The Search for an Unpillable Sweater

by Susan Peters

One November morning, I looked down, and saw a tangle of cheap, pilled sweaters, splayed across the bed. A cotton-nylon cardigan snagged for $6 at the closing sale of a discount department-store. A pullover made of a dubious “8% wool” blend from a dirt-cheap clothing brand, found on the clearance rack for $10. I didn’t want to unravel the cardigans, smelling slightly of perspiration, from the pullovers with holes in the armpits. I didn’t want any of this mess.

I called my friend M., long distance, who confessed her own confusion about the quest for a better sweater. She had a theory. “It’s when the fabrics are a blend, like cotton and nylon. That’s when they pill,” M. argued, with the same vehemence as she attacked her graduate studies.

It was a year before I would read Overdressed, and reflect more on how cheap clothing affects workers and the environment. At the moment, I just hated pilly sweaters. Staring at the pile on my faded comforter, I analyzed the problem. Had I even worn that $6 sweater six times before it pilled? I took a vow to buy no more cheap sweaters. When I got my nice sweaters, I promised to treat them right: use a razor to de-pill when necessary, hand-wash in cold water, and lay flat to dry.

There is a gap between the person I am, and the person I want to be, and into that gap falls sweater happiness. I picture myself lounging in cashmere beside a fireplace while waving a volume of Lisa Robertson’s poetry, or fly-fishing in Scotland while wearing chunky cable knit. I want sweaters to wear while sightseeing in Reykjavik, hiking in Banff, or riding the train to Vladivostok. I want to be a person who does these things: go skijoring, sleep in an ice hotel, carry firewood back to the chalet.

I developed sweater lust, clicking websites, and fondling piles of cashmere in department stores, until my devotion settled on a grey wool-nylon blend cardigan from Mountain Equipment Coop (MEC). It came to $128.80 with tax: for me, an astonishing price to pay for one sweater. I rationalized it by deciding that if I wore it all winter, every winter, amortized for 5 years, it worked out to only $25 a year. When it arrived, I fell instantly in true sweater love.

I wore my new sweater to the coffee shop the following week, a place where I take my notebook to write on cold winter weekends. Located in a strip mall alongside the spa, the dentist, and the liquor store, the coffee shop’s door swings back and forth to admit the cold air as each new customer wanders inside, shoulders hunched and head down against the wind as they cross the parking lot. The (warm) seats in the back of the coffee shop are always full, leaving empty the seats close to the door, a cold and drafty region. (In, out, in, out. Can people ever make up their mind?)

My cardigan kept me very warm. But I noticed, on the arms, on the underside near the generously-sized cuffs, pimples of wool forming themselves into little woolly balls. Heartbroken, I knew my sweater had betrayed me.

I brought up the subject, sheepishly, with K., a colleague of mine, who is older, wiser, and dresses stylishly. “If it’s pilling, you should bring it back,” said K.

I kept the sweater. Too warm to give it up, too embarrassed to admit my mistake, and convinced there was nothing better out there. My wool cardigan pills in a more high-end way than the $6 cotton-nylon sweater: there are fewer pills overall, and the wool rolls itself into little balls that are easier to remove. I use my razor to de-pill it, and I periodically wash it in cold water and dry it flat. All beauty fades, all flowers wilt, all flesh decomposes. All sweaters pill: this is the way of all knits.

The perfect sweater exists somewhere between the fantasy and the mundane, the imaginary $500 sweater, woven from the wool of magical sheep, that will never pill, and the $6 nylon-cotton blend washed in the tears of child factory workers. We make compromises, and we put on a sweater — a decent sweater, the best we can afford — and we start our day’s work.

Unfortunately, because the sweater was so expensive, I’m scared to wear it very often. It will be amortized over 20 years, or written off as an expensive mistake. Tell me, what good does it do anyone to leave a precious wool sweater balled up in the closet, after the moths invaded this summer? (Thank you, damp and rainy summer.)

When I die, whoever comes to clean out my apartment will pull that cardigan out of the tangle of clothes on the top shelf of the closet, as mothballs drop and roll out of sight. Momentarily, they will consider it. Surrounded by cardboard boxes and black plastic bags, they will decide if this should be sorted into a box for charity, or shoved into the bag to be thrown away.

What’s that, someone will say. Some old sweater, they say. Remarkably free of pills. Does it smell to you, a little, of perspiration and striving?

Susan Peters is an editor and writer in Winnipeg, Canada. She has written for the Globe and Mail, Macleans, and Canadian Geographic. Follow her at @susan_peters.

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