Over the next five days, Brooks Brothers is having a one-day sale on certain items. Today’s deal is 40% off all sweaters. I’d personally recommend going with their merino wool sweaters, as they make great layering pieces under a sport coat or blazer. I have a few of their merino cardigans ($70.80) and they’ve worked quite nicely. Of course, there are v-neck and crewnecks (both $64.80) as well.
It’s On Sale: John Smedley Knitwear
Basic John Smedley v-necks and cardigans are on sale for 60% off right now at StyleGun. Once you discount for European taxes, that puts the v-necks at about $93 and cardigans at $110. Expensive, but these really are very well-made knits. I bought my first John Smedley sweater about seventeen years ago, and it’s held its shape and color beautifully. You can’t say that about many other brands out there. Colors right now include your basic navy, grey, and browns, which don’t go on sale at John Smedley’s website (they only discount seasonal colors).
The v-neck model on sale is their Bobby, which has somewhat of a small v-neck opening, making the neckline a bit higher. I personally favor this style, but some like the more traditional, lower neckline. It’s designed to wear a bit fitted so that you can wear underneath a sport coat. You can find measurements for it on Mr. Porter’s site, under their “size & fit” tab.
The cardigan is their Bryn model, which is also quite fitted. Unfortunately, Mr. Porter doesn’t have measurements for that, but I would take whatever size you’re in for the Bryn as you would for the Bobby.
It’s on sale: Shetland crewneck sweaters
It’s not even post-Thanksgiving yet and a swarm of pre-holiday sales has begun. Count J.Press and J.Crew both among them, who each are offering their Shetland wool crewneck sweaters at 25% off right now.
These sweaters are great for casual wearing with a button-down collar shirt underneath and with a wide range of pants, ranging from flannel trousers to cords to denim.
J.Press “shaggy dog” sweaters come to $146.25 with the discount (code PSNOV12) and they’ve been featured during Jesse’s trip to J.Press. Truth be told, the sweaters will likely drop further after the holidays, however, selection of colors and sizes will be dramatically reduced at that point. Sale ends Wednesday, November 21.
The J.Crew Shetland sweaters by Wallace & Barnes differ from the J.Press ones in that they’re not “shaggy” and they also have elbow pads, but they’re also cheaper at $96 with the discount. No code needed and the sale ends Tuesday, November 20.
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.
Rugby’s Brushed Shetlands
Ralph Lauren announced last week that they plan to discontinue Rugby after this season. I admit many of Rugby’s offerings were a bit overstylized for my taste, but one thing I’ll miss is their affordable brushed Shetland sweaters. The original brushed Shetlands were invented by Irving Press of J. Press fame. At the time, Mr. Press had a close relationship with the principal of Drumohr, one of the more renowned knitwear manufacturers in Scotland, and together, they devised a way to make J. Press’ Shetlands more distinctive by brushing them until they achieved the kind of slightly hairy look you see above. Charming, comfortable, and infinitely stylish, these are wonderful sweaters to wear on lazy days when you don’t want to iron a shirt and put on a necktie.
Rugby’s brushed Shetlands retail for about $100, which isn’t exactly “cheap.” They do, however, often go on sale. In fact, right now they’re $70, with an additional 20% off if you use the check out code INSIDERFALL (the sale ends today). They fit slim, though not enough to size up, and feature sueded leather elbow patches. I haven’t tried myself, but I imagine you can take those patches off with a seam ripper if they’re not to your liking.
Other brushed Shetlands on the market include, of course, J. Press’ original, which is made a bit nicer and denser than Rugby’s. It retails for considerably more at $195, but sometimes you can catch them off-season for about $108. They’re currently about $150 with the coupon code PSNOV12. For other sources still, there’s Edifice at Present London and Drake’s. If you’re willing to order from Japan, there are also sellers stocking Peter Blance and John Tulloch. You may need to use a Japanese proxy for those, however.
Still, as you can see, while all these are nice, none of them are as affordable as the ~$50 version from Rugby. I’ve always thought these were a nice way for people to score a charming sweater without breaking the bank. They will be missed.
(Photos by Billax)
The Chunky Turtleneck
A friend of mine recently asked me if I knew of a good source for chunky turtlenecks, which reminded of how much I like wearing mine. The one I bought is a cream-colored cable knit with a thickly ribbed, fold down collar. I think it pairs well with heavy outerwear pieces, such as duffle coats, waxed cotton jackets, and pea coats. Ideally, you would wear it when it’s bitterly cold outside, so that it’s more of a functional garment than just a fashion piece.
The best chunky turtleneck I know of is made by Inis Meain, a traditional knitwear maker based on one of the Aran Islands outside the coast of Ireland. Their sweaters are exceptional, but admittedly also very expensive. You can purchase one of their Aran turtleneck designs from Axel’s. For other options in this price tier, consider the offerings by Malo, Sandro, and E. Tautz. Note that Barney’s and Mr. Porter will hold 75%+ off sales at the end of the season (though, that’ll still leave many of those pieces in the “very-expensive” range).
For something more affordable, there’s S.E.H. Kelly’s moss-stitch knit and Ralph Lauren’s cable knit (the latter of the two is having a pretty big sale right now, incidentally, but unfortunately not on that sweater). Fisherman Out of Ireland also has a cabled and ribbed turtleneck available for $150, which you can buy from them through email. I’ve never handled any of their products, but reviews online seem to be good.
Finally, for lack of a better descriptor, there are slightly more rugged options that stay true to the sweater’s workwear origins. Orvis, North Sea Clothing Company, Nigel Cabourn, Aero Leathers, What Price Glory, and Freeman’s Sporting Club may have better bets if you’re likely to wear your turtleneck with things such as jeans and workwear jackets.
A word of caution before you proceed: though Tom Junod once had a great article in GQ about how his father religiously believed that turtlenecks were the most flattering thing a man can wear, I think they really should only be worn by men with defined jawlines. It doesn’t have to be model-esque, but a man with a weak jawline or flabby chin will only look worse when a turtleneck covers up whatever little definition he has. Best to be honest with yourself before you splurge on an expensive sweater.
Two Kinds of Sweaters
A solid grey or navy v-neck sweater is said to be one of the most versatile sweaters a man can own, but lately, I’ve been finding them to be of limited use. On the one hand, I like to wear v-necks with sport coats, so long as they don’t add too much bulk underneath. For this, I find fitted thin merinos and two-ply cashmeres to be best. On the other hand, plain v-neck sweaters feel less optimal when worn with just a dress shirt and pair of trousers. It’s a perfectly acceptable semi-casual look, to be sure, but one that I find to be a bit boring. I also think it looks a bit incomplete without a tailored jacket, almost as though the guy left it somewhere.
If you want to wear a sweater on its own, or pair it with a piece of non-tailored outerwear, I’d suggest picking something more textured or patterned. Something other than the solid-colored, smooth merinos or cashmeres mentioned above. An Aran, cable knit, or Shaggy Dog can add some important visual interest, as can the subtle textures of a tightly knit linen sweater or heavy Shetland. I also like buttoned mock necks with jeans or chinos, and chunky turtlenecks with heavy coats, but these styles may or may not be to your taste.
Nonetheless, the idea is simple: if you want to wear a sweater on its own or with a casual jacket, pick something textured or patterned for visual interest. If you’d like to wear a dressier, solid-colored v-neck, one made from a smoother wool, pair it with a sport coat. Again, not that v-necks worn on their own is wrong; it’s just that I think men can do better.
Linen sweaters can be very useful in the fall. They add an extra layer of protection without wearing too warm, making them perfect for days that range from chilly to cool. Cotton sweaters do this as well, of course, but every cotton sweater I’ve owned has lost its shape too easily. The body and sleeves bag after a while, cuffs lose their elasticity, and wrinkles get set into the elbows. Fine for sweatshirts, but less ideal if you want something dressier.
That leaves linen, which I’ve been wearing on weekends. The Bay Area’s weather has this annoying tendency to not be so chilly in the afternoon that you’d need a sweater, but as soon as nightfall comes, you quickly wish you had one. So I’ve been wearing my linen sweater on days like these, which has kept me comfortable in both the afternoons and evenings.
In addition, I’ve found that linen can add a bit of texture to an otherwise unremarkable ensemble. For example, in the photo above, I have my brown leather jacket, light blue cotton shirt, and grey flannel trousers. Put together, there’s perhaps too much reliance on solid colors, but once you add the rougher texture of a linen sweater, you add a little subtle variation where there needs to be. (Granted, my own pictures don’t show this texture off very well, but the last image, taken from A Suitable Wardrobe, does).
Unfortunately, there aren’t many places that make, or even sell, linen sweaters. The best I know of is Inis Meain. Where you’d think linen can bag over time, Inis Meain’s version holds up just as good as the best merinos and lambswools. You can buy one from A Suitable Wardrobe. In the past, they’ve also manufactured them for Ben Silver and JL Powell, but those retailers are not selling them at the moment. For something more affordable, check Brooks Brothers, Land’s End, and Club Monaco. Those are unfortunately linen-cotton blends, which makes me suspect they won’t hold their shape as well over time, but on the upside, they’re also a fraction of the price. You can also find linen-cotton blend sweaters at Ralph Lauren, though they don’t seem to stock any recommendable ones this season. Ebay may have some from previous years, but you’ll want to avoid the flimsy, loosely knit, baggy variety. A discerning eye and some patience should land you something good.
Seven Things Better Bought Used
It’s sometimes easier to buy new, but there are some things that are pretty much always better bought used. Here’s our list of seven.
- Peacoats Every designer in the world has “riffed” on the pea coat, but the original is still the best. The heavy melton wool has protected sailors from the elements on-ship for decades, and it’ll protect you from pretty much anything. Best of all, vintage pea coats are freely available both from local vintage shops and online vendors. I love the ones from the 1940s-1960s, but it’s hard to go wrong. Remember that they’re sized to fit over heavy sweaters, and expect to pay $50-100.
- Cufflinks There was a time when men wore suits, and with them, double-cuff shirts. So just about every man had cufflinks. That time has mostly passed.
The result is a market glut of links. Go on eBay any day of the week and you’ll find literally thousands of pairs, from costume to fine jewelry… 1970s to 1890s. We prefer double-sided links here at PTO, and you’ll find plenty at any estate jeweler or vintage seller. Try Edwardian eight-carat gold, or enamel from the Art Deco era. Or grab yourself a cheap pair of Swank novelty links from the 1960s. Get some shirt studs while you’re at it. They’ll all be much cheaper on the second-hand market than new.
- Formal Wear Unlike most men’s styles, formal wear has remained largely static since it was codified at the beginning of the 20th century. That means that if you can find a conservatively-styled tuxedo from almost any era, it will be right at home today. The bonus: it’ll probably be better-made than all but the finest new equivalents. With a bit of diligence, you can find a great tuxedo for a hundred dollars or less.
- Knock-Around Ties Once you have a basic wardrobe of ties - a few solids, a few basics - you’ll find yourself wishing for novelty. Unless you’re shopping the highest end of the market, you’ll find plenty of functional ties at your local consignment or thrift stores for pennies on the dollar. Get a sense of the difference between a fine tie and a poor one, and don’t settle for less than decent… but once you’ve done that, go wild. There’s no shame in a necktie wardrobe filled out at $10 each, rather than $100.
- Watches A fine watch is a status symbol these days, when most men just wear a thirty-dollar quartz model on their wrist. Luckily, there’s a vintage option for almost any budget. Handsome mechanical watches from lesser-known brands are easily available for $50 or so second-hand. You can buy a beautiful Longines or Hamilton for a hundred or two. Kick it up to five hundred and there’s a pile of gorgeous Omegas within your grasp. And of course if you bump it into the thousands, there are many more choices, almost all for less than new.
Try paging through the buy-and-sell forums of watch enthusiast communities like WatchUSeek and TimeZone, or visit a reputable jeweler in your town. Heck - if you’re buying something cheap, just take a flier on eBay. No matter what, you’ll get a more distinctive piece at a better price.
- Cashmere Sweaters For a variety of reasons, cashmere’s gone downhill in the last twenty years or so. The good stuff has a smoother, tighter, denser finish… and you’ll only find it second-hand. The good news is that second-hand cashmere knits rarely go for more than $50-100 each. If it’s in good shape (be diligent), it can literally last a lifetime.
- Hats Men’s hats have declined precipitously not just in popularity, but also in quality. Low-end hats from the middle of the last century are as good as the high-end hats you’ll buy in a department store today. There are a few fine makers left, mostly making custom hats, but even once-fine brands like Borsalino and Stetson now make mediocre, expensive products. Vintage hats, though, are inexpensive, freely available (another supply/demand thing) and often of very fine quality. Great hats effortlessly hold their shape without being stiff, and feel fine to the hand. Expect to pay between $50 and $200 for something really good.
(Thanks to PTO twitter followers @D_Lippy, @frivmo, @voxsartoria, @platypusjones, @prairie_oysters, @SkySwartout, @HoffM, @TheMikeSwartz, @TheS_P500 and more for your ideas!)
Old Cashmere is Better.
Here’s the honest truth: as cashmere has gone from an exclusive luxury product to a mass-market luxury product, the quality has suffered tremendously. It’s possible to walk into a J. Crew or even a Costco these days and buy a relatively affordable cashmere sweater, but you’ll get what you pay for. Your “investment” will be useless in all too short a time.
Cashmere is soft because it comes from the hairs on the belly of a goat. They’re exceptionally fine, which makes them exceptionally pleasant to the touch. But here’s the catch: some of these hairs are longer than the others.
As we learned in our video with Luciano Barbera, longer fibers are an essential part of a quality fabric. These days, cashmere’s made with much shorter fibers, by inexpert (or uncaring) weavers in China. This has made a formerly dear fiber affordable, but it’s also made it very difficult to find the good stuff. Even the finest cashmere makers have to fight to get anything worth weaving. Many have given up and decided to coast on their reputations.
This is situation is doubly tricky because low-quality cashmere feels so soft in the store. It may even feel softer than the good stuff, in fact. The reason? Short fibers mean more breakage. Broken fibers fluff out of the fabric, making it soft - think of an angora sweater. It’s the same reason that old t-shirts are softer than new ones.
Broken fibers mean softness, but they also mean stretching, pilling and fuzziness. A sweater, in other words, that starts to look worn out immediately, and wears out quickly.
If you can’t afford to buy $800 sweaters from ultra-high-end makers, there is an easy and affordable answer. Buy vintage. Cashmere, and particularly Scottish cashmere, from before the 1990s cashmere boom, is available at your local vintage shop, flea market, and on eBay. The price is usually no more than $50. The quality is uniformly higher, and it will last many, many years if you care for it. In fact, very high-quality cashmere only gets better with age.
Look for cashmere that feels tightly woven, with a solid feeling, rather than a fluffy feeling. The weave should feel dense, heavy and smooth. A thin cashmere sweater should be warm and solid. Hand wash once a year or so, dry flat, and you’ll have a treasure you can enjoy for a decade or more.