A few Fridays ago, to cap off a long work week, I went to check out the new Nordstrom. While the price points don’t faze me, I left the store feeling like most of what I’d seen was overpriced. Like the $785 sweater I had tried on which had already sprouted a hole. Or the $375 sweater folded neatly on a table, with pilling dotted across the front.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve been played by sweaters many times. I’ve spent good money–hundreds of dollars on designer knits–only to have them develop holes just the same as a $30 sweater.
While you can find a durable cotton T-shirt at any budget, knits are a different ballgame. Natural materials not only vary wildly per brand, but sweaters have to be functional (keep you warm), and the quality raw materials are expensive. So yeah, sweaters are one of the most frustrating categories to shop for.
After this disappointing shopping trip, I wondered: what makes a quality sweater? So I took out a few of my most durable knits, and considered why I spent my money on them. Here are the features I look for when buying sweaters, and where I shop to get the best bang for my buck.
If you want a full overview on how to assess quality clothes, check out my ultimate guide here.
In this post:
- Accept the Reality–Sweaters Pill
- Choosing a Material
- Fabric Composition
- Quality Sweater Brands
- How to Shop for Sweaters in Person
- Tips for Buying Sweaters Online
- How to Get the Best Deals on Quality Sweaters
Accept the Reality
*Affiliate links below*
My pre-1990s sweaters never pilled.
But times have changed.
With the fast fashion lifecycle to keep up with, brands nowadays have little incentive to make sweaters more durable. So most modern sweaters will pill. It doesn’t matter the cost. Higher-quality knits will take longer to pill, but they’ll still pill. That’s why it’s worth buying a fabric shaver or sweater comb if you plan on wearing non-cotton sweaters regularly.
Choosing a Material
Cashmere, wool, alpaca, cotton–which is most durable? And what are their downfalls?
While there are now cashmere options at every budget, the quality has gone downhill. This New Yorker article was written in 1999, and people noticed the decline even then.
Cashmere as a material is inherently delicate and modern versions will definitely pill. Plus, there are crappy versions that cost $300, so imagine how much it costs for a truly luxurious version.
Since most of us can’t fathom paying hundreds of dollars for something that might get holes in it, your best bet is to go vintage.
An $8 cashmere sweater from decades ago is probably built like a tank, and if something happens to it, you won’t be that bummed.
If I have to buy new, instead of spending hundreds of dollars on delicate cashmere, I’d rather spend my money on a well-made sweater in a sturdier fabric, like wool.
But if you’re dead-set on affordable cashmere in the $100-$200 range, my friend Newinspired has reviewed some of the most popular budget-friendly options.
And if you’re down with an oversized fit, don’t forget to check the men’s section at thrift stores.
Alpaca is a solid alternative to cashmere. It has a nice loft, but it’s less delicate and more affordable. With longer fibers than cashmere, they’re also less likely to pill.
I love a nice, chunky wool. Wool is naturally water-resistant, warm, and the fibers have a natural wave, or crimp. That feature will help the sweater keep its shape.
If you want a thin sweater like cashmere, but one that’s smooth, elastic, and pill-resistant, merino wool is a good value. It definitely feels much less luxurious, though, so I prefer it for base layers and workout clothes.
The best thing about cotton–that it molds to fit your shape–is also its downfall in knitwear. Cotton doesn’t have the same natural crimp as wool does, and will stretch and sag over time. Regardless, I buy cotton sweaters for the design, not for warmth.
I’ll accept a small amount of synthetic materials, around 15% or less, as I find sweaters with more than that don’t feel as nice. I have the best luck if the sweater is composed of only one or two natural materials.
I am also automatically suspicious when there are more than three fabrics, because the percentage of each material is watered down. For example, I see this sweater composed of FIVE fabrics and I bet you anything it’s itchy.
Look for Brands Who Specialize in Knitwear
When in doubt, look to the brands who only make knitwear or specialize in it. There are brands that make sweaters that will last forever, but are limited in styles and design, so I’m focusing on brands that I think look good, too.
I honestly believe you can find a good sweater at any price point, but be forewarned: some of these prices may shock you.
$ – If You’re Tired of J. Crew, But Can’t Afford More Than J. Crew
- Everlane – Affordability and sustainability are most important to you.
- Naadam – They offer a $75 cashmere option (unisex, so size down), but I think this wool sweater is better.
- Uniqlo – The prices cannot be beat, and they always have fashion-forward colors. Look at their wool options, in particular.
- Vintage and secondhand – Check eBay, Etsy, and your local thrift store
$$ – If You Prefer Indie Brands (Because with the Small Guys You Often Get Better Value)
- &Daughter – Scottish and Irish-made, and built to last. Total tomboy vibe. I literally want every single one.
- Acne Studios – Fashion-forward shapes, but beware of too many mixed fabrics. Look for the pure wools.
- babaà – Chunky, oversized, and built for everyday; no synthetic materials ever.
- Lauren Manoogian – Earth tones, interesting textures, carefully considered. A very NYC brand.
- Margaret Howell – A British designer who’s obsessed with “well-made and enduring” things, so expect her sweaters to be no different.
- Navy Grey – A British brand inspired by a “20-year-old jumper.” Love that they offer relaxed fits.
$$$ – If You Find Words Like “Artisanal” and “Heritage” Exciting
- The Elder Statesman – If you want “fun” cashmere. Based in LA.
- Johnstons of Elgin – A Scottish heritage brand that’s been around since 1797. Currently having a sale with prices well over 50% off.
- Pringle of Scotland – The quality probably isn’t what it used to be, but they offer a wide range of price points, and you can catch major sales.
- Thom Browne – The preppy styling isn’t for everyone, but the details are impeccable.
$$$$ – For the ‘Money Is No Object’ Crew
- Brunello Cucinelli – Known as the “King of Cashmere,” he pays his workers about 20% more than average and advocates for a healthy work-life balance.
- Loro Piana – Heirloom status. THE classic Italian sweater brand.
Personally, I would love to own a sweater by Thom Browne, Margaret Howell, and Loro Piana. These are brands that cue quality to me, but also suit my aesthetics.
How to Shop for Sweaters in Person
Brands are a starting point, but you still have to judge each garment individually.
In my guide for how to assess quality clothes, I said the best way is to compare multiple similar items. Unless I looked at several options for my sheets review, I would have been lost. For this post, I compared some of my nicer sweaters to an inexpensive one, so I could more clearly identify the differences.
What I noticed is that the material doesn’t matter that much. People see a ‘100% cashmere’ sweater, and automatically assume it’s high-quality. I love natural materials, but scratchy, low-grade wools and cashmere are often used to create the illusion of quality. I think it’s better to pay attention to the construction details.
Buying clothes isn’t an exact science, and value varies per person, but I notice all my durable sweaters have three things in common:
1. The Fibers Are Thick.
Far and away the biggest impact for me is the yarn size. All of my expensive sweaters are made up of thicker-than-average individual fibers. So look close. The weaving on higher-end options is also neat and defined.
A brand might tout their sweater is ‘100% cashmere’, and it IS, but they might cut corners by using super thin yarns.
Here is a 100% cotton sweater. Notice the thickness of the individual yarns in the hem, and how neat the pattern of the weaving is.
2. The Weave Is Tight.
When I’m considering a sweater in a store, I do the See-Through test. I put my hand underneath the fabric and see how much of my hand is visible through the holes.
Here’s a better example. See how big the holes are in the sweater on the left, versus the one on the right. Both are cashmere.
Sweaters that are loosely woven and constructed with thin yarns are weaker, and more prone to rips and holes.
Note: Thin sweaters can be durable, too, but the weaving should be tight.
Example: There’s this adorable Everlane alpaca sweater. But looking at the fabric close-up, I see a potential problem: the weaving is way loose. While this sweater might be soft and warm, it might not last long.
3. They Pass ‘The Stretch Test’
To test how the sweater might sag, I pull on an area (usually the hem) to see how quickly it bounces back. If it takes a while to return back to its original state, then that makes me think the sweater will lose shape more easily.
Note: I don’t expect 100% cotton to fully bounce back, because that’s just how the fabric behaves.
Tips for Shopping for Sweaters Online
Now that we have shopping in person down, let’s chat about shopping online, basing our decisions on product descriptions with bad or limited information.
Avoid Vague Product Descriptions
Be wary of product listings that don’t divulge the exact fabric composition. A description that says ‘cashmere/cotton’ could be only 30% cashmere. So make sure the price aligns with the composition. Don’t accept anything less than knowing the exact percentage of each fabric. If one retailer doesn’t tell you, look up the item on another website.
Pay Attention to Keywords
If a sweater is so great, trust me, the brand/retailer will want to brag about it! They will be providing extra details about where the fabric comes from, etc., so that they can justify the price of the sweater.
Lean in towards words that cue thickness, like ‘chunky.’
‘Virgin wool’ is a rampant phrase on high-end designer sites. Sounds fancy, but could mean many things that aren’t fancy at all.
Here is a screenshot of a product description that sounds promising to me. This brand has not only given me more details about where the material comes from, but they also educate me on the ply number and why it matters.
Look for Close-ups of the Fabric
For me, this is KEY, so I can gauge how thick and tight the fibers are. I zoom in with such intensity, you’d think I’m trying to solve a murder mystery. Net-A-Porter is so good with this. Matches is, too.
How to Get the Best Deals on Quality Sweaters
Most people look for sweaters around fall time. But savvy shoppers know that the time to buy sweaters is actually around this time–January and early February, because winter clothes are on mega-sale. When it comes to buying new sweaters, I find it hard to pay full price, unless I’m trying to support a brand or designer.
And if you don’t want to keep up with sales, the best bang for your buck is going to be shopping higher-end brands secondhand. All of a sudden $800 sweaters become so much more affordable. You’d be amazed what you can score for less than $100.
You know me, I am value-focused to the max. So most of my sweaters come from eBay, by searching specific brands, or from the online consignment store The Real Real (Get $25 off your first order). The 100% wool Phillip Lim sweater shown below I bought there for $48.
I rarely buy sweaters new anymore, unless I see a mega-sale. Again, it’s because good sweaters are so expensive, as shown in my brands-to-look-for section. If I buy secondhand, I can really stretch my money.
With The Real Real, if you don’t know many brands, it can be overwhelming. So here’s a pro-tip:
When searching for sweaters, search for the keyword “heavy”. Then filter down to the knitwear category. Because as I mentioned, if you want a sweater that lasts, you gotta go THICK. No thin sweaters with wimpy yarns!
Below is a screenshot of the types of brands and styles I saved to my Obsessions page.
My personal favorites:
- Jil Sander Fleece Wool Sweater, XS
- A.P.C. Wool Striped Sweater, S
- Loewe Wool Striped Sweater, M
- Magaschoni Wool Bateau Sweater, L
- Malo Wool V-Neck Cardigan Sweater, XL, brand new with tags
So, to summarize: If you’re on a budget, skip over new cashmere entirely, unless you are willing to dig around secondhand. Opt for naturally-springy wools and alpaca. Keep the synthetic materials down to 15% or less. Get cotton if you run hot, but don’t expect it keep its shape over time. Make your money stretch further by shopping secondhand. And most importantly, pay attention to how thick the individual fibers are.
Happy sweater shopping!
Are you disappointed with the quality of sweaters these days? What features do you look for to increase your chances of making a solid buy? Are there specific brands you swear by? Let’s commiserate or share tips!
Feature Image: cyndicantrell.net