A Tale of Two Sweaters (Sweater Series Part I)

I LOVE sweaters. In January I bought 2 sweaters for the same purpose. I am always cold, especially in the inescapable air conditioning of our urban landscape. A sophisticated looking work sweater is something that I will wear everyday. Back in December I ordered a long, button-up merino wool sweater, “The Chunky Knit Cardigan” in Navy from a company called Everlane. The company is so popular that it is easier to get tickets to burning man than to order one of their popular items. The company charges great prices. My well-shaped sweater made from generous portions of merino wool was $130 including shipping.

While I was waiting for “The Chunky Knit Cardigan” I stopped into a store called AB Fits located in North Beach in San Francisco. On a shelf rested the most beautiful sweater specimen I’ve ever laid eyes on: an S.N.S. Herning in Oxblood. So beautiful was this sweater that the boutique owner gave me a mischievious look and urged me to “just try it on”. That was the beginning of the end, since I could not take it off. The beautiful thick wool weave and industrial grade buttons said to me “you will wear me everyday for years. I will breathe and keep you cozy on your bicycle and will keep you looking stylish and professional for any life activity.” It also hugs your body in a super flattering way. The color goes with 80% of my wardrobe (the other 20% I basically stopped wearing). I spent an astonishing $365 – the most I’ve spent on any sweater and I have worn it on and off my bike, to the office, out for beers, 3-4 times a week since January. Minus minor signs of attack by an aggressive piece of Velcro, it looks new. 4 months of nearly daily wear. I will be saving my pennies to buy anything and everything this company makes. 

And the Everlane sweater? I also got it in January. I wore it 2, 3 times. Right away it started pilling. It is still cozy, I still love the color, I still wear it, but the contrast between the two could not be more apparent.  One sweater enables me to do the things I love and have the confidence that it will hold up and make me look stylish for years, while the other causes me to stop and question if what I’m doing is going to be the final straw for it.

It made me think: what makes one sweater last for a decade or decades, while another starts to break down right away?

Dr. Jon Rust, Professor of Textile Engineering at NC State’s top notch School of Textiles shared the following insights:

  • Looser stitches cause more pilling than tighter stitches
  • Shorter fibers cause more pilling than longer fibers (wool has long fibers)
  • Therefore tightly knit garments with long fibers tend to pill less.
  • Merino wool tends to have longer fibers

In our current, highly price-competitive market, manufactures are increasingly using shorter, less expensive fibers. They are also washing garments repeatedly to achieve maximum softness to the touch, which causes the fiber ends to rise to the surface and pill more easily (WSJ, Jan 2014).

Upon closer inspection I noticed that the stitches on the S.N.S Herring sweater are more tightly woven together than those of the Everlane cardigan. I cannot speak to the fiber length for each piece, but the lower than expected price may signal the use of less expensive, shorter fibers.

Note to fellow sweater lovers: please share about your favorite sweater. Stay tuned for the Sweater Series Part II.

How to Prevent and Fight Sweater Pilling. The Wall Street Journal. Jan 28, 2014. Available at: http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702304007504579348713465126696