What’s Going On With Sweaters?

Exploring the great knitwear decline of 2023.

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In late September, Ben Schwartz recreated Billy Crystal’s outfit from When Harry Met Sally. While squatting in white sneakers, jeans, and a cream cable-knit sweater, one thing became abundantly clear: Schwartz’s modern sweater paled in comparison to the iconic and luxurious mock-neck sweater from the 1989 romantic comedy. This small moment of nostalgic recreation sparked a larger conversation about the state of sweater quality today. “The quality of sweaters has declined so greatly in the last twenty years that I think it genuinely necessitates a national conversation,” said comedian Ellory Smith. So are we truly amid a great sweater decline?

For ‘80s and ‘90s babies, casting your mind back to the sweaters of the previous decades will bring back fond memories of soft wool blends, chunky necklines, and (sometimes) thick, itchy knits. “Seeing pics of sweaters from the 90s/00s makes me realize just how subpar the quality of knitwear is now,” one person wrote. But much like the human tendency towards a rosy retrospection bias often leaves us romanticizing away the long drives or uncomfortable wait times of a tropical holiday — it can be hard to tell whether our collective memory of warmer, better sweaters is entirely accurate.

Rachel Glicksberg, Women's Fashion and New Initiatives Lead at The RealReal, says we’re witnessing a nostalgia for the aesthetic of sweaters in the ‘90s and early aughts, encouraged by viral vintage J. Crew and Gap advertisements circling across Instagram. “There’s been an uptick in interest for those thick wholly fisherman sweaters or chunky colorful knits that have us fondly thinking of the past with rose-colored glasses,” she says. This, she adds, is part of a general increase in nostalgia-era fashion trends, including young people’s current obsession with Y2K low-rise jeans or chic ‘90s supermodel off-duty looks.

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Tana Latorre, who works at the Spanish brand Paloma Wool, says the decline in sweater quality over the years is something she has noticed from wearing hand-me-downs from her family. “I can still wear my parents’ sweaters but I can’t wear most sweaters that I bought five years ago,” she says. “Fashion has changed in that way.” Paloma Wool is one brand today catering to the market for high-quality knits with merino wool and responsible alpaca blends. The designs, Latorre says, are made to be timeless. Latorre says the brand’s total clients often come into the store wearing their sweaters from six years ago. “They still look super new,” she says. “I think people use them a bit like a collector's item.”

According to Latorre, fast fashion is the culprit behind many sweaters becoming less cozy and long-lasting. “I think that explains a lot of decline in a lot of things,” she says. Today’s fast fashion model, of course, means quality in the production of sweaters is often compromised to make things trend-focused, cheaper, and faster to make at scale. It also impacts how people care for their clothing. “You're not gonna care for a sweater that much through fast fashion because you can consume so much of it that it loses its value,” she says. For Latorre, finding a good sweater means finding one that you can go out in, but also wear while having a cup of tea in bed.

“I can still wear my parents’ sweaters but I can’t wear most sweaters that I bought five years ago.”

The rise of small hand-knitted brands across social media is no coincidence. There are brands like Frisson Knits, whose founder gained a cult following for her New Zealand-made wool and mohair sweaters. New York influencers like Ella Emhoff and Lindsay Vrckovnik have taken up knitting, selling their products through social media and marketplaces like Depop. People are more than willing to pay a high price (and wait weeks) for a high-quality handmade sweater. A black mohair cardigan from Frisson Knits will set you back $419. “Please allow 1-2 weeks for this to be knitted up,” the brand’s website states.

For those not willing to scour online for the often sold-out handmade knits, thrifting has become one way to live out nostalgic sweater dreams. Glicksberg says that, with minimalist trends dominating the runways, some of the most popular items on The RealReal come from beloved brands such as The Row, Khaite, Toteme, Celine, Brunello Cucinelli, and Loro Piana. Meme Meng, a creative producer and former buyer for Elevastor in Paris, recommends sweater shopping from any of the vintage resale sights. “I find a lot of sellers there are so helpful with taking pictures of the label and showing you the pieces in ways that even the brick-and-mortar shops may not provide,” they say.

Meng says we’re “definitely” witnessing a decline in what’s available to the public, with affordable but quality sweaters becoming a rarity. “When the fashion industry is constantly trying to update itself on trends all the time, it makes it not so desirable to invest in higher quality sweaters since maybe tomorrow that stitching or that neckline isn't in anymore,” they say. “In the last years, we see new brands trying to come out and promote a higher quality but it's hard for them to fight for a seat or attention long enough to stay sustainable.”

It seems our memory isn’t playing tricks on us: The majority of sweaters have lost their oomph and (shock, horror!) fast consumerism and late-stage capitalism are to blame. “We live in a world that values 15 minutes of anything more than 15 hours of anything,” says Meng. “It's not saying there aren't people out there looking for it, it's just that the movement is in this direction right now.” Perhaps the collective awakening to the quality decline and nostalgia for better sweater days will eventually spark the “national conversation” that Smith jokingly called for.