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    

Vtg 1920s 30s Work Rare Navy Shawl Collar Wool Sweater Brent Label Amazing Sz MVintage 1940s Sportswear Salt N Pepper Cardigan Sweatshirt. Vtg Rare Retro 90's Adidas Sweatshirt Jumper Top Casuals Hipster Festival GrungeVintage Burberrys Of London Shetland Wool Cowl Neck Cardigan Sweater Mens MediumEuc! Ralph Lauren Vintage Polo Usa Mens Knit Sweater Size L (large)Fred Perry V-neck Merino Wool Jumper In Brown - Large - Ska Mod SkinheadVintage 90’s Ralph Lauren Hand Knit Collectable Teddy Bear Sweater Sz XxlVtg 20s 30s "vestee" Hart Mfg. Co 2 Tone Wool & Knit Deadstock Work Wear SweaterVintage 1980s Chicago Bears Pro Line Usa Cliff Engle Sweater L Jock Butch MensVtg Pendleton Blue Flecked 100% Shetland Wool Button Front Cardigan Sz S-m MensCoogi Vintage Men Sweater Pullover Crewneck Textured Cotton Australia XlVtg 50s 1953 Dehen Letterman Award Cardigan Sweater 2 Tone Wool Nice Shape Work1950s Vintage Varsity Letter Wool Sweater Green White Colorado State University?Vintage 50s 60s Mcgregor Mohair Wool Nos Sweater Rockabilly Large Irish TwistWild Vintage Men's Coogi Australia Mercerised Cotton Polo Style Sweater XlVintage Men's Wool Pullover Letter Sweater - Oakwood High (dayton) - C. 1940'sCoogi Vintage Men's Cosby Sweater Made In Australia LargeVintage Cincinnati Bengals Nfl Authentic Proline Mens Size L Cliff Engle SweaterVtg 60s Geometric Knit Button Down Shirt Cardigan Marcel Of Paris Men's Xl NwotMen's Vintage Dale Of Norway L/s Pure New Wool Pullover Sweater Size-l (nwt)Men`s Fab Superdry Vintage Premium Black Label Jumper Medium Parker Of Vienna Vintage Men's V Neck SweaterPolo Ralph Lauren Vintage Mens SweaterVintage Xl Patagonia Men's Snap T Synchilla Fleece Pullover Jacket Sweater BlueMens - Izod Of London Sweater - L - Vintage - Cardigan - Brown Orlon AcrylicMen's Vintage Lemmermayer Cardigan SweaterVtg 60s Patrick James Knit Wool Suede Patch Sweater Mens L Shawl Collar HuntingFashion Hill 100% Virgin Wool Cardigan Sweater 1960s Vintage Size 46 Nos!!!Vintage 90s 1990s Cosby Indie Grandad Classic Twee Jumper Sweater XlMens Authentic Coogi Cardigan Sweater Vest Xl X-large Vintage VestPolo Ralph Lauren Hand Knit M / L Sweater Reindeer 100% Wool Ski Vintage JumperVintage 80s Cleveland Browns Cliff Engle Nfl Football Sweater Mens MediumNike Men Vintage Jumper Sweatshirt Top Light Jacket Size Xlarge UsedVintage 60's Ski Sweater Skiing Downwill Cross Country Nordic 100% Wool SportifKurt Cobain Sweater Curly Mohair Vintage Cardigan Black Grunge Punk RockabillyAdidas Men Vintage Look Jumper Sweatshirt Top Size Xs UsedVtg 80s 90s Polo Ralph Lauren Cable Knit Turtleneck Cricket Sweater Mens L SailiVintage Pringle Cashmere Sweater Cardigan-3 Button Front-creme Color-scotlandMen's Vintage Lemmermayer V Neck SweaterVintage 1960s Puritan Wool Crestfield Cardigan Sweater Size 44 Suede RockabillyVintage Xl Pendleton "lebowski" Sweater, Total Classic!!Men's Vintage Quanpaca V Neck Sweater From Stuards Of CaliforniaParker Of Vienna Vintage Men's V Neck Alpaca/wool Blend SweaterAlps 100% Virgin Wool Cardigan Sweater 1960s Vintage Size Mens L Nos Rat PackVintage Vtg Soft Adidas Mens Xl Sweater 80s 90s Grunge Outerwear Crew NeckVintage 1970s Men’s Terracotta Oggi Geometric Sweater Sz LMen's Vintage Lemmermayer Green Cardigan SweaterMen's Vintage Lemmermayer Black Cardigan SweaterMen's Sak's Fifth Avenue Vintage Sweater Size MMen's Red Vintage Avon P. Celli CardiganMens Vintage Izod Lacoste V-neck Sweater SmallVintage Dale Of Norway Nagano Olympic Sweater, Men's LargeVtg Men's Women's Ecuador Wool Lebowski Cowichan Zip Up Cardigan Sweater FlagVtg Lord Jeff 100% Cashmere V-neck Sweater Gray Large Usa MadeMen's Vintage Nfl Philadelphia Eagles Green Cardigan Sweater Size S-mMens Vtg 1940s Ivory Wool Imperial Football Patch Varsity Lettermans Sweater OldVtg 60s Towncraft Penneys 2 Tone Sweatshirt Mens Sz M €Vintage Men's Cream Colored Letter Sweater - Burgundy "r" Baseball Metro SubVtg 50s 60s Mcritchie Scottish Wool Fisherman Sweater Mens Xs Cable Knit WomensMen's Vintage Izod Lacoste Red Long Sleeve Button Down Cardigan Sweater Size-m