Help Me Up My (Natural Fibers) Sweater Game!
November 21, 2016 8:32 AM   Subscribe

The weather is turning colder. Please suggest places to find something nice and warm to wear between my shirt and jacket to keep the cold at bay this season.

Female, 30s, living in a region where 30-50 degrees Fahrenheit is considered “very cold”. My sweater game is virtually non-existent and is not going to get me through the winter. Please help.

I greatly prefer natural fibers like merino wool and cashmere to synthetic materials. Alpaca has made a splash the past couple of years, any thoughts on alpaca from a personal comfort and warmth experience?

This will be a quality over quantity purchase, and have budgeted $100-$350 for a sweater. I’m happy to have a few sweaters and wear them on repeat during the season and year-to-year. Also, because at the price point of quality, realistically I’m not going to be owning that many sweaters, but can take comfort in knowing they can last me a decade with proper care.

I don’t equate quality with luxury -- I’m not trying to impress anyone with how fine or delicate or rare the materials are. I mainly want to stay warm and know my clothing will hold up if I properly wash and store them. So, the goal is everyday wear that might “dress up” on occasion. I’m not the most fashionable person, but I make an effort and consider myself on the smart-casual spectrum.

I live in Los Angeles so any local retailers (not mall brands) are cool, but recommendations for online retailers you’ve had a positive personal experience with are equally great!

I really want to spend my dollars supporting the smaller/independent businesses and/or businesses with a true consideration for quality/environmental impact/sustainability along the lines of:

+Eileen Fisher
+Elizabeth Suzann

Historically I've been a big fan of thrifting and second-hand, but currently am short on spare time and energy. I'm also aware of Everlane but don't feel great about their options.

If you have similar requirements, tell me where you go for sweaters?
posted by Goblin Barbarian to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (22 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Lands End has had very good quality cashmere in the past. I can't attest to current cashmere from there.
posted by Stewriffic at 8:42 AM on November 21, 2016

I own an Everlane cashmere sweater. The quality is at best "okay" - it is a bit thin compared to the ones I usually buy. I believe cashmere sweaters often come with information on how many "plys" the yarn is (yes, not unlike TP) and depending on your preference you will probably want something like 4 ply - it doesn't really mean better quality, just more weight. It feels warmer and more substantial. I own a somewhat gauzy cashmere sweater from J Crew that is ideal for intermediate fall/spring weather but too thin and light for winter. By contrast, my Talbots cashmere sweaters feel about 3-4x as thick and heavy, but in a way that is more cozy and sturdy than simply bulky. Talbots is a good place to look as the prices are reasonable, the quality is high, and they have sales often enough you can get one at discount. And do consider a good consignment shop- I have found really lovely Brooks Brothers and other cashmere/wool sweaters at consignment stores this time of year. Just inspect closely for moth holes.
posted by nightrecordings at 8:52 AM on November 21, 2016

Some of these may be more sporty than will work for you, but I love Ibex merino stuff. You can throw it in the washing machine! The items I have take a beating and still look good and keep me warm.
posted by rtha at 8:53 AM on November 21, 2016

Icebreaker has done some good work with regard to sheep herding practices for the cultivation and harvesting of merino wool. I find their stuff very high quality and excellent in the cost-per-wear category. They are expanding their non-active-wear offerings but it's still very "sport".

I used to be a big fan of Nau for its design and sustainability practices, but I don't like their designs anymore. I don't know if the quality or sustainability practices have changed because I have not liked their clothes in some years.
posted by crush-onastick at 8:55 AM on November 21, 2016

Echoing nightrecordings, in case anyone's curious about my Everlane hesitation: I feel the general quality leaves something to be desired, either in materials, cut/fit, or finishing like threads and buttons.
posted by Goblin Barbarian at 8:58 AM on November 21, 2016

I don't live in a cold area so don't have any personal experience with Uniqlo's winter clothes, but their heat-tech line and sweaters always seemed great and reasonably priced.
posted by monologish at 9:01 AM on November 21, 2016

If you like thrifting but are low on energy you might want to check out thredUp - basically an online consignment store, where you can search for (and find!) wool sweaters. They do that super-obnoxious thing where they make you sign up for an account before you can see *anything.* But they do have clothes from the brands you name and from other brands that have decent wool products.

I love Uniqlo merino cardigans (wearing one right now) but I don't know about their sustainability situation. And they are a little on the fragile side (I wash them on the regular cold cycle and generally need to do a couple of repairs in the first year or two).
posted by mskyle at 9:06 AM on November 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

I have discovered some amazing knit work based in Eastern European countries through Etsy, particularly Lithuania and Latvia.

mohair sweater Lithuania (handmade)

wool sweater Lithuania (handmade)

wool sweater Estonia (handmade)

To try different countries, click the "choose custom location" link in the right column of the search listing page.

Vintage items are also worth looking at. Ukraine has some good artists, too, I think - check different countries.

There is also some _incredible_ felting work in that part of the world.

This shrug from Germany looks amazing
posted by amtho at 9:14 AM on November 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

I've been under the impression that you hand wash merino wool. Maybe I'm wrong there, though. I wear Uniqlo's merino wool sweaters. I'm not under any illusion that they'll last a decade, and they're thin. But they look good, and if they last, let's say five years, I'm still saving money versus buying something five times as expensive.
posted by cnc at 9:16 AM on November 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

I got a cashmere cardigan from Boden, and am happy with the quality. The style is very classic, nothing trendy. Good selection of colors. Nice thick weight to it.
posted by msbubbaclees at 9:21 AM on November 21, 2016

I've mentioned them here before because I learned about them here: Woolovers is good quality if you are looking for fairly timeless styles. I got a few sweaters from them over a year ago and have been especially pleased with the quality of the merino and lambswool sweaters. Somewhat machine-washable, thin but warm (especially for the environment you describe; they're a little thin when I'm shoveling snow), classic styles, nary a pill or loose thread in sight so far after heavy use.
posted by tchemgrrl at 9:24 AM on November 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

If you did want something delicate and awesome, this shop has that.

Eastern Europe also has wonderful felting. I discovered all this when I went looking for a cat bed for a parental gift; someone over there is making cocoon-like hidey holes out of felt that are really great. However, the sheer scope of the art is just amazing. There are wonderful felt flowers, with stamens and sepals and rich colors and proportion, but also:

these slippers with bas-relief tiny goats on the toes; this donkey; this cute little mouse; this swan with artful fluff for tail feathers

All of that is a preamble for this random owl sweater; the sweater is beautiful, but the felted owl art is kind of crazy looking. If you wanted a conversation piece, though, here it is.

The prices are not cheap, which makes sense because this is actual art, but so cool to just look at.
posted by amtho at 9:26 AM on November 21, 2016

Woolovers. It seems that since they've expanded to the US their prices have gone up a bit but, for example, their cashmere/merino V-neck sweaters at $51 are still a very good deal. All of their goods are machine-washable using Woolite or its equivalent. I can attest to the quality and warmth of their cashmere/merino sweaters, 100% lambswool, and 100% wool sweaters, and they've recently introduced 100% cashmere and 100% merino sweaters as well.

Or, on preview, what tchemgrrl said.
posted by DrGail at 9:27 AM on November 21, 2016

In re: alpaca, it's relatively soft and warm, but it doesn't have wool's memory; it stretches out of shape easily (sometimes just from wearing it). I think it works best as scarves, shawls, or sweaters that are a) blended with other fibers and b) not super structured.
posted by tchemgrrl at 9:31 AM on November 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

I think you are going to do best with something washable, which will really limit your options if you want natural fibers.
The reason I think it should be washable is that this sweater is probably going to stink to high heaven if your are wearing it frequently in such warm weather. You are going to be sweating. And once sweaters get stinky it's really hard to unstink them. I'm a very un-sweaty/unstinky person that wears sweaters instead of jackets outdoors when the weather is 40 to 15 (I add a jacket at less than 15) and I can think of so many lovely sweaters that I had to retire due to armpit stink, because I sweat so much in them even in the cold and even with a layer below.
Washing natural fiber sweaters often leaves them misshapen. I can't imagine a sweater lasting a decade if you are washing it.
Otherwise invest in drycleaning every other week.
You should consider a "base layer" activewear sweater.
Or something like this with a very tight weave and very thin.
washable merino Pendleton
posted by littlewater at 9:56 AM on November 21, 2016

I'm also in LA, and I really like SmartWool sweaters (and socks!). Warm but not too warm. I see a lot of previous season Smartwool at places like Sierra Trading Post, if you're feeling frugal.

One of my favorite sweaters is a wool sweater from Kuhl, which I got at REI. Check their brick & mortar stores in the LA area and you can find some good deals.
posted by mogget at 10:27 AM on November 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

I don't own any myself, but I know several people who swear by the quality and eco-friendliness of Gudrun Sjoden, and I can attest that my friends and acquaintances all look fabulous in their pieces.

And for quality and customer service, you would be hard pressed to find a company with as good a reputation as LL Bean. They're not a small independent company, but they do take labor rights and the environment very seriously. Their regular basics are excellent workhorse garments, and their Signature line has quite a few more stylish pieces in natural fibers.

I also knit and agree with tchemgirl's assessment of alpaca being a very soft and warm, but relatively shapeless fiber. Not necessarily a bad thing, but it depends on what you're going for. It can also work beautifully in blends, but may result in a fuzzy, "halo" effect that you may or may not find desirable.

That said, I also grew up in L.A. and never paid attention to the specific fiber content of garments until I moved to a place with real weather, so I don't know how much you really need to worry about the relative warmth of alpaca to sheep wool. Most places loudly advertising the warmth of their garments are imagining snow and ice, and when I go home for the holidays, almost all of my East Coast winter garments feel like overkill and I often end up just borrowing a cotton sweater from my sister. In any case, I find that layers work better than any single sweater in almost every situation.
posted by Diagonalize at 11:06 AM on November 21, 2016

My experience with Alpaca wool is that it's soft and light with medium warmth, similar to mohair but not as fluffy. I don't find that it wears well with time, though, if aesthetics are a concern. It does tend to become stretched out and pilly.

Cashmere is very light, very soft and very warm. It's so warm, in fact, that I've mostly given it up because I overheat in it except on the coldest winter days. Cheap cashmere can pill but good quality will last a long time. You do need to take good care of it though, so gentle care is a must.

I think Merino wool is still your best bet in terms of warmth, durability and ease of care. It's not the warmest or lightest wool, but overall I think it's the best performance for your buck. A good Merino wool will not pill and there are machine-washable varieties available. Merino wool is also used for hiking/cycling performance garments, so they will be very light, layerable, and easily washable.
posted by exquisite_deluxe at 11:27 AM on November 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

It'd be remiss to at least not take a glance at what L.L. Bean has to offer, especially since quality is high on your list and L.L. Bean is known for both longevity and quality customer care long after a product is purchased. Plus, they know their outer wear well.
posted by zizzle at 11:38 AM on November 21, 2016

I would check out Dale of Norway. The Norwegians know from cold, and whileI have never interacted with a finished sweater made by them, I have experience with their handknitting yarns (baby ull is a soft and hardwearing machine washable merino) and their patterns (well written and designed).

I do not suggest that you knit yourself a Dale of Norway sweater. But I have no reason to doubt that the quality of their yarns is also reflected in the finished sweaters.
posted by sparklemotion at 12:14 PM on November 21, 2016

Try Indigenous -- they hit the mark on natural fibers, sustainability and durability. Style-wise they are pretty drapey, which may or may not be your cup of tea.
posted by paddingtonb at 2:27 PM on November 21, 2016

If you're looking for something to keep you warm outside, at 30-50F... have you considered buying a wool coat? For a couple hundred dollars you can get a very nice wool coat that will actually last you 10 years (sweater styles change even if you go for something "classic," and they're awfully prone to moths as well as sweat stink).

If you like the idea of Everlane, also check out Grana--I haven't tried any of their sweaters but they claim to only work with Grade A 2-ply cashmere, and the price point is reasonable. Or Zady, which is a bit rich for my blood but along the same lines (a definite step up from Everlane in both quality and price).
posted by serelliya at 2:34 PM on November 21, 2016

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