From nerdy Mister Rogers cardigans to rugged fishermen's pullovers, the sweater is a versatile garment, whose broad appeal obscures its recreational and sportswear origins. Sweaters were initially popularized by winter-sports enthusiasts in the late 19th century, as seen in early advertisements featuring skiers and hikers outfitted in heavy knit wool. The word sweater comes directly from this sportswear usage, as they were frequently marketed for their ability to absorb sweat during intense physical activity, keeping the wearer warm and dry. Conversely, sweaters were also touted for the opposite effect, promoting sweat during exercise to help people achieve short-term weight loss.

The line between utility and fashion blurred in the late 1800s, when university sports programs began to outfit athletes in matching sweaters to distinguish their players from those on opposing teams. Harvard University was supposedly the first to apply an embroidered letter (an “H”) to its team uniforms. By the turn of the century, letterman sweaters, as they were soon known, had spread to American high-schools, along with the varsity letter tradition.

Sweaters can be divided into two major categories: the cardigan, which opens in the front and features buttons or a zipper closure, and the pullover, which does not.

The cardigan owes its name to Britain's Earl of Cardigan, whose troops fought the Russians in button-down knit jackets as part of their uniform during the Crimean War of the 1850s. One-hundred years later, the modern resurgence of the men's cardigan sprang from a more genteel source, the Ivy League universities of New England. Especially in the 1950s, cardigans were established as the look of young, educated, and affluent Americans (several decades later, in 1980, a quartet of authors capitalized on Ivy League style in general and cardigans in particular by writing the "Preppy Handbook").

In the 1960s, the cardigan was a major piece in Mister Rogers’ wardrobe as he strolled his studio Neighborhood; in the 1970s, President Jimmy Carter wore cardigans during his televised fireside chats.

The roots of the pullover go back even further. Since the 1700s, the knitting industry has been a major source of income for many coastal communities in the United Kingdom. As the demand for sweaters grew during the Victorian Era, many important stylistic and creative developments occurred in these regions.

A good example is the Aran or fisherman’s sweater, which originated on a single island in Ireland. Knitted of heavy ivory-colored wool with interlocking cable detailing, these sw...

The classic argyle pattern is based on the tartan of the Campbell Clan of Argyll, Scotland. The design consists of a series of diamonds overlayed with intersecting lines, and they can be knit in any number of colors. Argyle sweaters were widely produced during the 20th century by knitwear manufacturer Pringle of Scotland, and were popularized as casual wear after their adoption by the Duke of Windsor in the 1930s.

The Fair Isle pattern, recognized by repeated rows of geometric shapes in contrasting colors, also first appeared in Scotland. In the 1920s, the Prince of Wales embraced the Fair Isle look when he wore these knit patterns during public sporting events. A variation of Fair Isle design is seen in the Nordic sweater style, typified by those produced by Dale of Norway. Nordic sweaters often feature winter-themed patterns such as snowflakes or reindeer and include ornamental metal clasps or buttons down the front.

A similar graphic look that expanded on the Fair Isle knitting technique is the North American-made Cowichan sweater, fabricated by the Cowichan people native to British Columbia. Like Fair Isle, this style includes horizontal striped patterns, as well as the simplified, almost pixelated shapes of regional animals like eagles or whales. Cowichan sweaters are traditionally made from thick, hand-spun yarn and are finished with a loose shawl-style collar.

The ultimate luxury sweaters are those made from cashmere wool, an extremely soft and lightweight fabric spun from goat hair. Cashmere came to western Europe from Kashmir, where it was traditionally used to make shawls. During the 1920s, fashion designers like Patou and Chanel began to work cashmere fabric into their sweater collections.

Another icon of upper-class taste is the classic V-neck sweater from Lacoste, which is famous for its signature crocodile logo. Lacoste sweaters became a symbol of the wealthy in the 1950s as the company expanded its offerings beyond René Lacoste’s original line of all-white tennis sportswear.

During the same period, beatnik trendsetters appropriated the sweater to achieve a rebellious, counterculture look. The iconic black turtleneck, called a polo-neck in the U.K., came to symbolize a rejection of the standard suit-and-tie uniform of the business world. Turtlenecks were frequently seen on defiant celebrities of the era like James Dean and Marlon Brando. Another rebel in his own right who was associated with black turtlenecks, although not strictly of the sweater variety, was Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.

Today, a very popular seasonal sweater phenomenon revolves around the ugly Christmas sweater, an ironic statement piece showcasing garish prints of anything from overly cute kittens to grumpy Grinches. The best Christmas sweaters (or worst, depending on how you look at it) are frequently adorned with tacky, three-dimensional decorations like bows, bells, battery-powered Christmas lights, and stuffed Santas or reindeer.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

The Black Tie Guide

The Black Tie Guide

Peter Marshall became an authority on formalwear out of necessity — he needed a tux to wear on the maiden transat… [read review or visit site]

Fashion Columbia Study Collection

Fashion Columbia Study Collection

The Fashion Columbia Study Collection (FCSC) is the digital home of the Columbia College Chicago’s fashion archiv… [read review or visit site]



Most watched eBay auctions    

Vintage Ivy Prep Trad St. Mark's School Intarsia Knit Varsity Letterman Sweater20s 30s Vintage Cardigan Sweater Art Deco Diamond Front Buttons Variegated WoolVintage 40s/50s Wartime Land Army Ww2 Leeknit Fair Isle Wool Tank Top Sweater SVtg 90s Authentic Polo Ralph Lauren Wool Knit Winter Ski Snow Sweater Men's XlFred Perry Charcoal Grey Shawl Collar Cotton Cardigan - Xxl - Ska Mod ScooterTommy Hilfiger Jeans Big Logo Sweater Jumper Sz M Vintge Vtg Ultra Rare MediumVtg Mens Ralph Lauren Ski Color Block Wool Knit Crewneck Uni Crest Sweater Lg MLot Of 6 Mens Vintage Izod Lacoste Acrylic Cardigan Sweater Size M UsaVintage 1990's Coogi Australia Multicolor 3d Textured Sweater - Mens Medium46/xl Men's Pringle Of Scotland Navy V-neck Vintage Cashmere SweaterHandknit Vintage 1940-50s Two Tone Wool Shaker Knit Mock Neck Cardigan SweaterVintage Patagonia Synchilla Mens Snap T Pull Over Sweater Fleece Jacket Size Xl Fred Perry Steel Grey Shawl Collar Cotton Cardigan - S - Ska Mod Scooter RareMen's Vintage Polo Ralph Lauren Neiman-marcus Horse Motif Wool Sweater Small EucVintage 100% Acrylic Denver Broncos Nfl Football Sweater Mens Sz Xl By BrandonVintage 1950s Shawl Collar Cardigan Curling Sweater Cowichan Lightning Zip 38Vintage Pendleton Wool Zip Front Shawl Collar Cardigan Sweater Men's LVintage Tundra Men's Sweater - Cosby - Biggie Smalls - 3d - Canadian - CoogiNwt Vintage Mens Xl Ralph Lauren Hand Knit Lambs Wool Nordic Style Ski SweaterMens Lyle & Scott Vintage Label L/s V Neck Jumper Xxl Look!!Light Blue Vintage Mens V-neck Cardigan Sweater - Medium? Cashmere?Polo Ralph Lauren Mens Rare Vintage 100% Cotton American Flag Knit Sweater XlJantzen Vintage Ski Sweater 1950's (polar Bear/ Penquins)Vtg Polo Ralph Lauren Mens Sweater Horse Shoe Cowboy Equestrian Indian Hand KnitVtg Mens Missoni Wool Space Dyed Knit Heavy Sweater Retro 80s Jacket Sz M ItalyVtg 60s Damon Orlon Fuzzy Mohair Sweater Medium Stripe Cardigan AtomicMens Vintage Polo Ralph Lauren Logo American Flag Wool Blend Sweater XlNwt Vintage Mens Xl Ralph Lauren Hand Knit Lambs Wool Nordic Style Ski SweaterVtg Ll Bean Wool Sweaters - Men's All Wool Fisherman - Cable Knit - Made In UsaCotton Traders Coogi Like Vintage Sweater Sweatshirt Men's LargeVintage Men's SweaterPolo By Ralph Lauren Vintage Striped Green Red Navy Pullover Knit Sweater Mens LVintage Seahawks Men's Sweater Beautiful Vtg Coogi Sweater Men's Made In Australia 3d Style Sweater Sz M GreenColumbia Men Vintage Retro Fleece Jumper Sweatshirt Top Size Large Used UsaMen`s Vintage Levi`s Polo Neck Blue Woolen Sweater Mens Pullover Jumper Size MMen's Vintage Very Nice Spyder Black Wool Pullover Ski / Snow Sweater Size - LVtg Men's Irish Fisherman's Sweater Cable Knit Aran Cream Heavy Staple Size L NrVtg Wool Knit Cowichan Ethnic Zig Zag Shawl Collar Ski Hand Made Sweater Adidas Men Vintage Retro Look Full Zip Jumper Sweatshirt Size 46/48 (uk) UsedTommy Hilfiger Big Logo Vintage Sweater Jumper Sz L Cotton Vtg Ultra Rare LargeVtg Men's Lacoste Purple Cardigan Sweater LVtg 70s 80s Tweed Marl Wool Crew Sweater Country Hiking Jumper JerseyMen's Vintage Pendleton Cardigan Sweater. Size Xl. Nice!Vtg John Molloy Irish Wool Sweater Men's Fisherman Cable Ivory Cardigan Size XlMen's Xl Vintage Nautica Challenge Long Sleeve Pullover Sweater. Colorful!Euc Vintage Mens Authentic John Ashford Italy Coogi Style Sweater Sz:xl Vtg Coogi Men's Sweater Size Large. Colorful! Multicolor Men's Vintage Izod Lacoste Cardigan Sweater Red/blue Size XlMen's Vintage Pendleton Wool Cardigan Sweater Size M Aztec Hippie BohoVintage Izod Lacoste Made In Usa Men's Large Navy Blue Cardigan SweaterVintage Denver Broncos Cliff Engle Ltd Sweater Nfl Large Mens Football Byther Men's Vintage Damage Fringe Knit Sweater Rock Chic Solid Black P0000rhg NVintage St. Louis Rams Knit Sweater, Nfl Pro Line Cliff Engle, Rare, Xl, UsaVintage Izod Lacoste Mens Acrylic Cable V-neck Sweater Sz Large L--off WhiteVintage Lacoste By Izod Gray V-neck Mens Sweater,size XlVintage Izod Lacoste Men's Cardigan Sweater Cream Medium Orlon Acrylic Used Vintage Izod Lacoste Made In Usa Men's Xl Cream Off White Cardigan SweaterVintage Polo Sport Ralph Lauren Crew Neck Sweater Navy Yellow Xl Mens RareVtg Handknit Lopi Icelandic Wool Yarn Huge Sweater Hippie Mens Womens Repurpose