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In praise of the lowly sweatshirt

Liz Lerner

I come today to sing the praises of the simple sweatshirt.

Sweatshirt season usually starts somewhere in early May – although it was delayed for me this year because of the ridiculous spring weather. As much as I love my sweatshirts, on damp, cold days I need the comfort and warmth of wool or fleece to keep the chill from seeping into my old bones.

But on the first warm days, it’s time to put the sweaters away and break out the soft, cottony sweatshirts. I prefer mine with hoods, but that’s just individual preference. Hoodies, of course, have taken on high style and political ramifications, but that shouldn’t detract from the pleasures of a basic cotton sweatshirt, invented almost 100 years ago.

If you live on the Cape, a sweatshirt is an essential article of clothing – warm enough to shake off cold, ocean water, but breathable and never so warm that you’re overheated as soon as you put it on. It absorbs a bit of the water from your bathing suit, but rarely enough to get soggy. And it’s baggy enough that you can pull down your bathing suit top underneath and no one’s the wiser. Heck, an oversized sweatshirt allows you to change out of your bathing suit all together – or to be in the all-together, so to speak. Is there any more summery feeling than taking off a wet bathing suit and having a warm, dry sweatshirt against your body?

But it has to be just right. The best sweatshirt is never stiff. It’s soft and best worn with a bit of drape, but heavy enough to keep off a brisk wind when you’re sitting at a T-ball game at 5:30 on a late spring evening as your child in the outfield scans the sky for a fly ball that’s never coming or studies the clover.

And it’s got to be just the right length. I don’t like gigantic ones, but I don’t see the point of cropped ones. I like it when they are long enough that when I bend over, I don’t have that screaming strip of bare flesh above my jeans or plumbers, uh, backside.

A sweatshirt is often a declaration of a place or a team you love. I have a couple of Cape Cod ones. My other favorite is 15 years old and from Lake Winnipesaukee. It’s a deep blue with white lettering accented with a few recent splatters of red paint. But it’s a memory of a cold weekend in New Hampshire when I was undergoing cancer treatment, and my daughters and I hurriedly bought discount sweatshirts to keep warm on a lake cruise. That’s the thing about sweatshirts. They’re often an impulse item or bought out of immediate necessity because they are the most warmth you can buy for the least amount of money. One of my other favorites is a red one from Lake Tahoe straight off the “2 for $$20!” rack.

Sweatshirts are bragging rights or can remind us of someone we love – one of my children lives near Lake Tahoe, for example. Maybe you have one from your own college – or a college you paid for. I have one from the University of New Hampshire equestrian team, a reminder of the hours I spent being a horse-show mom. How to tell a real Cape Codder? Odds are good they are wearing a sweatshirt from a building supply company or a charter boat. And am I the only New Englander who doesn’t own a Patriot’s sweatshirt?

A sweatshirt should be just the right size to wrap around your waist on the way to the beach so that you’ll be ready when the temperature drops or when you get out of the water. Here are some other ways you can use a sweatshirt: a tote bag for collecting seashells, wiping down a wet, sandy dog; covering a sleeping baby; catching crumbs from a bag of potato chips; or protecting nearly-bare bottoms from hot car seats. No worries, you can take it home and throw it in the wash!

But here’s the cold, hard truth about sweatshirts, if you’re a parent or grandparent, you are never going to get to wear that sweatshirt at the beach. Because you will sacrifice yourself to stand shivering over a now-cozy 7-year-old who was turning blue but had sworn they did not need to bring a sweatshirt to the beach. Trust me. Just give into it. Pack a spare.