In much of the United States, you can already feel it. There’s a hint of a chill in the night air. The morning light looks somehow more golden. The pumpkin-spice latte has finished its annual transit across the cosmos and returned to its home at your local Starbucks. Sweater weather approaches. Cooler temperatures bring rich textures and many layering opportunities. What this time of year no longer brings to most people, though, is amazing new sweaters. Or even good ones.
With apologies for describing a tweet, the comedian Ellory Smith made much the same point a few weeks ago on the platform formerly known as Twitter: With side-by-side photos of Billy Crystal wearing an ivory cable-knit fisherman sweater in 1989’s When Harry Met Sally and the actor Ben Schwartz re-creating the image in a similar outfit, Smith sounded an alarm: “The quality of sweaters has declined so greatly in the last twenty years that I think it genuinely necessitates a national conversation.” Her tweet racked up a couple hundred thousand likes because she’s exactly right. So let’s have that conversation.
The phenomenon that Smith is alluding to is clear from the photos, even if you’ve never before had a single thought about the state of American knitwear. Crystal’s sweater is timeless and lush—fuzzy, generously cut, and extravagantly cabled, with a tall collar and close-fitting cuffs designed to keep warmth in. Schwartz’s sweater is roughly the same color, and it is indeed a cabled sweater, but that’s about where the comparison ends. Some of the differences are intentional, and not necessarily bad—it’s designed to fit closer to the body than Crystal’s, and the detailing is more varied. But Schwartz’s sweater also has an odd sheen, flat cabling, and loose cuffs. It lacks the heft of Crystal’s version; it looks cheaper. It was probably machine knit. Crystal’s is more likely to have been handmade. This is despite the fact that, by the mass-market standards of 2023, Schwartz’s sweater is a nice sweater. It appears to be a Polo Ralph Lauren design that costs almost $400.
As the sheer quantity of clothing available to the average American has grown over the past few decades, everything feels at least a little bit flimsier than it used to. Seams unravel after a couple of washes, garments lose their shape more quickly, shoes have to be replaced more frequently. The situation might be the worst in knitwear. Good sweaters, gloves, beanies, and scarves are all but gone from mass-market retailers. The options that have replaced them lose their fluff faster, feel fake, and either keep their wearers too hot or let the winter wind whip right through them. Sometimes they even smell like plastic.
The most obvious indication of these changes is printed on a garment’s fiber-content tag. Knits used to be made entirely from natural fibers. These fibers usually came from shearing sheep, goats, alpacas, and other animals. Sometimes, plant-derived fibers such as cotton or linen were blended in. Now, according to Imran Islam, a textile-science professor and knit expert at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, the overwhelming majority of yarn used in mass-market knitwear is blended with some type of plastic. Most commonly, this means polyester, polyamide, or acrylic. Islam and I spoke on one of the first chilly fall days in New York, and he had just finished conducting an informal test as part of a knitting lesson: He asked the students who had come to class wearing a sweater to check what it was made out of. Every sweater, he said, had some plastic in it.
Knits made with synthetic fiber are cheaper to produce. They can be spun up in astronomical quantities to meet the sudden whims of clothing manufacturers—there’s no waiting for whole flocks of sheep to get fluffy enough to hand shear. They also usually can be tossed in your washing machine with everything else. But by virtually every measure, synthetic fabrics are far inferior. They pill quickly, sometimes look fake, shed microplastics, and don’t perform as well as wool when worn. Sweaters are functional garments, not just fashionable ones. Wool keeps its wearer warm without steaming them like a baked potato wrapped in foil. Its fibers are hygroscopic and hydrophobic, which means they draw moisture to their center and leave the surface dry. A wool sweater can absorb a lot of water from the air around it before it feels wet or cold to the touch, which goes a long way toward explaining why high-quality wool sweaters are still made in particularly damp, cold regions of the world, including Scotland and New Zealand.
Some major retailers do continue to carry all-wool sweaters. If you’re fastidious about checking tags, you’re sure to find them once in a while. But don’t rely on price to guide you. A significant amount of polyamide or acrylic is now common in sweaters with four-digit price tags. A $3,200 Gucci “wool cardigan,” for example, is actually half polyamide when you read the fine print. Cheaper materials have crept into the fashion industry’s output gradually, as more and more customers have become inured to them. In the beginning, these changes were motivated primarily by the price pressures of fast fashion, Islam said: As low-end brands have created global networks that pump out extremely cheap, disposable clothing, more premium brands have attempted to keep up with the frenetic pace while still maximizing profits, which means cutting costs and cutting corners. Islam estimates that a pound of sheep’s wool as a raw material might cost from $1.50 to $2. A pound of cashmere might cost anywhere from $10 to $15. A pound of acrylic, meanwhile, can be had for less than $1.
To make matters worse for people who just want to buy a decent sweater, Islam said that few checks and balances exist to ensure that knitwear marketed as, say, pure cashmere or merino wool actually is, unless a brand voluntarily adheres to a high standard of traceability. Retailers rarely face penalties for driving materials costs as low as possible, even if it means that sweaters don’t look and feel quite as nice as they once did. And they don’t need to. When almost all of your competitors are using the same sad plastic blends, no one is going to single your company out for being particularly miserly with the materials.
This race to the bottom had been going on for years, but it accelerated considerably in 2005, Sofi Thanhauser, the author of Worn: A People’s History of Clothing, told me. That year was the end of the Multifiber Arrangement, a trade agreement that had for three decades capped imports of textile products and yarn into the United States, Canada, and the European Union from developing countries. Once Western retailers no longer had meaningful restrictions on where they could source their garments from, many of them went shopping for the cheapest inventory possible. They found it largely in Asian and Latin American countries with few protections for garment workers or environmental regulations on the textile industry, which allowed them to slash wages and use more synthetics.
That changed the unit economics of mass-market fashion—and of sweaters—in profound ways. According to Islam, if you push down retail prices with cheap labor, they’ll no longer bear the use of quality materials. If you push down retail prices with cheap materials, they’ll no longer bear the wages of garment workers with more skill and experience. If you push down both as much as possible, you stand a pretty good chance of gaining market share. Either way, the conditions of the industry and the products on the shelf degrade in tandem. Knitting, in particular, is highly skilled labor, even at its cheapest. For genuinely impressive detailing and finishing, Islam said, manufacturers need to pay up for highly experienced workers. When manufacturers forgo those costs, designs get simpler—they get boring. And when demand for that kind of skilled labor craters, those skills aren’t passed to new workers, and they eventually wash out of the labor force. The same thing happens in production of the raw materials necessary to make a better-quality garment. Eventually, even if your company wants to produce something nice, durable, and well made, your ability to do so at all—let alone at a price that anyone will pay—is greatly reduced.
The majority of clothing sold in the U.S. now includes at least some plastic content. Brands generally rely on consumers not to be interested enough in fabric content to check the tags before buying. But Thanhauser said brands have also gotten more adept at marketing synthetic fabrics as a consumer advantage, whether or not they actually are in any particular garment. They do enable more sweaters to be labeled as machine washable, she said, and the popularity of “performance” fabrics in athleisure has helped improve the public perception of all kinds of synthetic textiles, even if those materials offer few advantages outside of the athletic pursuits for which they were designed.
Over time, these phenomena become self-reinforcing. Hand-washing and line-drying a few garments is no longer a normal part of laundry day in many homes, Thanhauser pointed out. Once the apparel market changes so much that those kinds of care tasks are more of a nuisance than a necessity, people avoid garments that require them. These market changes also reflect other shifts in how people live, suspects Andre West, a former knitwear manufacturer and a professor at the North Carolina State University Wilson College of Textiles. Wool is most comfortable and effective when layered, especially for relatively affordable wool sweaters, which tend not to be super soft. Life has gotten more casual for most Americans over the past 50 years, and a button-down with a sweater on top now exceeds the expectations of many office dress codes and can feel a little formal to people more accustomed to T-shirts or polos. Indoor climate control has also gotten more sophisticated. People spend less time in drafty old buildings and more time at a constant 72 degrees. Outside, the country’s temperatures are trending warmer, and more people are moving south.
The end result of all of this—the changes to trade regulation, the decline in garment-industry wages and working conditions, the rise of synthetic textiles—is abundance, but only by a definition of the word that includes an abundance of junk. A good sweater is hard to find, but it’s not impossible. People are still raising heritage-breed sheep and spinning pure wool yarn and knitting sweaters that look and feel and perform a lot like the ones that were de rigueur a couple of generations ago. You can find them if you’re fastidious about checking fiber-content tags, and if you can pay prices that reflect the value of the materials and skill that went into their creation.
That doesn’t always mean paying far more than big retailers demand for polyester blends. O’Connell’s, a Buffalo, New York–based clothing store that’s famous among American sweater lovers, sells a beautiful, Irish-made fisherman sweater in pure wool for $198—half the price of the cheaper-looking Polo blend that Schwartz appears to wear in his When Harry Met Sally reenactment. Scotland-based Jamieson’s of Shetland will sell you beautiful wool sweaters in the same price range, or the yarn they manufacture so you can make your own. At the very high end, Silicon Valley tech moguls obsess over four-figure Loro Piana and Brunello Cucinelli sweaters as important status symbols. For everyone else, plenty of garments gesture at what used to be widely available, but few hold a candle to the garments that were once the norm. And, in fact, please don’t get candles too close to a poly blend, which is much more likely than wool to go up in flames.