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Sweaters: Shear Heaven

by Tom Kerr

Mother always told you to take along a sweater. Your promotional campaign should do the same thing! Today's sweaters are sharp, sexy, sporty and sensible – in other words, the perfect piece of promotional apparel.

Energy prices have skyrocketed, and this winter many offices are keeping a close eye on the thermostat. Time to break out the sweater.

Business casual is exploding, especially the "dressy casual" trend. A sweater is a perfect fit. Your trade show lasts three days, but you want to pack light. Shirts get dirty and wrinkled. Consider a logoed sweater instead.

Workers these days are demanding more comfort in their clothing – after all, they have to work in them. Sweaters win again!

They also provide a neat, upscale look, says promotional consultant Ira Neaman: "They standardize the appearance, yet let everyone have a sense of individuality based on what they wear underneath."

You want apparel for your next promotion, but you're concerned about size, durability and ease of wear and care. Not to worry. The sweater is a wise choice on all counts. While it's true that polo/golf shirts and jackets are still number one and two among wearables in the promotional products arena, sweaters are becoming increasingly popular for many – well, sensible reasons. And since there's a variety of sweater styles, colors and textures available, you'll find they're a fashionable choice as well.

Patriotic, Practical And Way More
National pride and patriotism are important organizational values, given America's position as the world's only superpower and economic dynamo, and many firms want their promotional product choices to reflect those tenets. Since most sweaters are manufactured domestically, "Made In The USA" can easily become an integral part of your marketing campaign. And because so many sweaters are manufactured domestically, customization in logo design is much easier to do. For that and numerous other practical reasons, sweaters are tough to beat.

Yes, you could choose high-pile fleece, fashion fleece or a windshirt, and all definitely have their place. Golfers, for instance, have taken a strong liking to wearing windshirts on the course. But sweaters are still the logical indoor/outdoor imprinted wearable, primarily due to their warmth and breathability.

"With the energy crisis going on, people tend to keep the thermostats down and keep the environment cooler, which makes sweaters an attractive option," says Neaman "From a health and comfort standpoint, sweaters are important as a business casual product. It can also be a nice trade show item because you can wear a sweater numerous times, perhaps for an entire week, whereas with a shirt, you can't. [Sweaters] can be worn indoors, outdoors or both."

Okay, they're versatile. But what about style? In many offices, more and more employees are shedding their suits and sports coats in favor of more comfortable – and affordable – apparel. Instead of having to spend $400 and up on these items, they can spend $50 or less on a sweater and still look professional.

"Accordingly, more fashion is required in sweaters now, just as we've seen in polo shirts," says Neaman. "It used to be just solid white or navy cotton polo shirts, but now there's mercerized, tencel and all types of jacquard fabrics. The same is happening with sweaters. As the product becomes more standard in the office, the need for variety becomes that much greater."

Sweater FAQs
As you weigh the issue of whether or not to use sweaters in your next promotion or as a company store item, consider these points: What about comfort and function? Demographically speaking, the older generation is buying and wearing more sweaters for warmth and practical reasons. But we could all stand to keep warm: Just as kids often run in and out of doors, a lot of companies have campus-type environments, so employees run in and out of buildings, too. Sweaters are important where employees are exposed to drafts, where doors are constantly opening or closing or for those working at a counter or reception desk. "People who work extended hours, where buildings might be on automatic thermostats ... it will be cooler very early in the morning or late in the day. In those cases, sweaters are a good preventative health measure, in a way – and they're cotton or wool, so they breathe," says Neaman.

What about size? People may come in all shapes and sizes, but sweaters tend to be forgiving garments. Ten pounds too thin or heavy, and you'll still look good in a sweater. To that end, it's an effective garment for work teams and individual departments – and there's an infinite variety of styles and colors to choose from.

Will they appeal to both men and women? Sweaters are the original unisex garment. "On the women's side," says Neaman, "we've seen a move away from structured suits – just like men – to knits. So a popular choice lately has been the twinset: a women's shell, plus a cardigan over the top of it. We're seeing new fabrics each year, and the fact that sweaters are generally made here can be an important selling point for companies. Imports tend to be bulky items to bring in from offshore."

Vested Interest
When considering sweaters, don't overlook sweater-vests as one possibility. They can be worn with T-shirts or polo shirts for the classic layered look. A vest also gives the wearer – and giver, for that matter – the flexibility of not having to deal with the issue of sleeve length. (Of course, you can always push up the sleeves of a sweater, unlike the cuff of a shirt, since they all have a certain amount of stretch or "give" built into them.)

"We're seeing requests for lightweight fashion sweater vests from Izod and Arnold Palmer, as well as a ladies' sweater set from Bill Blass," says promotional consultant Mary Ellen Hudicka. "Vests seem to be the trend in the executive market, mostly in lightweight, silky textures. We've also seen many companies choose microfleece garments – vests, zip-ups and pullovers – in lieu of traditional knitted sweater styles, because of the popularity of the fabric in the retail market."

The trend today is upscale business casual, more tailored lines, Hudicka continues. Sweaters and fashion-forward sweater vests can complete the corporate ensemble, achieving an executive tailored look.

"You're seeing a resurgence in the vest option because of the popularity of the golf circuit; polo shirts are worn underneath," says wearables expert David Holmes. "You can give men a vest, say, and the female can have the choice of a cardigan."

Decorative Details And Trends
When it comes to logos, sweaters provide some unique challenges. Experience in decorating them is critical. "A company may have a logo that works very nicely on a jacket or canvas bag, but that same logo may not look as good on a sweater unless there's an adequate amount of stitches – what's called underlay," explains Neaman. "The fabric of a sweater has compression, pull compensation and stretch, which must be taken into account when being embroidered."

While a polo, golf or T-shirt can be screenprinted or embroidered, the same as a jacket or cap, sweaters can only be embroidered, says Neaman, adding that from a decorative standpoint, very often an unobtrusive or small imprint greatly heightens the item's perceived value. With vests, the standard embroidery position is still left chest. But there are other options too. Consider the sleeve area above the cuff, or perhaps behind the neck.

Hudicka suggests another classy look that can be achieved with sweaters: "One of the most popular embroidery treatments, especially with the executive set, is tone on tone – the same or similar thread color as the garment color," she says. "This creates a subtle, classic image that looks as if the embroidery was a part of the original garment, not an embellishment." Popular colors include basic corporate shades like khaki, navy, black and gray, she continues, but the executive market is also embracing a color she calls "butter."

What does Hudicka think is the cutting edge in sweaters these days? "Designer names are the hottest trend in wearables today of any kind," she says, adding "People love to be associated with what they consider to be the best."

Material And Design: Interwoven
Overall, the best choice in sweater material is 100% cotton. It can be worn by almost anyone. "Some people are allergic to wool, but very few are allergic to cotton," says Holmes. "There are basically two grades of cotton: 100% combed, and carded cotton. The impurities have been literally combed out in the former, so you have ease of wear, machine washability, reduced bagging and sagging and easy care for the recipient."

Sweaters are usually made (and should be purchased) in different torso lengths. "We've found that some sweater makers use the same torso length for all products," Neaman says. "Or if they say it's a 26-inch length, it's really not. Specific, separate lengths are important."

The buyer might be a medium, but she should take into account that people may need different torso lengths in the same size. The same is true for sleeve width: Sweaters must be wide enough to accommodate a shirt. "The cut and fit is very important," Neaman continues. "Generally, you want to order a large or extra large – and if you order double or triple [extra large], make sure they're the proper proportions."

Patterns, Pebbles, Pointels
Since sweaters are a fashion staple, customization in knit patterns is key as well. "[There are a] lot of different jacquard products," says Neaman. "Since the embroidery is part of the manufacturing process, you can save money – especially with full-chest designs. There's a type that's half pebble stitch and the top half is jersey stitch. The top half [above the chest] is clear so the decorator has a clear surface to work on."

Chest stripes can allow for a color accent that coordinates with a logo design. This provides a lot of flexibility. "This design ties to ski market for sports, fall season for football games, the collegiate market, etc.," says Neaman. "You often see sweaters draped over the neck or tied around waist ... when the climate changes, it gives you the extra piece to go with. Fine gauge vs. bulky is a fashion choice, but over 50% of what we sell to companies are bone or natural color, because it goes with everything. The second most popular color is navy."

Texture is also important. "We see unique stitch variations which seem to be holding true," says Holmes. "Because of embellishment of embroidery, we try to keep them monochromatic – not a lot of over colors. But then it's tough to bring forth the quality of the embroidery. We also like to mix the patterning so that we leave a place for embroidery to get a good identification of the logos."

Holmes notes the increase in the number of women in the workplace has led to improvements in styles and sizes, since they demand better fits and looks: "Cardigan sweaters are waist-length and not as long and bulky," he explains. "The stitch is more feminine, such as a pointel or seed stitch pattern. And you can get them in sizes from extra small to 6XL."

Casual Comfort
Interestingly, when logoed sweaters first appeared, they were usually V-neck acrylic cardigans. "Now, there's a department-store quality and look to logoed sweaters, with ease of care and washability," says Holmes. "Sweaters are great for the dress casual environment, but still give you the comfort level you want. A ladies' cardigan matches with polo shirts. Men's and ladies' items can be brought together for one total promotional package."

In short, sweaters are a good promotional item because they tend to have a much longer life than most other apparel. And where your logo's concerned, longevity is a key consideration. Bottom line: Sweaters almost never look out of place and can fit nearly any business situation, body style and budget. As wearables go, they are truly a sensible – and sensational – choice.

COPYRIGHT © 2002 The Advertising Specialty Institute. All rights reserved.
Tom Kerr, former editor-in-chief of Imprint, is a freelance writer based in Cleveland.

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