweaters, they wrinkle easily (especially in the arms), and their colors are flat and fairly lifeless. However, they’re easier to wash, as you can just throw them in the washer and dryer, whereas wool sweaters have to be handwashed or dry cleaned. At the same time, wool sweaters need to be cleaned less often, as they don’t pick up smells and dirt as easily as cotton, so I still find cotton to be inferior.
7. Don’t buy zip up sweaters: If you really have to have a zipper in your sweater, try a 1/4 zip up mock neck sweater, but realize that you will look like a dad.
8. Go for solids at first: If you’re just starting to buy nice clothes, go for solid colors, but ones with interesting textures and depth. For example, here is a Brooks Brothers 346 lambswool sweater that has quite some depth and richness to the brown, much more so than most low-end merinos, even the heathered ones
9. Buy grey and navy: If you don’t already have a very large collection of sweaters, go for versatile colors. This slightly depends on what color your pants are. I personally find grey and navy to be the most versatile, but I often also wear the wheat colored one I’ve shown above. If I were just starting off, however, I would buy grey and navy for now, then branch out into wheat (or some kind of brown), burgundy, and then cream. Keep in mind what color your jackets and outerwear pieces are as well. The general tip is that you want your pieces to contrast. For example, if you have mainly blue and brown pants, then you’ll want a grey sweater. This will work even better if your outerwear pieces tend to not to be grey.
10. Check the elasticity, especially at the neck and cuffs: Be careful about buying sweaters when you think the material will stretch out easily. Sweaters made out of poor materials will lose their shape much more quickly than ones made from better materials. This will be especially true if you tend to do things like push your sleeves up, which essentially stretches the fabric out. It may take some time for you to develop a sense of how good the material is, but you should start paying attention now. One good sweater that will last you 7-10 years is better than one poor sweater that will lose its shape after 2-3 years. Again, probably good to remember that you get what you pay for.
11. Use a knit tailor: Keep in mind that a knit tailor can taper your sweaters. Thus, you only need to make sure that the sweater fits the shoulders, arms, neck, and length correctly. If it seems baggy at the sides, just bring it to a knit tailor. They’ll taper it in and you’ll have a much, much better looking piece. I’ve written about this here as well.
12. Get something to take care of those pills: Lastly, once you’ve bought a sweater, go pick up a sweater stone, sweater comb, or an electric fabric shaver for when your sweater starts to pill. Higher grade wools will pill less than lower grade ones (thus the advantage of longer fibers), but all fibers will eventually snap and break when enough friction and wear is put on them. The type of tool you should use to take off these pills will depend on the material and gauge of the knit. Generally, however, the stone and comb will be better for things that are less fuzzy and have a higher gauge (thus are woven more “tightly”), while the fabric shaver is better for sweaters that should be treated more gently. For the most part, a sweater stone should take care of most sweaters you’ll encounter.
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