Why Some Sweaters Are Itchy: A Crash Course

I’ll wager you’ve experienced this before:

You get a sweater – maybe it’s gifted to you at Christmas or on your birthday – and you put it on for the first time, just to feel a horrid scratching sensation all over your torso. Nobody likes this feeling, and any sweater that causes it is likely to find itself with a one way ticket to a deep, dark cavern the back of the wardrobe, never to be seen again.

The real question on your mind, though, is why that sweater was so itchy but some others you’ve tried aren’t like that. Have you found yourself writing off wool sweaters thinking they’re all itchy, just to later try a different one on and find that it’s perfectly fine?
Or perhaps, you’ve tried a cashmere garment for the first time and thought that it was absolutely grand, just to purchase a second one and find that it’s as awfully bloody scratchy as that knitted one you were given as a child and forced to wear at family gatherings – yes, that one you still have waking nightmares about when you go to shop for sweaters…

Anyway, I’ve been doing some reading to find out what separates an itchy sweater from a good one, and thus increase your strike rate in finding good and comfortable sweaters.

An Indicator of Quality (or lack thereof)

What it boils down to, is the quality of the fibres used in constructing the sweater. This explains why you can have a pricey cashmere sweater that itches as badly as the cheap and nasty woollen sweater you found in the bargain bin at a discount store.

These fibres are natural hairs – unless synthetics are present – and the likelihood of scratchiness from these depends on length and coarseness.
A cheaper garment uses shorter strands of these fibres – be they wool, cashmere, alpaca or anything else – and guess what? Short animal fibres are just like short beard hairs.

As in, they’re scratchy as hell. Ever had your girlfriend complain that your freshly trimmed beard is scratchy and pokey as hell? Or, have you ever had a buzz cut and run your fingers through your hair to feel the spiky sensation?
When you wear a scratchy sweater, you’re literally wearing a garment constructed from that effect. Except it doesn’t feel good like the buzzcut instance usually does.

Those short strands of fibre are poking irritatingly at your skin, wherever it’s exposed. This is why even sweaters constructed from fabrics like merino and cashmere, which are reputed to be extremely soft and comfortable, can still be itchy as an army of mosquito bites.

So, how do you avoid the scratch?

There’s really only one tried-and-true way to avoid an itchy sweater, and that’s to a) buy a good quality one and b) try before you buy.

The best quality sweaters will be made from fabrics composed of longer fibres. If we go back to the beard metaphor, you’ll notice that the beard hairs get less prickly once they’ve had a few days to grow out and the chopped tips naturally smooth over. Same with the buzzcut once it grows out.

You could also buy a cotton, silk or linen sweater, given that the fibres of those fabrics are usually smoother and less of an irritant. The obvious downside to these is that they’re nowhere near as warm as their counterparts.

Synthetic materials such as polyester are also an option as the fibres of these are generally totally smooth, however they also don’t keep the heat in and don’t tend to be breathable like natural fibres.

I bought a sweater that shouldn’t be itchy according to the above, but it still is. Why?

Some chemicals and treatments used on clothing – for example, making it non-iron – can cause itching, regardless of the quality of the fabric. In addition, there are some people who have a natural allergy to some things such as wool.

It’s worth talking to a doctor or dermatologist if you think you’re allergic to wool.

Concluding Thoughts

For years, I thought only cotton sweaters were wearable. Some sweaters I’d tried had been scratchier than my Harris Tweed jacket.
Thankfully, I found a good quality merino wool sweater that dispelled the myth. Since then, I haven’t feared the warmer sweaters.

And I knew I needed to share the knowledge. Hope it helps!

Thanks for tuning in,

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With content features ranging from appearances on popular menswear hubs (The Rake, StyleForum, Put This On) to French perfume newsletters and university course readings, Sam is a writer, designer and enthusiast in the fields of menswear and fragrance.

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