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 70s Champion Reverse Weave Stadium Sweatshirt L One Color Tag Hoodie ShirtFred Perry Navy Merino Wool Y-neck Cardigan - M - Ska Mod Scooter Casuals IndieVtg 80's 1982 Go-go's Beautify America Tour Sweatshirt T-shirt Punk Rock MVtg 80's 1989 The Who Kids Are Alright Concert Tour Sweatshirt T-shirt XlVintage Santa Cruz Skateboard Sweatshirt 1987 Original Men's L Good ConditionFred Perry Black Merino Wool Y-neck Cardigan - S - Mod Ska Scooter Casuals IndieVintage Adidas 1956 Stockholm Helsinki Olympics Sweatshirt Men's Size MVtg 80's 90's Coogi Australia Multi Color 3d Mercerized Cotton Crewneck Sweater Rare Vtg 1930's O Thea Knitting Mills Brand Chicago Wool Shawl Collar Cardigan Mens Vintage Polo Ralph Lauren Suicide Downhill Ski Sweater Sweatshirt Shirt LMen's Vintage Polo Ralph Lauren Bear Sweatshirt Size LMens Vtg Polo Ralph Lauren Red Cotton Crest Patch Cardigan Sweater XlVintage Polo Red Usa Flag Men's Medium Sweatshirt Ralph Lauren VtgMens Vtg 80s Nfl Philadelphia Eagles Pro Line Cliff Engle Orlon Wool Sweater M/lVintage Yeezus Kanye West Tour Sweatshirt Men's Large Pre-ownedVtg Pringle Of Scotland Wool Shawl Collar Cardigan Sweater Mens Sz L Cowl Neck $135 James Perse Vintage Fleece Black Crewneck Raglan Sweatshirt Xxl 5 Mens NewConverge Skull Logo Zip Up Hoodie Awesome Hooded SweatshirtMens Vintage Adidas 00's 90's Raglan Style Crew Neck Sweatshirt Sweater Wavey SFred Perry Brown Check V-neck Wool Jumper - Xl - Mod Ska Scooter Casuals RareFred Perry Navy Striped Crew Neck Cotton Jumper - L - Ska Mod Scooter CasualsVintage 50 S SweatshirtFila Vtg 90s Big Logo Fleece Sweatshirt M Oversized Motif Jumper/sweater 1990sMens Vintage Polo Ralph Lauren Green Wool Rugby Elbow Patch Sweater S Small1964 Baseball Champs Varsity Letterman Sweater Fayetteville Manlius High SchoolAdidas Originals Hoodie! Mens Xl/2xl! Hoody! Grey! Trefoil/vintage! Jumper!Vtg Genuine Cowichan Indian Hand Spun Knit Wool Zip Up Mens Sweater Vest L/xlVtg Damon Italian Wool Mustard Cardigan Sweater Mens Sz L 60s Mod Hipster Nfl Los Angeles Rams Vintage 80's Mens Large 50/50 Sweatshirt K4Converge Heartless Zip Up Hoodie Xl You Fail Me Era Hooded SweatshirtVintage 1984 Olympic Usc Heather Gray Sweatshirt 50/50 Made In Usa Nos DeadstockMens - Izod Lacoste Sweater - L - Vintage - V-neck - Soft Orlon - Textured CheckMen's Vintage Navy Blue Crewneck Polo Ralph Lauren Knit Sweater Size LargeVintage 50s/60s Champion One Color Tag Sweatshirt Vintage Caldwell Hand Fashioned 100% Pure Wool Zip-up Sweater Made In CanadaMens Vintage Tommy Hilfiger Box Logo Brand Spell Out Sweatshirt Size LargeVintage Polo Ralph Lauren Rl 01 Handknit Cream W Black Fuzzy Dog Sweater Mens L$135 James Perse Vintage Fleece Heather Grey Crewneck Sweatshirt Xl 4 Mens NewVtg Centralia Knitting Mills Skookum Letterman Cardigan Sweater Blue Wool M/40Alife X Wu-tang Clan Hoodie Vintage White Men's Xl Rare Hooded SweatshirtVintage 1996 Dennis Rodman Bad Ass I Wanna Be Sweatshirt Basketball BullsVintage 80s New Kids On The Block Nkotb Boston Concert Tour Sweatshirt SmallVintage 80's Wolf Moon Sweat Shirt Forest 3d Emblem Harley Davidson Biker L99 Cent Auction! Vtg 80's 90's Pro Keds Rugby Polo Sweat Shirt Mens Medium Nwt!!Vtg Polo Ralph Lauren L Sweatshirt Crew Neck Embroidered P Mulberry Mens L/s D380s Vintage Benetton Sweat Shirt : Red 70s Vtg Coogi 40 Acres Supreme Italy 90sVintage Lyle & Scott Mens Cashmere Sweater V-neck Made In Scotland CreamGuys Size Xl Men's Vtg Timberland Navy Blue Pull Over Wool Sweater Wam Crew NeckVtg Champion Aqua Reverse Weave Sweatshirt Xxl Made In Usa Blue Green 1980sVintage Matsuda Double Jersey Sweater, Size MedMens Vintage Wool Herzig School Letterman Varsity Cardigan Sweater M MediumVtg Patagonia Thick Wool Purple Crewneck Pullover Cable Knit Sweater Men's LVintage 70s Norwegian Sweater Size Large Brown Wool Scandinavian Mens WomensVintage Red Black Grey Sweater 1950 Rockabilly 50's MVtg Henley Ski Telluride 80's Sweatshirt Xl K2 Aspen Apres Ski Rare CrewneckNew Pendleton Sweater M Geometric Green Blue Mens Nos Vintage Aztec Sz Medium W2Vtg 80s K2 Surfer 1/2 Zip Sweatshirt Mens Sz Xl Surf Skate Hipster 90s RetroMens Vintage Kent State Hoodie Hooded Pullover Sweatshirt Sweater Shirt MVintage Iron Maiden Heavy Metal Tour Sweatshirt Sz Lrg Judas PriestVintage Adidas Purple Three Stripe Sleeves Crewneck Sweatshirt Size Medium 90s