Sweaters are one of the great meeting places in men's fashion.
You can dress them up (sweater, dress shirt, slacks, and blazer)….
dress them down (sweater, T-shirt, and jeans)…..
or play it right down the middle (sweater, dress shirt, chinos).
The possibilities are pretty much endless.
But not all sweaters are created equal — and not all fill the same roles.
It's worth taking the time to familiarize yourself with the different kinds of sweater that are available, and adding one or two of your favorites to your permanent wardrobe.
Start with the right fabric when buying a sweater
A couple of important factors go into making a sweater. There's the raw material, but there are also the kind of threads or yarns it's spun into, and the knit or weave used to join that.
That adds up to give you a lot of varieties and a lot of options. Here are some classic fabric choices for sweaters:
Made from the downy belly hairs of the Kashmir goat, cashmere is a lightweight and luxuriously soft material.
Because it provides insulating warmth with relatively low bulk, cashmere is usually used to make thin knit sweaters. These have a uniform consistency, and layer easily with other items. It's not impossible to find a bulkier sweater like a cable-knit made from cashmere, but it is unusual.
For maximum versatility (cashmere is expensive, and you want to get the most bang for your buck), a simple, smooth sweater in a plain, dark color is always a good investment.
Cry once about the price, then wear it every chance you get and feel like a million dollars. If you take care of your cashmere sweater, you should get 200+ wears out of it over 10 years.
My advice when purchasing a cashmere sweater is to ensure that:
it fits perfectly
you have occasion to wear it at least four times a year
it is of a simple, timeless, dark color and
you buy it from a reputable merchant (counterfeit sweaters are a poor investment)
Certain geographic areas have their own famous styles of wool — Donegal wool, for example, has little tufts of colored fiber scattered throughout the weave, created by letting small bunches of differently-colored yarns float in the air and settle on the primary threads during weaving.
Plain sheep's wool is one of the most common materials for sweaters. It can vary widely in quality depending on the breed of sheep and the treatment of the cloth.
Soft, thick wools are usually used to make cable-knit sweaters or other bulky styles.
These provide excellent warmth, and make a timeless top layer, but they don't layer as neatly as lighter knits.
You've got a lot of variety and versatility here.
Wool's a good option, and it's sturdy enough to last for years — but it's also more susceptible to damage from heat or improper drying than other materials, so you'll need to take good care of it, and be careful how you wash it.
When most people think of sweaters, they think wool, but cotton is nearly as common.
Cotton is cheaper, lighter, and easier to clean than wool, making it a popular and practical option, especially in the warmer months at the beginning and end of sweater season.
Cotton can be used to make just about any style of sweater. Thin, lightweight knits (think like T-shirt fabric, but a little heavier and bulkier) make good layering pieces, while bulkier cable knits work well as top layers.
Sweaters made from cotton fabric (all other factors being equal) are going to be cooler than either their wool or cashmere brethren as their cellulose foundation sheds heat faster.
This isn't a bad thing – sometimes you want a cooler sweater and cotton sweaters can be worn directly on the skin with no irritation. Also, the use of cotton has helped to drive down sweater costs.
Synthetic Fabric Sweaters
In line with cotton, the big advantage of synthetic fabrics is that they have driven down the cost of these garments. Depending on the type of fabric being used, a synthetic fabric sweater can mimic the properties of wool or cotton, oftentimes without the problems of having to take special care of the garment when it comes to washing and handling.
Be careful, though, when purchasing a synthetic fabric sweater – it will, in most cases, be of a lower quality than its wool/cashmere fiber counterpart.
Consider the sweater weave
Sweater weave affects the heat retaining properties, fit, and level of formality of a sweater. Typically heavy rib patterns will make a sweater thicker, increasing its ability to keep you warm and enabling a former fit. Plain woven sweaters are going to be less elastic, slightly cooler, but the more delicate look gives them a more professional appearance.
Consider heavy weave sweaters a good choice for countries like Scotland or Norway where it is cold in the spring. You could wear the sweater without a jacket if it is thick enough.
For warmer places – a lightweight option is great and versatile and you can dress it up by adding a sport jacket on top.
A $500 cashmere sweater will look comical if it's too small; if it's too big it will look like a hand-me-down from your big brother. What is the key to finding a good fit?
Learn which brands suit you best, and stick with them. Every clothing brand uses different models that they build their clothing off of – you want to find the line that uses a person who most resembles your body's build.
A large sweater made by Calvin Klein is very different than a large sweater found at Wal-Mart. High end designers make their clothing to fit one in ten men (fit less, but for those lucky few a great fit), while larger manufacturers build their clothing lines to fit most men (thus poorly fit all).
Custom sweaters are an option for those willing to pay a bit more. Altering sweaters is a mixed bag – less expensive sweaters often have parts that are sewn and can be slightly altered. Occasionally, you'll find a master stitcher who can even rebuild parts of the garment for a reasonable price.
Let me know what your favorite sweaters are down in the comments.