Everyone, I believe, is entitled to one overwhelming obsession. Mine is sweaters.
It kicks in with a vengeance about this time each year. One day in the early part of October, without warning, I will freeze like a dog on point, sniff the air, snatch up the phone, call Land's End and order everything in their catalogue that's made of wool.
I suppose I'm lucky. I could have picked vintage Lear Jets to be obsessed about. A sweater compulsion is a few million bucks cheaper, it spiffs up your autumn wardrobe, hides a multitude of sins (the famous Christmas Party Paunch is only a couple of months away) and keeps lots of sheep gainfully employed and away from the mint jelly.
But along with a crazed longing for Shetland crews, lambs-wool cardigans and Pringle cashmere V-necks comes an obligation to be vigilant. Wool sweaters--and, indeed, all clothes made of wool--are not like, say, your polyester go-to-hell golf slacks.
Those pants, as you know, are bulletproof. They never wrinkle, they hold a crease that could slice a $3 steak and, if you had to, you could wash them by beating them against a stone down by the creek. (Inevitable bad point: when they're set afire--by lightning, for example--they melt.)
But wool sweaters need attention. They're organic. And as such, they're somebody's idea of a four-star meal.
That means moths. There are those who believe moths to have a sort of rugged insect beauty--fancy wings and all that--but sweater freaks loathe them profoundly. To anyone who has had to pay for a reweaving job on a venerable red cashmere, moths are like roaches that fly.
They deserve death, sure, but killing them is not the proper tactic. You don't want them to get that close. You want to set up a defense that will make them scream little moth screams and beat a hasty retreat to tell their rotten pals that there's something in your closet that is the moth equivalent of the Mummy's Curse.
Cedar. Moths hate it. Everybody else loves it. It smells great and, if you want to go so far as to line your closet walls with it, it looks pretty wonderful too. You don't have to do that, however. The cedar closet (or cedar-lined drawers) is for truly committed moth haters (or people who really love that smell).
Far cheaper, and also effective, are cedar blocks. About the size and shape of a bar of soap, they can be arranged around your sweaters or slipped into the folds of that tartan skirt you picked up in Edinburgh or the pocket of that Donegal tweed number that makes you look so poetic. Also, if you detest moths utterly, the blocks can be used to physically squash them.
"They're the most pleasant way of keeping the little beggars out," said Jean Miles, a sales representative for Brooks Brothers in Los Angeles, a safe haven for wool fanatics.
These days, you can get them from a fairly unlikely source, for cheap: Trader Joe's markets, for about $4.
Some people will tell you that you can drive off moths through the use of various potpourri that you hang in the closet or stuff in drawers. The jury is still out on this. If, however, you want to try one, try this:
Combine one cup of rosemary, one cup of lavender, a tablespoon of ground cloves and one diced dried lemon peel. Wrap it in cloth and hang it in the closet.
Now that you've protected the sweaters, make sure you don't get in your own way by damaging them yourself. Don't, for instance:
--Hang them up. Not even on those beautifully shaped cedar hangers (those are for jackets). And don't even think about putting them on wire hangers. They'll stretch out of shape. Fold them and put them in drawers or on shelves.
--Dry-clean them often. They don't need it unless they're badly soiled. Brush them instead. If you want to dry-clean one, do it no more than once a season, Miles said. This goes for jackets and other woolens too.
--Wash them in harsh detergent. Christina Perez, the interim manager of Cashmeres of Scotland in Costa Mesa, doesn't even like Woolite. Too harsh, she says. She uses baby shampoo in cold water and sets the washer on the gentle cycle. Sweaters, she says, should never see the inside of the dryer.
"You have to treat wool like hair," Perez said, "because it is hair."
--Manhandle them. After washing, squeeze them dry gently, without wringing. Block them out in their original shape, flat on a towel. You can use this process, Perez said, to alter the size of the sweater slightly. It will dry in the shape you place it in on the towel.
OK, they look beautiful. But you have to stay alert. Because if you live in sweaters until, say, the Fourth of July, you'll discover the pilling problem. This is caused by the friction of smooth wool against smooth wool and results in little balls of fabric covering the nap of your sweater. You can cut them off one by one--carefully--with a razor blade, or buy one of those devices that look like little electric shavers, Miles said. But if you love to live on the edge, talk to Perez.
"The way we take care of our cashmere," she said, "is to put it in a zippered pillow protector and toss it in the washing machine on the gentle cycle."
Works like a charm, she claims. All the pills disappear. Although, she added, "the potential for disaster is certainly there" if you throw a white cashmere sweater into the wash with a red one.
Hold fast to the rules, however, and you should be able to wear your wool sweaters into the next millennium. And have you noticed how great they look with polyester golf slacks?