A great, well-made sweater is not unlike a beloved dog or even a romantic partner— it offers comfort, it caresses rather than squeezes, it makes your soul smile.
It is a wonderful companion for a winter walk followed by some snuggly sofa time with hot chocolate. But a sweater will never break your heart or crap on your rug. You can comfortably fall asleep in the right sweater, for it provides soothing warmth rather than heat. It is sturdy, but never heavy. And with minimal maintenance you can count on it growing old with you.
Okay, so now that we know what we want, how does one cost-effectively obtain such a treasure? For me, the answer was obvious— I needed to put on my red plaid hunting hat.
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By nature, by nurture, or both, I am a hunter. My father avidly pursued the wild pheasants that populated our nearby cornfields, and I functioned as his second bird dog beginning at age six. When the autumn days got shorter and colder he switched to deer hunting, but I was not allowed to join his day-long trek into the deep mountain forest until the season after I turned nine. I excitedly marked the day on our calendar, and finally it came— Thanksgiving morning, 1967. It would be a kid-friendly, holiday-shortened hunt rather than a strenuous full day in the cold and remote woods.
After our 3:00AM breakfast, we drove half an hour to the base of aptly-named Misery Mountain and hiked up the steep trail in starry-skied darkness. Soaked in sweat, we reached our spot where we would stand pretty much motionless for a few hours. Just when I was starting to shiver my butt off, a doe with two fawns suddenly materialized from a thicket perhaps fifty yards away and my pulse immediately quickened, restoring my bodily warmth. “Don’t move,” my father sternly whispered. Females and fawns were strictly off limits, I knew, but autumn was mating season, and a young buck soon appeared with obvious romantic intentions. A loud crack suddenly split the frosty air, and twenty minutes later we were dragging our prize back down the snowy mountain on its way to our freezer. I was hooked. Seven years later to the day, in the same pine-rimmed mountain hollow, I was successful on my first hunt with my own rifle and deer tag, and I was hooked forever.
Fast forward a few decades. I still hunt deer when my schedule permits, but I’ve also gotten really good at online hunting for really cool stuff. I’ve tracked and snagged every hard-to-find quarry from antique rifles to super-premium steaks to 1940’s Champagne glasses. (My bride and I sip our weekly bubbly from all manner of exquisite art nouveau and deco flutes… glasses that constitute elegant decor by themselves in addition to their functional utility.)
And this winter, I’ve been busy hunting for sweaters on eBay.
It was, ironically, a pair of thrift shop tee-shirts that directed my inner bird dog toward warm winter wear. During much of 2021, my trucking routine had me parking one day a week at a shopping center in North Syracuse that has every necessary comfort for life on the road— a Planet Fitness gym, an Italian take-out joint, and a thrift shop. Fifth wheel grease is a satanic substance that instantly ruins trucker clothing, so I’m always in the market for cheap t-shirts. As I was perusing the thrift store’s rack of $3.99 tees, a pair of identical shirts jumped out at me.
Their labels read “Stall and Dean, Seattle, WA.” The deep gray fabric was sumptuously thick and plush, more like cashmere than cotton. The sturdy seams appeared to be stitched for all eternity. These shirts bore no logos, no bull… they were just good, honest, high-quality garments. And by God they were made in America, back when companies took pride in putting their names on high-quality stuff. And for $3.99? Hell, I’d pay forty bucks for shirts like this if anyone would deign to produce them. But they don’t… not any more.
I looked up Stall & Dean; of course they no longer exist. In days of yore they made the uniforms for most of the professional sports organizations in the US and for many collegiate teams as well. And apparently they once made plain old t-shirts for the working man. But alas, I had stumbled upon these unicorns quite by happenstance, and it was highly unlikely that I would ever find more of them.
Be it here known, Dear Reader, that nothing energizes a born hunter like being told that you can’t always get what you want.
As the summer of 2021 tapered and wool season grew nigh, I knew that I couldn’t afford to take any time off for deer hunting… but I could darn well harness my hunting instincts toward cold weather clothing as well-made as those Stall & Dean shirts. And so I set my sights for sweaters.
The bad news is that, like those Stall & Dean tee shirts, they just don’t produce great sweaters anymore… at least not for less than $200. The quirky mail-order clothier J. PETERMAN has made good-faith efforts to replicate some of the famous sweaters of yesteryear for reasonable prices. However, in my experience they’ve fallen short because they are usually made in TCTMATCC (The Country That Makes All That Cheap Crap) meaning that their stitching is notoriously temporary and their wool is dyed with God only knows what.
The good news is that eBay has thousands of great used sweaters. The hard part, really, is properly narrowing one’s search. Given my recent experiences with new sweaters and old tee-shirts, I realized that “vintage” was the best way to go. I also understood that size matters, and that going a little looser was better than going a little tighter, and I accordingly accepted my inevitable graduation to Extra Large with grudging equanimity. The hunt was on. After a little experimentation, I entered into my search bar “Men’s XL Vintage Sweaters.” Countless options immediately materialized, and I spent several hours in sweater hunting paradise.
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Wool comes from a variety of animals ranging from rabbits to camels. But mostly we think of it as the product of domestic sheep, which have long served us humans in triple capacity, providing milk, meat, and wool. Circle the globe between the 50th Parallel and the Arctic Ocean and one finds traditions of great sweater-making in several countries. For a concise compilation of everything you could ever wish to know about the sheep of the world, their wools, and the fabrics spun thereof, click here.
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Like the obsessive hunter I am, I spent many hours on eBay browsing, researching, comparing prices, and then browsed and researched some more. I found myself neck-deep in sweater heaven, with many hundreds of fabulous options. How could one possibly choose from so many wonderful choices? By raising my standards and seeking only the best.
L.L. BEAN, WOOLRICH, and PENDLETON became my top three American brands worth exploring. They don’t make’em like they used to, but oh, how utterly fabulous the old ones are. (The L.L. BEAN “Birdseye” crew-neck has long been so ubiquitous a cultural icon among boarding schoolers that it might as well come with a lacrosse stick.) In addition to these Big Three, J. PRESS is famous for the “Shaggy Dog” sweater that JFK wore sailing and currently retails for $245 new. If you ever see one in your size on eBay at a decent price, you may have stumbled upon a rare and wonderful treasure.
Among the imports, DALE OF NORWAY still produces premium (and accordingly pricy) hand-knit sweaters, and many used versions are available at great prices. But all in all, when it came to the imports I found myself focusing less on brand names and more on the sweaters themselves and their geographical origins. My cyberspace safari took me to the remote northern isles of the United Kingdom— the Hebrides and the Shetlands— as well as Scotland proper; I explored the options from Iceland, many of which were knitted from lanolin-rich, un-dyed yarn in their natural hues of oatmeal and brownish gray; and I even ventured south of the equator to the high Andes of Bolivia and Peru, where I found for Andrea and her mother a trio of colorful masterpieces knitted of skin-friendly alpaca.
(Pro tips: whenever an eBay seller presents you with a “make an offer” option, they expect you to use it— start at about 75% of the asking price. And when you find the sweater of your dreams, always verify that it is not stained or torn, and double-check the size before executing your purchase. Not everyone accepts returns.)
Nine deliveries after undertaking this hunt I forced myself to stop. Here are the highlights of what I bought—
A pair of Woolrich Medium-weight Crewnecks, one in solid Christmas red and the other tan, $20 each;
Lord Jeff “The Moors” 100% Shetland Wool Argyle, Made in Ireland (talk about checking all the boxes!) $25
Scottish Hunting/Chore Sweater in thick, coarsely knit grey with leather shoulder and elbow patches, $45;
A Dale of Norway crewneck in an amazing palette of colors, $60.
And the equivalent of a 12-point trophy buck—
West Highland Woolens Scottish Wool/Silk Blend $75 (And THAT was my counter-offer!)
It was a wonderful hunting season, and I now own an impressive array of fabulously comfortable and comforting sweaters… almost enough to compromise my excitement over the impending arrival of springtime warmth. These sweaters are too nice to bring out trucking, but I’ll have them to look forward to when I get home from the road in addition to a hug from my bride, a raid upon my wine cellar, and a fancy steak from our chest freezer.