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 92 Mens Polo Ralph Lauren Teddy Bear Flag Hand Knit Crewneck Sweater LVintage 1940s Mens Letterman Varsity Cardigan Sweater Sz 38Mens Xl Vintage Coogi Cosby Sweater 3d Cotton Knit Austrailia Bright Abstract Vintage 50's Cowichan Southwest Shawl Collar Big Lebowski Cardigan Sweater MVintage Polo Ralph Lauren Sport Usa Crew Navy Blue Sweater! Mens Large AwesomeVintage Pendleton Men’s Shawl Collar Cardigan Size LargeVintage 40's 50's Wool & Leather Button Up Hunting Shooting Sweater Jacket CoatVtg 80s 90s Gucci Crewneck Sweatshirt Sweater Shirt Rap Hip Hop Black Lrg ? (v28Vintage 1981 Og Fila Borg Bj Terrinda Sweater Us 44 I 54 80s Casuals Very RareVintage Coogi Australia Mens Xl Vivid Mercerised Cotton V Neck SweaterPolo Ralph Lauren 1/4 Zip Sweater Size Mens Large Tan + Navy Logo Nr Mint CottonVintage Cowichan Curling Sweater Cardigan W/ Whales & Waves, Shawl CollarMens Xl Vintage Coogi Cosby Sweater V Neck 3d Wool Knit Cowl Shawl Collar AusVintage 90s Ralph Lauren Men Mocha 100% Wool Sweater Sz L* Vtg Sparkle Ornament Ugly Green Christmas Holiday Party Sweater L Men Xl WomanMens Vtg Coogi Sweater Bill Cosby Notorious Biggie Austrailia 90's Rare GamblingMens Vintage Coogi 100% Cotton Bright Colorful Biggie Sweater Sz XlVintage Polo Sport Ralph Lauren Red Half Zip Sweater Size Men's LargeVintage Ll Bean Norwegian Fisherman Sweater Mens Medium Wool BlueVintage 90s Mens Ralph Lauren Polo Jeans Co. Ethnic Wool Sweater Sz SVintage 1980s Oatmeal Cable Knit Irish Wool Men’s Cardigan Sweater Sz XlVintage 90s Men’s Shawl Collar Oatmeal Cardigan Sweater Sz MHap Jones Indian Dealer Motorcycles Club SweaterVintage Yamamoto Kansai Mens Sweater 100% Wool JapanMens Vintage Atomic Rockabilly Wool Cowichan Cardigan Sweater Jacket M MediumVintage 80s Men's Wool Dale Of Norway Holiday Sweater L Cosby Ugly Christmas Men Nwot Vtg 1985 Us Army Od Green 100% All Wool Combat Military Sweater 42 - 44Lot Of 5 Vintage Lacoste Men's Sweaters & Cardigans, Sizes M-xlVtg Burberrys Ivory Wool Shawl Collar Ireland Fishermans Cardigan Sweater JacketMen's True Vintage Pendleton Western Shawl Collar Zip Front Sweater Size:l Vintage 1950s/60s Men's Alpaca Cardigan By Saks Fifth Ave.Big Lebowski Pendleton Sweater Retro Wear Indian Motif Wool Fabric Circa 1970'sVintage 90s Men’s Icelandic Wool Ethnic Knit Sweater Sz LVtg 90s Mens Polo Ralph Lauren Wool Hand Knit Tiger Eagle Shield Sweater XlClassic Vtg 80s Peanuts Snoopy Sweater Vest 1980s Mens Large Ugly ChristmasVintage 90s Mens Ireland Ecru 100% Merino Wool Sweater Sz XxlVtg 50s Sweater Italian Loop Shirt Cardigan Panel Front Gene Vincent M 38" ChestVintage Dale Of Norway Auth Navy Metal Clasp Wool Patterned Jumper S/m/l XmasVtg 90s Men's Polo Ralph Lauren Wool Cardigan Large White Varsity Crest SweaterVintage Ll Bean Norwegian Fisherman Sweater Mens Medium Wool BluePatagonia 1/2 Zip Fleece Sweater Synchilla Size Men's Large Black Logo Jacket NrPolo Ralph Lauren Vintage Wool Sweater Button Front 2pocket Green Mens Medium Native Cowichan Sweater Canada Raw Wool Vtg. 80's Proline Cliff Engle Nfl Denver Broncos Men Lg Wool Blend Sweater/usPatagonia_wool Blend Gray Zip Sweater Striped_vintage_l_ Men's Large Vintage 50s 60s Pendleton Lobo Mens Size Small Wool Cardigan Cool Elbow Patches Vtg Pendleton Wool Southwestern Navajo Indian Blanket Sweater 70s 80s UsaPolo Ralph Lauren Vintage Men's Hand Knit Blue Wool Crew Neck Sweater Size LMens Xl Vintage Sweater Hilda Ltd Icelandic Wool Gray Black Stripe Iceland ThickRalph Lauren Polo Shawl Neck Hunting Men Shoulder Elbow Patch Sweater L VtgVintage Pendleton The Big Lebowski Movie The Dude Abider Wool Sweater LargeVintage 50's Brent Kurt Cobain Blue Shaggy Mohair Cardigan Sweater Sz M MediumVintage Ugly Christmas Sweater Men Xl Fast Exp. Ship W/ Con #Vtg Men Ugly Christmas Sweater Party Jumper Sweatshirt Mock Neck Gingerbread XlVintage 90s Mens 100% Pure Wool Made In Ireland Hand Knit Ivory Sweater Sz L Mens L Vintage Coogi Cosby Sweater 3d Cotton Blend Knit Austrailia Christmas FunVintage 90s Wool Navy & Cream Men’s Sweater Sz MIndian Motorcycles Club SweaterNew ~ Vtg 80's Izod Lacoste *gator* Cardigan Sweater ~ Mens Xl ~ BrownVtg Ralph Lauren Polo P Wing Red Knit Wool Sweater M L 92 93 1990s 90s