Celebrity Spotlight: The Sweater

The Sweater, 2018

In the Summer of 1988, my wife Kathe and I met a touring Deadhead, one of the thousands of people who travelled around the country, sometimes around the world, to attend concerts by the Grateful Dead (or as some people felt, one of the nomadic tribes who had the Grateful Dead as their house band). The Deadhead was a friendly middle-aged lady whose greatest joy was going around the country in her van with her son, who was in poor health and needed a lot of care.

Like many Deadheads, she made money by tie-dyeing T-shirts, thermals, and hoodies to sell in each city she stopped. We looked over the woman’s wares, counted our pennies, and finally bought a long-sleeved thermal shirt for me. It was far more colorful and eye-catching than anything else I owned, and in particular was more colorful than anything else I had to wear in the cold months of the year. I wore it on almost any occasion, and naturally it began to wear out. A thermal shirt isn’t very sturdily made — after all, it was never intended as outerwear.

Original thermal Sweater

Cutwork
At first, I patched it with whatever soft, stretchy fabric was on hand, sewing patches to the inside of the shirt around the holes and then stitching around the edges to slow down the fraying. I used only the simplest kind of stitch, a crude “baseball” stitch. Even so, I noticed that if I used a brightly-colored patch on the inside, it looked pretty good. My wife compared the result to “cutwork,” a word I’d never even heard before. I eventually began sewing down the edges with more complicated stitches that wouldn’t unravel so easily.

As the years passed, there was less and less of the original garment left. In places, there were patches which were wearing through and needed new patches added inside of them, making it thicker and heavier, less of a thermal shirt and more of a heavy sweater. The fabric stretched gradually, so that a waist-length shirt became an inseam-length sweater, and eventually, a tunic that hung to mid-thigh.

A Local Celebrity
The original spiral pattern became harder to make out, yet oddly, old Deadheads could always recognize it – it seemed to have some Grateful Dead vibe that lingered with it even as the actual shirt vanished thread by thread (at this point, only a few sturdy pieces of seam remain of the original). Other people also stopped us on the street to comment on it, and I began to think of the sweater as The Sweater, a local celebrity. I set up a website devoted to posting photos of it in various stages of development, and stories about incidents involving it and comments that I got about it: https://johnssweater.blogspot.com.

The website was in part created out of self-defense: Kathe and I wound up stopping to chat about The Sweater so often, I felt the need to print up cards directing people to the site so that an errand downtown wouldn’t take all day.

For some reason, Fred Meyer seems to be the place where these encounters take place most often, including one which I remember with a special fondness: a woman and child approached us, and the woman said that her daughter had been talking about beginning an art project of some kind but felt intimidated by the act of getting started, since she’d never done anything like that. She pointed out The Sweater to her mother as the sort of thing she’d like to make, and her mother said, “Why don’t you ask him how he made it?” I told her I had known nothing about sewing when I began the project, and had learned many techniques along the way. I encouraged her to dive in and begin doing what she wanted, learning as she went. I gave her a Sweater card and wished her well.

On very rare occasions, someone will have something unkind to say about The Sweater. One person went so far as to post a vile screed on Craigslist’s “Rants and Raves” which I wish now I had saved to my web site, since it was so absurdly over the top. Not only did he call The Sweater, if I recall correctly, “Technicolor vomit,” but he referred to Kathe as looking like “a scarecrow with AIDS” and me as “a big fat guy,” both of which characterizations I resent greatly: Kathe is quite shapely, even at eighty years of age; and while I am indeed a big man or if you insist, a fat man, I don’t think any reasonable person would call me a “big fat man”.

The Sweater, 2009

Spawn of The Sweater
In the course of maintaining The Sweater, I sometimes have to trim away sections of it so that it doesn’t become completely shapeless. These scraps come in handy patching worn places, and for side projects like patching and eventually Sweaterizing a worn-out cap or gloves, but even so, pieces accumulate. This inspired a new project: I had a pair of thermal pants for cold weather, and I patched them in places with pieces of The Sweater and stitched all over them with yarn to try to turn them into The Pants, but it didn’t work out. The yarn made the pants too baggy, and while a baggy sweater is tolerable, baggy thermal pants really aren’t. I put the pants into my ragbag as a source of material for some future project.

A few years ago, we found a place online that was selling tie-dyed thermals, and bought a new one. I cut the back out of The Sweater and sewed it to the front of the new sweater, and then cut the front of the new sweater out from behind the big patch I’d added. I used that, and some scraps, to give The Sweater a new back so I could continue to wear it. I cut the legs off the failed decorated pants and turned them into sleeves for the new Sweater, and stitched across its back to make it better match the front. I presented it to Kathe so that we could go out together wearing “matching” editions of The Sweater. The one-of-a-kind garment was no longer so lonely.

More recently still, a “part-time” child came into our family, and I bought a 3T-size yellow sweater and used Sweater scraps to turn it into a cute little Sweater that reached to his ankles when he was a toddler, fit him snugly when he was four, and has since been enlarged with careful tailoring so that it still fits him comfortably now that he is a husky twelve-year-old, as large as many adults.

And so, my thirty-year-old celebrity Sweater continues to remain the centerpiece of my wardrobe, and a small but visible element of life in Corvallis – and continues, slowly, to reproduce itself.

by John M. Burt