Sunday, December 16, 2012

Pride of ownership

This post, unlike last week's, is going to be about holiday presents. (One present in particular.)

For more than 20 years, one of the most treasured items in my wardrobe has been the cardigan sweater my grandmother gave me for my 13th birthday. What I love most about it is that it has such a huge variety of colors—grey, red, maroon, forest green, blue, purple—that it can be worn with practically everything in my wardrobe. Since I rely on multiple layers of clothing to keep myself warm throughout the winter, this sweater was just about the most useful winter garment in my wardrobe: an outer layer that could be worn over virtually any combination of inner layers. Black turtleneck, purple Henley, favorite cardigan. White shirt, red pullover, favorite cardigan. You get the idea.

Obviously, this sweater was also amazingly well made to have lasted this long. But over 25-plus winters of wear, even the most durable item will eventually start to fall apart. My beloved cardigan is now heavily darned in the elbows, and there are holes in the lining big enough to allow me to put the sweater's pocket into my pants pocket from the outside. On top of that, I haven't exactly stayed the same size since my teens, so the sweater now can't be buttoned all the way without straining across my middle-aged booty. So, reluctantly, a few years ago, I started looking for a replacement.

Well, it seems that as useful as this sweater is to me, it's not a very popular style with manufacturers. In fact, after combing through dozens of retail sites, as well as listings on Amazon and eBay, I couldn't find anything even remotely like it. This made the old sweater, tight and worn-out though it was, even more valuable to me, and I clung to it all the tighter as it deteriorated.

I mentioned this problem to my sister, not this year, but last year, and she took up the quest to help me find a replacement. She sent me link after link to pictures of multicolored cardigans with the query, "How about this"? Turns out I'm incredibly picky: I rejected garment after garment with complaints like, "No, the colors are wrong"; "that one doesn't have pockets"; "that one looks too long for me." I didn't get a new sweater that year.

But my sister, a teacher by trade, is nothing if not persistent. This year she started sending me more links, and finally one of them got the response, "That would be just about perfect if it's my size." And sure enough, that just-about-perfect sweater was what I unwrapped last Saturday when we celebrated the first night of Hanukkah at my sister's house.

As it turns out, the sweater wasn't altogether perfect. Melanie pointed out to me a couple of small flaws: it was missing a button, and it had a small hole or two that would need to be stitched up. But she also pointed out the label sewed into the collar: Missoni. Being an ecofrugalista who doesn't really keep up with the fashion world, I had to have it explained to me that this is an extremely high-end Italian designer line. A quick search revealed that a brand-new sweater from Missoni would run three or even four figures.

Now, obviously, this sweater wasn't brand-new and wasn't in perfect condition. In fact, over the course of the past week, I've found and fixed several holes in it, aside from the ones that my sister initially pointed out. And because I didn't want to schlep all the way down to the nearest fabric store (45 minutes away) for new buttons (and also because the buttons on the sweater are really nice, and I might not find anything as nice to replace them), I simply removed the bottom button from the sweater and moved it up to fill the empty spot. (After all, how often am I going to fasten that bottom button anyway?)

And here's the part that reveals just how well my sister really knows me: making these minor repairs to the sweater actually makes me love it more. Now, instead of being just "the sweater my sister gave me for Hannukah," it's "the sweater I fixed up myself to look as good as new." Putting my own work into fixing the sweater up before wearing it makes me all the more attached to it—a phenomenon that behavioral economists have called "the IKEA effect." As Dan Ariely put it in his book Predictably Irrational, which I just finished reading, your attachment to your belongings—and the amount of money you'd consider them worth—is directly proportional to the amount of time you spent assembling the cabinet, wiring the TV set, or even, as he notes whimsically, feeding, diapering, and singing a lullaby to the baby.

For me, as an ecofrugal person, this sweater would make a much less satisfying gift if I had received it new in the box, especially if I had some idea how much it cost. Rather than feeling loved and pampered by it, I'd never be able to put it on without thinking, "She really shouldn't have spent so much on me." My sister knows me well enough to realize that, so she made no secret of the fact that it was bought secondhand on eBay—which makes it both eco-friendly and a bargain. And the fact that it had a few minor flaws that I could fix myself made it doubly satisfying, since it's now a reminder not only of my sister's patient search (and clever bargain-hunting skills) but also of my own careful labor. This sweater is now my sweater, more than any off-the rack purchase could ever be. Happy Hannukah to me, and mazel tov!

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