How to Look Professional With a Wool Allergy

professional nonwool sweatersWhich are the best sweaters if you suffer from a wool allergy?  Are there any other tricks for looking professional while avoiding wool? Reader P wonders:

Like a lot of people I seem to know, I am allergic to wool. It makes me itch. Even cashmere. Even soft merino wool. Even if the sweater is a mixture with only 5% wool. My question is–where do I find good quality sweaters made of silk, linen, cotton or other non-wool fabrics that are light enough to wear under a blazer or suit jacket in the winter?

We’ve talked about how to look professional in cold weather, but not the allergy question, which is something I’ve gotten a few times over the years — let’s discuss.  I’m curious to hear what the readers would say here. A few suggestions –

a) look into quality underlayers that won’t add bulk. For my $.02, I’ve always found silky blouses easier to layer under sweaters than cotton blouses. Similarly, long-sleeved layers (like those from Adea) may be just what the doctor ordered.

b) Find a personal shopper or stylist, and work with them.  I would suggest first looking for your closest Nordstrom, which is famous (at least around these here parts) for having a great free personal shopping service — and seeing if you like their offerings. If you’re not near a Nordstrom, look into a personal stylist from online services such as Keaton & Row or Stitch Fix.

c) Once you find a brand or sweater that meets your requirements, buy in bulk. For silk/linen/cotton, be aware that those are going to be seasonal items because they’re lighter weight than wool and cashmere. They should start coming into stores soon, though, so get ready to hunt!  (Pictured above: Silk and Cotton Long-Sleeve Sweater, available at Brooks Brothers for $128.)

Readers with a wool allergy, how do you manage?  Which are your favorite brands for pure silk/cotton/linen sweaters?  Do you have any other tricks you’ve learned, such as how to read product descriptions?

(L-#)

Comments

  1. Instant threadjack:

    I have a interview coming up in a few weeks (entry level for this fall, law, graduating in May).
    I have references who are willing to make a call to the firm to recommend me. Do I have them do this now, before my interview? Should I ask people who are on my reference list provided to the firm or people who are different from those on the list? Sorry if this is a really simple question, but no one in my family has ever had a professional job (I’m the first to go to college, never mind graduate school). My school’s career services office is useless. Thanks in advance for any advice!

    • Wildkitten :

      The reference list you provide to the firm is so they can call people, at the end, after they decide they want to hire you, to make sure you are good as you seem.

      If you have references who personally know hiring folks at the firm, they can make phone calls outside the normal protocols, but don’t have your like, manager from working summers at the Y start calling the law firm before you interview.

    • Wildkitten :

      Ask A Manger might be a good blog for you to read.

    • I had a professor call on my behalf after my second round interview. I was always told by my career services office that you should save references to push you on to actually get the job and not just the second interview.

      FWIW, I got the job, and I’m sure that the professor had something to do with it. Just make sure its someone who really knows you and can convey what an asset you would be. Good luck!

      • If a reference called me about a first-year lawyer before I called references, I probably wouldn’t even consider it. First year lawyers are essentially fungible and I would find it really presumptuous to get someone to call on your behalf, especially a professor given that there is little to any relation between law school and the practice of law

    • If there’s someone who personally knows someone at the firm (e.g., they used to work together, or were roommates in law school), that person can call their personal friend any time just before or just after the interview. Most of the time people who fall into this category will have their own plan for how/when they want to contact their friend. But your other references should wait to be contacted by the firm.

      • NewbieLaw :

        Thanks everyone! I should have clarified, it would be people in the legal field who have worked with me directly during my time in law school (attorneys where I have worked, that type of thing.) Not people from jobs that have no relationship to the job I am applying for.

        I really wish that there was more communication between hiring parties and law schools, as both professors and career services have really pushed that you should have people call, and have even said you should have them call before you *get* an interview. (I did not do that, it seemed obnoxious).I suppose this might vary by market, as well. We’re in a smaller market, so perhaps phone calls are more acceptable here.

        Thanks for the thoughts, all! :)

    • fellow new law grad ’13 so take what I say with a grain of salt- obviously the other experienced women on here will know more and I defer to them. But I got my job, aside from being qualified etc, is that a reference called for me. the firm was really impressed. That being said my reference knew the firm, had worked with the firm on the other side of the table, and I didn’t know that my reference called till he told me after the fact.

      I would wait until the second round of interviews and then have the reference with the best “authority” like they worked in that area of the law or know the firm or is the most impressive whatever call for you. It’s so ridiculously competitive out there and you will stand out and they probably will be impressed.

      Good luck! Keep us posted! I hope you get it!

    • Law Firm Recruiter :

      I think it might be helpful to distinguish between a few different types of references. I think TBK did a nice job setting that up above. Someone who calls because they have a personal connection to you and to the firm may or may not be a true professional reference. For example, you did well in a class and that professor wants to recommend you to Firm X because she has a long history with them (maybe she worked there before her academic gig, maybe she has consistently identified students in her classes and has recommended them to the firm, etc.). Another similar situation is a personal reference like your college roommate’s mother or father knows someone at the firm well and knows you well enough to put in a good word. TBK hit the nail on the head about the timing – right before or right after you interview is perfect. In my role, I would not call either of those recommendations a “professional reference” — it’s a personal recommendation.

      Professional references should not be provided until we ask for them. We won’t call them unless we’re extending you an offer.

      I realize it can get tricky because sometimes the categories are not mutually exclusive. What to do with the professor for whom you worked who also has a personal connection to the firm? I say leverage both ways — have them put in a good word to help you secure the interview but then also feel free to list them as a professional reference. I make the bulk of the reference checks for my firm and I may not have been the person to whom that recommender connected the first time (usually I’ll get an email from a partner that says Prof X from Law School called to recommend NewbieLaw, do you have the resume, should we set up an interview, etc.). What you shouldn’t do is have your professional references contact anyone at the firm when they don’t have a personal connection to the person they are contacting. It would be interpreted as pushy, inability to follow the directions, and kind of weird.

      Sorry your career services office is useless. It’s a source of frustration for those of us on the inside as well.

      Good luck with your interviews!

    • The responses are very interesting to me because my advice would be different. Full disclosure: I’m a law prof but I practiced longer than most professors (I was a senior associate when I left) and I only made the switch recently. So I shouldn’t be completely out of touch with reality. :) That said, weigh my advice against that of the others who responded and who are actually practicing.

      I can think of three reasons why you may want to have your references reach out, even if they have no personal connections. First, if your references can say very specific things about relevant skills (e.g., write in some detail about your research and writing skills and your ability to get sh*t done) as opposed to your academic qualities, their recommendation should count for something regardless of when it arrives. Second, at some firms (especially biglaw) interviewers fill out online forms. I worked at such a firm and I almost always filled out the forms as soon as the interview was over. So a recommendation that would arrive after an interview wouldn’t make a difference. Third, an unsolicited recommendation before your interview could be useful if you aren’t good at tooting your own horn or if you are the kind of person who is awkward in interviews but really shines when you feel more at ease. In that case, it may be useful to have someone shoot an email singing your praises and pointing out strengths that aren’t obvious from your resume.

      Good luck!

  2. Anyone here ever buy anything from Shecloth? I clicked over based on an ad on this site and like some things but never heard anything sbout them before.

    TIA!

  3. SoCalAtty :

    I’m always on the look out for nice cotton / cotton blend sweaters for work. I can’t wear wool, and it is especially a problem backpacking! All of the “best” socks / baselayers are wool. I swear by Patagonia’s capilene baselayers – no wool and they work great. The Under Armour line is good as well.

    • Catherine :

      Thanks for the outdoor gear recommendations! I’m just building my hiking wardrobe, and it’s hard to avoid the all wool, all the time sections. Bring me the synthetics!

    • Excellent topic! Agreed, thanks for the outdoor gear tips – wool sock alternatives are tough.

      • I also prefer not to wear wool socks outdoors. They don’t wick sweat from my feet as well as synthetic socks. I swear by Drymax socks. They are the best. I wear them skiing all winter. Dry feet are warm feet.

  4. Rural Juror :

    I have this exact problem, so I feel your pain. I have had success with thin 100% cotton cardigans at Gap – they seem to come out every spring, although I haven’t seen any so far this year. Also JCrew usually puts out a linen Tippi sweater in the spring, and it’s great for wearing under blazers.

    I would be interested to hear some winter coat recommendations that are dressy but not wool – they always seem to be unlined at the neck, the most sensitive place for itch. I have resorted to buying wool anyway and wearing a soft scarf tightly around my neck.

    • DC Wonkette :

      I’ve had to do the exact same thing. I do have an H&M jacket that’s not wool — and also not warm. Other alternative is the puffy coat which lacks the same fashion appeal.

    • What about laundering cotton cardigans and having them keep their shape? I have the J Crew Jackie and while I admit it’s a few seasons old, it seems so worn out and baggy looking.

      Do you dry clean cotton cardigans? Hand wash cold and lay flat to dry? (this is what I try to do, but they still seem to get droopy in the elbows)

      • Analysist :

        I think the key is to put cotton cardigans in the dryer for 10 minutes first — long enough that the cardigan gets steamy and snaps back into shape, not long enough for it to shrink — and then hang to dry by folding in half at the abdomen, not by inserting the hanger into the neckline. I use a drying rack with great success, but this can also be done with a hangar; just make sure to drape the sleeves neatly so that wrinkles don’t get set in as the sweater dries.

    • Vaute Couture has really warm and super lovely coats, without wool or down. http://www.vautecouture.com

    • Funny, my husband does this. He is a WWII reenactor so his sweater has to be wool even though he’s allergic. He uses a silk parachute as a “scarf”, though. Haha.

      I know you specifically said under a jacket, but I bet the same idea could work for a more casual look with a button down shirt with a collar underneath.

    • Anonymous :

      Not to pile on but I know someone who does hiring who had a candidate do this exact thing and he didn’t hire her because of it. That said, if I am ever I the position to hire someone I would probably let this slide. However I think there’s no point in tei v your husband about it now since it’s too late to do. Yet I g about it.

  5. Paging Orangerie :

    Saw your post from the morning thread about getting from DCA to GW. It’s not as bad as it could be, because you don’t have to go through major thoroughfares in DC proper, but honestly you’ll get there faster if you take the Blue Line. Less than a 20 minute ride.

  6. Catherine :

    Buy early in the season. I do most of my sweater shopping in the fall, pre-wool, and then pick up other pieces in the spring. I’ve had good luck with Loft, which means Ann Taylor also should have a good selection.

  7. Wow, as someone who prefers natural fibers, I have a harder time finding knits that are *not* synthetic— with the exception of the ubiquitous cashmere. But I’m always seeing sweater that are 100% acrylic or blended with nylon.

    I realize this isn’t helpful to the OP, but I’m surprised that finding non-wool has been hard, unless she wants only natural fibers— in that case, join the club! There’s nothing:)

  8. Christina :

    I have this issue as well, but it’s compounded by the fact that while I can wear cashmere, synthetics (polyester, nylon, etc) are also out of the question for me.

    My mainstays for sweaters without cashmere are silk/cotton blends – typically they are more cotton than silk, something like 5-15% typically. JCrew has a great selection when spring/fall rolls around, and I would even check out Zara for more trendy silhouettes. I have a favorite cotton/silk blend from Zara that I’ve worn for years – the enamel is starting to wear off the mother of pearl buttons – it’s that old!

    I find a lot of good silk/cotton items at Joe Fresh (if you’re in NYC, they have stand-alone stores) plus they go on drastic sale quite frequently around seasonal changes. Recently I picked up a silk dress for about $20.

    Hope this helps!

    • This is an EXCELLENT Thread, Kat. I have the same issues with FAKE sweater’s. I love wool, cashemere and other types of REAL wool, but have a big probelem when it come’s to fake stuff like RAYON, ORLON, DACRON, POLYESTER, and other cheep quality stuff. I start itcheing and scratcheing and it is GROSS! FOOEY!

      My dad thought I needed a warm sweater when I started at GW, even tho it was warmer in DC then it was on LI, so he bought a VERY HEAVY Sweater for me that was the kind sorority girl’s wore. But it was NOT a natural fabric, so it did NOT breath properly, and I got very itchey and scratchey soon after I put it on. FOOEY. I decided to give it away after I washed it, but I made a big mistake b/c I gave it to a woman from the International House who liked it. The big probelem here was that she was from Europe, I think Germany or France, and she did NOT wash or dry clean any of her clotheing. So all semester long, she wore sweater’s, including mine, but never cleaned them. By the winter time (mabye Feb or March–we could NOT sit with her in the cafeteria b/c she smelled like B.O. ) It wasn’t that she did NOT shower, b/c she did, but she ALWAYS put back on the same clotheing, includeing MY sweater, and the same bra w/o cleaneing it. So even tho she was clean out of the SHOWER, as soon as her clotheing got warm, it smelled VERY bad! DOUBEL FOOEY.

      The worst part of it was that she told everyone I gave her the sweater, and she alway’s smelled bad weareing it b/c it was VERY heavy and warm so it NEVER took long for her to heat it up. TRIPEL FOOEY!

      So the lesson I learned is alway’s to buy real wool, and never give a sweater to someone who will NOT dry clean or use WOOLITE to clean it. Otherwise peeople will think YOU gave them a smelley sweater.

  9. Meg Murry :

    Jones New York has silk knit sweaters and shells that I really love. Right now the only longsleeve options I see on the website are v-neck or cardigans, but maybe they will have more options at other time of year? Their Platinum Scoop Neck Silk Shell is my go-to for “dressier than a t-shirt but not a button down” – I wear it under suits, blazers, cardigans or just on its own, but I only see it in short sleeved or sleeveless right now.

  10. MissDisplaced :

    I don’t care much for wool sweaters either! I’m not allergic to them, but I do find them a bit itchy and so I will almost always opt for silk, ramie, cotton or acrylic blends.
    As for where to buy them… well almost anywhere! Shop early in the season for the best selections, but I’ve also fond nice quality “brand” names at TJX and Marshall’s and the like. I think the one I’ve found I liked is called August Silk cardigans and sweaters available at most department stores.
    I also never order sweaters online. I simply MUST feel/touch them first for the “no itch” factor! :-)

  11. I’ve had good luck with the Lands End fine gauge cotton sweaters. The V-necks look nice on their own or under a blazer. I’ve also made a twinset with the cardigan and a V-neck cotton/modal tee (because I prefer that to the jewel neck on the matching shell).

  12. Yeah this is sort of a weird question. If anything, I think it would be harder to find quality non-wool pants that look good. I’m wearing machine washable pants from Express right now and they look nice but not as tailored and crisp as my wool pants that I hate wearing because they ultimately wrinkle and need to be dry cleaned.

    I’m wearing a gorgeous deep purple sweater from Target that’s nylon and rayon. It did pill unexpectedly which is weird because the other one I bought didn’t BUT except for that, I think I look professional in a non-wool sweater. I don’t really even like merino wool because I’ve found they stretch out a lot and that doesn’t look professional.

  13. Anyone have any experience with the Jones New York suits at Nordstrom? There is skirt, pants, dress option and the price seems fantastic.
    They are not available in the stores near me, so I would have to order multiple sizes to figure out where I fit and want to know if it is worth it.
    Thanks all!

  14. On the topic of Nordstrom personal stylists – can anyone recommend a specific stylist at the SF store? Looking for someone who can help me efficiently step up my professional look (projecting authority/gravitas, without overdressing for my relatively casual law firm) – but who will have patience with my extreme lack of fashion confidence/skills. Inside, I’m all powerful, sleek, understated elegance…but on the outside, I’m the uberfrump, and I’m sick of it. Thanks for any suggestions – and for all the thoughtful advice I’ve read here over my many months of lurking!

  15. For the lawyers out there: I’m interested in doing contract work, but more legal research and writing and not document review. However, I have no idea how to get started. I was thinking of emailing several solo practitioners or small firms and pitching my services (with resume, writing sample, etc.). Do you think this is a good strategy? Also, anyone know what the going rate is for this kind of service (hourly and flat)?

    • When I was between jobs several years ago, a small Boston firm I knew through a recruiter offered me $60/ hour for research/ writing assistance on a particular matter. I didn’t do it for a variety of reasons and I have no idea if that was typical.

    • Olivia Pope :

      I’ve read articles about online legal marketplaces designed for this purpose – lawyers doing projects for other lawyers. Check Lawyerist or MyShingle for reviews of these marketplaces, or google “legal marketplace.” I can’t remember the names of any of them.

  16. Misspelled interviewer name :

    So how bad is it to have misspelled an interviewer’s name in a thank you email? Death knell, I’m thinking. So depressed.

    • How bad a misspelling — my first name is an atypical spelling of a fairly common name and I don’t blink twice when someone spells it the common way

      • Misspelled interviewer name :

        really? that makes me feel a lot better. it’s not me, but my husband. on the other hand, it was the person’s last name, and he had the right spelling right in the email address. it is commonly misspelled, but given that- i don’t know.
        i feel sick about it. i noticed it but haven’t said anything to him yet, bc he was so stressed out about the interview and worked so hard to prepare.

        • Meg Murry :

          I wouldn’t point it out unless he’s sending another email. One misspelling is not going to make or break the final decision, and he’ll beat himself up over it forever if he didn’t get the job. I think if it was his application that might be different since its a first impression of him, but after the interview they probably already have a pretty good idea of if he’ll be a good fit or not. And if the person is petty enough to change their decision from yes to no over something so small – its not someone he wants to work for anyway

          • Misspelled interviewer name :

            What excellent points. I appreciate the distinction between the application and the interview. And I love what you said about if that’s the kind of person for whom he’d want to work anyway.
            Good call – I think I won’t say anything. Thank you.

    • The more interviewing I do for my firm, the more I think that things like that don’t matter as much as I thought they did when I was on the other side. I’m not recommending my firm hire someone unless I am really jazzed by them. And if I am, a typo alone won’t undo that.

    • Wondering :

      I’m sorry because I know this doesn’t make you feel better, but this is a death knell for me. The second word of a letter should not be spelled incorrectly. I recently dinged someone for this (BUT she was a terrible candidate aside from the misspelling. If she had been stellar, I may have reconsidered).

      That really sucks. It happens to the best of us.

      • Misspelled interviewer name :

        Not at all, it’s kind of you to respond and be honest. Thank you.

        • I think if someone was great, you might be disappointed in them a bit but you’re not going to be like, “well, forget it now!” Likewise, if they were not so great, this would reaffirm that and then you might think, “well, that seals the deal – they can’t even spell my name!” But in that case, you wouldn’t have hired them anyway, and in the first instance you still might because they’re, after all, still great. Don’t overthink it. It might make a difference if they really like your husband and another candidate exactly 100% equally but that is rarely ever the case. There’s a good chance the person might not even notice.

          • Misspelled interviewer name :

            What a great analysis. That makes me feel better, too. Thank you, AIMS.

    • Moonstone :

      Funny story: I has a friend who applied for a job as a COPY EDITOR who misspelled the name of the publication in her thank-you note (“Currier” instead of “Courier”). And she still got the job.

      • Misspelled interviewer name :

        Um – this is awesome. Thanks, Moonstone!!
        Funnily, my husband applied to be a spelling bee proctor. Okay, just kidding. :)

  17. Anon in NYC :

    I have/had a wool allergy (although it has gotten better as I’ve gotten older and I can now usually wear most wool items). I have found fantastic silk button down blouses at J Crew. I also second the recommendation to go to Nordstroms if you can (or if there’s not one near you, maybe the stylist can work with you via email).

  18. I am sensitive to both wool and cashmere, which I see as both a curse and a blessing as it prevents me from spending money on lovely, but expensive sweaters. I’ve gotten nice sweaters from Talbots that are 100% cotton, with others from Zara, Banana, Gap (to a limited degree). I don’t find that putting a layer underneath helps much as you are still likely to have it come into contact with you in a limited fashion, and it will still be bothersome.

  19. SheWhoBrokeHerLeg :

    I like cotton sweaters from C Wonder. The details are a little nicer, and they have a really smooth finish, so they don’t read casual, like I feel that Land’s End might.
    I buy JCrew cotton sweaters on sale and just accept that I buy a couple every season — they don’t hold up forever, but are reasonable on sale/promo, so I don’t mind tossing them after a couple of seasons and replacing with new colors. My black and white v neck/turtleneck basics are from Gap and I just replace them every year.
    Cotton doesn’t hold up as well, and even if you go to the expense of dry cleaning, they still get tired, so just plan according with your budget.

  20. I have a pretty bad wool/any kind of animal hair allergy, I can’t wear anything with even a touch of wool or cashmere in it. The only saving grace is that my lawyer mom has the same allergy, so when I was starting to build a wardrobe she was right there to help. My first suggestion is to shop in the spring, or rather when stores are showing spring merchandise. That is the time when they are showing cotton, silk, and other non-animal sweaters. If you get them in darker colors they can be worn year round. Gap brands do a great job of providing online descriptions of the exact materials. Unfortunately you do have to click through, but because many of their products are just different colors it doesn’t take too long. Banana Republic makes great looking, inexpensive sweaters that I find fit really well (even on busty girls).

    For other types of clothing, if you are looking for a suit I suggest investing in a lined suit. It tends to hang better than non-wool non-lined varieties and looks good. May be more expensive but in the long run it is worth it. Many of the work dresses that nordstorm carries are similarly lined. Brands I love (although pricier). For work pants which I rarely wear I found that Express used to make a great non-wool pant. Just go up a size or 2 so it doesn’t pull. I’m not sure if they still carry them, but I would stay away from lined pants. They look heavy. Another alternative if you can’t find non-wool pants is to wear tights underneath. I like the commando tights which have a high waste but don’t bunch and are thick.

    Thanks for tackling this. I wish this had been around when I was starting out a few years ago.

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