Flecked Sweaters for Fall

I don’t know if it’s too early to talk about knitwear, but I’ve been thinking about flecked sweaters a lot lately. Sometimes these are called speckled sweaters, sometimes Donegal sweaters, and sometimes even tweed sweaters. Not because they’re actually from Donegal (a county in Ireland), but because the irregular flecks of color on these yarns are reminiscent of the region’s hallmark tweeds.

The nice thing about flecked sweaters is that they can add a bit of visual interest where a solid knit might be too boring. I find this useful when wearing a sweater alone (over a shirt, but without a jacket). There’s just something about a very smooth, plain-colored merino, worn with wool or cotton trousers, that can sometimes feel a bit too uninspired (though, they do work well underneath tailored sport coats).

There are a number of brands with flecked sweaters this fall. At the top of the price pyramid end is Inis Meain, who makes them in a pure cashmere and wool-cashmere blend. Those are available at A Suitable Wardrobe, Barneys New York, Manufactum, and Frans Boone. Inis Meain makes some of my favorite knitwear in the world, and I find their quality to be unsurpassed, but their popularity in Japan and Europe has made them very expensive. If you’re not deterred by the price, Barney’s also has a few half zip sweaters by Fioroni worth considering.

For something a bit more affordable, check out these options by Drumohr, Billy Reid, Saturdays Surf NYC, APC, and Orvis. J Crew also has something on sale through their Wallace & Barnes line, and an extra 25% can be taken off at the moment with the checkout code FALLSTYLE. Perhaps most promising are these Howlin’ by Morrison Shetlands, which come in light grey, charcoal, and red (I really dig the light grey, personally). 

There’s also a range of Irish makers, none of whom I have any direct experience with. If you’re open to giving them a try, a quick Google search will reveal a number of retailers. Maybe start with Aran Sweater Market, Aran Sweater Shop, and Magee. This seller on eBay also has a range of intriguing options starting at $70.

Most affordable of all is J Crew’s mainline. They’ve done a number of these sweaters in the past and you can still find many of them floating around on eBay. J Crew’s knits, from my experience, stretch out pretty easily, but if the price is right, they can be a good buy. This one, for example, is available for $30 (the cut looks pretty boxy though). Mr. Porter also has this blue version brand new for $90. That’ll probably make it to their end-of-season sale, where it’ll be discounted by 50-70%. 

It’s On Sale: Unionmade

Unionmade has just marked down a lot of spring/summer clothing 40 percent. Unionmade has one of the broadest selections of niche mens wear outside of megastores like Barneys, and although the discounts aren’t as deep as others’ might be, the selection is solid. Some of my picks: a Drumohr cotton cardigan, Quoddy penny loafers, olive twill jeans from Raleigh, New Balance 1300s in an excellently neutral colorway, a cotton/wool SNS Herning cardigan, or a fresco blazer from Barena. Union Made also carries a lot of Gitman Vintage, and some solid color linen models are in the sale in addition to their wilder prints.

The sale is valid in-store as well at their shops, and Unionmade’s discounted items are final sale.

-Pete

Thoughts on Buying Good Sweaters
The best time to purchase sweaters is at the end of the season, when the fall/ winter stock gets discounted by fifty percent or more. The best time to shop for sweaters, however, is now, so that you can give yourself a few months time to figure out what you want and not be rushed into impulse buys come January. So, if you’re out browsing for sweaters, I’d suggest the following:
Low- to mid-tier purchases: If your budget is limited, I recommend aiming for sweaters made out of lambswool, Shetland, or merino wools. The first two, all things being equal, are harder-wearing. I also think they can often have more visual depth in their texture and color than most, lower-end merinos, which can be useful if you want to wear the sweater without a jacket. The sweater pictured above really shows off the nice lofty nap on lambswool, I think. 
High-end purchases: If your budget is over $350 or so, consider cashmere. The problem with cashmere below this mark – at least at full retail prices – is that they’re often poorly made. Cashmere is expensive, so when a company is selling a cashmere sweater for under $350 or so, it means they’ve likely skimped on the construction. That can mean shorter fibers used for the yarns, which will result in more breakages and pilling, or thin, loosely knitted fabrics, which will lose their shape over time. Better, I think, to stick to lambswool, Shetlands, and merinos, rather than be tricked into the allure of “cheap” cashmere.
Checking for quality: It’s difficult to determine a sweater’s true quality without having actually owned it for a few years. Nothing can substitute for experience. There are a few things, however, that you can do to make an educated guess. On cashmere, try rubbing the fabric between your fingers for a bit, and see if a light, oily residue has been left on your hands. If there is, that means the fabric was treated with a kind of emulsion, and is probably of low quality. On everything else, see if the sweater has been knitted densely, and check the elasticity of the collars and cuffs. It’s difficult to convey online exactly what level of quality to look for – which is why I think you should browse the inventory at a high-end store – but generally, if you think the sweater might lose its shape easily, it probably will.
Altering knits: Ideally, you should buy something that fits perfectly off-the-rack, but some knits can be altered if you have a good alterationist. On sweaters with side seams, I’ve found it’s easy to take in the body without too much trouble. You can read my post on knit alterations here.
Getting rid of pills: Every sweater, no matter what the quality, will pill to some degree. The question is just how much and how quickly. To take care of pills, I recommend using a sweater shaver. I use this one and it works decently well, though there are probably better ones on the market.
Where to buy: I can’t give a full list of every place that stocks good sweaters, but I can make a few suggestions based off of my experiences. On the high end, I really like Inis Meain, Drumohr, Drake’s, John Smedley, and William Lockie (the last of which you can buy through Heather Wallace). For more affordable purchases, I’ve had good experiences with Brooks Brothers, Club Monaco, and Howard Yount. The first two often do significant mark-downs throughout the season, which is when I think you should buy. Club Monaco also gives students an extra 20% off if they can show a student ID in-store or give a university email address online. I’ve picked up their basic v-neck sweaters before for about $45, and find them to be of a good value. 

Thoughts on Buying Good Sweaters

The best time to purchase sweaters is at the end of the season, when the fall/ winter stock gets discounted by fifty percent or more. The best time to shop for sweaters, however, is now, so that you can give yourself a few months time to figure out what you want and not be rushed into impulse buys come January. So, if you’re out browsing for sweaters, I’d suggest the following:

Low- to mid-tier purchases: If your budget is limited, I recommend aiming for sweaters made out of lambswool, Shetland, or merino wools. The first two, all things being equal, are harder-wearing. I also think they can often have more visual depth in their texture and color than most, lower-end merinos, which can be useful if you want to wear the sweater without a jacket. The sweater pictured above really shows off the nice lofty nap on lambswool, I think. 

High-end purchases: If your budget is over $350 or so, consider cashmere. The problem with cashmere below this mark – at least at full retail prices – is that they’re often poorly made. Cashmere is expensive, so when a company is selling a cashmere sweater for under $350 or so, it means they’ve likely skimped on the construction. That can mean shorter fibers used for the yarns, which will result in more breakages and pilling, or thin, loosely knitted fabrics, which will lose their shape over time. Better, I think, to stick to lambswool, Shetlands, and merinos, rather than be tricked into the allure of “cheap” cashmere.

Checking for quality: It’s difficult to determine a sweater’s true quality without having actually owned it for a few years. Nothing can substitute for experience. There are a few things, however, that you can do to make an educated guess. On cashmere, try rubbing the fabric between your fingers for a bit, and see if a light, oily residue has been left on your hands. If there is, that means the fabric was treated with a kind of emulsion, and is probably of low quality. On everything else, see if the sweater has been knitted densely, and check the elasticity of the collars and cuffs. It’s difficult to convey online exactly what level of quality to look for – which is why I think you should browse the inventory at a high-end store – but generally, if you think the sweater might lose its shape easily, it probably will.

Altering knits: Ideally, you should buy something that fits perfectly off-the-rack, but some knits can be altered if you have a good alterationist. On sweaters with side seams, I’ve found it’s easy to take in the body without too much trouble. You can read my post on knit alterations here.

Getting rid of pills: Every sweater, no matter what the quality, will pill to some degree. The question is just how much and how quickly. To take care of pills, I recommend using a sweater shaver. I use this one and it works decently well, though there are probably better ones on the market.

Where to buy: I can’t give a full list of every place that stocks good sweaters, but I can make a few suggestions based off of my experiences. On the high end, I really like Inis Meain, DrumohrDrake’sJohn Smedley, and William Lockie (the last of which you can buy through Heather Wallace). For more affordable purchases, I’ve had good experiences with Brooks Brothers, Club Monaco, and Howard Yount. The first two often do significant mark-downs throughout the season, which is when I think you should buy. Club Monaco also gives students an extra 20% off if they can show a student ID in-store or give a university email address online. I’ve picked up their basic v-neck sweaters before for about $45, and find them to be of a good value. 

A Basic Cashmere Wardrobe for Men

It doesn’t get much more versatile than a simple v-neck sweater in a basic, solid color. It doesn’t get much more classic, either. Build yourself a wardrobe of three pieces, and you’ll be set for years.

Above are three of the most basic colors: burgundy, navy and gray. If you wear a lot of monochromatic palettes, or want something to wear out at night, you could add black to that list (though gray is more versatile, and can usually fill in fine for black). Camel can also be a nice choice. These are pieces that go with everything from jeans to a suit, and add sophistication and comfort to every outfit you wear.

I like cashmere for my v-necks. It’s warmer relative to its weight than wool, and of course it’s exceptionally soft, as well. It’s also one of the few fabrics that gets better with age. High-quality cashmere, with reasonably attentive care, can last very nearly forever. I think that this is a wardrobe element that’s essential enough that you should look for the best.

But where do you get the good stuff? I wrote a quick guide to finding quality cashmere, but I’ll summarize (OK, probably expand) here.

There’s plenty of passable cashmere on the market today - far more than ever before. You can buy cashmere sweaters for $80 at Costco, $150 at Lands’ End or $198 at J. Crew. That Lands’ End sweater is decent quality, but it’s still expensive, and it’s not the good stuff. It won’t last, look as nice, or feel as good.

As the cashmere market has exploded over the past fifteen years or so, the breadth of quality available has expanded dramatically. All cashmere is not created equal. Cashmere’s quality depends on the quality of the fiber, the quality of the milling, and the quality of the garment’s construction. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that there’s no difference.

Good cashmere is made from the longest fibers. It is dense, resilient and lightweight (though it may be offered in multiple layers, or plys). The texture should almost approach a cotton jersey. It will also (new) be a little less soft than the cheap stuff. The short fibers in cheap cashmere are loose right from the start, so they feel soft to the touch. They’ll pill and tear. The best cashmere feels smooth as much as it feels soft. Go to a super-fancy store, and touch some Loro Piana branded cashmere, and you’ll get a feeling for what I’m talking about.

Of course, great cashmere has become surpassingly expensive. A Loro Piana cashmere sweater can cost as much as $1500, and one by a less-well-advertised maker like Drumohr can still go for $500 or more. Perhaps you can swing this, in which case more power to you, but for most of us, that’s cost-prohibitive.

There is good news, however. Because good cashmere wears so well, and because almost all cashmere was top-of-the-line until fifteen or so years ago, used is a tremendous option.

For $30-60, you can buy a pristine Scottish cashmere sweater (Scottish cashmere, by the way, is what you want), from a luxury maker. Look for something from the 1980s or earlier, with a smooth, tight hand. It should be made in Scotland, either for a fancy store (Saks, Nordstrom, Brooks, Wilkes, Niemans, that kind of thing) or by one of the big Scottish cashmere brands (Pringle, Drumohr, etc.). Look for something sized by chest size, not S-M-L-XL. Focus on the basic colors we’ve identified above. If it’s pilling, has holes or stains, leave it be.

When you’re shopping, take your time. The perfect piece may not come along right away, but it will come. These are basics, after all.

Once you’ve got your sweater - or sweaters - care for them gently. Hand-wash them only when they really need it (once a year or so). They’ll actually get softer with age. If you wear through the elbows, add patches. If you get a snag, have it rewoven. Take care of them, and they’ll keep you warm and stylish for a healthy chunk of the rest of your life.

The Great Drumohr Rush
We’ve written here about the difference between high and low-quality cashmere.  Drumohr is one of the few Scottish cashmere producers left, and they make some of the finest cashmere available.
This week saw a huge rush of Drumohr cashmere on eBay.  Most of the sweaters are listed at $150 of $160, which is pretty remarkably low for cashmere of this quality.  You can check out the amazing bounty here.  There was also just a huge Drumohr for Marinella shipment at one of our favorite discounters, Virtual Clothes Horse.  Go crazy.

The Great Drumohr Rush

We’ve written here about the difference between high and low-quality cashmere.  Drumohr is one of the few Scottish cashmere producers left, and they make some of the finest cashmere available.

This week saw a huge rush of Drumohr cashmere on eBay.  Most of the sweaters are listed at $150 of $160, which is pretty remarkably low for cashmere of this quality.  You can check out the amazing bounty here.  There was also just a huge Drumohr for Marinella shipment at one of our favorite discounters, Virtual Clothes Horse.  Go crazy.