I’m lucky: There’s a really, really good thrift store around the corner from my work. Since it’s non-denominational and benefits AIDS treatment and research, San Francisco skips Salvation Army and brings the good stuff here. Like any thrifting, it rewards time, luck, a knack for recognizing quality, and an eye for interesting detail. It also makes a decent excuse to head out of the office and give yourself a few minutes to walk off a frustrating problem or temporary coder’s block. It’s also a great spot to look for unusual knits.
I’ve spotted a number of handmade sweaters there. Many are worsted-weight acrylic cardigans, since those are easy to make and sturdy enough they’d probably survive WWIII, and I often find wooly ones that make absolutely no sense in the generally mild Bay Area climate. I always feel a pull to rescue the all-wool ones, but have to remind myself that I have small closets, not much storage, not much need for heavy winter gear, and a lot of well-loved clothes already. If I don’t absolutely love the color, the fit and the materials, I snap a photo of any interesting labels or design features, put it back on the rack and give it a hopeful pat. Maybe someone else will be as charmed as it by I am — someone who actually likes purple.
Every once in awhile, I find something worth breaking the rules for. A few months ago, I felt the rough scratch of wool on my hand as I flipped through the sweaters. I shoved back several screechy hangers’ worth of unremarkable cotton and found gold: a handmade, slightly shaggy, absolutely classic lopapeysa, the round-yoked Icelandic sweater. I actually smiled at it, like you’d smile at a lost-looking friend.
I wasn’t sure about the fit. I hated the buttons. I didn’t like the single-crochet trim, which looked clumsy compared to the perfect knit stitches and made the ribbed collar fit really strangely. Hell, I didn’t like that it had a ribbed collar. But it was lovely. It was made in three colors of thick, unplied, undyed wool. It was mended in a couple of places, neatly, if not the way I’d have done it — I’m good at mending knits because I’m even better at accidentally breaking, snagging and ripping them — and I liked that someone had cared enough about it to fix it.
All that for five bucks? Sold.
It lived in my closet for a few months, next to my snow boots. It missed its big chance at a winter trip to snow country since it took up too much room in my carry-on. I shuffled it from room to room, trying to figure out how to wear it and what to do with it.
If I wore it around Oakland with my knee-high logger boots, I looked like either someone’s joke version of a Portland hipster, or someone who’d stumbled out of the deepest backwoods in 1915. That second one is a look I don’t mind a bit, but the sweater’s squishy bulk made me feel like a yeti, and I’d sweat immediately if I wore it in direct sunlight. It hung for awhile in my bedroom, where I’d pick it up from time to time and think about how I could modify it to suit me a bit better. Maybe a zipper instead of buttons? Definitely a better edging, preferably one that could stretch. Maybe re-do those mends, and fix the yarn in the places it had worn thin? Then I’d hang it back up and smile at it again. I just liked it. I’d figure it out.
Then a week ago, it got cold. Like, really cold. Not freezing, but weather near the bay follows no rules. When you live in an old building with barely any insulation and huge, single-pane windows, it’s as cold inside as it is outside. I was just fine, since I was wearing leggings and another thrift-store find: an oversize men’s sweater, three sizes too big for me and with a small hole in the back, that I’d bought for a buck for the classic tweedy wool yarn and hadn’t gotten around to taking apart. My boyfriend, shivering in his cotton hoodie, kept making big eyes at me and pleading with me to make the weather warmer.
“Um … I can lend you a sweater,” I said.
“Whatever! Just make it warmer.”
“How about this?”
I handed him the lopapeysa, which I’d left hanging over the stair rail on top of some drying laundry and a four-season tent. He put it on, making some skeptical remarks about the fairly feminine buttons but too cold to really care.
The sweater finally made sense. What I thought was the collar landed just so around his neck. The broad, dark band of the yoke motif swung perfectly around the widest point of his shoulders. The body of the sweater fell just right, narrowing toward the waist and landing at the same spot as his favorite hoodie. With his beard and long hair, he looked like he’d wandered right out off a windswept hillside in a ’70s Reynolds pattern brochure. No wonder I felt confused when I tried to wear it: It wasn’t meant for me.
(Pardon the low-resolution iPhone photo and the wadded-up, half-frogged sweater on the countertop. Don’t mind the goat skull in the window basket; That’s normal.)
The only tricky part would be proving that it’s made for him. I have a much higher interest in and tolerance for unusual clothes than he does. The rustic wool and natural colors make the whole look veer toward “grandpa.” There isn’t much call for subarctic wool outwear in the generally sunny Mission District where he works.
But there’s hope: His verdict is “a little hipstery, but maybe.” I’m pretty sure most of his issues would be solved by trading the old-fashioned buttons for a zipper. Only one way to find out …