The 4 style rules of smarter sweater shopping

Say goodbye to those lumpy, pilly, ill-fitting sweaters. This advice will help you find the most flattering pullover for you.

Chriselle Lim wearing a navy sweater from Ralph Lauren outside Ralph Lauren during New York Fashion Week on February 18, 2016.  Christian Vierig | Getty Images

The arrival of Fall means apple picking season, pumpkin spice lattes, and most exciting of all: sweater weather. For Her spoke to four fashion and retail experts about what they look for in a sweater, and how to score the softest, most beautiful fabrics without breaking the bank. Because of course we all love cashmere, but even the best of fabrics won’t look good if it doesn’t fit right. (And if you’re going to invest in a pricey sweater, you should be sure that it fits you nicely.) If you’re on a budget, though, there are affordable options out there that will look just as good on you as cashmere. All you need to perfect your warm and lovely fall look are these four easy shopping guidelines:

1. It’s all about the fit

The fit of a sweater can be tricky. More often than not, people buy sweaters that don’t fit them correctly in the shoulders, which is a crucial part of getting a knit fabric to hang properly on the rest of your body.

For Casey, a knit merchandiser at a national retailer, fit is paramount when deciding upon a sweater. “The two most important things to look for are how the shoulders hang and also the sleeve length,” she says. An easy rule of thumb: the shoulder seams should fit exactly where your arm meets your shoulder, and the end of the sleeve should fall right below the wrist bone while standing with your arms at your sides.

The shoulder seams should fit exactly where your arm meets your shoulder.”

Those are great guidelines while shopping in a store for new sweaters, of course, but you should also use them to shop your own closet as well. Evaluate the sweaters that you’ve had for a while. “It shouldn’t be lumpy or have lost its shape,” Johanna Pan, a costume designer, says. In her profession, she needs to spend a lot of time making sure that the cuts and shapes of clothing will fall nicely on the people she is dressing. “You can tell when a sweater has been stretched out because the shape is no longer flattering.” Look for stretching at the bottom and in the sleeves.

She recommends trying on every single sweater you own at the beginning of every season. Is it hitting you right in the shoulder? Is it looking a little ragged or pilly under your arms or at your sides? Weeding out sweaters that no longer fit correctly will help you declutter and dress better. That’s what we call a win-win, ladies.

2. Choose a flattering, comfy fabric

“I always check the fiber content,” Johanna says. If you’re looking for a sweater for right now, try one made from cotton or bamboo, which is perfect for cooler evenings. These natural fibers will also be more breathable and comfortable for warmer fall afternoons. Wool sweaters can look great, but during this transitional time of slightly warm-cool weather they’re going to be too warm and a little itchy with just a tee on underneath. So save those cable-knit full-wool pullovers for deeper winter months.

For colder days, cashmere is always a winner, but if your shopping budget is tight, “there’s nothing wrong with buying acrylic instead,” Johanna says. “It will actually last longer than cashmere (which needs to be cared for carefully), and hold its shape better than some natural fibers, plus they tend to be less expensive.”

If you opt for a fabric that tends to pill, like a wool-cashmere blend, invest in a garment care tool like the Evercare giant fabric shaver ($8, Amazon) and use it every fall to clean up the sweaters that you still love. But beware: if you de-fuzz too often, you’ll thin the fabric, and it will end up looking worn out anyway.

3. Master the tuck & untuck

“It’s all about oversize proportions this season,” says Jillian, a buying assistant. “Think bell sleeves and slouchy turtlenecks.” Slouchy styles are great because they should fir you well in the shoulders and chest, but then relax through the waist for a look that’s comfortable but still very chic. Also, keep an eye out for knitted detail, like cable knit, ribbing, and knitted bows. Jillian suggests balancing out the looser silhouette on top with skinny jeans and ankle booties.

When wearing a slouchy-chic sweater with jeans, consider a partial tuck, with the fabric tucked into the front of your jeans from roughly the center button to your hip bone on one side. Allow the rest of the sweater to naturally drape out. This will add the suggestion of a figure without a form-fitting sweater. Chunkier knits or those with large ribbing at the bottom hem should be worn outside the pant, just covering the top button of your fly.

Look for thinner knits with a loose fit that you can partially tuck in.”

Nika Diwa, of fashion blog Diwa Dollhouse, agrees, pointing to oversized sweaters as one of her favorite looks to wear this season. Her suggestion is to go big overall: “I typically wear a size small, but will purchase a large to wear as a cozy dress!” Paired with opaque tights and an ankle boot, the look will take you effortlessly from work to play.

And remember that oversize doesn’t necessarily mean bulky or thick. Casey says, “We’ve been especially excited by thinner knits. I think they’re perfect for this time of the year!” Tuck them into high-waisted denim, or with midi pleated skirts, for a relaxed but polished look.

4. Spend less (without skimping on style)

When asked for their favorite places to sweater shop, affordable stores were the overwhelming answer. Nika cites Forever 21, H&M and Zara as her favorite stores for pullovers because of how much she wears them throughout the season. “I can get more bang for my buck with the lower price points,” she says. “Plus they really stay on top of current fall trends so you can get a piece of the runway at the fraction of the price.”

Other brands to watch out for that offer stylish cuts at under $100 price points: BB Dakota, GAP, and Ann Taylor (especially their sale section). If you can afford to spend a little more, and are looking to invest in finer fabrics or cashmere classics, try Joie or Anthropologie.

Sweaters you’ll love

Take a cue from our style experts and try on a chic modern sweater for the season with our top picks below, as low as $25.

Cannes ribbed sweater ($128, Anthropologie)
Drop sleeve pullover sweater in olive ($49.95, GAP)
Noisy May deep V-neck oversize sweater ($36, ASOS)
Mikkeline sweater in heather wild rose ($268 with newsletter sign up, Joie)
Rosette Bow pullover ($228, Kate Spade). Get 15% off when you join the mailing list.
Ribbed Bell Sleeve Pullover ($98, Anthropologie)
Fine-knit sweater in dark green melange ($24.99, H&M)
Rib-knit turtle neck sweater ($29.99 H&M)
BB Dakota Marcilly cowl neck cropped sweater ($95, Shopbop)
Weekday waffle knit sweater ($81, ASOS)
Abstract jacquard fine merino wool sweater ($79.50, Ann Taylor). Get $25 off with code ANNWELCOME11 at checkout.
Soft Joie Mertsya sweater ($139, Revolve)
Free People All Mine sweater in terracotta ($128, Revolve)

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Genevieve Ang
Genevieve Ang

Genevieve Ang grew up in Singapore and now lives in New York. By day she works in marketing, by night she writes about fashion, shopping, and the importance of a red lip.