Over the past few years, I have accumulated a goodly selection of wool sweaters. It all started with a vintage L.L. Bean 100% wool sweater I spotted at Goodwill. It was a Scandinavian style sweater that used to be popular until a couple of decades ago when dry cleaners disappeared and young folk hadn’t a clue how to hand-wash a heavy wool sweater — or considered it too bothersome to bother with.

When my four sons were growing up I used to knit all winter, every winter. I knit them sweaters with matching hats, mittens, scarves and boot socks, all in 100% wool. I preferred the Scandinavian sweater designs but there were also some, that are also now vintage, Maine country patterns, like Fox and Geese.

These sweaters would usually be made with four colors worked into patterns. As they are knit, the different colors are picked up, one stitch at a time. This stitch shows on the outside of the sweater as part of the pattern. The other colors would be carried along in the row behind the front stitches ready to take their turn to be knit into the pattern. This would create a sweater four thicknesses thick, making them as warm as a jacket. And they were always made from 100% wool.

There’s a good reason sheep wear wool. It’s warm, even when wet. (Lobstermen and other fishermen used to knit large, white, heavy wool mittens for working on the water. First thing they did, when going out in the morning, was to put on their mittens and dunk their hands in the water. This made them stay on better, and another great attribute of wool, it keeps you warm even when wet.

The fishermen knit their mittens oversized and then boiled them in hot water, to shrink them to their hand size. (This process is used to also make single-color wool sweaters that are simply referred to as “boiled wool” sweaters. They look more as if made from solid wool fabric as the process makes them thicker and warmer.)

Hunters, wardens, and Maine Guides used to knit their winter socks as well, in white, heavy “natural” wool. They didn’t, however, have a need to dunk them in water before pulling on their boots. “Natural” designates that not all the lanolin, the natural oil in sheeps’ wool, had been washed out. This added to the warmth. Wool has another advantage that may have attributed to the use of wool for the men’s socks: Wool doesn’t absorb body odors.

Oh, and yes, the men did knit their own mittens and socks. Indeed, like my favorite cousin, Berle, a Maine Guide, many knit several extra pairs to sell for a few extra bucks. And as Cousin Berle was wont to say, with a side-grin: “Funny, no one ever made any remarks to me about knitting socks.” Of course, that may have had something to do with his rugged 6-foot-4-inch stature.

But back to my wool sweater collection. I never have come across another sweater like the first L.L. Bean one but I did find a goldmine on eBay. There’s one vintage line from England, “Tuchan,” that used to put out simply exquisite patterns and colors. When new, they had cost $300-$350. Over four or five years, I collected eight of them. I made it a rule that I wouldn’t spend more than $20-$25 for one and it had to have free shipping. From England, that meant I got them at a double-super steal.

Come winters now, I wear them almost exclusively rather than blouses or other tops. That cuts way down on laundry as the multi-layered wool that collects no body odor — only needs cleaning like a jacket. I dry clean mine twice a year. I have colors to match any outfit for the day. (And a company named Woolite now makes a dry-cleaning sheet, like a dryer sheet, that you simply throw in the dryer with four or five sweaters and, voila, out come clean sweaters. There is a bit of odor from the dryer sheets, but I put them — the sweaters — on hangers and hang them on the clothesline for a few hours, and they are good to go.

A couple of years ago, I spotted some scarves on a rack at Goodwill. The tags read $1. They were all soft but some were as soft as a cloud. I checked the material. Some were cheap synthetic but the cloud-soft ones, with original store tags still on them, said “Pashmina.” I think I gasped. My mind was asking “Could this be?” The sewn-on tag revealed indeed they were and a second paper tag even gave the history of these famous scarves, excuse me, “shawls.”

Pashmina is from the Persian word for wool — and comes from the old spelling for Kashmir, which we now call Cashmere. It’s the most expensive of all wools. From the undercoat of Himalayan mountain goats, each goat yields only 3-8 ounces of fiber each year.

A few years ago, these shawls became the must-have of ladies of high fashion the world over. For its fineness, production difficulty, and rarity, they paid a hefty price. There were three Pashmina shawls on the rack and they all came home with me. They are a solid color and still sell for an average of $300 and up. In multi-color patterns, it gets into the thousands. I walked out of the store feeling like I had just made the heist of my life.

All this winter, I have enjoyed a new (to me) cashmere sweater I call my “house” or “slounge” sweater.” (I slop/lounge around the house in it.) Lightweight, super soft, and warm. I got it, once again, at Goodwill, last fall. It’s charcoal gray, long (below the butt) with extra-long sleeves and three pockets. I must have pockets. And the label read “cashmere.” Not Pashmina, but oh so soft and I knew it would be warm and comfy. It reminded me of my Grampa Roy’s brown sweater he wore evenings in the farmhouse as he sat, pipe in mouth, in his rocker by the woodstove. Indeed, this sweater, as indicated by buttoning left to right, is what we designate a “man’s” sweater.

As I took the sweater, priced $6, up to the register and put it on the counter, I spotted a couple of loose stitches on the hem. “Oh,” I said, “I didn’t see that.” The gal said: “Oh, I’ll get the manager. She’ll probably take some off if you still want it.” Manager came, looked it over, tossed it back on the counter, and said I could have it if I still wanted it, for 50% off, and turning to leave, said, “After all, it’s not like it’s wool, it’s only cashmere.”

Marion Tucker-Honeycutt, an award-winning columnist, a Maine native and graduate of Belfast schools, now lives in Morrill. Her columns appear in this paper every other week.

 

 

 

 

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