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How to Buy a Quality Sweater: Material, Types, and Tips

Having the right sweater to wear with any outfit is kind of like a wine pairing. Can you serve a tasty steak with a wine that’s not a luscious Cabernet Sauvignon? Sure, but it’s just not as perfect. Building a sweater wardrobe is what separates the sartorially proficient from the stylistically sad. We suggest choosing a few key pieces that work with your life, career, and wardrobe, buying the best you can afford, and then taking good care of them. 

Like so many things in life, in sweaters, you usually do get what you pay for. That is not to say that sometimes expensive designer merchandise isn’t made from cheap materials, and what you’re really paying for is a few square inches of logo-embroidered label. Conversely, a store will sometimes sell a well-made sweater of quality yarns as a “loss-leader,” hoping to tempt you into the department to splurge on other things. Without diving too deeply into technical specifications, just keep in mind the following: Natural fibers like wool or cotton, are more expensive than man-made fibers like acrylic, and they also usually hold up better. Before you buy a sweater, turn it inside out: are the seams straight and bound properly, so they won’t come apart easily after a few wears? Does the zipper feel like it could catch easily on the sweater itself? Are the buttons sewn on securely? Beyond that, buy the best you can afford, and hold onto your receipts.  

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Exactly What is A Sweater?

Latin american guy trying out a sweater on top at a men's clothing store.

There are plenty of people who will generalize the term, implying that a sweater is just about anything that you pull on that’s not a shirt and isn’t a jacket. Sorry, but we’re too old school for that. Sweatshirts? No. Not a sweater. Anything Polartec or other branded fleece product? Hmmm. Uh, yeah, but not really. 

We consider a sweater to be any top that is produced by a knit or crochet method where you can really see the yarns that make up its structure. It can be a pullover or open in the front with buttons or zippers.  Those yarns can be made of, really, just about anything (we had a dorm buddy in college who knit a whole sweater from packaging string), but here are a few more common materials. 

Types of Sweaters

  • Wool Sweater: Generally speaking, wool is the hair gathered from sheep and goats, but it can also include that of rabbits, camels, alpacas, llamas, and vicunas. Basically, look for an animal that can keep itself warm under extreme conditions: Someone makes wool from it. 
  • Merino Sweater: Made from the wool of merino sheep, merino is commonly used for extremely finely knit sweaters that border on (or can actually be) merino t-shirts. 
  • Cashmere Sweater: A super-soft yarn that’s sheared from goats in Mongolia, it’s the very definition of luxury. 
  • Cotton Sweater: From the cotton plant, it’s usually used for lighter weight, cooler sweaters that are more appropriate for late spring or early summer layers. It’s sometimes blended with linen or hemp to add a texture and luster.
  • Silk Sweater: Spun by moths whose cocoons are sacrificed to create opulent fabrics, silk sweaters are not very common: They tend to lose their shape easily, so are often blended with other materials like cotton or wool. They can be, however, very warm and comfortable, yet elegant and colorful. 
  • Acrylic Sweater: A man-made fiber, acrylic is great to help sweaters hold their shape. It’s also pretty easy to care for, and is a great value. It does tend to pill after only a few wearings, particularly where there is any kind of regular friction, like where the arms brush against the body. 
  • Spandex or Elastane Sweater: A stretch fiber. Usually, just a bit blended into a sweater makes it that much easier to pull on and off while also offering ease of movement.

Sweater Silhouettes You Need in Your Closet

The Turtleneck: Coofandy Ribbed Slim Fit Knitted Pullover

A turtleneck, like this one from Coofandy, brings James Bond style to your wardrobe.

A turtleneck can be beefy and rugged, or sophisticated and elegant. They look good on just about everyone, and a finer knit, body-conscious version like this one adds a touch of confidence and self-awareness that looks great with a sport coat, a leather jacket, or just worn on its own. It’s a James Bond go-to as much as his Walter PPK, and can be just as deadly: Sartorially speaking, of course. (See also mock neck sweaters, the Steve Jobs standby. Despite the smart celebrity reference, somehow, to us, they seem to lack the real commitment of a full turtleneck.) 

Read More: Best Turtlenecks for Men

The Classic Crewneck: Madewell Sweater

This Madewell classic crewneck steps right out of the pages of The Preppy Handbook.

For strict adherents of Ivy League style, this sweater should be executed in Shetland wool, harvested from Shetland sheep that are raised on the Shetland Islands of Scotland. For the rest of us non-purists, any wool will do. The real draw is the textured cotton ribbing at the neck and flecks of color throughout that give the pullover a dignified, rustic charm. It’s a perfect pairing with denim or corduroys, a tweedy blazer, and, of course, an Oxford button-down or polo shirt. 

Read More: Best Crewneck Sweaters

Fair Isle: Dog Threads Great Yukon Sweater

Fair Isle sweaters, like this one from Dog Threads, add vivid pattern to a sweater wardrobe.

Another reference back to Scotland, Fair Isle sweaters are known for their neat, geometric patterns, often incorporating animals and skiing motifs. The ugly Christmas sweater that rears its head every December? Usually a Fair Isle. But there’s no reason they should be ugly! We like this one for its festive pattern and simple palette (and, yes, for the holidays, it also comes in a canine version for Fido). The patterns are usually intricate enough to stand on their own, but they look great layered under a solid, coordinating puffer vest; an excellent choice for cool weather outdoor dining. 

Updated Cardigan: Bonobos Merino Hybrid

Bonobos Merino Cardigan Sweater for Men.

The cardigan is the sweater as a statement of pure, simple perfection. Technically any sweater that opens in the front and zips or buttons up is a cardigan, but this version is the conclusive model. The deep V-neck frames the face, but the sweater can be easily unbuttoned to cool things down or for a more casual look. The finer-gauge knit can be worn as a jacket substitute but also layers beautifully with a sport coat. Bonobos takes it a step further, blending merino with polyester for a sweater that’s durable and easy to care for. 

Read More: Best Cardigans for Men

Shawl Collar: Faherty Brand Thunderbird Cardigan

A touch of Southwestern styling gives this Faherty Brand Shawl Collar Cardigan an outdoorsy flair.

A more rustic variation on the cardigan theme, a shawl collar refers to the turned “lapel” at the top of the sweater that offers another layer of warmth around the neck. They can be dressy or casual depending on the color and pattern. We lean towards shawl collar cardigans like this one that has a bit of a retro 1970s appeal, perfect for a crisp autumn walk in the woods or to throw on as a blazer alternative for a WFH meeting. 

The 1/2-Zip: Tommy Bahama Coolside IslandZone  Sweater

1/2 or 1/4-zip sweaters are a year-round favorite at Tommy Bahama.

The 1/2-zip is like the jock big brother of the sweater family. Something about it seems most at home on the golf course or tennis court, and yet it’s an easy, modern layering piece to pull over a dress (unzipped you could even show off a necktie) or polo shirt. This is a cotton/Coolmax blend that’s sure to keep you cool whether teeing up that perfect shot or teeing up the new client presentation. 

The Ski Sweater: Outerknown Nostalgic Crewneck

Get ready to hit the slopes in this ski sweater from Outerknown.

Cue up a John Denver album, make a hot toddy, and if you’re not already enjoying an après-ski fondue at the ski chalet, you can at least pretend you are. The colorful horizontal stripe across an otherwise monotone crewneck sweater is another classic 1970s throwback that looks great and has just a subtle touch of machismo. It’s sort of a given to pair this with jeans, but it’s also great with leggings for a snowed-in day at home. 

The Hoodie: Naadam Recycled Cashmere Sweater

Explore the ultimate in comfort with this Naadam cashmere hoodie sweater.

Take the ultimate comfort of your favorite hooded sweatshirt then turn up the volume to 11 with this hoodie crafted from a blend of recycled and virgin cashmere. You can feel good yourself and feel good about doing something for the planet, all at the same time. It’s so indulgent you’ll want to wear it everywhere, and honestly, you can. Dress it down with washed-out denim, dress it up under a sport coat with khakis, or dress it to the max as a layer under a leather jacket. 

Read More: Best Hoodies for Men

The Military Look: L.L. Bean Men’s Commando Henley

A military sweater like this one from L.L. Bean brings an adventurous swagger to your sweater collection.

Suffice it to say that, like military uniforms in general, there are many, many versions of the classic military sweater. The recurring themes are ribbed construction, a fabric-covered shoulder detail (presumably to protect the knit fabric from the stress of carrying a backpack), and a regimental color palette of navy, olive drab, or black. If it looks like it was spirited off the set of Platoon or Inglorious Basterds, you’ve nailed it. Besides making a clearly macho style statement, these sweaters are usually quite sturdy, too. 

The Cable Sweater: Howlin’ Super Cult Aran Crewneck

This cable sweater from Howlin' practically begs to be worn on cold winter days.

Called “cable” because of the rope-like patterns that are knit into the sweater’s surface, these patterns bring an almost tough-guy presence to the sweater world. Knives Out fans will know that Chris Evans brought the cable knit sweater in style in 2019.

Aran sweaters specifically were knit for Irish fishermen in patterns that were handed down within families for generations. They’re another perfect accompaniment to fall’s corduroy trousers, as well as jeans, with an easy, masculine, weekend vibe. 

How to Care for a Sweater

If you’ve made an investment in a new sweater, you’ll want to take good care of it. Here are a few simple rules. 

  • You probably won’t need to wash a sweater very often. Hang it over the back of an upholstered chair or an otherwise flat surface and let it air out overnight. 
  • If something should happen, most sweaters can be hand-washed in a basin with a mild soap (dish detergent usually works best). Carefully, but thoroughly rinse out the soap. Some can even be washed in the washer on a gentle setting (read the care instructions). Allow it to air-dry on a thick towel on a flat surface. You may need to gently block or push the fabric back into the original shape. When in doubt, take it to a professional dry cleaner. 
  • Do not hang sweaters on a hanger of any sort. The fabric will stretch, and the hanger will leave an imprint in the shoulders. You’ll end up looking like your own shoulders are growing horns. 
  • Store sweaters by folding them in thirds lengthwise, folding the arms along the sides to form a neat rectangle. Fold the rectangle in half. 
  • Place the sweater on a shelf or in a drawer. Off-season, place clean sweaters in a box (not airtight) and store them in a cool, dry place away from sunlight. 

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