Clothing experts share their best tips for choosing a sweater that lasts.
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You found a stylish sweater at your favorite store that looked great off the rack. But after wearing—and washing—it a few times, you see it’s pilling up, or linting off on everything it brushes against, or even starting to fall apart at the seams. Don’t make that mistake again. We spoke to experts to find out how to choose sweaters that will last.
The top recommendation from the experts we interviewed: If you want a sweater to be with you for longer than a season, stay away from synthetic yarns containing acrylic, rayon, and/or polyester.
“Higher quality sweaters tend to be composed of natural fibers, such as merino wool, cashmere, alpaca, and linen,” says Celia Cahill, Vice President of Off-Site Education at the Knitting Guild Association. “Many commercial sweaters are made of acrylic and acrylic blends, which are usually easier to care for and washable, but are not as breathable and comfortable to wear, and don't always wear well over time.”
If possible, try to stick with one natural fabric per sweater, rather than blends. This won’t always be possible—100 percent cashmere sweaters are luxurious, yes, but they often have luxurious price tags to go along with them—but it can be helpful to narrow down your purchasing options if you decide to get sweaters made with only one or two natural fibers. Having a sweater made of just one material also helps prevent pilling and degradation of the sweater over time.
That said, you don’t have to stick with just one staple natural fiber to fill your sweater drawer. Maggie Mee, head of merchandising at Trunk Club, says buying sweaters in a wide range of fabrics is a great way to keep them in your wardrobe year-round. “I recommend starting with a high-quality cashmere sweater. It's so cozy and makes a timeless addition to your wardrobe that will last for several seasons,” she says. “If you live in a cooler climate, a wool sweater is great for keeping you warm. Cotton sweaters are perfect fall and spring transition pieces and usually are more cost-effective than heavier sweaters.”
You can also grab the odd acrylic or poly blend, if it’s a piece you really love and you understand it won’t be the coziest thing you own, and it probably won’t be with you forever.
“There isn't a universally bad fabric for sweaters, but when you're looking for an investment sweater to last you for years, I'd recommend shoppers steer clear of synthetic polyester,” Mee says. “For trend pieces that might last one or two seasons, you can play with synthetic fabrics and blends.”
Buying your sweaters in a brick-and-mortar store? Run your hands over them first. If the material feels scratchy, cheap, or just not like something you ever want to put on your body, don’t even bother trying it on. A bad feel is often a sign that that yarn used to make the sweater is of poor quality, even if it’s made of a natural fiber.
“Lower quality fibers and blends can tend to feel stiffer, even plasticky,” Cahill says.
On the other hand, if the fabric feels pliable, tightly woven, and nice against the skin, it’s probably of higher quality. “A good cashmere is extremely soft to the touch,” says Mee. Basically? If it feels good, it’ll look good for longer, too.
You’re probably already eyeing up the aesthetics of your sweaters, but really take a good look to ensure any details or accents on it are cohesive. If the pattern looks a little wonky (as in mismatching in a weird way, not intentionally asymmetrical) it could be a sign of some other potential long-term longevity issues—not to mention that you might not want to wear the sweater at all, due to the aforementioned uneven pattern. “Sweaters with colorwork or stitch patterns can easily have problems with continuity, particularly at the seams,” Cahill says. “The best quality sweaters make sure the color patterns, such as on a Fair Isle sweater, or stitch patterns, such as on a cable sweater, line up correctly.”
You can let this standard slide if you have a friend or relative who recently discovered the knitting community on Instagram, likes to show their affection with hand-knitted goods, and is very much not a professional. But if you’re looking for a commercially-made sweater, consistency with the patterns and design are key.
Any sweater will have seams of some sort—usually around the cuffs, shoulders, and bottom of the sweater—and they can be a telltale sign of whether or not a sweater will last. If you’re looking at a sweater, check to see that the seams are smooth, even, and keep the sweater in a streamlined shape.
“Seams should be sewn and sufficient to hold the weight of the garment, which is particularly important at the shoulders,” Cahill says. “Lower quality garments can have puckering or weak seams.”
Take a look at some other details of the sweater, like its edging and trim details. The edges of your sweater—often ribbing, a pattern of vertical knitted stripes—should not curl upwards, whether you’re wearing it or it’s placed on a flat surface. If it’s a cardigan, make sure the buttons are evenly spaced out, flat, and the thread holding them to the sweater is firm. If the sweater has a zipper, look out for distortion around edges. “It is common to see rippling of the fabric,” Cahill says. “The best quality sweater zippers lie flat.”
If the sweater has pockets, Cahill says to make sure they are integrated smoothly into the garment and don’t flop open or look stretched out.
Of course, if you get a great sweater, you need to do your part to make sure it stays in tip-top shape as long as possible. To do this, Mee advises folding your sweaters and placing them in a drawer instead of hanging them. This way, the fabric won’t stretch out or develop lumps where the shoulders drape over the hanger. “I'd also recommend skipping the dryer and laying these flat to dry,” Mee says. “This will prevent pilling, shrinking, and loss of shape.”
Finally, it’s important to store the sweaters properly over the summer. When you’re ready to put them away, give them a wash. This is vital, according to Cahill, because tiny bits of food and perspiration can fester on the sweater over the summer, which might attract moths and cause an unpleasant smell once you unearth them in the fall.
Once dry, fold and place them in a container. You can use plastic, wood, or canvas, depending on your preferences.
“Plastic is most popular because they don’t let the critters in, plus they’re light and stackable. Wood also works well,” says Cahill. “Canvas is probably my favorite choice because it breathes, but you have to make sure the canvas weave is small enough that moths can’t get in, plus it’s not as practical when storing large numbers of sweaters because it doesn’t have much structure.”
Smart storage helps prevent fading, pilling, stagnating scents, and keeps moths that love to munch on wool at bay. You can also throw in some natural moth repellents, like pheromone packets or lavender sachets. But steer clear of conventional moth balls, which are noxious and don't even work all that well.
If you do that, you’ll have a sweater (or several) to stay with you for many years to come.
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