Q. Dear Umbra,

Disposable clothes are driving me nuts. In particular, as we come into fall, I’m thinking about sweaters. These days, when I buy a new sweater, it starts to pill on the first wear and ends up looking terrible after just a few outings. If I want a sweater that lasts for decades instead of days, what materials should I be looking for? Wool? Cotton? Cashmere? Should I make sure it has no synthetic material at all? I do buy from thrift stores when I can, but I can’t always find good used options.

Ginger A.
St. Louis, Missouri

A. Dearest Ginger,

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Sensible cardigans. Sophisticated turtlenecks. Fuzzy pullovers. Whatever form a sweater may take, I’m a fan. In fact, I like fall for its sweater weather even more than its proliferation of pumpkin spice treats, and that’s saying something. (I’m not the only one.) So you’re absolutely right that a shoddily made sweater — or a shoddily made anything, really — is a buzzkill indeed.

We’re living in the era of fast fashion. With so many brands churning out uber-stylish pieces more quickly and cheaply than ever, quality tends to become an afterthought. Some might argue, “Who cares if your $17 sweater falls apart after a couple of wears? Just buy another one!” But of course you care, Ginger, and so should we all. The fashion industry has an enormous environmental footprint, from the water and chemicals required to process textiles to the shipping impacts of a global supply chain. That alone is a great reason not to go buck-wild on shopping sprees for items we don’t need, but then there’s also the issue of disposal.

Americans toss 13 million tons of clothing every year into the trash. Part of the problem is that we’re not recycling nearly enough of our castaways (the recycling rate for textiles is a dismal 9 percent). But we’re also buying more and more — millennials reportedly snap up five times more clothing than older generations, which translates to lots more waste when these on-trend, off-quality duds expire.

I love the way you’re rejecting this use-‘em-and-lose-‘em pattern, Ginger. But shopping carefully is just the start — how you wear and take care of your clothes matters a lot, too. Here’s your complete guide to making your sweaters (and all other clothing) last.

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  • As you suspect, not all sweater materials are created equal. Wool, from both sheep (merino) and goats (cashmere), is among the most durable options, with merino usually taking the honors for strongest fiber. Synthetics — your nylons, polyesters, and rayons — often wear down more easily. Cotton falls somewhere in the middle. Good-quality materials will probably cost you more up front, but like so many things in life, you get what you pay for.
  • A word about fashion choices: If you’re playing the long game with your clothing, then it pays to make like Taylor Swift and her on-again, off-again flame and choose classic clothes that never go out of style.

Wearing & repairing

  • I’m all for limiting the total volume of your closet (I mean, how many sweaters does one really need for fall 2016?). But that said, wearing the same thing every day will wear it out more quickly. Collect enough pieces to rotate evenly, and everything will last a lot longer.
  • The dreaded pilling effect (when the fibers break or come loose) doesn’t mean the end for your sweaters. You can buy inexpensive gadgets to shave the pills off without damaging the rest of the fabric. You can also condition wool sweaters with lanolin once a year for pill prevention.
  • Mend it, don’t send it … to the landfill. It’s common sense, but far too many of us have lost the art of sewing up minor tears and holes (somewhere, a single tear rolls down your 6th-grade home-ec teacher’s cheek). Study up on basic fabric repairs, or pay someone else to do it — just don’t ditch a perfectly good item for a fixable flaw.


  • Every trip through the laundry takes a little bit off your clothes’ lives, so put off washing as long as you can. (Bonus: Less laundry!) Most clothes don’t need to be washed after every wear, especially not sweaters you pair with an underlayer.
  • When laundry day does roll around, hand-wash those sweaters. (What about dry cleaning, you ask? I don’t advise it.) DON’T wring them out, as that stretches and damages the fibers. DO lay them flat to dry. In fact, air-drying all the items in your wardrobe can extend their lifespans.
  • Wash clothing by type, not color. Keep items with buttons and zippers separate from delicates and T-shirts, as that hardware can accelerate your other clothing’s eventual demise.

There you have it — follow these guidelines, and you’ll be celebrating a happy sweater season for years to come.


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