Wednesday, August 29, 2007

This thing of ours.

The kilt arrived in a box of barely-worn clothing from a friend with a taste for chic, classic clothing and a daughter who grew quickly. Daughter put on the kilt and she and I both grinned in girlish glee. The kilt had been designed by a European children’s clothing company, and somehow managed to be absolutely traditional and yet somehow scream “French!”; the smell of freshly-baked baguettes seemed to waft off of it.

Daughter twirled in her new skirt and I planned. This would be her church outfit for fall, maybe even her Christmas picture outfit. We’d use her brown buckle shoes, white knee-highs, the white ruffled shirt she already had, and over the top would be a classic Fair Isle yoke, three-button sweater. I’d have to buy the sweater, but that would be easy; it’s a classic sweater, everyone makes them, and there were enough colors in the skirt that I could choose whichever Fair Isle was the easiest and—dare I say?—cheapest. I could see the ensemble so clearly that for a moment it wasn’t August and nearly a hundred degrees; I nearly suggested to Daughter that we make cocoa.

I started with the obvious stores; Talbots, Lands End, LL Bean. Talbots had two forms of argyle sweater, but no Fair Isle. No worries, I thought, I’ve got nothing but time, patience, and a long supply of preppy stores. LL Bean had no Fair Isle, but did have several sweaters outstandingly suitable for tailgate parties, maple-syrup gathering, and living in a John Cheever short story. They did have a rather handsome fisherman’s sweater, which would have looked cute with the kilt, but I eschewed it on the grounds that Daughter would declare it “A boy’s sweater” and would have worn it only if allowed to balance out its egregious masculinity with pink plastic mules and hair extensions. Land’s End hurt me; they had something which was very nearly a Fair Isle sweater, and something they called a Fair Isle, which wasn’t, and had the pattern in the wrong place. It was as if the designers at Land’s End thought “We’re all so bored with the standards, let’s take our customers out of their comfort zone.”

I don’t know how to tell you this, designers of Land’s End children’s clothing, but you’re working for Land’s End. I know some of your friends got jobs at Calvin Klein or Alexander McQueen, but you are working for a company dedicated to the fashion-phobic. We shoppers of Land’s End like our clothing the way we like our cuisine; clear, unfussy, capable of being recognized at a distance and described in less than five words. I didn’t want a post-modern interpretation of the classic, I wanted the original goods. A reinterpreted Fair Isle is nothing more than Cary Grant in a wife-beater and manpris.

I sulked. The kilt hung in Daughter’s closet, a woolen, pleated reminder of my failings.

I was complaining to another mother at camp pick-up, and she nodded knowingly. “Yeah, I’ve had that experience,” she said as children swarmed around us, a feral tribe bedecked in poster paint, mud and lunch. “Last year, I decided Rebecca had to have a toggle coat with a furry lining. Just a nice, classic toggle coat, like you’ve seen your entire life. A Paddington coat. It became a thing.”

Daughter stood next to me, grubby and happy. I looked at her hands, which were empty. “Sweetie, are you missing anything?” She thought and shook her head no. “Let me give you a hint,” I suggested, “Swimsuit, towel, lunch-box, thermos, any art projects you made today and your other shoe.” Daughter dashed back into camp, and I continued our conversation.

“Did you ever find the coat?” I asked nervously, suddenly totally convinced that if her story hadn’t ended well, it boded badly for my great hunt. She said blandly,“Oh, sure…eventually.” This was an “Eventually” as in “…eventually, nuclear waste stops being so darn toxic and you can plant vegetables in it safely.” I was given no assurance this sweater would come to me easily.

But that’s the thing about A Thing; you don’t just buy it, you earn it. The nature of A Thing is that it must be deceptively simple; a toggle coat, a Fair Isle sweater. In the case of another friend of mine, a striped shirt of a particular width of stripe and shade of blue. You’re not asking for a brief glimpse beyond the veil between life and death, you’re asking for a pair of red corduroy pants. You’ve seen them before, you know you’ve seen them before; you just need to find them.

This leads to the darker side of searching for A Thing; nothing less than the original Thing will do. They can’t be brick-red corduroy pants, they must be the cherry-red which will pick up the minor color in the sweater you got on sale last season (Side note: A sale item frequently precedes and then figures into the need for A Thing. I have no idea why this is). The stripe must be just the right width and the blue a perfect royal blue. Just because the pursuer doesn’t own it doesn’t mean they don’t know exactly what it looks like.

The Thing is usually clothing, but not always; in the early seventies, my mother knew her living room needed a leaf-green couch. She knew this through an entire year of shopping, her desire for it and her belief in its existence not even slightly diminished by every furniture store’s insistence that she was asking for the furnishings equivalent of the Loch Ness Monster:

SALESPERSON: Can I help you?

QUINN’S MOTHER: Yes, I’m looking for a leaf-green couch.

(Salesperson stares at her in shock.)

SALESPERSON: That doesn’t exist.

QM: Well, can you look in the fabric sample books?

SALESPERSON: I don’t have to, I can tell you. No one has ever made a leaf-green couch in the history of the world. In fact, until now, no one has ever used the phrase “Leaf-green couch”.

QM: Humor me. Let’s look through the fabric sample books anyway.

SALESPERSON: Sure, I’ll bring out the sample book from the whole Fictional Furniture line!

She got her couch…eventually, as my friend found her Paddington coat…eventually. I think the Thing ultimately gets tired of the chase and allows itself to get caught. In the meanwhile, while my mother hunted, I had a spacious and nearly-empty living room in which to ride my tricycle.

Two years later, when she was on a hunt for another obscure object of desire, my mother noticed there was at least one leaf-green couch at every furniture store in the city. Had she managed to convince the manufacturers that there was this unmet need for leaf-green couches, this army of consumers storming the gates, screaming for blood and light-green sofas? Once again, a female member of my family has made noise all out of proportion to her size.

As of today, I have looked at no fewer than thirty-five websites in search of the sweater. I have found exactly two classic Fair Isle sweaters. One is from Ralph Lauren and it’s got an “RL” monogram the size of a coaster on the front of it. If Daughter is wearing something with “RL” on it, it will be because her initial are RL, which they are not. At Ralph’s prices, I’m not advertising for him as well. The other is from Best and Company and costs ninety-eight dollars. The only way Daughter gets a ninety-eight dollar sweater is if she lives in a display case and signs a notarized document promising not to grow.

I have preppy moms investigating for me in the South and the Northeast; two areas I suspect are more likely to produce classic children’s clothing than Los Angeles, the place which gave the world formal hot pants. I have a search flag for “Fair Isle sweaters” on EBay, otherwise known as The Mall of Buyer’s Remorse. So far, all EBay has taught me is that “Fair Isle” is a concept used freely and understood rarely by sellers. I grow cranky, but my standards do not waver. I see this thing. It is a three-button, Fair Isle-yoked sweater. It doesn’t involve sequins or hoods; it isn’t backless. It’s timeless and it’s pretty and someone has to be making it. Eventually, I will find it.

And when I do, think of how great she’ll look in it at her high-school graduation.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've had A Thing or 2 in my day. And, like your mom, I then find that there are Things everywhere about 6 months after I finally secure MY Thing. Remember vegetable themes kitchens? That was me. HAD to find the right wallpaper border (I know, I was young. Shut up.) Fickly picked through houseware stores and catalogs for the right veggie decor items, rejoicing when I found them because they were so rare. A year later, they were easier to find. 3 years later - forget it, it was everywhere. I gave it all away when I moved. To a friend with a veggie kitchen. Still.

2:54 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I am laughing out loud as I read this, remembering my mother and her "Thing" for a v-necked, shaker-knit sweater--preferably in kelly green. I can no longer remember what article of clothing was handed down to me that so required this particular sweater, but I do remember The Search to the point where I cannot look at a shaker-knit sweater today without succumbing to a fit of giggles. [The sweater eventually materialized. In kelly green, even.]

2:57 PM  
Blogger houseband00 said...

Very nice, Quinn.

I sense a trend. =)

My "Thing" would usually be some musical relic in vinyl from my youth. Yeah, I believe that one has to earn the right to discover these "Things."

Good luck on the hunt! =)

5:03 PM  
Blogger Mindy said...

Two or three years ago when I was picking my son up from high school, I saw the perfect pair of shoes on a student that was walking by. I decided that I really had to have those shoes and searched our local stores and online with no success. Last spring, I saw this young lady again, wearing those same shoes, but decided it would be really creepy for an adult stranger to jump out of a car and demand to know where she got her shoes. Sigh.

5:20 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth H. said...


5:42 PM  
Blogger J Auclair said...

Lands' End has been completely unpredictable and unreliable for the last few years. I can't believe I actually have to SHOP for jeans now.

6:34 PM  
Blogger Rebecca said...

My thing is a bedding set that has some red, some brown, no black, isn't satin or silky, has a touch of modern, without florals or stripes. I am going to have to make it myself.

Did you see this sweet fair Isle cardigan at Crewcuts? It is on clearance.;jsessionid=EQ3BM4LJPZVWOCTFEEKRX1QKMUQQ0GUG?id=prod80261471

8:24 PM  
Blogger Cher Mere said...

If I am reading on the computer and I burst out laughing my daughter now asks "Are you reading Quinn?"

8:47 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

L.L. Bean has one for $19.95...

8:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mindy and I were in the same situation. I saw a man on Lexington Av wearing a pair of shoes I HAD to have. But who makes them? Where do I buy them? What if he was a foreign visitor and bought them elsewhere? I am shy so I am certainly not going to approach him. The internet. Thats safe. Thank you and only 2 exhausting days of searching.

11:24 AM  
Blogger MamaKaren said...

One summer, my Thing was a pair of navy blue, high heeled shoes. Not navy-as-part-of-the-color-scheme, just navy. Not mules or peep toes or anything like that, just a plain pair of 2-3 inch navy blue pumps. No one had them. I gave in and bought an overpriced pair of navy slingbacks with some light blue piping. All of the navy blue pumps were back in stock everywhere within nanoseconds.

It doesn't bode well that a search on "fair isle yoke sweater" gives me many links to knitting patterns, but none for purchasing an already made garment.

12:52 PM  
Blogger Dodi said...

Quinn! Do you know what you just did? By mentioning this in your column, you inadvertantly OUTSOURCED YOUR SEARCH for your "A Thing". Completely upsetting the natural balance of the search - by posting this on your site you may have throw off the whole "A Thing" equilibrium for months if not years... you may now never find the perfect compliment for your daughters kilt, and therefore may have robbed all of your friends of the cutest holiday greeting card of the year.

Unless someone out here in blogland finds one for you. Then? You're a genius.

I'm not naturally a "glass is half full" kind of girl - - but I'll be an optimist for a full week if this works for you.

2:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yesterday I picked up a couple butterfly chair frames from the curb. I looked all over the 'net for inexpensive covers; the cheapest I found were $20.

So today I see Rebecca's entry and think, "Hey, I saw sheets like that somewhere--Dorm Mall, maybe?" I entered the site and found they have no sheets, but today they have yellow and blue butterfly chair colors on sale for $9.99!

To keep this universal Thing Finding chain going, here's a link for you, Rebecca, to red and brown bedding:

7:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have a thing for not that kind of thing...but I'm always in awe of you. I happened to check in on you at the right time and learned about your book! Congratulations, well deserved.

8:51 PM  
Blogger Alicia Morgan said...

I'm a new Quinn reader (what are they called? 'Quinnies'? whatever they're called, I guess I'm one!) and hooked through the bag!

My thing is always ubiquitous - right after I turn my life upside down to find it. After the '94 earthquake, our 1920s stucco house had to be renovated, and I was determined to get kitchen cabinets to match the hall cabinet - plain white wood with a raised border - and no bevel in the middle. Everywhere I looked - bevel, bevel, bevel.

Finally found someone to make them for us. The next year, what was all the rage? What couldn't you avoid in any Home Depot cabinet display, in every home decorating magazine? You guessed it - my 1920s plain white cabinets.


11:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like the Cosa Nostra reference. Very clever.

12:54 PM  
Blogger Judy said...

It usually takes me 5 years to find a 'thing'.

By then it is in a thrift store.

Thankfully, I enjoy being five years out of date.

Or, at least I keep telling myself that.

You certainly can tell a story, Quinn.

5:40 PM  
Blogger Rebecca said...

Ah, the hunt for A Thing. I know it well. Did you try searching on It sometimes throws up different results.

4:15 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Not only did I try those marvelous Brits, I have a search flag for "Fair Isle" on every EBay in the world.
Obsession brings out the green in my eyes.

4:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When I decided I wanted original butterfly chairs in 1982, they were nowhere to be seen. I bought two off of an old man's porch in Sylacauga, Alabama. He even had the triangle shaped ottoman that matches. I had to have covers made at an awning shop. Just a few years later, chairs and covers were everywhere.

Haven't been there in a few years, but Sylacauga is usually not a "before the trends" kind of place. However, they use to have some adorable stores that had classic children's clothing. Maybe worth a try?


8:15 AM  
Blogger MRS said...

Have you found the Fair Isle sweater that you were looking for? I make them, in pretty much any type of yarn that you want. Some people like the traditional wool, but there are a lot of "washable" yarns out there that can give you the same look. If you are interested in having it handmade, you can email me a picture of the kilt along with any other information (pattern and size).
Hope I can help.

8:10 AM  

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